Thursday, 7 July 2016

Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2016

Heading back to my European home away from home left me with mixed emotions this year. I was excited about heading back to Cortina and the Dolomites but I was definitely feeling sad to be leaving Liz behind. Liz and I had discussed things in depth prior to me going, and she kept saying she really wanted me to go. She’s always been so incredibly supportive of me chasing my dreams with my running and I couldn't do what I do without her.

I’d been having some major calf problems since getting back into the full swing of training after my break from running last year, including tearing my calf 2 weeks out from Mt Solitary and then having issues with it again during the UTA100. Fortunately it didn’t tear in UTA which was great, but that was short lived. Three weeks after UTA I was heading out for a night run in prep for Lavaredo and I tore it again heading down Furber Steps. Literally the day before this horror run I had confirmed and booked my flights to Italy and then less than 24hrs later I was limping back home from a training run. I was absolutely gutted and angry that things were playing out how they were. I asked myself so many questions that cold dark night as I walked home. “Why has it decided to tear now?” “How can I get through those couple of awesome runs and now it’s playing up?” I thought that I had been smart, easing off during UTA because I knew I had Lavaredo coming up and felt like I almost deserved a smooth and strong build to Lavaredo. That was obviously not to be!

Because of all the dramas it ended up being a day by day assessment and frequent visits down to Sydney, a 5hr round trip for 90 minutes of appointments with my physio Mark Green from The Body Mechanic and also Peter Sweeney (an awesome physio that has been giving me massage/treatment). Every morning I was waking up, rolling out of bed and having that sick feeling of wondering how my calf was going to feel. When things get like this for me I really start to wonder why I bother. I hate that feeling of waking up in the morning and not knowing. 

Training up on course at Forc. Lavaredo.

The final week before I was due to fly out I managed to get one week of decent training in, including a really good hill session and long run where I managed to be nearly 10 minutes quicker up Mt Solitary than what I was pre-UTA which gave me confidence. During the hill session every step going up I was waiting for a pop. I didn't go crazy hard but definitely pushed things a little as I figured I’d much rather it tear 10 minutes from home rather than 27hrs worth of trains, planes and buses. I decided on the Monday after a Sunday long run that I thought things were good to go.

Arriving in Cortina it was like I hadn't left. It was really cool to have the same bus driver pick me up and even the same staff at the local pizza restaurants and cafes.

I had arrived 1 week out from the race so that I could do a couple of short runs on course and get as comfortable in the big mountain environment as I could. It was great having my Catalan brother Pau arrive on the Monday so we could do some short training runs together. It was great to catch up so soon after UTA100 in May. Combining travel, racing and friends is why I love this sport so much!

The build up to the race involved a few new things including my introduction to the wonderful world of Calzone pizza! After seeing Pau order one and then the size of what came out on his plate I had to get in on the action the following night. I’d also just purchased an AeroPress coffee maker and taken some of my favourite Cassiopeia coffee beans with me so I knew I had some of the comforts of home.

Training went well in Cortina and the body seemed to have travelled well. I was also excited that I was able to book in with Mohamed the local physio guru in Cortina that I’d seen last year. I’m not one of these athletes who can just run and run and run. I really need regular treatments to keep my body ticking over smoothly. 

Leading the conga line early on - Photo Gigi Botte

I booked in to see Mohamed the Wednesday of race week and had a great session, to the point where he was adjusting and treating my ankle exactly how Greeny does without me even mentioning anything which was awesome. 

The day after my treatment Pau and I drove to Lago di Landro on the Lavaredo course for an easy 30 minute shake out jog. After 5 minutes I felt a slight twinge in my calf which instantly sent a shiver up my spine. I told myself that it was just being a little grumpy after the treatment the day before. Things got worse as I continued running so I cut things short and walked back around the lake to the car. Speaking with Liz on the phone I was gutted. I’ve had this happen enough times now to know when something isn’t right. 

Pre-race was as normal as pre-race can be. Interviews and a press conference; getting my gear ready and triple checking I had everything ready for my super crewman, Majell. We’d caught up prior to race day to chat about a few things and I was super stoked to have him on board helping out. It was definitely going to help knowing I got to see a good mate at the checkpoints along the way.

As I was standing on the start line looking around I was so pumped knowing how deep the field was. I was truly going to get to test myself against the best ultra marathon runners in the world in this race. I’ve always said I’d rather come 30th place and get my butt kicked by 29 awesome runners rather than turn up at a race where I’m just expected to win.

