Ghosts

Ultra Trail Lago d’Orta 2016
(90 km, +5800 m positive gain), 23/Oct/2016

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Ultra Trail Lago d'Orta, 90 Km, 2016

Reportage
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Awful dilemma: to clip or not to clip my toenails?
Crouched on my makeshift bed in the gymnasium, I scrutinize them intently. It’s three in the morning and we’re all awake. They’re not that long, actually, but as the hours go by they could become a bother, and I curse myself for forgetting this detail. I should have fixed them a couple days ago. Doing it now could mean doing it badly, perhaps getting a tiny cut and making the issue far worse.
But clip it is. Decided. A very kind neighbor lady provides nail scissors (women are always geared-up for this kind of situation); I proceed, managing not to cause damage; I slip into my socks and shoes, eat some dried fruit; I study the altimetric profile (that, by now, I know by heart); and then it’s the usual pre-race rituals.

Accommodation

My first ultra-ultra. This year’s objective (my wife’s and mine) was to go beyond the marathon distance, and we had in our sights a 47-kilometer, 3,300-meters positive gain race (the Becca di Viou trail), which we regarded as truly epic stuff—maybe even a little too epic a goal. Eventually, we didn’t do that race: we did longer ones. And every time, we felt the urge to do a little more. And now here I am, somehow: at the start of a race that is two marathons plus a tip, with almost 6,000 meters to go up and as many down…Of course, I’m just aiming to make it to the finish line today, the ranking entirely secondary—even though I know myself and I’m well aware that, once racing, I will race with everything I’ve got.
The atmosphere is fantastic, here at UTLO. One thousand and five hundred runners from all around the world—thirty-two represented countries—spread out on the four distances (17, 34, 57, and 90 km). Colors, sounds. The urge of putting yourself to the test, to face your limits. The urge to run. Last night, when I arrived, I found the whole, charming town of Omegna—clinging to where the lake narrows into river (strangely, for these parts, northward)—festively transfigured into the setting of the event. An invasion of trail runners, greeted by a riot of flowers and a huge tridimensional, lit-up logo on an islet. And then the race village: meeting the others among music, stands with technical gear (our favorite toys) and laughter, and getting handsomely fed—not only a good risotto, but vegetables as well: not so usual in this context: very appreciated.

A riot of flowers
The big logo

Then the night in the gym, comfortable and quiet, all things considered. With evil daughters at home, experts in the arts of night-waking, here it seems to me I’m resting divinely.
And then the alarm trilling at half past two, the notorious nail question, and back to the village along the suggestive catwalk; drinking a coffee there (amateur’s mistake: I pay with a bill, and end up having to carry the coin change for ninety kilometers!), and getting to the whole point of being here. Because, ultimately, we’re not here to mess around, right?

On the catwalk
From all around the World

Here we are, 400 head-torched lunatics laying siege to the lakefront.
It’s cold, but not too cold. A handful of degrees above zero.
We adjust straplets and beltlets for the nth time. The speaker’s passionate, warm voice wishes us a good voyage. The music gets louder. Countdown.
Go.

That's what we're looking at

image from the official website (www.ultratraillo.com)

Climb One: to Mount Mazzoccone

Climbing right away, good thing for me, and I’m grateful to whoever traced the course.
I warm up without haste. It always takes quite a lot for me to get into my stride, and my legs usually need the first couple hours to shift from pig iron to wood, and up to something vaguely malleable. I end up in the tail end of the group while the big snake of lights climbs ahead of me. Impressionist smears of color in the dark. On my left, I look at orange lights fluttering on the black lake. We’re all rather silent, as always in these stages.

Manet
Monet
Glows in the black (shrine with candle for the dead)Some drops of water from the sky.
And yet, forecasts promised a dry day. Well, must be a light, passing shower. Not even bothersome, so long as it’s like this. However, I halt to put on my jacket.
But the more we climb—glimpses of the lake slightly less black among the foliage—the more the rain picks up. A continuous, invasive drizzle.
This slope is broken by several incline changes, short downhill and flat-ish stretches. I’m utterly cautious in facing these breaks as gently as I can, gradually giving my legs time to get used to the new pace; I avoid throwing myself down as soon as a downhill begins, as well as taking on slopes in inertial high gear—and I’ll keep on with the same diligence all race long.

