Right at the beginning of the summer season, some machines we ordered at work brought me back to Italy for almost two weeks.
It was the perfect opportunity to seek some sort of redemption in those mountains that made my spirit suffer just 12 months earlier at the LUT with a lousy and disappointing DNF.
Going through the calendar I explored several options, but after running two 50 milers in three weeks, I was not looking for another long distance race, on terrains that I am not used to or trained on.
There were some local events in the north-east I could have targeted, but the appeal of entering a skyrace was too strong, so I signed up for the combo VK-Skyrace at the Dolomites Sky Race in Canazei.
VERTICAL K RACE
This event was for me very new. I tried the course a week before the race and had very good feelings, running up and down from Alba to the top of Crepa Niegra twice. Volunteers were already fixing the trail in spots that were damaged by the ice and snow of a rough winter and spring.
Well…the snow was actually not completely gone from the course, and it made me wonder how people could possibly run in so steep, slippery and unstable conditions.
The recon was pretty good and I felt my legs exploding only towards the end of the second climb after realizing that the vertical K is actually much tougher descending than going up.
Feeling so springy and agile on the trail gave me positive feelings and I felt inspired to tackle this unique challenge. It took me about 55 minutes for each rep, and I was convinced that I could shave about 10-12 minutes in a single all out attempt to cover the 1.5 mile with 3,352 feet of D+ course.
Certainly the average 40% incline is something that deserves respect, so my confidence was not over the roof. Mountains are tough. This was not a hike in Central Park, or a sissy run in Bear Mountain. Even Ithaca and the infamous Catskills were no match to the Dolomites.
The day of the race I arrived to the start very early and the organizers were still erecting the entire stage, sponsors’ flags, etc. I tried to relax and wait to warm up till last minute, but I felt somewhat nervous. Maybe the tension from a possible disappointing result? Maybe the anxiety to obtain a good performance in line with the training I had been doing? A lot was going on in my head, and that is not a good starting point.
Also I was a little disappointed that the race organization decided to create waves of runners based on “seniority” (previous participations to the event) and only subsequently predicted times. Not that it counts a lot since this was sort of a time trial up the mountain, but being surrounded by a field of strong people usually gets the best out of me, and can give me a reference point, a way to gauge my effort in an event I have never experienced before.
So I found myself in a corral of people that looked relatively weak, old and not fit. About 20-25 runners total that I google stalked the night before. All but 4-5 of them. I remember seeing a couple of Spaniards and a Nepalese guy, and I thought I was in good shape with them.
At the start line my expectations were confirmed: a fairly weak group of runners toed the line with me. However, a few of them looked much stronger than I anticipated, so I was happy I could have some good competition with me.
I made it to the start line very early in the morning, so I snapped a few photos of the area, including the little horse farm that was just behind some of the adv panels.
The first quarter mile started very well for me. I did not want to go out too fast so I kept myself in check and locked into 5th place. I felt good and moving relatively quickly behind the other four we moved out of the woods into the open grass fields. Here, at Pian de la Malandries, some fans were already screaming, playing cow bells and encouraging in various languages all of us.
My plan was to run conservatively till the next section of woods where the already outrageous incline would have increased further through Pian de Casel almost to Val de Caracol where a long patch of tricky slippery ice and snow would have initiated us to the worst part of the course from Val de Caracol to So Forcela. Here in the most difficult part I wanted to give it all and see if I could be one of the first finishers of my heat.
My plan was all good and fancy, till I hit a wall when re-entering the woods before Pian de Casel. The part that was supposed to be my allied, and I found myself hiking those sections that just a week before I had run quickly and with agility, twice in a row.
Disappointed, I kept going up, trying to hang in there and waiting for a second wave of energy that never came. My original goal of sub 45 minutes quickly became unrealistic.
Overall I lost just a couple of positions in my heat, but the nice thing is that one of the strong runners that started 5 minutes behind us with the second wave caught me and at least I had the chance to learn something from him.
I tried to follow him, but this race cannot be changed with a surge: you cannot just speed up temporarily like in a road race. The difference is just a tiny gap in pace that step over step and over step creates a gap that cannot be covered. His breathing was heavy, deep, quick, yet constant and regular.
The second thing I learned was that poles can really help in this discipline. They can make a great difference, if you are used to them and know how to handle them effectively.
The bottom line is that this is a discipline that requires some “specialized work” to get some satisfaction in terms of time or results.
Unlike road races or regular trail races where anyone having a decent level of running fitness can jump into a 5k, or a 10k or a half marathon and get a somewhat good result, in a vertical k there is no improvisation.
You need to train for it, you need to race it, you need to get it right. There is no room for error. You have to experience this race to understand the pain, and the feeling of humbleness you get from it. And still, you can’t wait to get to the next one, because you sure well know that you can do something better.
The race for me changed slightly after the “Forcella” where Kilian made his move to win the race a year prior. The incline here flattens out slightly for a few meters, so my legs began turning a little bit differently. I was able to enjoy the last stretch up to the Spiz of Criepa Negra. I tried to sprint to close in under 50 minutes, and when I stopped the watch after collapsing at the finish line (usual default procedure of every single runner) I read a disappointing 50:06. Little did I know that the chip time actually recorded 49:58. A pretty good deal given how poorly I performed, and it was nice to at least break 50 minutes.
After finishing I got my personal stuff that was helicoptered up from the start area and I waited anxiously to see the pros coming through.
Words are not enough to describe what those people can do, but it is also inspiring and motivating to witness it. It makes you realize that you have not pushed yourself enough, that the road to reach those levels is still very very long.
A few shots I took at the end included also a view of the sky race that was going to be done the next sunday.
As far as the overall race Italian Urban Zemmer took the victory with a good margin on second, while Kilian made it barely top 10, after coming back from establishing the CR at the Hardrock 100 just 5 days before.
After hanging out for a little bit with all the people who made it to the top, I ran slowly the two miles from the finish line to the Gondola that would have transported me back to Canazei. Well…slowly until I saw Kilian and Emelie behind me running towards the Gondola, as well.
We made it together and had a chance to exchange a few words with them; I felt happy that Emelie remembered me from UROC (even if she was not probably so happy to see me again, lol…see her race report from last September).
She got also stopped before entering the Gondola, to pay for the lift, but they could not take her credit card…I tried to pass Kilian my Bib for the free ride…but it was too late.
Well..at least we shared the same air for a few minutes. Once we were back down I went for lunch and later a quick inspection of the snow conditions along the Altavia delle Dolomiti, where the Skyrace would take place two days later.
To be continued…