My first trail run

Last week I dipped my toe into the world of mountain trail running by competing in the Cortina Skyrace, held in Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Italian Dolomites. This race was, at 20km, the shortest of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail’s weekend of trail running action. The longest race was 120km and the medium race, the Cortina Trail, was 48km. I had been looking for a new running challenge away from the marathon, and having heard only good things about trail running, I thought I’d give it a go. I went for what I thought was the ‘safe’ option of only 20km, with 1000m+ of height difference. I came home with a win and a 3 litre bottle of Italian wine!

Things didn’t get off to a great start when a few weeks back an ultra-running friend quizzed me about why I had entered a Skyrace for my first trail run. I guess it’s in the name (!) but I didn’t realise on entering that Skyraces are held at high altitude, with steep ascents and descents, and are technically difficult. Oh well, I had planned to travel to the Dolomites 10 days before the race for a hiking holiday and to acclimatise to the altitude, so I thought I could always withdraw if, after seeing the course, it really was too difficult. Thankfully my hike round the course two days before race day wasn’t too bad, so I decided to run.

At ‘only’ 20km, I thought I could go off quite hard and hang on to the finish. Things got off to a reasonable start as I traded the lead with a French woman during the first ascent. Going into the second ascent I was back in the lead and feeling good. Approaching the top I was looking forward to the descent back to the village and the finish line.

But on reaching the top, I discovered to my horror that my legs were almost buckling under me! I was sure it would pass in a minute or two, but no – intense muscle fatigue and/or the dreaded hitting the wall had set in, after just 75 minutes. I ploughed on, and managed okay on the descents, but as soon as the course flattened out or went uphill again, I was really struggling. Somehow I just hung on, and stayed upright, desperately trying to run as fast as I could out of fear of the trail aficionados flying past me with their downhill speed. Finally the church at the finish line came into view and I found just enough to run strongly down the finishing straight, under a minute ahead of the French woman I had run with earlier. It was a delight and surprise to win my first trail race! But goodness me it was tough – next time I’ll make sure I do 1000 single leg squats daily to prepare my legs for the ascents and descents!

Even after watching bits of the longer two races, I still can’t get my head round how people can run 120km at the pace they do. The sheer physical and mental will-power they must need to draw on is staggering. I’m a little tempted to try the 48km next time…after all, it’s only 6km longer than the marathon!

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