As I made the final turn onto the cobblestone path that led to the Cortina Town Center, Juan from Espagna ran up from behind me, grabbed my hand and started sprinting at 400 meter pace dragging me screaming, laughing, and flailing all the way to the finish line. Thirty miles, 9,000 feet of climbing, about a zillion bravas and one accordion serenade, I finished my first European trail race.
I met Juan when I caught a case of the giggles during the second to last climb of the 47-kilometer The North Face Cortina Trail race in the Italian Dolomites. We had been leapfrogging each other the previous few kilometers, I would slog past him on the uphills and he would come screaming by me on the downhills always waving “Hellllloooooo.”
We were side by side when we rounded a corner and I gazed up at the Forc Giau “Oh nooooooo?” and so began my giggles. We had an entire conversation. Me in English, him in Spanish – neither of us understanding much of what the other was saying although I’m pretty sure he called me crazy, but also that I was very strong.
For as long as I can remember, perhaps it was the first time I heard about the UTMB, I had wanted to participate in a trail race, Euro style. The spectators and spandex was something I wanted to experience first hand. As much as I appreciate wilderness, I also appreciate a mountaintop espresso or ice cold beer mid-way through a run.
I had fallen hard and fast for the Italian Dolomites the previous summer. On a whim I entered the lottery for the Cortina Trail in November, got in, and made it happen.
After spending the first half of my trip sniffing roadside lavender and wine in Southern France, meeting up with family in Paris, and spending a few days running around Chamonix, I arrived in Venice and beelined it straight to the Dolomites where I went through my typical pre-race OMG what am I doing, I can’t do this, my knee hurts, I can’t even walk freak-out yet worse this time because OMG I am totally alone in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and I have had nothing to eat but cappuccinos and croissants for the last 10 days and I am so tired and I am going to die and not be able to communicate this with anyone although everyone I meet speaks more proper English than me and it is unseasonably hot here and I do terribly in the heat and I can’t find any salt pills in Italy and why the heck did I not bring any from home…
Despite the circular reel of fear in my head I vowed to get this thing done and posted these words on Instagram the night before: “This is what I came here for and I’m going to earn my “finisher’s trinket” no matter how hard or hot it is tomorrow!”
I woke stoked and made the drive from San Cassiano, where I was staying at the most delightful inn (Ai Pini), nibbling on the bread and cheese that Ericka (the sweetest inn person ever) prepared for me the night before. She was concerned that I wouldn’t have enough food before the race so she sent me up to my room with 3 bananas, an orange, and a bunch of bread and cheese after I had consumed my evening’s allotment of Proseco.
The energy at the starting line was intense so I jumped into a cafe to try and calm my jitters with another pre-race espresso. I didn’t know where to line up in the mass of 1300+ participants since all the Europeans looked so fit and fast in their fancy packs, spandex, and matching compression sleeves of all sorts (seriously name a body part and it was most likely being compressed).
I tucked into the line about three quarters back and was immediately greeted by the kindest of Italians. They could not believe an American girl would come all the way here to Cortina, just for this race, by herself no less. So they took my photo. And then we took a group photo and then we were off.
Music boomed through the loudspeakers and participants threw their hands up in the air and cheered and screamed. Spectators were everywhere hanging out of doors and balconies ringing their cowbells and high-fiving every runner that went by. It was so completely overwhelming I started to cry. I’m in Italy and I’m doing this and oh my gosh it is more incredible that I ever imagined.
And then suddenly it all stopped.
Euro jam. Salomon backpack bottle neck.
Thirteen hundred runners being funneled onto the double track.
The first few miles were slow and hot. Everyone was hiking and it was hard to pass without getting jabbed in the head with a Euro pole. Everyone had them and I did not so I had no way to fight back. I was forced to hike at a slow pace terrain I would normally run and was getting increasingly frustrated until we made a turn and then BAM the Val Travenanzes and knock your compression socks off amazing views everywhere you looked!
We crossed icy rivers and clung to cliff-side single-track like one giant herd of mountain goats. The descent from the Forc Col dei Bois was fast and fun and the zillions of cheers of “Brava” heading into the aid station lifted my spirits. And then Coke and bananas, which thank goodness are internationally recognized as the best ultra foods ever!
Then it was on to the hot and horrendous climb to Rifugio Averau where I was offered some tea. Hot tea? Okay, when in Rome. Then my stomach went south and I struggled with the heat all they way to Passo Giau where I ate salt straight from the shaker and stuck a bunch of sugar cubes in my pocket. I was hurting bad with about 17 kilometers left to go.
Thankfully somewhere around here is when I met Juan. Everyone seemed to be struggling at this point and several runners were sitting down taking a break before making the climb to Forc. Giau and a few turned around and made their way back to the pass.
Juan was struggling, but smiling and somehow I got the energy to motor up to the top. This is the first time I caught a case of the giggles running and for a moment was worried that some sort of heat delirium was setting in. I couldn’t stop laughing. Everything was just so funny. The heat. The never-ending line of runners making it up this steep trail. The fact that I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying yet I kind of knew what they were saying because we were all experiencing the same thing. The fact that I was eating straight up sugar cubes because I only had one energy gel left. The fact that I am all alone in Europe and that I have to do this because no one can rescue me but myself.
And then next thing you know I’m at the top of the pass and the views are awe-inspiring amazing and I stop to take a photo. At this point there’s only one more climb left, which I only knew because my race bib had the elevation profile on it (awesome!). I can do this. I’m going to finish!
I take my last energy gel at the top of the last climb and start the long and greatly underestimated in difficulty descent into Cortina and then I find a freaking Espresso Love Gu Energy Gel on the ground, which is my favorite and only available in the US I think. The person who dropped it is not coming back for it so I grab it and stick it in my pocket and have never been so stoked ever in my entire life. It was like a present from the Gods ensuring quick delivery of 40mg of caffeine into my system and a strong finish!
The last aid station was at rifugio on a lake with a band of accordions and all sorts of great eats including the best potato dipped in salt I have ever tasted. It was so tempting to take a seat and listen to the music for a bit so I left immediately. I should have just sat down because the descent from the Croda da Lago almost killed me. Steepest trail of my life complete with roots and slippery wet rocks. I could barely take one step without slipping. The Euros may hike the uphills at a leisurely pace, but they bomb the downhills like a boss! It was at this point that I got passed by around 20 men (Juan of course being one of them) with one stopping to yell at me in Italian. Well at least it sounded like he was yelling at me, but based on his dramatic hand gestures I think he was just telling me to get some trekking poles. I agreed they would help tremendously.
I passed Juan at some point again, but don’t remember where, but I will never forget him running up behind me on the last cobble-stone stretch into the Cortina town center, grabbing my hand and dragging me kicking and screaming and laughing all the way to the finish. I was all alone in Cortina, but so not alone.