So this one was for the ego. Simple as that. My failure at TNF Lavaredo Ultra Trail in June has gnawed at me more than I have probably been willing to admit. Throwing in the towel after 103 km with only 16 km to go was probably one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to take during a race, especially since the consequences were so clear. No finish, no three qualifying points, no UTMB 2015. And that’s quite probably the problem. Regular readers of this blog might have seen tendencies leaning towards an obsession, and rightly so. I myself didn’t notice the symptoms until after our DNF in the Dolomites. Lavaredo was a singularly beautiful race run in the parts of Europe I love the most. But that wasn’t what I had focused on. I had focused on the hunt. I had focused on the three points. I had, quite frankly, focused on not the race at hand, but on a race more than a year forward in time. And that is why I failed. I forgot to live in the moment. I forgot to enjoy myself. And most importantly, I had forgotten why I was there in the first place. To spend a weekend with my best friend doing what we love best. Get exhausted with pure physical effort and then enjoy the fruits of our labours through relaxing, eating and drinking well.
Which is why Jakob and I found ourselves at a sunny terrace in Piemonte last week, studying a detailed map of the region and trying to find the easiest way by car to the eight checkpoints of my next ultra race. Jakob had politely declined another shot at the three points we needed for the UTMB, citing varying form and most importantly failing motivation as reasons. Nevertheless, he had cheerfully promised to accompany me as a morale-boosting crew member, planning to drive to each and every checkpoint, backtrack by foot along the trail until meeting me and then run with me to my next water station. My physical form was not in the best of states, but my mental form was leagues better than a few months ago. After careful analysis of the Lavaredo race I had firmly put all thoughts of UTMB and three points aside and was now focusing on enjoying a small local race in the middle of the Alpine foothills.
Morenic Trail (113 km, 2300+ m) is so called because it follows an enormous moraine left after the last ice age and placed south of the mouth leading into Val d’Aosta. A moraine is an accumulation of debris (of rocks and soil) left after a glacier has advanced over land and this particular Italian moraine had left an almost perfect circular imprint on the countryside. During the race briefing in Santa Marta in Ivrea, we were told that the race would start by the little village of Andrate (800 m) and run southeast to “six o’clock” at Ponte Dora Baltea (200 m) where it would turn northwest again and end up in Brosso (800 m). The race started at 09.00 and I felt a little odd leaving Jakob behind at the starting line, taking photos as we ran off. There were only 111 runners planning to finish the entire race on their own and an additional 50 two- or four-man teams participating in the relay, running either half or roughly a quarter of the race each. A world apart from Oslo halfmarathon a few weeks ago with it’s 25 000 participants. As I followed a small group of runners down the moraine ridge, I reflected on the profile of the race. 2300+ vertical metres wasn’t a lot compared to the 5800+ of Lavaredo, but the race map was a bit misleading. The first 20 km would be more or less downhill with the majority of the climbs being thrown in during the last 25 km, leaving the middle 70 km more or less undulating up and down between 200 m and 400 m above sea level.