Mazzoccone summit
When we reach the summit, at 1,500 meters of altitude, it’s no longer night and yet we can see less than before: a solid fog has fallen upon us in the grayish light of dawn. Turning on my headtorch, all I can see is the reflection of a myriad of water droplets in the mist. The other runners are glows popping out from nothingness to plunge again right back into it, like ghosts. Better to keep the light off as we make our way along the technical rocky outcrops of the summit, and we begin a demanding, very steep descent—I mind to keep my pace under control, because here it would like to increase of its own accord; but no, it’s early, so early: must preserve energies, must preserve feet…Then, the descent is broken by a short up-and-down stretch where the first refreshment station awaits us, at Alpe Camasca.

First refreshment station coming out of the mist
It keeps raining.
By the time we reach the village of Fornero, at the bottom of the descent, it has stopped and the fog has lifted. It’s a little more than three hours after the start. A few sunrays filter through the clouds and a cool, damp breath rises from the rocks surrounding us.
Perhaps the worst is over.

Climb Two: to Mount Croce

And now, the toughest climb of the course. With two steep stretches, split by a short descent, we’ll be gaining more than 1,100 meters in about five kilometers, reaching just below 1,700 meters of altitude.
I slightly increase my pace as I tackle the first ramp, but still I’m very cautious. My legs respond all right: I’m well-tuned by now, we’re starting to get somewhere. I give myself a guideline: overtaking the ones around me, little by little, maintaining a gait just a little faster than theirs.

Going up
AutumnWe proceed along bare meadows, while the hollows blow upward a cold, wet mist that seeps through to the bones.
The climb is hard.Almost on top

Almost at the top, the organizers have set up a makeshift, unscheduled refreshment station, where magnificent volunteers have carried up on their shoulders all the essentials for offering each of us a cup of warm tea.

The organizers care for us

It helps a lot.
Then we go, up and down along an invisible stretch of ridge.
There is nothing on either our right or our left.
Then a technical downhill, and here, as my heart reduces its beats and my engine revs down, the cold becomes terrible. Rain comes back, and it means business right away.
I’m beginning to feel things in my knee, like a pebble badly moving beneath the long, messy chainsaw scar decorating it. Low temperature and dampness are making it act out, which it hasn’t done in a long time. If it gets stuck—as it often did in the past on flat stretches or runnable downhills—it just goes haywire and there is no way to go on. I slow down. I try not to force it too much and I cross my fingers…

Climb Three: to Mount Novesso

Descent over, and my knee has survived; climbing doesn’t worry me, it has never been an issue for it.
It stops raining again, and light pierces through the clouds for a few minutes, even though the sun isn’t in sight; it floods the woods, glinting on the stream we cross before climbing again.

Light
Small bridge

Once more, I slightly increase my pace, a little more than the last climb; but still without overdoing it. And yet I’m overtaking many competitors, several of them clearly having a hard time.
We see nothing.
Encounters grow sparser. Ghosts, sketching themselves out of the milky coils.
I look at my wristwatch and I realize I’m a little late according to a phantasmal schedule I don’t have. Insane temptation, that of quickening my pace. I know. And yet, it wins me over: I quicken.

Endure

At the Alpe Sacchi refreshment station, where I clock in at seven hours fifteen, I feed on broth (fundamental discovery of the Adamello Trail: broth!); then there is a final ramp in the middle of nothingness.
I realize I’m overtaking the others too easily—and too many of them. I overdid it and I already know that, even though I’m feeling okay for now, I’m going to pay for it. But no way to undo what’s done.
Descent: it’s cold like hell and we’re drenched. My Salomon jacket (a birthday present from my dad) is the real deal: so very light and absolutely waterproof; and yet, it’s not magical: against this humidity in the air it can do precious little, and then, while climbing you just have two options: either you take it off and you’re soaked, or you take it on and you sweat like a beast, and you’re soaked. My hair is imbued with water, and my hair is long, and it is thick. By now, I’ve already used all back-up garments, and I no longer have anything dry. I change my shirt anyway, because the one I changed before, at least, has stayed in the backpack for a while, against my body, and now it’s vaguely lukewarm. My knee seems to have quieted, but feet and legs are beginning to demand attention in their more ordinary protests.

