When it's Tough - Ultra Trail Largo Del Orta
GUEST ARTICLE - NICK LOVELL
Nick completed the Ultra Trail Largo Del Orta 2019. His raw account tells a story of what it's like to overtake limits and reach new goals. We're in awe! Enjoy.
The Ultra Trail Largo Del Orta (UTLO), a 140km trail race with 7400 meters of vertical ascent through the north western Italian mountains that are the foot of the alps. A cut off time of 36 hours. 160 participants on the start line, including me. In a word, “horrendous”. As I write this it’s dusk again the day after the race and it’s brought back memories of the same time yesterday evening, I actually feel scared by the memory of where I was twenty fours hour earlier, with fading dim light from heavily overcast and sodden skies, as the misery of another night time began. I was 110km into the race after 24 hours on the rain and wind swept mountains, struggling painfully slowly through calf deep puddles and banks of mud, soaked to the skin, and very cold. A kilometer ahead was the final aid station, which promised some short lived solace. The race had already been a struggle up to this point, but the worst was yet to come. As I climbed the steps of that last aid station I experienced a physical sensation, a punch to my chest, and a voice telling me to stop. It wasn’t a feeling, it wasn’t the usual internal dialogue, it was a physical blow. Some might have considered it a guardian angel telling them to stop. Looking back, I think I was on the edge of hypothermia. I got into the aid station and mechanically started the routine: take-on calories (the pasta-soup and black sugary tea that had tasted great in the first station was now hard to stomach), wring our sodden clothes, check feet, try and refocus. The expressions of misery worn by the other runners in the station shared a common story. Some were pointlessly trying to dry and patch up painful blisters made worse by waterlogged shoes, others were wrapped in foil blankets dejectedly staring into space. All were contemplating their next move. I thought the aid station would be a chance to recover and mentally regroup for the last push, an 800m climb then 1200m descent to Omegna. Instead the lack of movement was stealing the last traces of warmth from my body. I could feel my jaw beginning to shiver. It was decision time: quit or continue. Continuing would mean putting myself at certain risk. The final 30k in these conditions was still 5-6 hours in the rain on the mountain trails with no shelter and no escape. Still undecided, I continues going through the motions. I took the one remaining dry item from my emergency clothes. The leggings would not be much benefit, and would also be soaked in a matter of minutes, but I still struggled my tired legs into them. The other emergency clothing items had been donned hours earlier and were already soaked. I cut-up part of a foil blanket to make a hat and body liner, hoping they would help retain some heat. I thought I’d give it ten minutes back out on the trail, then can come back to the station if needed. My strategy was to move as fast as possible, generate enough heat to endure, and finish. Or be back in ten minutes. One final cup of tea was forced down and I was off - please don’t imagine this was a run, it was a stagger-limp-walk. At the ten minute mark, after vigorous movement I had recovered some warmth. At the same time, I passed someone who was definitely early hypothermic - dragging his feet, slurring, confused. He didn’t speak any English, so the Italian runner I was with stopped and I hope sent him back to the aid station. I prayed this wasn’t a sign of what awaited me further down the trail. After an hour or so of undulating trail I arrived at the foot of the final climb. The path disappeared into a woods that rose above me into the darkness like a wall. Shaking my head and swearing loudly at the sadistic course director I took the first step up. Course profiles are deceptive, they smooth out the very steep with the just quite steep. Most of what I was on wasn’t even a trail. It was a mudslide, in parts as steep as a ladder against a wall, forced between the trees with only roots for purchase, in other parts a slippery goat track bordered by sheer drops. Eight hundred meters straight-up and no opportunity to stop or slow, otherwise the cold would take over. “Relentless forward motion, relentless forward motion” became my mantra - where had I heard that? A film, youtube? I didn’t care, it was the right idea, and the one I needed to get off the mountain. Fuel was the next problem; my calorie account was severely overdrawn - something like 10,000 used and only 7,000 consumed, which is the maximum the body could absorb in that time. The next day my clothes bore witness to this imbalance with an overwhelming smell of ammonia caused when the body has run out of