The race start wasn’t too hectic as we ran out of town, I’d nearly say the first 5km was leisurely. As we started the first climb of the race I just tried to relax into the climb and get things moving. As we started to climb I had a smile on my face as I could hear other runners huffing and puffing around me when I was feeling controlled and comfortable. The last time I had this feeling was during The North Face 100 Australia 2015 and that race didn't end too badly, so I felt like I might be on for a good day. I’ve always been funny like that, I kind of know right from the onset whether things are going to go my way or not. Obviously a lot can happen in 119km but my gut feeling early on in races is often right.

Just after the 33km Federaveccia Checkpoint. Photo - Gigi Botte

There was a massive group of about 30 odd runners that came through Ospitale at 18km which was to be expected. Everyone was jostling for position as we came into the aid station. I made a slight surge to get ahead and quickly filled up my spare soft flask with water that I had Tailwind powder in and I was off. I always like to be as efficient as possible at checkpoints as I like the little buffer it gives me when I leave the aid station. 

As we started to climb up towards Forc. Son Forca the large group started to splinter. I actually think some of the damage had been done on the first descent about 10km into the race. I told myself in the build up to this race that I was going to have to descend quicker and harder than I normally do if I had any hope of being near the front of the field. The descent down from Forc. Son Forca (approx. 2100m) was hectic to say the least! Andy Symonds (eventual winner) and Sylvain Court (eventual 4th place) took off like a flash. By this stage I was sitting in 4th place just behind Pau with Gediminas Grinius (eventual 2nd place) just behind. As we descended I had constant thoughts going through my head of “oh no, this isn’t going to end well”. I knew my legs weren't conditioned to run downhills this hard and then expect to have any climb left in them for later on. 

Federaveccia at 33km was where I saw Majell for the first time. It was great to see him and within a flash I was out of the aid station with only Andy in front of me by maybe 20-30m. I later found out he hadn't stopped at the aid station which just goes to show how fast Majell was at the aid station! I caught up to Andy pretty quickly and then soon after Sylvain, Pau and Gediminas joined us. As we started to climb up here it became apparent that Andy and Sylvain were keener than the other 3 of us Compressport teammates on running uphill. I was caught in two minds on this climb out of Federaveccia as I wanted to make sure I didn't blow up my quads too soon, but I also wanted to make sure I stayed in contact with the front end of the field.

I hit my first and only real low patch of the day as we hit the undulating terrain through until Lago di Misurina. I’d spoken with my good buddy Jez Bragg before the race and he’d mentioned there were heaps of muddy and slippery parts on the course. After a few training runs on the course and not finding any I was wondering what he was talking about. Then at about 38km into the race I found out what he meant. Holy crap, quite literally! There was mud, cow crap and everything in between. I was running through this boggy mess just waiting for a shoe to get sucked off. It was just as this section commenced that Gediminas pulled away from me and where Pau caught up. Pau caught me quickly and passed and I had a moment where I really couldn't be bothered. It was wet, muddy and I was a little cold. I instantly thought of something Liz had told me in one of our chats pre-race where she said to just not have low patches, or to try and snap out of any as fast as I could. I laughed to myself and literally said out loud “I don't have low patches” and then ran hard to get onto Pau’s tail again. Little did I know that this move here would mean I’d spend the next 50km running with Pau. 

We then got towards Misurina and the start of one of the major climbs of the race. I’ve done this climb several times, in training and in the race, and despite being tough is a favourite part of the race for me. Pau and I worked together through here swapping the lead and making our way up to Rifugio Auronzo at 2333m, another non-crew checkpoint. I quickly refilled my Tailwind and Pau and I left the Rifugio with a roar, ready to attack what I knew was a massive crux of the race for me.

Getting into the grind heading up to Rif. Averau (2413m) - Photo - LUT

I knew that I was going to have to get way outside my comfort zone on the descent from Forc. Lavaredo down to the bottom of the valley. In 2015, I was running along with eventual winner Didrik Hermansen in second and third place when I decided to let Didrik go on the descent. I eventually lost 11 minutes to Didrik in the space of approximately 14km. I knew I couldn't let this happen again, so when Pau started putting on the gas on the downhill I just tried to relax as best I could and run down as smoothly as I could. In the end I found it really exciting and invigorating running so hard downhill. One thing I have found over the last few years racing in Europe is that Europeans seem to descend much quicker than us southern hemisphere folk. 

