Last April, ahead of the Marathon des Sables, I made the mistake of writing on this blog that I was about to take on the ‘world’s toughest footrace’. Seasoned ultra running folk chuckled knowingly. Some of them even gave me Twitter’s equivalent of dig in the ribs for my naive assertion. The reality is that while the MdS did turn out to be the toughest footrace I’d ever run, it’s certainly long lost it’s right to that particular world. There are far more testing races out there and just over a year later I’m about to experience one – the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2016.
Sublime scenery and punishing climbs. Ultra running at its finest
The seventh stop on the Ultra-Trail World Series, that includes the MdS, the UTMB and 12 other flagship ultras around the world, the Lavaredo takes you up and down seven summits and 120km of the Dolomites, in Italy. Runners have a maximum time of 30 hours to conquer close to 6,000m of ascent, running at altitudes up to a high point of 2400m, all along some of the world’s most stunning mountain trails in this UNESCO-protected world heritage site. It’s this mix of sublime scenery and punishing climbs that has earned the Lavaredo a reputation as ‘a taste of hell in ultra running heaven’. Or to put it another way, Beauty and the Beast-ing!
For a man who’s ultra running CV only boasts a couple of much flatter 100km runs (the Race to the Stones and the Thames Path Ultra) and who’s also only ever run for 14 hours, the Lavaredo presents a totally different – and frankly daunting – challenge. And as we get nearer race day I have to confess I’m beginning to wonder if this time my ego has gotten too big for my trail running shoes.
Now I know ultra runners aren’t supposed to be negative, we’re supposed to be the battle-hardened, never-give-ups who can run on fumes and stave off all manner of pain to get the job done, but I have found myself wondering if this might be the race that stops me in my tracks. Even worse, I’ve started to wonder if that’s because I’m not really an ultra runner. What if I’m really just a bloke who runs who’s been blagging it this far? But that’s natural right? We do these things to see what we’re made of when things get properly tough. We like to go to the dark places. Those places where the doubts make your stomach churn, where you have to put everything on the line to really find out what you’re made of. Without the hardship there is no achievement.
Daring to enter the ultra running unknown
I’ve accepted that the Lavaredo is going to ask new questions of me. For a start, I have no idea what it’s like to run beyond 14 hours. I know how I felt when I reached the finish line of my 13.5 hour ultra ruuning races, and it wasn’t pretty. But what the mind and body does after that is a complete mystery. As is the prospect of not sleeping for two nights on the bounce. More experienced ultra runners might baulk at my whimpering here, but as it was with the MdS, it’s the unknowns that worry me.
The race starts at 11pm on Friday 24th June, when we’ll be sent off into the darkness of the mountains from a lovely little Italian piazza in Cortina D’ampezzo; head torches blazing and the waft of pizza and nighttime revelry at our backs. The fastest runners will return to that piazza just in time for the restaurants to be putting out their lunch menus, devouring the demanding course in 12-13 hours. By contrast, mortal plodders like me are only likely to return to civilisation in time for breakfast over 24 hours later.
Sitting in a nice warm office in London, the thought of running through two nights and a day, is frankly hard to comprehend. The only other time in my life I’ve come near to spending this long awake was at Glastonbury music festival and most of that I spent standing in one spot, not busting up mountain trails. Granted some parts of a muddy Glasto could have been called ‘technical’ but still….
My other pre-race ‘running fears’ include the fact I’ve never tried the running technique that sees you using hiking poles (and I’ve not really trained with them either). I’ve been told there’s a technique to it. I’ve been told there’s a blister risk. Neither of these things are now in my power to control. I also don’t know if the altitude is going to wipe out a chunk of my energy that I can ill afford to give. Looking at the course we don’t spend long up in the clouds but this is still a bit of a worry.
Finally, there’s the nutrition. Last time I was in the mountains for the Mont Blanc Marathon (26.2 miles in 7 hours something in case you were wondering), I got this part horribly wrong. I failed to eat enough and just over half way I found myself stuck on a rock unable to eat but knowing without food I didn’t have the energy to move forward. I finished that race, but was still being sick 40 minutes after crossing the line. This can’t happen again in the Dolomites.
How to prepare for an ultra running race like the Lavaredo?
The hills: I’ve spent a good two-thirds of my training time in the gym working on leg strength and building lean power. The important thing in preparing for something as ‘hilly’ as the Lavaredo is to remember that what goes up must come down. Climbing 6,000m of ascent is going to take it’s toll but controlling the downhill running is just as punishing on the quads. For that reason, my sessions have been full of quad-toughening drills like weighted squats, step ups and lunges. I’ve being putting in four strength sessions a week, alternating upper and lower, along with hill repeats on Saturdays and a longer run on Sundays.
The duration: Even before the race has started I’ve begun breaking the race down into small chunks in my head. I’ve thought about how the day is going to flow and I’ve tried to identify the positives in each segment. I’ve also shone a spotlight on what I think will be the big mental hurdles and the inevitable lows that I’ll face in the latter stages.
On the positive list: running through the first night will be a novelty. It should have a sense of adventure to it that’ll keep me going. Then there’s the prospect of an amazing sunrise that’ll help me through that first four or five hours. Following that, the morning hours should be cool and crisp and I’ll know I’ll get to see my family again when we hit those earlier aid stations.
That’s all great but it’s after this first six or seven hours that some negatives start to appear: around mid-morning I expect the reality of what lies ahead to hit hard as we enter the long drag. This is where I’ll need to switch to metronome mode. One foot in front of the other, perpetual forward motion. Make progress and battle though until sunset and another moment to savour. Particularly if it’s been a hot day, in which case we’ll enjoy the welcome respite of the cooler evening.
But I’m also expecting a difficult moment when darkness descends. Experience tells me this is a time when you can feel a bit exposed. Leaving the glowing comfort of an ultra running aid station in the darkness can be a bit of a wrench. All of a sudden you feel a long way from home. How much of the darkness I’ll have to deal with will, of course, depend on my pace. It might be as few as two hours or as many as six. Only time will tell.
Fuelling for 24+ hours: Legend has it that some of the super-fast, mountain-goat elites will drink the odd beer during their race. A hit of energy and a little buzz of alcohol apparently helps them. I’m not one of those guys. I’m also not a fan of the flat coke, sweets and granola bars. Instead, I’ll be using much the same fuel as I used in the desert last year. A mixture of UCAN powders and Poliquin Rise. About halfway through I’ll treat myself to a liquid lunch of Herbal Life Free From meal replacement shake and along the way I’ll pop a few Beta Alanine tablets, some high quality fish oil tablets, salt tablets and drink plenty of water. If I need to reach for something with a bit more bite to it then I’ll also be carrying some 33Shake endurance shakes and some of their chia seed all-natural energy ‘gels’. I’ll also carry some mixed nuts and dried fruit, also for emergencies.
But the most important thing of all… The experience I have built up tells me that the difference between reaching that finish line in one piece and the dreaded DNF is ultra running race management. In the course of the 24-30 hours we’ll all have to make hundreds of small decisions that ultimately affect the outcomes. When to eat, when to drink, when to change your socks, how long to rest. Each new decision just as important as the last. If I make enough of the right calls out there I stand a good chance of getting back to that piazza in one piece.
For now though I keep telling myself that whatever happens, by 05.00am on Sunday 26 June my race will be over. That’s when the 30-hour cut off ends.
* Kieran will wear our new TRAIL TALON 275 shoes to race at Lavaredo. Below is a sneak peak at the new shoes courtesy of Men’s Running Magazine. More details to follow very soon. He’s also using our Race Elite Elite Windshell FZ.