Saturday, 28 July 2012

Touching the Sky

I was in northern Italy last weekend to run in the Dolomites Skyrace, a 13 mile route with 6000ft of ascent from the town of Canazei at 1450m altitude to the summit of the Piz Boe at 3152m and back by a slightly different route. The race was a counter in the Skyrunner world series, which takes in a rather tough set of races all over the world. They alternate the races every year to ensure the worlds top mountain athletes, and fools like me, can suffer in new places. The concept of Skyrunning is very simple, they official skyrunning federation describes it as follows.....

“Skyrunning” has been around for some time. Hundreds, even thousands of years ago mountains were negotiated out of necessity: war, religious persecution, hunting, smuggling, or just out of plain old curiosity. The concept of running up and down mountains for fun is much newer. Take for example the Ben Nevis Race which goes back to 1903, or the Pikes Peak Marathon which began as a bet in 1954 among smokers and non smokers.

The idea of creating a sports discipline however was the brainchild of Italian mountaineer Marino Giacometti, who, with a handful of fellow climbers, pioneered records and races on Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa in the Italian Alps in the early ‘90’s. In 1993, with the support of the multinational Fila as sponsor, skyrunning took off across the world’s mountain ranges with a circuit of awe inspiring races stretching from the Himalayas to the Rockies, from Mount Kenya to the Mexican volcanoes. After all, Giacometti’s term skyrunning*, as the name suggests, is where earth and sky meet.

Giacometti’s vision didn’t stop there and in 1995 he founded the Federation for Sport at Altitude to address the need for rules to govern the sport and generally manage this fast-growing discipline which today counts some 200 races worldwide with around 30,000 participants from 54 countries.

Today, the sport is managed by the International Skyrunning Federation which took over from the FSA in 2008. The principal aims of the ISF are the direction, regulation, promotion, development and furtherance of skyrunning and similar multisport activities on a worldwide basis.

So really its just fell running on steroids!!

I had run the race in 2010 but due to bad weather the race was shortened and we did not summit the Piz Boe and instead dropped down at a lower altitude. So this year I was very excited to be running the full route. We arrived in town on the friday with the race being on the sunday so we had to two days to get anxious and drink copious amounts of fine coffee and wine. The picture below is the view from our apartment!

By the time the race morning came around I was very excited about the race and couldn't wait to get going. We awoke to a perfect morning although it was very chilly at 8:30 am , far too early to start a race in my opinion. I had a quick glass of juice and a double espresso and jogged down to the square
where the race starts and finishes for a warm up and tried to see any if any other Brits that I knew were running were around but there was a mass of people being herded into the start gate and I just followed suit after i had paid a visit to the portable little boys room. I must have been in about the 20th row and couldn't get any further forward so just stood patiently while the organisers blasted out Blink 182 and Offspring songs on the loudspeakers, you don't get that at Ben Nevis!  After standing around for what seemed like ages,without a word of warning the race director began counting down from five and we were very suddenly on our way out of the square and on the road out of town. Due to starting a bit further down the field than I would have liked I put on a bit of a spurt on the roads out of town and then settled into a steady pace as the climb began very quickly once we hit the ski slopes. Once you leave Canazei the race climbs up the ski slopes adjacent to the pordoi pass before you reach the summit of the road after 3 miles and nearly 2800ft ascent. I managed to keep a fairly steady pace running most of this section and reached the road feeling pretty strong. This, of course is where the fun really begins! The pictures below shows the route you take from the pass up onto the mountain
proper. The zigzags are as painful as they look. The car park at the Pordoi pass on the second photo looks along way down, and I can confirm that it is! That is after already climbing up from town aswell!

After taking a swig of water from the aid station at the pass I settled into a nice hiking pace up the zigzags being overtaken by a few people but not losing too many places. As you climb higher into the gully between the two butresses the sounds of shouting and cheering from the aid station at the top gradually got louder and louder and this was such a great little boost and part of the reason why i love these european races. The ground here was very loose and you had to put alot of effort in to avoid sliding back down the way you came! Once you reach the aid station you have a very brief flat run along some technical trails until you reach the final climb up the summit of the Piz Boe. Two of my club mates on holiday were at the aid station and the support was needed as i was starting to feel the altitude a bit and my legs were tiring aswell. The last bit of the climb is very steep and technical and the rocks were covered with thin layer of ice which made things very interesting, the chains helped alot. The long descent down to Canazei then began, 6000ft in just over 6 miles, leg shattering! The inital section off the Piz Boe is very steep and technical, again with chains and ropes to grab onto so you didn't do plummeting down the steep limestone. I was holding my own on this steep technical part but once it levelled out after a couple of miles my shoes began to fill with scree and it was getting very uncomfortable, about 10 people came past me whilst i was messing around. Eventually I stopped to empty them but by then the damage was done and some fine blisters were forming! This slowed me somewhat in the final miles and the sheer steepness of the descent just sapped my legs, it was then a case of damage limitation. I was very relieved to be back on the road and crossed the line in a bit of a state in 103rd postition (over 600 ran) in a time 2 hours 39 minutes, 38 minutes behind superman Kilian Jornet! I learn't a few lessons in this race, you cant expect to run well on a 6000ft climb and descent by just training in the Peak District, you need more climbing and descending in the mountains, and also tape the feet and wear some decent shoes if you dont want burning heels! I have to say though, over the last few years coming out to these races in Europe and running against the best in the business, I have come to realise that these races for me are what its all about. Much as i love a short low key fell race on a midweek evening, where i can come in the top 5 and think that i'm a decent runner, I just love the pomp of these sky and mountain races and they really put you in your place. I love the fact that no matter where you go in the world there is a shared love of the mountains and these really hard courses. I cant wait for Zinal in 2 weeks, and i'm sure i will be back out there trying some new races next year, but more that that, it just makes me realise how much i love pushing myself in the mountains, I have no real interest in short low key races at the moment, I will hopefully be trying some longer harder races next year and getting more and more outside my comfort zone, at the end of the day, its great to try new things. I'd recommend this race for anyone, get it done!

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