Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Race Recap: The Amalfi Positano Ultratrail

As I was running the Amalfi Positano Ultratrail yesterday, I spent some time going over the recap I was planning to write today. I had plenty of time to think about it: I spent over 11 hours on the trail. One thing I WASN’T thinking about, ironically, was how close I was to missing the final time cutoff at Capo Mauro, 43 kilometers in to the 50k race—runners were required to check in here by 5 pm, 10 hours in. Surely I could run what was essentially a marathon in under 10 hours!

I had signed up for this race six months ago on a bit of a whim. There was this movie online that made the race look absolutely incredible. I convinced my wife Greta and our friend Suzanne to go along: “we’ll make a trip of it! We’ll visit all the parts of Italy we’ve never been to.”

Before I knew it, the trip was booked. Then, a few days ago, again before I knew it, I was in Italy, getting ready for what I hoped would be the race of a lifetime.

And again before I knew it, I was at the confusing, frantic start of a race where 90% of the participants spoke a language I hadn’t studied for 30 years. The announcer was trying to relay important information to us, in Italian, when it became clear that the few Americans and Brits in the field weren’t getting it. Finally an Anglophone was found, and he explained that we needed to get our bibs scanned manually at the start line—there was no actual starting mat! I rushed up to get scanned, then lined up at the start.

Me with a bunch of Italian guys
A few minutes later, we were off. The first mile was on the paved streets of Agerola, high above the Amalfi Coast that gave the race its name, giving the runners a chance to spread out before we hit singletrack.

Not long after hitting the trail, we were rewarded with our first spectacular views of the coast, 1,500 feet below, shrouded in mist.

Soon we would be down there, right at sea level, with barely time to catch our breath before heading up, even higher into the mountains above the dramatic Amalfi coast. The race's organizers practically boasted about its imposing 3,060 meters of vertical gain (and loss) over the course of the event. As Brolympus would say, that's 10,039 feet in American! Here's the elevation profile provided in the race packet:

I modified the profile (in green) to add the elevation and distance to key landmarks
As you can see, the race features two major climbs and three big descents, with a lot of "small" hills in between that would be imposing in their own right in any other race. As it turned out, the apartment we had rented for the week of the visit was situated just above the aid station at 10.5 km, so Greta and Suzanne decided to form an impromptu cheer station there. I was supposed to text them when I reached the Fiordo di Furore 8.7 km in to make sure they arrived on time. When I arrived at the Fiordo, a haunting, narrow inlet flanked by steep cliffs, my hands were so sweaty that I couldn't operate the touchscreen on my phone. I was about to give up when I remembered that I was carrying some dry paper towels in a ziploc as an emergency supply of toilet paper. That did the trick, and I was able to send a brief text: "At bottom," which was enough to alert them that I was on the way.

Before I got to the Fiordo, I descended a seemingly endless staircase. "The longest staircase I've ever seen" according to my new running buddy, a nice fellow from Bristol, England, whose name I never learned. We made our way to a narrow parapet above the coastal highway, where we crawled through a hole in a bricked-off wall that was supposed to indicate the trail was closed, before proceeding along the route. On the other end of the parapet we crossed through another "trail closed" barrier. Apparently this is how Italian trail runners roll.

We climbed another steep trail out of the Fiordo before emerging onto a paved road. It was here, the day before, that I met another runner on my shakeout run. She was a little freaked out because a sketchy-looking guy seemed to be following her as she previewed the course. I offered to run with her to a nearby cafe -- the same cafe, it turned out, that would be our aid station on the following day. She told me she had previewed nearly the entire course over the previous three days. She wouldn't be able to do the race itself because she and her new husband had to leave that day, so they had run it on their own instead. This paved road, a gradual uphill, turned out to be the fastest, flattest part of the entire course. It lasted about a mile.

At the end of this mile was the cafe / aid station with my personal cheering squad. Greta and Suzanne were cheering not only for me, but for every runner who passed. I stopped and chatted with them for a few minutes, then grabbed some water and took off. Greta documented the visit:

Approaching the aid station

Saying arrivederci!

Now it was on to the first big climb: 873 meters to the top of Monte Murilo (that's 2,864 feet for my metric-impaired readers). The first part of the climb was on a manageable trail, but soon it turned nearly straight up the side of the cliff. It was at this point that I remembered my friend Carl telling about his recent, extremely technical ultra back home: "It's so steep that if you stop to take a rest you have to hang on to a tree." My response as I made my way up this barren slope was "what tree?" It was so steep that I questioned whether I should have hauled my trekking poles along. Why bother when you can just reach out and touch the hillside directly in front of you?

