Natalia Roman Lopez
DOLOMITI XTREME TRAIL 103k
Updated: Jul 19, 2022
It’s a ‘now or never’ kind of day. I have been lingering for a month. It has been a month since I toed the line of Dolomiti Xtreme Trail (DXT). A loop of 103k +7200m in the Val di Zoldo. And tomorrow ‘geht es los’ (as the germans say) aka ‘here we go again!’. To live up to the tradition, a bunch of motivated crazies will leave Verbier at 10pm on a journey which, in my case, might last around 30h. Do you get it now? The DXT chronicle must go out today. Time to take the learnings, the sweet moments, the smiles, the miles, the struggles… pack them all, become wiser, and move on!
Verbier is indeed waiting… not quite there yet, my love. Let’s close the Dolomiti chapter first!!
I came into this race with the motivation over the roof. Also, with a feeling of peaking in my training – as if I had a training plan or goals in the first place! On race day everyone must show up for it to work: the body, the head, the adequate weather, the gear… I felt as ready as one can be, which accounts for about 50% of the factors that come into play to finish an ultra. The high degree of randomness confers a non-neglectable amount of anxiety, which I usually I turn into curiosity – racing is no more than a game after all! No need to get stressed about it. Motivation doubles up as Jorge will take part in the 72k race, a perfect 'test' to run through the night doing his longest distance to date! His race blog post here (in spanish)
Val di Zoldo, dolimiti of Belluno, in the province of Venice (yes, Venice is much more than its canals and gondoliere!). I had only gotten a glimpse of this region when I visited my good friend Tite Togni 3 years ago. She showed me enough to make me want to come back for more. A full discovery loop. Quite often the words of Matheo Jacquemoud in Kilian’s Jornet movie ‘Summits of my life’ put a smile on my face: “I had never been to this mountain massif before. The good thing about long days is that you see it all in one push. Now I don’t have to come back”.
In full truth, I had raced Lavaredo Ultra Trail back in 2019. The memory of it still pains me 3 years after… that day I crossed the line of what I consider ‘reasonable struggle’ and went into plain misery mode. I wanted to quit so badly that I took off my shoes and socks at aid station km 90 (out of 120km). However, there she was, la zia Tite, not willing to let me call it a day. A story for another day! From a T1D perspective, Lavaredo was the first real ultradistance race after my diagnosis in April 2019. I somehow ‘survived’ it although I will never forget the panic I felt 10’ before the 11pm start when my dinner bolus insulin caused a low and I had to look desperately for a gel. Those memories are a good reminder of why lowcarb is the way to go – not only for longevity and overall health in T1D, but also for mental tranquility.
Some impressions from Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2019
ENOUGH wandering around! Let’s get the DOLOMITI XTREME TRAIL chronicle in the books. Enjoy it!
The race begins (and ends) anecdotally. Minutes before the start, the speaker mentions one by one with favorite elite runners. Among the girls, a legend, Denise Zimmerman, absolute winner (among men & women!) of some of the hardest mountain races of the Alps. She is swiss, which triggers in me a little bit of 'national pride'. I clap and scream when they mention her name, I hear a laugh next to me.... it is Denise!
Here we go!! The first 3k of road make me feel like a Chinese porcelain vase – don't kiss the asphalt, Natalia. With the turning of the legs and the nice temperature of the night, the mood is high. I focus on breathing through my nose until we reach the trail. I have no idea what position I'm in among the girls – as if it mattered at this point in the movie. In these first kilometers we are quite grouped, which stresses me a little. About an hour after the start, in the middle of a steep climb, a girl passes overtaking the whole 'snake' of runners... is Denise! 'what an engine’ – I think – and then 'perhaps I am not so far back'. Little by little the group stretches and I feel more comfortable on the descents. Almost without realizing it, I pass Denise, which gives me a little bit of motivation. However, I have a constant distraction: the alarms of my continuous glucose meter (Dexcom). It reports very low values that do not fit with my feelings. True to my philosophy, I decide to take dextrose gram by gram only if I notice symptoms of hypoglycemia – which happens a couple of times during the first 5h. I put the phone in airplane mode to save battery and so that the glucose data do not alarm Jorge and Ana – the two people who every night act as 'glucose angels' in case a true alarm wouldn’t wake me up.
At the first liquid refreshment they offer peanuts (lucky me! ); later on comes a solid aid station where I enjoy a cup of broth and a handful of chips that, let's be honest, taste like heaven 😉 After 5h40’ of effort – a bit longer than expected – I arrive at km 30 Duran pass. I find it difficult to pick a nutrition strategy... on the one hand, I should take the opportunity to have and early breakfast (it's 3:40am) since I've been running for more than 5 hours, and the next big aid is several hours away. However, the body rejects the idea and I decide to respect it. I exchange some laughs with the volunteers, drink another broth, and keep going! It is impossible not to 'notice the legs'; mentally, the best way to motivate myself is to look forward, that is: 'when I complete the next climb/descent/km/hour I will only have X climb/descent/km/hours left’. Or the classic: 'One third in the pocket; that wasn’t so bad. now just repeat it twice.'
