Walking from where we were staying at Hotel Cappaninna down to the start line was exactly how I envisioned it would be. My European race dreams of walking down a cobblestone street lined with cheering supporters to the start was literally unfolding before my eyes and I was struggling to take it all in.
Once we got to the start line there were literally thousands of people cheering, camera flashes going off left, right and centre. There was a designated roped off area for the elite athletes to congregate which was where I headed after Liz had found Marie who was going to be helping with support for the race.
The atmosphere was electric as the announcers started the countdown and before long, roughly 999 other competitors and I made our way through the streets of Cortina and out of town. We climbed gradually for a few km on sealed road where I was able to catch up with fellow Hoka mate Dave Mackey and others. I remember Mike Foote making a joke about running out of water which emphasised the relaxed manner we were running in.
The first section through to Ospitale at 18km was quite surreal. Leading up to the race I tried to imagine what it would be like running through the night with many other runners during a race. I must admit the first 18km ticked over before I realised how far we'd gone. The first section involved a mix of smooth single track and 4wd trails and also some quite tight and technical single trails that ensured you were paying full attention. It was through here that Dave caught up again and asked if I'd heard the splash? Turns out Dave needed to cool off in one of the lakes en route to Ospitale at 18km.
The Ospitale aid station was busy with many supporters and volunteers but it still seemed organised as I found Liz easily. After a quick bottle change I was off on my way through to 33km and the Federaveccia aid station.
This section was quite uneventful but still offered the sounds and sight of amazing waterfalls and creeks as we wound our way through some beautiful single trail sections.
Arriving at Federaveccia I once again had a rather quick stop only getting the bare essentials before heading off up towards Lago di Misurina and the next aid station at Rifugio Auronzo.
I was secretly looking forward to the climb up to Rifugio Auronzo as I had covered it in training the week earlier. I enjoyed running around Lago di Misurina and Lago Antorno with my new Lithuanian friend Gediminas Grinius.
I was feeling pretty good along the road climb up to Lago Antorno and slowly pulled away from Gediminus. I felt great and was running free. All was going well for the next 10minutes or so but then I started to have really sharp pains in my stomach. Exaggerations aside, it felt like I had something sharp being pushed into my stomach. I eased off the pace and told myself to let this come good before starting with any kind of intensity again.
I slowly made my way up the climb and as I started to hit the steeper grades it felt like I was moving backwards. Even the tension in my body caused from walking was giving me magnified pain in my stomach. About here was where Mike Foote, Freddy Thevenin, Gediminas and some other runners made their way past me like a Congo line of mountain goats. I knew that if I could hang on the back I might get helped up the climb but I had no response. I felt like the climber being dropped on the Pyrenees stage in le Tour.
The next 30mins or so up to Rifugio Auronzo wasn't pretty. I felt almost lifeless as I dragged what felt like a broken body up the climb. Each step hurt and I was only 48km into a 119km run through the Italian Dolomites.
It was great to arrive in the warm Rifugio where hot tea and fresh supplies awaited. After following Liz to where my gear was I received an update from Marie, after I'd had a moan and groan about how sore my stomach was, that I was only 8mins behind the race leader, Anton Krupicka from the USA.
I left the aid station with what felt like a bit of wind in my sail finally and was optimistic after hearing the time update. A slight hurdle literally 15 metres outside the Rifugio was that it was damn cold out now (it was about 4am) and I had to stop to put my jacket on.
From Rifugio Auronzo to Cimabanche at 67km it is all a bit of a blur. I remember running the flat section underneath the majestic TRE CIME du Lavaredo with Spanish runner Yerey Duran and then trying for dear life to keep up with him as we started the massive descent down the valley. It was as we started descending that I found the pain in my stomach had gone but I had a similar pain now in my chest but it was far worse.
Literally every time my foot landed I had a breathtaking pain in my chest that wasn't going away. I stopped to walk many times on this descent and twice sat down asking myself the question of what I was going to do. It seemed a little dramatic to be considering pulling out of the race at the 50ish km mark but I was in a real state.
Along here I was passed by more runners than I can remember with every one of them offering their support and assistance. I kept telling myself that it would pass and that it couldn't possibly last forever. FINALLY I hit the bottom of the climb and as I was walking along a slight incline my friend Antoine Guillon from Team WAA (France) approached asking if I was ok. I told him I wasn't great and that I had pains in my chest.