As we were nearing the bottom of the valley the sun was well and truly starting to shine and soon after head torches were turned off and we began the grind up the hilly but runnable climb to Cimabanche at 66km. It was here I really felt like asking Pau politely to slow down so we could cruise a little. But instead I just put in a headphone and turned up the volume and gritted my teeth. One thing I always try to remember and something I tell my coaching clients is that every low patch passes, sometimes it takes longer than others but it will pass and you’ll feel good again. I knew that seeing Majell at Cimabanche would give me a boost, and also getting some fresh water and banana, which had become a favourite in this race for me.

In my happy place! Photo - Gigi Botte

I made sure that we checked everything at Cimabanche as I wasn't going to see crew again for about 28km. I knew the next section up the Val Trevenanzes well. A section that I remember as being the most beautiful on the course. It didn't disappoint, Pau and I were often giving each other that look of “holy shit we’re so lucky to be running here!!” 

We made our way up the valley with a little more water about than the week earlier when I had been on a training run. It was awesome being able to top up with ice cold water along the way as the morning was starting to heat up. As we got closer to Col de Bois I started to feel quite good on the technical but runnable incline and Pau told me to go ahead. We had a quick few words where I told him to hang on the back of me but he said he couldn’t. As I moved ahead I told him I’d see him soon as I knew he’d bounce back.

He caught back up to me near the pass and we then ran together for the final climb up before descending into Rifigio col Gallina at 95km. I remembered this part of the climb well as I’d caught a runner here last year, so decided to make a little surge here and see what happened. I say surge in the most relaxed term, merely a slight increase in effort from a hike!

One of my favourite parts of the course between Rif. Col Gallina and Passo di Giau. Photo - LUT

I soon got to Col Gallina and had a quick change of shirt as it was definitely starting to warm up. Just as I was leaving the checkpoint Pau came charging in. It was definitely game on! The section from Col Gallina to Passo di Giau is another favourite of mine and I’m really happy with how I climbed and descended this section. I think I had an approximate 4 minute gap on Pau at Passo di Giau but knew how fast he would be on the final descent, so I had to run hard.

The trails from Passo di Giau to Rifugio Croda da Lago are epic. Sweeping single track along the mountainside, and a picturesque mountain hut and lake in the distance give plenty of motivation to run strong. I’d prepped myself mentally for this section pre-race and told myself to just run hard and not hold back. I felt like I was moving well and as I did a sneaky look over the shoulder several times to check where Pau was I didn't think I saw anyone. A super quick refill of water at Croda da Lago and I was off for the final 1000m descent into Cortina and the finish.

Nothing quite beats the feeling of running up the finishing chute at Lavaredo! Photo - Alexis Grand Trail

It’s super technical through here and I did my best to run at speed and navigate the tree roots and muddy terrain. I haven't ever finished off a race quite as hard as what I did that day, flying down the trails and through into the edges of town. 

As I made my way onto the road I came across a family who had set up an impromptu aid station with water and even a shower for runners. They had bells they were ringing and the children gave high fives as I ran past. I opted not to stop despite being pretty warm and about a minute or so later I was glad I didn’t! As I was getting closer to the finish I heard the bells and cheering behind me so I knew someone was close. I knew at the speed I was running they were likely less than 500m behind. I gave it everything I had and I soon came across race director and good friend Simone on the bike to lead me into town. It was such a surreal experience those last few hundred metres when I felt I had control on 5th place. 

I crossed the line in 13:00:37 for 5th place and easily what I feel was my most complete performance to date. To bag a top 5 placing in a field as deep as what Lavaredo had this year I’m over the moon. It was such an enjoyable experience running such a long way with my good friend Pau and I’m stoked we both had good races. 

119km completed and only 2 minutes separated us in the end! Photo - Alexis Grand Trail

Thanks to the Ultra Trail World Tour for supporting me to be at the race this year and also to my sponsors Hoka One One Australia, Compressport, Tailwind Nutrition, Vfuel, Ryders Eyewear, Outdoor Research and Simple Hydration for your ongoing support and providing me with the gear I need to play in the mountains!

Majell my super crew, I think Ferrari wants to chat and have you in their pit crew bro. Such a rad experience to share with you brother!

Liz and Baby H, you motivated me more than you know to push hard and to make you proud. It’s so exciting that for my next race I’ll have my two girls there to support me in person :)