With those mind games, and the imminent prospect of dawn, I arrive to the beginning of a climb which, instead of hiking poles, requires me to adopt the four-legged progression mode. I'm at the head of a group of guys. I get stressed and offer them to pass several times. They decline and prefer to stay 'on wheels'. The truth is that it is not worth squandering efforts to gain a couple of minutes. At the top of the climb, dawn turns into sunshine. I put my headlamp away, take in the view for a moment, and jump straight into the downhill. With music and singing. No fear of grabbing any plant, tree or stone thanks to my gardening gloves
Of course, the numbers are sometimes overwhelming. The kilometers pass too slowly and the hours too fast. From km 35 I have only one thought: to reach km 54, where we will have climbed +4400m and ‘only’ +2800m will remain. There, at the Staulanza pass, Tite awaits me – friend, mother, runner, and seasoned in a thousand battles.
The most scenic part of the course turns out to be the most challenging for me. At first, I am not able to tell what is hindering my progress. Until some nausea points at my stomach – a classic for any ultra-runner. I have been around the block long enough to know these things pass… sooner or later! As if by magic, the bad feeling in my tummy disappears just before the descent and, already full of energy and optimism, I reach the Coldati refuge screaming of happiness. Be careful with sudden over-motivation during ultras... I try to self-apply it, with varying degrees of success (or failure!). I have no idea what time it is. With the sun and the mild temperatures, I get the feeling that it's noon. But if it's just 8am!!
It turns out the trails to the Staulanza pass are 2km longer than anticipated. And many of you will think 'what is 2km in a 103k race??? ' Those who run, know it: 2km at the wrong moment, may seem like a lifetime!! By the time I arrive in Staulanza, I have made up my mind: time to refuel 'alla grande'. That was Tite's initial plan anyway and I doubt she would have allowed me not to take the opportunity to recharge. Once again, 'la zia' knows better – how much I still have left to learn from her!
Tite will crew me at km 54, 65 and 81. Her ability to 'read the situation' is impressive. Although today, fortunately, the possibility of not finishing the race never crosses my mind. The body wants to perform, and the heart pushes hard! So much heart, that when entering the tent of the aid station I get an irrepressible desire to cry. I give Tite a hug and I focus on the job to be done!
I made a big mistake when I reached km 54. Determined to start taking carbohydrate, especially for its easy digestion, I injected 3u of ultra-fast insulin (fiasp) as soon as I arrived. Meanwhile, Tite stock up on soup, bread, chips, cookies, fruit. Just before starting my feast, I do a measurement of glycemia in capillary (using a drop of blood from a finger) – out of curiosity, since the sensor steadily showed 4 to 5 mmol/L. I don't believe the result. I test again. Ah well yes... shit! I am very low: 2.4 mmol/L. Suddenly I start sweating and noticing that lack of gravity so typical of hypoglycemia. I wave at Tite to get me more fruit and bread with Nutella. The waving looks like a Charles Chaplin movie since a doctor is checking up my wounded knee and, should he realize what’s happening from the knee up, he might confiscate my bib!!! The hypo goes away within minutes. With some laziness but the very high morale I begin to walk towards what seems a very distant finish line.
I'm afraid of the heat, but it never gets to be suffocating. The next 10k are enjoyable and surprisingly mild in inclination. I can even jog! I meet Tite again at Zoppe di Cadore km 65. Same procedure: insulin-> fast carbohydrates. The usual joke about doping by the aid station volunteers when I inject the insulin... 'could you be more creative, please?? ' I think to myself. But instead of picking up a useless fight, I smile.
Just a few meters after leaving Zoppe, I meet Gabriele, a runner with whom I will share the next 25k. This is one of the reasons I participate in races: sharing a love for mountains, personal effort, and celebrating life. Thanks to his company, the next 5k on asphalt were even bearable. We arrive at the Talamini hut where they roll out the red carpet for each runner. Without a doubt the best refreshment of the day – and that's saying a lot when racing in Italy, where they take pride in putting a food show! The Talamini family had made homemade soup and kept a whole turkey in a giant pot to prove it!! There was also watermelon, which hovered around my head for hours!! By the way, the bread of all the food points was supplied by the organizer of the race because it turns out that it is... an artisan bread maker!
Until now we had run through forests, meadows, dolomitic rocks, ski slopes... on the climb to Mount Rite we will experience the jungle! At this point in the race, flat sections seem to me a waste of time. The sooner we get on the climb, the fewer meters we will have left! Hand in hand with Gabriele we move forward (and chatting like parrots). When we have 100m of climb to reach Monte Rite... Tite jumps out from behind a rock (or at least that's how my memory recalls it haha)!!! What a joy. The ‘zia’ is fresh as a daisy; Gabriele and I move in battery saving mode.