Little did I know but this was the defining moment in my race. As he jogged past I said to myself that if I could run with Antoine to the next aid station at 67km I was going to be able to pull out quicker and end the pain.
The next 8km or so was probably the toughest 8km I have ever run. I was struggling to breathe properly and the pain I had in my chest was borderline unbearable. I kept saying in my head, just hang on Scotty, it'll all be over soon.
Whether it was the excitement of arriving at the aid station, my lack of short term memory or something else I'll never know but for some reason I ran out of the checkpoint with a smile on my face for the first time in nearly 30km.
After looking at the elevation profile cut out I had with me I knew we had a long gradual (by European standards) climb ahead. It was here that I felt like I just got to work and made my way up the long slow climb as efficiently as possible. I ran this whole section with Vincent Dellbarre another good friend from Team WAA. It almost felt like we were working together as we climbed, with one of us always taking charge and ensuring that there was no slacking off.
The descent into the next aid station at Malga Ra Stua was a lot of fun. No chest pain at all and I just followed Vincent's lead down the technical slopes to the aid. We chatted about my next race the Ice Trail Tarantaise which is an all time favourite of Vincent's.
Another pretty quick stop here grabbing the essentials before heading off to tackle the next 20km section which was going to be a tough one. Over the next 20km we would climb over 1200m as we made our way through the the amazing Falzarego Valley and up to Falzarego Pass.
Not far after we left the aid station I slowly pulled away from Vincent and was now jogging the gradual climbs solo. This didn't last long though as Antoine and Christophe le Saux (Team WAA) caught up so we all ran together for the next 1.5hrs or so up the valley.
The valley was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. Waterfalls that burst out the side of mountains with so much power and force, creeks that required more than a slight glance to see up the whole way. Through here was a section that brought me back to when I did the Coast to Coast in NZ back in 2011. There was a long flattish section of running over rocky boulders and crossing rivers that was just like running down the Deception River heading towards Klondyke Corner at the end of day one of the race.
Here I pulled away from Christophe and Antoine and I got to the water point at 88km with a bit of a gap. The volunteers here, like every other aid station were so friendly and full of support. After a quick exchange I was off on my way and as I looked ahead I could see the red shirt of Nuno Silva from Portugal.
This gave me a massive boost as I slowly but surely reeled him in. As we hit the steeper part of the climb heading up to Passo Falzarego I managed to jog a section he was walking and passed him offering moral support.
Then came the undulations and then the descent to Rifugio col Gallina which was easily my best section of the race. Through here I caught up to and passed my friend Cyril Cointre (Team WAA), the strong Italian Ivan Greonazzo and the two French brothers Sylvain and Sebastien Camus.
I came into the aid station at Rifugio col Gallina feeling phenomenal. My race felt like it was back on track and I was having an absolute blast running through the Dolomites. It almost didn't seem real at times, almost too perfect.
The next few km after the aid station was really muddy and technical before we started a short but oh so steep climb that had the legs working hard. Somewhere along the tops near Cinque Torri, another iconic landmark in the Dolomites I looked back and saw some figures in the near distance getting closer. Whether it was being up above 2400m or something else I'm not sure but I felt like I had the wind taken out of my sail.
It felt like my legs wanted to work but my breathing got heavier and heavier. Along here I had another real rough patch where I felt sluggish and light headed. I remember at one point I laid down in the snow and as my eyes opened I swear I was seeing stars. In my daze I pulled out my emergency gel from my pack and got that down. I needed some energy and I needed it fast. Before I knew it though the Spaniard Queral Ibanez Remigio (eventual 6th place) and Italian Ivan Greonazzo (5th place) passed me so I came into Passo Giau in 7th place. It was a little demoralising to have those two re-pass me but it's all part of the game.
As I was leaving the aid station I could hear people cheering as more runners were coming in. I glanced back and saw Cyril come flying down the hill obviously feeling good again. Here we go I thought, this top 10 finish is going to be hard work to hold onto.
Not long after Passo Giau I was caught by Cyril but I managed to climb with him to the top of a nasty 200m+ climb in 1km. From the top it was pretty much undulating/downhill to the finish line at Cortina.