Outcrops
Precipitous descent

After a technical stretch, there is a nearly flat one, and there my legs crumple up, very resolute to not uncrumple in any way.
Well, at least it stopped raining.
An unending runnable descent ensues, along a dirt road, and the monotony of this stretch doesn’t help as I badly plod along while being overtaken more or less by all those I’d left behind during the climb. Which is always rather discouraging.
It’s tough. But that’s the reason you’re here, right? I grit my teeth.
A couple of woodsmen see us passing by and they ask the two runners ahead of me what kind of race is this.
They tell them. When the two locals hear “ninety kilometers” they laugh out loud.

Life-Base: Arola

Almost at kilometer 45. More or less halfway in rank, and in the race as well, but perhaps with two-thirds of the elevation gain done. This is good for almost everyone; not so much for me, as I always go honestly on the steep (up or down), while I’m very afraid of the flat stretches waiting for me in the next twenty K’s, not to mention the last segment before the finish line: about three kilometers of hyper-flat lakeside road, that in my mind is a sort of vertical wall just as tall.
So far, eight-and-a-half hours; hardly an outstanding time, but it doesn’t matter, I’m perfectly okay with it.
Luckily, here at the life-base we find our change-bags: I’ve been prudent enough to put warm garments in mine, in spite of the optimistic weather forecasts, together with a towel and a foot cream. I sit down, I undress and I change. But beforehand, I run outside half naked and barefoot into a small garden with a fountain: to the hilarity of the surrounding children, I dip my feet for a while. Then I cream them, I dress back, I dry my hair with the towel, I eat some soup, and I leave—carrying with me, after brief deliberation, the towel.
It’s better, way better. I truly feel regenerated. There’s a semi-flat paved stretch that, on paper, should kill me, and yet I take it on slowly, but without great difficulty.
It starts raining again.

Climb Four: at Mount Briasco

After the life-base treatment, I climb well. As soon as it begins rearing up, I shift gear and go.
Perhaps it could seem weird to see a guy in the woods with a red turban on his head, but I have to say that keeping my hair warm for a while in the towel isn’t bad at all.
My legs are heavy—fifty kilometers and almost 4,000 meters of gain up, and as many down, are there in my quadriceps and I feel them all with every step—but they’re rolling all right. I focus on the gesture. I try to tune my steps with the rhythm of my heart and lungs, while my hands push hard on my knees.
The whole climb is a struggle with a triune of Germans, who catch up with me as soon as the incline softens a little, while I leave them behind where it gets serious again.
This bit, I must say, is a little boring. After the summits of the first two mountains, we have almost always been in an up-and-down inside the woods—certainly beautiful and fascinating with autumn, but in the long run (literally) the sensation of going on and yet ever being in the same place grows alienating. Of course, without the mist it would probably be rather different.
On the rocky outcrops of the summit—it’s almost two in the afternoon—I’m greeted by people warmly cheering us despite the obscene weather, and I catch up with a runner with whom I chat a little while a silvery blanket envelops us once again; so thick.