Already going down the first slopes of cement, I notice symptoms of hypoglycemia. Feeling as if 'the ground disappeared'. The main problem is that while I go up the blood glucose is stable – even with fast insulin onboard – but as soon as I start running downhill, my blood glucose 'shoots up' (still, values below 200mg/dL or 11mmol/L). In those moments of hyperglycemia, I give an insulin correction that about 1.5h later causes hypoglycemia. Explained like this, it all sounds very mathematical and therefore manageable/predictable, right? Good luck!
The symptoms are severe enough to sit for a second until the dextrose does its job, and then continue walking instead of running. Already recovered, we arrived at the aid station at the Cibiana pass km 81. Tite has somehow bought a watermelon in-between aid stations!!!! She invites all the runners who pass by – who thank the offer with big smiles and bites.
Gabriele and I regroup. We have 23k left. These include the Bosco Nero descent, about which race veterans have been telling horror stories all day long! Will I survive it?? As we leave the aid station behind us, we hear a scream in the distance. It's Tite. 'Nataliaaaaaa. The next woman just arrived at the aid station… vai vai vaaaaaiiii'. And sure enough, Tite’s warning lit a fire in me. I think to myself that whoever wants to pass me, will have to earn it! I look at Gabriele and tell him that we have to shift up a gear during the next climb. He doesn't answer, nor does he let a meter separate us. We 'pick up' a German along the way and get to work together. All I can hear is our heavy breathings.
The Bosco Nero turns out to be a descent of 480m in 1.38km.... in case you had left your quadriceps at home! The altimetry profile draws two flames of fire over this area and I immediately understand why. I've been soaking up my head for hours at every water source, but even that doesn't help in this fire furnace. At the end of the descent, we cross an immense white stone field where the organization has installed a mini-tent with volunteers offering water. I tell them that with these temperatures even Pyrenean tigers melt. We laugh and agree on a day of dolomitic climbing in the near future.
The (theoretical) last climb to the Bosco Nero refuge requires feet and hands to progress. At one point I hear the voice of the girl who 'chases me' arriving at the stone field beneath us... uyyyy it’s going to be tight! The altimetric profile marks 3 mini climbs 'hidden' between the great descent and the finish line. However, the aid station volunteers tell me that there is no climb.... We all want to believe in unicorns, but... have you seen any lately??
I start going down with everything I have left (and with what I lack of, too). It is a treacherous forest, but I decide to park the slim margin of safety. Unfortunately, when I turn my head Gabriele isn’t there anymore. I pass guys I hadn’t seen in hours. Until the first unexpected climb arrives – I run it – and a second one – I power-hiek it– and another one – I crawl.... The last water point never arrived. Suddenly, a 3km sign that instead of giving me strength, demoralizes me. Still 3km???
After 1km, the route of the 103k race meets the others. Runners from those shorter racers are walking so I copy them. But at one point I find it so lame to walk the last 2km that, as soon as it starts to flatten, I try to run. At least the meters pass faster like this – although the breathing gets definitely heavier. Until I see the 1km sign and soon the screams of Tite and Jorge. NOW IT IS IN THE BOOKS!
I end this journey through the heart of the Val di Forno with a big smile and the satisfaction of having done the right things right. I qualify as 5th woman (just behind Denise!) and 40° overall. One thing is for sure… in the ultra-distance, the only thing one can take for granted are strong emotions.
Here some final notes on ym T1D management:
-> dexcom CGM malfunctioned during the night with endless alarms going off. luckily I had packed a glucometer kit. Also, I only correct symptomatic hypos.
-> some of the alarms were actually real. I consumed about 50g dextrose to rescue hypos. That’s the equivalent of 2 gels, which any runner would consume in 2h. Just to put things in perspective…
-> I kept it lowcarb till km 54 where I made the conscious decision to add carbs at each aid status and bolus with fiasp. This worked quite well and gave me a big energy boost each time. Which carbs? soaked up bread in broth (best race drink ever), apple, orange, watermelon, potato chips, a few biscuits.
-> as always with me, BG stayed flat during the uphills and immediately spiked when changing to downhill running whenever I corrected those spikes, a bad hypo followed 1.5h after (good learning)
-> it takes a village! A friend crewed me at km 54, 65, and 81. I had prepared 3 bags for her: lowcarb food, diabetes supplies, and gear/clothes spares.
-> BG wasn’t a flat line but hey, these monster racing happens 3-4 days a year. I think the BG control is still excellent - despite the carbs, boluses, stress, heat, etc.
Two days later… I feel quite ok. Actually, the least tired I’ve ever been after an ultra. But that’s easy to say sitting on a chair at the beach