Little did I know but the race was far from over. I was pretty keen to just cruise the last 16km with Cyril and enjoy the last of my Dolomites experience. This obviously wasn't going to happen as Cyril informed me that Italian runner Marco Zanchi was fast approaching behind us. I was feeling good so I decided to pass Cyril as I wasn't keen on losing another place this close to the finish. As I tip toed my way through the incredibly technical terrain I reminded myself to be smart and not over do it.
Literally 10 seconds later my race threatened to fall apart one final time. As I was running through a really muddy and rocky section I took a fall and instantly I felt my world come crashing down in front of me. I lay there in the mud holding my knee and shin yelling in agony. I'd never fallen this hard before, let alone 110km into a running race. It hurt so bad. Cyril was there trying to help me up but as soon as I put weight through my right leg it buckled beneath me.
Within a few moments Marco caught up to us. I told them to go and that I'd be fine. Cyril gave me an anti-inflammatory tablet to take for the pain which was an absolute race saver.
I pulled myself up out of the mud and leant up on a big boulder as I contemplated how I was going to finish this race. I remember my mind wandering when I somehow came across thoughts of my pre-race chat with my Dad who always tells me the quote "Just Do It" before races. Dad has always loved this quote whether it was when I was struggling to wake up for work in school holidays or struggling to find motivation to go to soccer practice.
A limp turned into a walk and then a jog and finally a silly shuffle/run. I was moving again despite my knee throbbing and aching every time my foot landed. I kept telling myself that this wasn't how it was going to end. I was now in 9th place running scared from 10th place and wondering if I could hold on for a few more km.
I just about fell over again when I looked up and could see Cyril and Marco only a few hundred metres in front of me. I didn't know how that happened but I felt I had a chance of regaining 7th place.
The technical terrain then gradually eased off into wider smoother trails as we wound our way down the switchbacks into Cortina. I caught Marco with about 4km to go and then Cyril a few hundred metres later. I kept telling myself "you want this more than them". The last few km as we left the trails and began descending through the back streets of Cortina were hectic. I was running as fast as my fatigued legs and throbbing knee would let me.
Over the final 2km I kept glancing over my shoulder to make sure I wasn't going to have 7th place taken from me. Running back through the town of Cortina along the cobblestones with the crowd cheering was incredible. It was exactly what I thought it would be and more. I was in a bit of a daze the last few hundred metres as children supporting gave me high fives and cheered Bravo!
I crossed the line in 13:46 for 7th place. My coach Andy DuBois had said to me before the race to give it everything and to get to the finish line barely able to take another step. I definitely achieved this as my legs had had enough by the time I got to the finish and decided to call it a day there as I fell to the ground. I was so happy that I could stay off my feet now and the pain was over.
The feeling of finishing my first race in Europe still gives me butterflies and makes me smile. In a way it was quite fitting that it wasn't a perfect race. I feel like it was a real physical and mental battle out there and that's a big part of why I run trail ultra marathons in the first place. They aren't easy and it's all about the journey and what happens on the trails that makes it a truly holistic experience for me.
I can't say how thankful I am of Liz for staying up for nearly 14 hours as I played in the Dolomites. Her warm smile and kind words were gratefully accepted during the middle of the night as I came into the aid stations.
Also thankyou to Marie Sammons from the Ultra Trail World Tour for firstly getting me a late entry into the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and for secondly providing so much help and support on race day and crewing with Liz. I think the girls had just as much fun as I did by the sounds 😀
Thankyou to Christina and Simone for having me at the race. I knew from the first few emails that you were both great people and after catching up during race week I knew I was going to be taking part in a truly incredible race put on by amazing people.
Finally thankyou to my sponsors Hoka One One Australia for flying me to Europe to be able to take part in the race. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to run in Europe and I can't wait to race here again!
Gear used during the race:
- Hoka One One Rapa Nui Trail Shoes
- Compressport Trail Shorts, Calf Sleeves & Arm sleeves.
- Hoka Logo RaceReady tech shirt
- Ay-Up Head Torch
- Ultimate Direction SJ Vest
- Tailwind Nutrition
- WAA Ultra Equipment Rain Jacket
- Injinji Run 2.0 Toe socks