I had never before attempted a 100+ km race without the aid of Jakob and this race would prove whether or not I was strong enough to finish a race of this magnitude on my own. The first checkpoint after 14 km flew past in a blur and I only stopped for long enough to shrug out of my windjacket and stuff it down my newly acquired running vest before the little pack of runners I was following disappeared. We ran on a soft and elevated path fringed by high grass on the top of the moraine with the ridge falling away on either side. It was pleasant running with just the kind of footing I like best. The temperature was optimal – around 15° C – with slightly overcast skies and a slight breeze. Perfect. I was careful not to speed up too much since I didn’t want to get carried away this early in the race. A 113 km is still a lot of ground to cover on foot. A few km before the half marathon-mark at checkpoint two, Lago di Bertignano, I heard clapping and cheering and looked up to see Jakob with a backpack smiling me along. What a sight for sore eyes! Even if I hadn’t felt too bad thus far, I suddenly ran on with another kind of spring in my step and joined in with him as I reported my status and patted him on the back. We emerged from the trees by the lakeside into a clearing where cars were parked and people where cheering. I only stopped for the few minutes it took to fill up my twin water bottles and gulp down a cup of sunwarm coke before Jakob and I set off again. I had decided against eating anything at the checkpoints this early in the race, relying on my test diet of trusted coconut gelpaste (efficient but yucky) and Snickers/Bounty bars. Jakob left me after a few minutes to jog back to the car in order to meet me at Masino, checkpoint three at 38 km. As he left, I latched on to the back of a runner I had followed earlier in the race, a short and wiry guy in black shorts and shirt, with a short crop of greying hair, a black beard, tattoos of the virgin Mary on each of his calves and with a Franciscan cross and the words Laude and Domine (I couldn’t see the rest of the phrase properly) on the sleeve of his jersey. He also had a tatto of a gun on his right forearm and other intricate designs on his left. I wasn’t sure if he was a convict on parole or a Franciscan friar on leave, but since he held a steady pace I decided to join him. We ran on with quite the clip and to be honest he was running a bit too fast for me, but I had taken the twin virgin Marys as a sign and decided to grit my teeth. Once, he glanced sideways at me with a scowl and when I managed to keep his pace, he gave me curt nod of acknowledgment and we continued together in this way to the next checkpoint. We crossed several trafficked roads and the race marshals did a good job of stopping the few bewildered drivers staring at us at every crossroad. As we got closer to Masino, Jakob turned up and I waved for him to join me down the hill towards the little town. At checkpoint three I lost my tattooed companion and I continued on my own since Jakob had to eat some lunch before meeting me at the halfway point at Ponte Dora Baltea. The moraine had become less visible in the hilly countryside and the sun was beginning to burn through the clouds in an unpleasant way. A blackclad shadow caught up with me and after a few minutes of silent running, he turned to me with the hint of a smile and said “Io sono Matteo. Piacere”, and I responded in kind “Mi chiamo Jakob. Piacere.” And just like that, we were brothers in arms, heading for checkpoint four. I ran ahead a few times and when I started to walk in order to eat a chocolate bar and gulp down some water, he would pass me and run ahead for a few minutes until we joined up again. The sun appeared again and at this point I started to suffer a bit. Matteo and I filled our waterbottles at a water fountain in a square in one of the small villages we passed through, and then continued on. He was speeding up a bit and I was having difficulty catching up. I started walking along a canal built to water the fields and after half an hour Jakob turned up like a Godsend, cheering me up and walking with me to the halfway point. After crossing the bridge, we arrived at quite a big checkpoint where I rearranged my backpack and filled up my water bottles before resting a bit on one of the benches. Matteo turned up, patted me on the back and asked Jakob to take a picture of “mio socio” and him. Wonderful, the kind of camaraderie that springs up between previous strangers in a race like this. Jakob and I started out again and dove into the forest by the side of the road, walking along the edge of a small lake before Jakob left me once again and I started to climb up through the forest.
The second part of the race featured closer checkpoints and within a short 90 minutes, Jakob joined me again and together we climbed the devilishly steep road up to Chiesa di Santo Stefano and checkpoint five at 67 km. I waved to Matteo whom I hadn’t seen since Lago Bertignano and who was getting a legmassage from one of the physios, and gratefully accepted a small cup of soup broth from a huge man in a blue volunteer t-shirt. The climb had left me with wobbly legs and a bad feeling. I was hoping to reach checkpoint six at 77 km before dark, but it would be a close call judging by my form. Jakob punched me in the arm and wished me luck before heading back to our Fiat that he had left at the bottom of the hill to eat some dinner. The 10 km to Vialfrè were a pain and I stumbled on sharp rocks several times. Darkness was falling fast and the trail had imperceptibly begun to turn uphill. Running into the small town, my mood turned upward at the lovely movie sets and cutouts of famous Italian actors that flanked the path. I ran past scenes from Amarcord and Dolce Vita before finally emerging out onto a square where Jakob was waiting with a cup of warm broth at the checkpoint. He helped me hold my running vest while I stripped out of my soaked jersey and drew out my longsleeved old Icebreaker and rummaged around in the bag for my headlamp. Feeling considerably invigorated I highfived Jakob and left the square for the forest trails surrounding the village.