carbs and starts to breakdown it’s building blocks of protein to keep fueled and survive. To keep going and keep warm now I had to force in gels. My target of one gel or 100cals every 25 mins had dropped to one every 45mins, forced down on-top of overriding nausea. I knew to vomit would leave me in a deficit I couldn’t recover from. Every time the acidic bile rose in my throat I gulped for air, deep breathing to overcome each wave. After the two most grueling hours of my life the terrain began to level out at the summit. The temperature was noticeably colder with the elevation, meaning I just had to push faster for warmth. The next challenge was to get across the scrubby ravines peak and then down into Omegna. The trail here was just one long waterlogged network of gullies, a criss-cross of muddy streams of sucking mud that masked uneven rocks underneath, disappearing off into the darkness. Poles out, I staggered forward like a spidery cow with cjd. I was so tired at this point that I was beginning to hallucinate - the torchlight reflecting off the splashes, off the beaten-down sodden grass, and off the sparkly sand-stone looked like a diamond cave. The ominous beauty was only inside my head and another sign that I needed to get off the mountain as quickly as possible. With “only” around 13k of trail remaining over 1200m vertical descent to the finish in Omegna I began to think about the end, a warm bath and sleep. I tracked the descent on my watch, 1200m to go, 1100, 1000; progress was slow. The trail was either too steep for my tired legs to run, or too broken to find a stable foothold. I came around a corner to find the path blocked by a swollen stream. Twenty-four hours of continuous rain had turned what would have been a trickle into a two or three meter wide, calf deep, freezing torrent. I looked up and down for a way to cross but there was none - the only way was to wade. A few meters to my left the water disappeared over a waterfall into the darkness with no barrier. This felt dangerous, one slip and I’d be following the water onto the rocks below. I made it across what turned out to be the first of several similar crossings. I thought my feet were cold before, this took things to new depths. Eventually, when three hundred meters of vertical descent remained, the trail emerged from the dark woods onto a rainy and windswept village back street. I rounded a narrow corner and looked up at a clock, just before midnight, nearly twenty-eight hours on the move. I knew where I was. We had visited friends nearby in the summer and this was the village higher up the lakeside from their house. Ten minutes later and I saw their house in the distance. I was then on a path I recognized from a walk that summer. How different this felt. The path zig-zagged downwards and eventually came out next to lake Orta. I estimated it was maybe two or three kilometers to the end. I could feel my body beginning to give-up and my pace slowing, no longer responding to my urges to move faster and generate warmth. “Come on”, I swore to myself. Images of my wife and children flashed into my head, not for the first time, encouraging me onwards, and gave me the final boost to keep moving. Twenty minutes later I staggered into the finishing chicane. A handful of equally miserable looking supporters were sheltering by the finishing line, I mounted the ramp, took what I assume will be a rather dejected looking photo and received a hard won medal. On this occasion there was no elation, no sense of achievement, just exhaustion and relief. Immediately the shivering started. First my jaw then my whole body shook in waves. I had to get back to my accommodation, dry and warm. I quickly recovered my drop-bags, staggered to the car, turned the engine on and put the heat up full blast. My brain wasn’t working and I couldn’t remember how to get to the bnb, only five minutes away. I found my phone which had been flat for hours now and unable to charge due to the wet and prayed it would now work. A few minutes plugged into the car and it glowed into life, just as I was drifting off. I found my Bnb and followed the map back. The heat from the car got the shivering under control. Once back at the bnb I shed my soaked clothes, ate some porridge and yoghurt, had a bath then collapsed into bed. My last thoughts, “never again”...
Of the 164 who started, nearly 40% dropped out. A high DNF (Did Not Finish) rate for a race such as this, where even to enter you need several similar races under your belt. Of the 103 finishers I came 60th and achieved my objective of completing the race without injury to be able to go onto the UTMB Oman race at the end of November (although I’m now having second thoughts!). It took 28hrs and 28minutes, the fastest competitor was done in 16 hours and the slowest in 36 hours. Done - in every sense of the word.