The Dolomiti Extreme Trail is precisely what the name tells you; extreme. 3.800 metres of altitude, grades of 50 percent and over. 57,5 kilometres of running. Rain, hail, thunder and lightning and a big fight against cut-off times.
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My legs are protesting. I feel empty, light headed, hot. It’s almost 9 in the morning. We’ve been running for 4 hours. Although running, I’m almost crawling up these mountains. I just don’t have any power in my legs. I started enthusiastically, towards the front of the pack. By now, almost everybody has passed me. I am not ready for this. I’m just holding on to the idea that a downhill is coming. A downhill with a refreshment post at the end.
A reward for all the suffering
On the bright side of things. It’s amazingly beautiful here. The sun just came up behind the mountains, while we were making our way up over a muddy single track between the trees. On top we could look over the whole valley and see the clouds hanging below us. A nice reward for all the suffering.
The downhill is pretty fun as well. Fun, but hard. The path is small. Definitely not made for shoe size 48. That’s probably why I can never find shoes in Italy. They don’t sell anything bigger than 45 in this country. Simply, because they don’t fit on the single tracks.
Falling in the abyss
Those tracks are fun, but dangerous. Muddy, slippery, full of protruding rocks and tree roots. The girl before me slipped on the gravel and almost slithered down into the abyss, if it wasn’t for some bushes at the edge of the ridge breaking her fall. I was right on her heels and could luckily pull her on the trail again. She was fine, just scratched and a bit in shock. She continued slowly.
It was a warning though. Last night the organisers already told us in the briefing that the trail isn’t without risk, after a month of rain. That’s why they took out the passage of the Tivan. Too much snow. Instead we will do an alternative route. But that’s for later, first Malga Grava, the second refreshment post of the day.
To quit or not to quit
Malga Grava is a busy one. The 72 kilometres race that started at midnight, joined us a couple of kilometres ago. The van to take people back down to Forno di Zoldo is full. The idea to get in and quit is enticing. My arms hurt, my shoulders and my low back are all in pain from the steep climbs. Only abroad I use running poles. I underestimated how much you use your arms to drag yourself up these steep mountains. I never had to do that before.
But I don’t want to quit. Not yet. I felt a little better on the downhill, after eating a few parts of my Voom energy bars. I’m going to take a moment here to eat the polenta Sara made for me yesterday, to have a Coca Cola and to stretch my right hip.
Hiking or running
A muddy field brings me up the third mountain of the day, followed by a nice descent. The first descent I can really run. So far this trail run has been mostly a hiking trail. At least, for me. Mud, small paths, stones, lots or roots, doesn’t make it runnable. Now I finally can run, I feel happier. Or is it just having some food in my belly? Or is it the waterfall I just passed by that came crashing down on two sides of the mountain into a little turquoise water hole? Seeing waterfalls always makes me happy.
Which can’t be said for the climb I’m on now. Even the Italians around me are complaining. This is the alternative route for the passage of the Tivan. It feels like walking straight up a wall. It’s so steep. I walk a couple of metres, rest, walk, rest, walk and rest.
All the Italians passing me, are really nice. They are all asking me if I am okay the moments I sit and rest. I am. Kind of. I found some energy. I am just struggling with the heat. Even here, in between the trees. I keep putting my cap on against the sun, and taking it off to cool my head. And I am struggling with my legs. Or more precisely the lack of power. I should have done more strength training. See, I have no mountain legs. I have flatlander legs.
Focusing on the cut-off
Water, Coca Cola, a little bit more polenta, that’s all I want here at Maga Pioda; refreshment post number 4. Which means 27 kilometres done. Almost half way. Ten kilometres more to Staulanza. I am probably somewhere at the back of the field, but I am still running. At the end of the climb I even started to feel better again. It’s almost like having different legs. One pair for walking uphill, one pair for running and one pair for steep climbs. The first two are working, but the last pair? I don’t think I got them at birth.
Passo Staulanza is another 10 kilometres. My focus from now on is going to make the cut-off time there. If I am not there by 2.30 pm I am out of the race. Four little mountains to go. Let’s see if I can do it.
Black ski slope
The start is good. A wide gravel path, going up slowly. I can power hike here. That’s something my legs can do. Just like going up the alp in front of me. It’s grass, it’s nice, it isn’t too steep. Maybe a ski-piste for beginners, by the looks of the ski lift poles on my right.