In no time at all it had become pitch black. I still had 36 km to go, but from now on my headlight would show me the way. I managed to get lost almost at once, but luckily found my way pretty quickly. There were rustlings in the underbrush all around me and every now and then a loud thump in the ferns would announce the impact of yet another spiky chestnut bombarding the forest floor. During the soft light of day these thumps had been entertaining but immersed in a cloak of darkness they were anything but. I imagined all kinds of exotic creatures prowling through the bushes. Wild boars. Bears. Tigers. But I managed to keep my calm. Just. In order to distract myself in Jakob’s absence, I turned on an audiobook by Bill Bryson on my iPhone and listened to his musings about the development of mahjong and monopoly in America. After a while I noticed a headlamp moving towards me in the opposite direction and when I came closer, I realized it was Jakob who had walked quite the distance to reach me. Gratefully, I put my hand on his shoulder and we started walking briskly up the next slope before running down the final part toward Ponte dei Preti at 91 km. Sitting down next to an older gentleman by the table, I asked for my first hot meal of the day – a plate of Penne Bolognese – that I wolfed down in about 60 seconds. Feeling wonderfully invigorated, I swallowed half a can of coke and was yet again on my way with a wave to Jakob. 22 km to go, almost every single one of them uphill. I crossed the bridge and reflected that it was indeed a brutal way to finish an ultra race, jumbling in more than two thirds of the vertical metres during the final halfmarathon. I turned on my iPhone and listened to Bill talk about the words that had been contributed to the American language during World War II and the Vietnam War as I turned my steps up through the forest and into the night. It started raining after half an hour and I sent a prayer of thanks skyward that the downpour hadn’t started earlier in the day. I shrugged into my windjacket once again and pulled my neckbuff up around my head as the rain increased and the wind picked up. Jakob met me just as Bill was finishing the story of the Wright brothers and their airplane and we ran the final two kilometres down to Lago di Alice Superiore and the final checkpoint at 103 km.
Even though Jakob had chosen not to run the race in it’s entirety, I added up his own legwork today to at least 25 km, which was pretty impressive for a crew member. I hadn’t met a single runner since I had left Ponte dei Preti and sat alone with a Red Bull, Jakob and two middle aged Italian volunteers at checkpoint eight before pulling a deep breath and venturing out into the rain for the last 10 km. Bill was now talking about Charles Lindbergh and how Boeing 747 had been named Jumbojet after the biggest circus elephant in the world and I simply trodded along, past a small lake, up through a thicket of birch trees and out onto an asphalt road for the final stretch. I could hear the music long before I could see the finishing line and when I passed the church above the village square, Jakob materialized from below one of the streetlamps and gave me a highfive before heading down ahead of me to cheer at the finish line. Once again I hadn’t seen a single runner during this stretch and when I finally saw the tents and lights at the finish line a huge cheer went up from the thirty or so spectators standing around the one of the main race leaders who was yelling into a microphone. I was interviewed in Italian and managed to blurt out something about “É veramente stata una bellissima gara!” before I got huge medal around my neck and was whisked off for official photographies under the canopy of one of the tents. Jakob met me with a huge hug and we laughed and sat down together in a couple of plastic chairs while a lady handed us a beer to share. I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment and joy over the fact that I had managed to run 113 km on my own. Well, most of them anyway. And you know what? I finished 21st out of 111 starting runners! My first ever top-25 placement!
So now I have eight points. So what? Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc? I honestly don’t know. I need to process the Morenic Trail for a bit, and then we’ll see what will come next. To be continued.