Somewhere on the steepest hill I've ever raced up....

At one point I ran into another pair of the few English-speakers on the trail: two British guys. I passed them and headed up a steep gully. Here the trail was not only steep, there were sticker bushes choking the path. As I finished ascending the sketchiest section, the two Brits emerged above me: They had noticed that the real trail actually looped around this section. "Need a hand?" one of them asked as he passed. Next I caught up to a group headed up an even steeper gully. As I arrived, the Brits again noticed that the actual marked path turned off to the left, avoiding this difficult pitch. I charged past all six of them and headed up the marked path, making a mental note to look for course markings EVERYWHERE.

Every ten minutes or so, I checked the elevation on my watch. Only 1,500 feet? Really? Then "Only 1,700 feet? Really? And so on until I was at a panoramic viewpoint seemingly overlooking the entire Amalfi coast. I stopped to take a couple pictures:

That's Amalfi!

I'm on the Amalfi Coast!
Here the course circumnavigated the top of Monte Murillo before finally arriving at the next aid station (15.5k), where the course split between the 30k and 50k routes. I was checked in with an official time stamp and was able to sample a full Italian aid station, which included apricot tarts (which I didn't try), raisins (which I did), and bread with honey (which sounded better than it tasted). Since according to my trail map there were several water stops before the next aid station just over 10k away, I only took on about a liter of water. My Grand Canyon partner Rich will be glad to hear that there was also Coke -- but lukewarm, not ice cold. Since I knew I had a big descent ahead I tightened my laces and continued on.

The descent started fairly technical and ended on a long staircase, some parts very rough and others well finished. Down, down we went, until finally entering a town above Amalfi and heading back up. I hadn't spotted any water stops but wasn't too concerned since I knew more were coming. The trail wound up and down, past waterfalls, over creeks, but still with no official water stops. Were we just supposed to fill up at the creek? I didn't have any kind of water purification device, and it seemed like there were plenty of livestock in the area so I guessed the water was not safe to drink. Here are a few photos from this seemingly-endless section of trail.

Deep in the forest

Amalfi...so far away!

I'm in the mountains! In Italy!

According to my watch I should have been at the 26.8k aid station a while ago, but the long descent to the station hadn't materialized. I began rationing water, taking just a tiny sip every ten minutes or so. I was definitely never completely parched but I certainly wasn't comfortable with the amount I was drinking. Finally, the descent began, and in another mile or so I arrived at the aid station. I was officially over halfway done with the race but I wasn't ready to "count" it until I finished the massive climb that was ahead of me: From 277 to 1,009 meters, or a climb of 2,400 feet.

This climb started with -- you guessed it -- more stairs. At this point I was much more tired than I had been previously, and the sun was fully overhead, baking me and the other runners. I was also carrying a full 3 liters of water because the map indicated we'd have no water for the next 10k. Taking this all into account, I allowed myself to take intermittent breaks. At one of them I stopped to take a photo of Amalfi behind:

Stairs above Amalfi
When we finally left the stairs and headed back onto trails, I took a look at my watch and saw that we were still depressingly far from the top of the climb. I knew we'd reach a summit and then run along a relatively flat stretch before reaching the aid station, but for now we ran through a dark forest, up technical trails, up and up some more. Finally I saw we were at an elevation of 3,100 feet and figured this must be the top, but we just kept climbing. I reminded myself that 1,000 meters was more like 3,300 feet. Not yet, Munger!

Eventually, finally, the trail leveled off. But now this meant I needed to be running. It had been so long since I'd been on a runnable stretch that I had to remind myself how to do it. Slowly, one step at a time, I started running. The trail got more and more runnable, until finally it was an actual road! A gnarly, unpaved road, but a road nonetheless. After a series of 25-plus-minute miles, I was finally running sub-16 miles. I even knocked out a sub-14 mile! I laughed at myself for being happy about a 13:xx mile. The 36k aid station arrived quickly, and I became more optimistic about my prospects. Just 9 miles left! To get an official finish, you needed to come in under 12 hours; I was now at 8:40. I had 3:20 to run 9 miles. Surely I could manage that, especially since the rest of the course was flat-to-downhill. All I needed was 20-minute miles, and I'd finish with 20 minutes to spare.

Naturally, as soon as I left the aid station I hit another monster hill. A 200-meter hill looks flat on an elevation profile that goes up to 1,200 meters! I did the mental math as I went, and my prospects looked worse and worse. But I consoled myself by knowing the last mile would definitely be on a flat road. Even if I lost 10 minutes to my 20-minute average, I could make it up on the last mile.

