On Saturday I had one of my best races.
Best describes the race itself and how it went personally. I was in Cortina D’Ampezzo in the Dolomites mountain range, Italy and was racing the Cortina Trail, one of three races over the weekend with a 20km Skyrace and the Lavaredo Ultra also happening.
I think I’ll write another post about our time outwith the race but focus on race day here and all the ins and outs –
The Cortina Trail is a 48km race with 2600m of elevation starting and finishing in the town of Cortina, at 8am with a 12 hour maximum time.
Race day started with an early alarm at 5.45am, I got up after a good 8 hour sleep, popped my kit on and went down for breakfast in our hotel at 6am. I’d made overnight oats and kept it in our minibar fridge so I had those with a cup of Earl Grey tea and a banana. Before leaving the hotel I pinned my race bib to my t-shirt, double checked my bag and prepped my skin with Vaseline to stop the chaffing and factor 50 sunscreen. Ready to go.
Just after 7am, Nige and I walked down to the centre of town for the race start, arriving just after 7.20am for an 8am go time. I nipped into the nearest hotel to use the loo one more time and then met my fellow cats who were also racing and we lined up a few hundred runners down from the start line.
I was the most nervous I’ve ever been before a race but also so excited to get out there, see how my body handled the climbs and my mind coped with the atmosphere, and explore.
The countdown began and as the race’s tagline suggested it was time to play – out there was our playground and it was ours to discover and enjoy.
The race started with a few steady kilometres on the quiet roads of Cortina taking us out of the town and onto the trails towards the mountains.
My now happy place.
Just as quickly as the road turned to trail the climb began, the path narrowed and the train of runners slowed to walking pace. On and on, up and up through the shaded forest, zigzagging through the trees. Everytime we reached a flat section I sped up to a jog, passing those continuing to walk, but I had to keep my feet moving quickly and legs ticking over.
The hike/run dynamic continued for the first 10km or so until we reached a much flatter section of trail, edging us around the valley and blessing us with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
We crossed rivers, challenged ourselves to some rocky descents and even more challenging climbs before reaching the first water station at 17km – a kilometer further than I had expected – where I battled with hundreds of runners to fill up my bottles. There was one hose pipe and the British queuing system was not enforced, as mostly men around me fought to get fresh water from the pipe or hydration drink from a single metal saucepan. I didn’t want to waste time but I knew I needed to refill my soft flasks so I waited and stood my ground and as soon as I had replenished I was off running again. It panicked me however – would all the aid stations ahead be this busy and difficult to manoeuvre around?
I switched off my overthinking brain and started running again, gaining some ground and places as I passed those walking until I met the climbs and I too slowed to a quick hike. I’d practiced with trekking poles and packed them in my suitcase but the day before the race had decided against them – nervous about using and carrying them – and it was the right decision. I wasn’t at a disadvantage not using them for the climbs – I felt strong keeping up with others carrying them – or the technical descents, and actually one of my main gripes with the race was the ignorance of my fellow runners and their use of the poles. They seemed to think they were in their own little bubble during the race and would treat the poles simply as an extension of their arms – flinging the poles behind them after use without a thought for vulnerable eyes of runners behind them and forcing them into nearby runner’s feet to grip the rocks, only to be shouted at as they speared a fellow racer’s shoe.
After a long descent we reached halfway of 24km and the first proper aid station supplying food and drinks, as well as generous supporters and marshals cheering us on. I refilled my water again, popping a hydration tablet into a soft flask, and after eyeing up the food on offer I grabbed a few bites of banana and went on my way. I’d been eating every 90 minutes using my own stash of goodies – a mix of Nkd (the new lemon drizzle flavour) and Tribe bars – to keep my energy topped up, so avoided trying anything new and nasty, despite there being a good selection of meat, cheese, fruit, bread and jam, and biscuits up for grabs.
There was a nice runnable section as we headed out of the aid station and as the race progressed the number of runners around me slowly dwindled, which I liked – the trails almost to myself. On the difficult climbs ahead though I found it more useful to be in a pack, so I caught up or slowed to find a group of runners to utilise their energy and drive me up the hills faster and more efficiently. Between 24 and the next aid station at about 31km, there was some serious elevation gain and I felt like I was losing time, unable to run and focusing instead on staying upright on the rocks. The aid station at 31km, although I was expecting it at 30km, was the single cut-off during the race and I was dreading it – 3.30pm, 7 and a half hours after we’d started.
Please remind me to have a little faith in myself at times. I made it to the aid station over 2 hours before the cut off! I was over 5 hours into the race with just 17km and one more big climb to go, as from 38km onwards it was all downhill! My poor old watch died at 36km after breathing its last GPS tracked steps, but I couldn’t think of that, just that I had come this far and had to finish strong.
At the last aid station at the 38km mark I took some Coca-Cola but didn’t stop for long, as the homemade bedsheet sign had read –10km so I knew there was just that to go. From here I could also see the houses that made up the town of Cortina where we had started and where our finish line was waiting, but it didn’t seem that far away, what else did this race have in store?
Challenging descents. I was initially lured into a false sense of security as the path slowly crept through dense, damp and cool forest, steadily edging downhill. My legs were feeling surprisingly fresh, given a new lease of life after the slog of uphills and eager to let go on the last stretch and descent. Then came the slides. Narrow, gutter-like trails cut out of the long grass, slippy and waiting to eat runners up.
I slowed for sure but just got on with it, keeping my balance, breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. With 4km to go I reached another set of marshals who scanned my race number for the final time and sent me on my way. I had the feeling of not wanting this to end. The views of the mountains had disappeared, just a memory (or a photo, I did stop to snap a few) left behind and the home straight was approaching too quickly.
A few kilometres from the finish and I ran into the quiet suburbs of Cortina town, where the local residents had come out with their neighbours to cheer us on, cool us off with homemade showers and offer their Italian hospitality. Soon I recognised the streets we’d walked down between our hotel and the town centre, over the bridge, onto the cobbles and through the crowds that were lined up. I spotted Nige and the cats that had already finished and I lit up. I was going to finish. Strong.
I embraced the home straight, high fived the kids cheering me on, listened to the crowds and lengthened my stride to cross that finish line.
Cortina Trail 48km, 2600+m in 7:24:57. Simply beautiful. My heart is in the mountains.