On the top, at the funicular, we take a right. Not uphill, but downhill this time. And not a gentle slope either. This looks more like a black piste, but it’s grass. I can speed up here. Take a bit of a risk, as I am on a cut-off mission.
Another right, another gravel path. 32,5 kilometres done in 8 hours and 17 minutes. A nice, runnable downhill. Happy again. I am very tired, but I am feeling good. Passo Staulanza is 5 kilometres away. I have almost 75 minutes left. If we don’t get any crazy climbs, I should be able to make the cut-off. My only worry; the weather. Dark clouds are coming in fast.
Thunder and lightning
Happy with the rain, not happy with the thunder and lightning above us. It feels kind of scary to be out here now. Every now and then we’re under the trees, which is okay-ish, but at other moments we’re out in the open, with nowhere to hide. But the coolness is doing me good. Everybody around me is wearing a waterproof jacket, I’m happy to get wet.
Although there is a limit to it. The rain has turned into hail. Yet, I don’t want to waste time. I feel refreshed. It’s almost as if I’m getting stronger with every kilometre I climb. For a while I thought I would be happy just to make it to Passo Staulanza, now I want to make it to the finish line. That’s where I came for. I didn’t come to quit.
A mess of people
Staulanza looked on the map of the race on the foot of the mountain, but it isn’t. We’re climbing again. More mud, more slippery roads, but it has to be close.
Okay, I can see it now. A little downhill and I’ll be at the tent. I got half an hour. I’m making it. I am making it.
What a mess. People on the floor everywhere. Wet clothes, wet shoes, the smell of hot soup. People lining up for the table of the organisation, handing in their bib number. I just want to put some dry clothes on, my rain jacket and keep going. We are allowed to go, aren’t we? I mean, nobody is leaving. Okay, the storm is still there, but the lighting isn’t right above us anymore.
I have the okay. I can go. Out in the rain again, but this time waterproof. 18 kilometres to go. I’ve got a bit more than 4 hours. One gentle climb and one very horrible. Here we go.
Finding my rhythm
Power hiking up, running on the flat, power hiking up again. It’s strange, but it feels like I’ve found my rhythm. Finally, I am even taking over a few runners. It feels like the distance isn’t the problem today. Maybe because we’re on terrain I am more familiar with. Single tracks, but runnable ones. Little ups, little downs, that are taking me to Passo Taman, the last refreshment post of the day.
The volunteers there are just laughing if I ask them if it’s indeed just one more climb. ‘Yeah, yeah, one more’, they confirm, putting their are straight up in the sky. ‘Just a little steep.’ A little means more than 35 to 40 percent grades, but after all I’ve done today I feel like I can handle this; slow, but steady.
Again, the reward is a beautiful 360 degrees view over mountains that merge into the clouds. I stop and stare for a moment, before I start the long descent back to Zoldo. The beginning is fun. 10 kilometres of downhill, who doesn’t like that? Plus I am finally taking over people. Even people who have passed me on some of the first climbs of the day. Yet, slowly all the breaking, all the hammering starts to be painful on my knees.
I keep checking my watch. Fifty kilometres, only five more to go. I can do that. Painful knees or not. Fifty-two kilometres, fifty-four. Still no Zoldo. Fifty-five, no Zoldo. I see another little refreshment post that shouldn’t be there. Is it an official one? If so, why here? Or is it just a family being nice?
More kilometres, no finish
I run through another part of a forest full of mud, turn another corner, cross a road, where a police agent tells me I have another two kilometres to go. Two? This should be 55, not 57! I am tired, I am empty. I know this is a trail race. Distances are never precise. But 2 kilometres? Is that because of the detour?
Another field, another bend around a couple of houses. Finally a sign telling me I’m running the last kilometre. I check my watch again. It tells me I am doing good. I am half an hour ahead of the cut-off. I’m going to make it.
I can hear the music now. I know this road. It’s the last downhill. One more turn to the left and I can see the finish. I try to swallow my tears away, but I can’t. A year ago I was happy I was able to run the 11 kilometres race here in Zoldo, today I’m completing a 57,5 kilometre ultra. A year of hard work, a year of lots and lots of running. Maybe I wasn’t totally ready for this yet, but I’m fucking finishing it.