Unfortunately it wasn't just the uphills that were challenging in this section. The downhills were gnarly and rocky. I couldn't pick up speed anywhere. I was running 25, 27-minute miles. Finally I arrived at the last aid station, and the attendant there stopped me. He made a phone call. In broken English, he told me my race was over. They were cutting me off. I missed the cutoff by 8 minutes. I said I would make my own way to the finish, even if it wasn't official. They said no, I needed a medic. A medic? I felt fine. No, I told them, I'd continue on.

As I left, an older man, probably in his 60s, followed me. "La macchina. Ti guiderò in macchina."—I'll drive you in the car.

"No," I said. "Puo finire." I figured I'd easily leave this guy in my dust as I headed down the trail. Unfortunately he proved more adept than I anticipated (either that or I was really just that lame). The trail, as always, was quite rough, and the footing was unsteady. Then I stumbled on a rock and toppled into a spiny bush. I was fine, just a couple scrapes, but my calf immediately cramped up. Nothing I couldn't stretch and run on, but the man became more insistent that I give up.

"Hai bisogno di un medico," he said.

"No, no medico," I replied.

I kept moving, but began to wonder what the point of it was. Whether I "finished" or not, I would not be an official finisher. I had run for over 10 hours in some of the most beautiful scenery I'd ever witnessed. I'd still have that experience, no matter what. I decided it wasn't worth arguing about in a foreign language. I'd stop. The man had indicated that the car was a short ways down the trail, where the refreshments were set up. We continued down for a few more minutes and arrived at the refreshment table, which was already being broken down.

As I sat there filling up on bananas and water, another runner came by. He was much more insistent on finishing, and continued on. Then an Italian woman arrived. She chatted with the aid station workers, then addressed me in English: "Dave, come on, you can finish. I will run with you to the finish."

I was surprised that she knew my name. "No, I said. This is it for me." She stayed for a few minutes, chatting with the workers, then convinced another runner to go with her to the finish. I hung out for a few more minutes, then asked the workers in broken Italian how long it would take for the car to leave and drive me to the finish. He said he had to wait for all the other DNF runners to arrive. I figured that might take an hour or more, so I decided to make my way to the finish. It had become apparent that there was a shortcut I could take on the roads, so I packed up my stuff and told them I was going. No one tried to stop me.

Just as I left, a goatherd arrived in the station with 100 or so goats. They were heading down the same road I would travel. While the goats and their herd dog sauntered down the road, the goatherd stopped to chat with the aid station volunteers. So my return to civilization began in the middle of a herd of goats. They were wary of me as I ran down the road, and eventually I started to overtake them. The skittered off the side of the road into the forest, parting so I could pass. When I passed the herd dog, he looked back at his disjointed herd as if to say "what is up with these stupid animals? It's just a dumb human running by."

The road was smooth and paved, and I was able to run easy 11-minute miles back to the start, about 3.2 miles -- saving myself 1.3 miles and more gnarly trail. I was able to snap one last picture of the glorious Amalfi Coast before descending into the town of Agerola:

The view west as the Amalfi Coast fades into the mist
Soon I was back at the start / finish, where confused race officials grilled me on the status of the other runners. How many runners were still out there? Was I running with them? I tried to explain that they had gone on the trail and I'd taken a shortcut, and that there were probably other runners behind us. Then the medic arrived and asked to check me out. I told her I was fine, and she seemed to believe me. Another man asked if I wanted to eat something -- I could walk with him over to the refreshment table. But between us and the food was my car. It sounded much better to get in the car and head back to my lovely rental apartment with a view of the coast. I sent a text to Greta and told her I'd be there in 30 minutes. There was pizza and beer waiting for me. I couldn't imagine a better end to an amazing, wonderful, challenging, confusing, intense, incredible day.

My watch tracked the distance I ran on the course as 28.13 miles, plus 3.22 miles to the finish, for a total of 31.35 miles -- just over 50k. I ran 10:08 on the course and 35 and change off the course  -- a total of 10 hours and 43 minutes. My watch doesn't seem to want to communicate that 28.13-mile run to my phone and the "official" online sources of Garmin Connect and Strava, so I can't break down the stats of the run much beyond that right now. I'll be able to sort it all out when I get home. I don't think at my current level of fitness I could have run much faster. I'm just not a great runner on technical trails, and there was a ton of technical running on this course. I think if I had done a lot more hill work in training I could have completed the climbs faster, and maybe made up that elusive 8 minutes to avoid the cutoff, but I'm not letting it bother me much. I still got to do an epic run in a beautiful place, so I'm very happy with that. Now I get to enjoy another week and a half of vacation before heading back to the real world. I'll see you then.

No comments:

Post a Comment