And four it is

The following downhill will be the key part, for me: fifteen kilometers, very runnable, broken by flat or almost-flat stretches.
Of course, crisis is almost immediate.
My travel-mate takes flight, and several others overtake me.
I feel my legs emptied, my befuddled head seemingly turned into a big bell with which a lunatic bell-ringer has a severely traumatic relationship.
I’m drenched and dirty, all bruised up and aching, when somehow I reach the Boleto refreshment station, where I meet a friend that has just retired, like many others today. I, as well, have arrived here by sheer willpower, in clear disagreement with my body, curbing its resentment with the promise that I’ll be repeating the foot treatment which, at the Arola life-base, had been so good. And the broth, sure. I try: I sit down a moment, take off my shoes, rub my feet, cream them, change socks (I put back on the ones I took off before as I haven’t got a third pair, so it’s more of a symbolic thing), I eat some soup, restart.
But this time the magic doesn’t work. My legs just won’t have any of it; they are rioting, demanding my firing, and some of their slogans are very convincing. Still almost thirty-five kilometers to go. How can I go that distance in these conditions? Impossible.
And then the fog rises, and light comes.
It just happens at the Madonna del Sasso, a sanctuary on a cliff, an amazing overlook on the lake.
I was born on the lake. Not this one; one with a branch extending toward the south, enclosed by two unbroken chains of mountains (that’s the opening line of The Betrothed, more or less, here for all of you non-Italians who have not been macerated in the thing in high school): a bit bigger, it has a meaner face, but very similar. Around the lake I lived, I grew up, I studied, and I spent a good part of my youth with my ass on the seat of a whitewater kayak. The lake was witness, backdrop, and companion of friendships, romances, games, adventures, an infinity of stories. And, wherever I happen to live, I carry it inside of me.
And so, at this sight, everything changes.

The lake actually exists!

And finally we’re going down seriously, along a fun, lunar toboggan trail. Suddenly intoxicated, I smile; I exchange some light words with a Spanish competitor of the 57-kilometer race (our paths have several matching parts), and I concur with him that, after all, the lake really exists. I descend well. I catch up with my former travel-mate and this time it’s me losing him. I feel born again. I feel secret energies flowing inside of me. And I believe that so many of us are here today just looking for this very sense of resurrection.
Sometimes it comes, sometimes not.
The moment you overcome what you believed couldn’t be overcome.
I overflow with serotonin, ooze endorphin. It’s a powerful drug, very powerful.

Back to the water
Not entirely real

We arrive on the lakeside, and I’m running well. More than that: I have to order my legs to slow down. I observe the small town on the opposite shore, I don’t know what it’s called, as it seems to be hovering—not entirely real—over the calm water.
My gaze glides on wooden sides, encasing the expanse of water, protecting it against indiscreet eyes, jealously keeping it like a precious gem. Its mountains hold it close with romantic secretiveness.
We pass a cemetery and we venture through small stone houses; the fifth climb begins.

Climb Five: to Grassona

As soon as it begins, I leave behind the group that formed on the lakeside.
I really feel well, fit, almost every pain left behind inside the mist. I decide to trust the sensation and I attack.
I go into meditative mode, as always during climbs and more so at each climb—it takes time, it takes space. Again, I focus on heart and lungs, and now I feel the blood and I let everything surrounding me flow with it, outside and inside of me, without holding on to anything.
Everything is clear. Even though, now, I don’t actually remember what.

The lake grows darker, ideas clearer

The lake begins growing darker while ideas grow clearer.
I devour this short climb tasting the strain, sublimating it, overtaking about twenty competitors; I go on without incident in the next up-and-down stretch, passing by Grassona at about thirteen hours race time.
Then, the athletes of the 57 km take a different route, directly pointing toward the finish line, bidding their farewells with looks and words of respect that galvanize me, while for us there’s a final obstacle.
As night falls, I take on the climb that will lead me to Alpe Berru. Almost immediately, I overtake another French trail runner, and then there’s nothing more.

Climb Six: to Alpe Berru

Ghosts.
Light on top of the ramp. Tick-tick of poles on the concrete. In the nothingness, a presence.
For some reason I can hardly explain it to myself, my legs have been switched with a pair of black-market cybernetic pistons: I’m forcing my pace just as though I’d left home half an hour ago to do a mid-distance crank-up session. And I well know it’s a very fragile balance. But this makes it all the more exciting.
I catch up with him on top of the climb.
We exchange a look and a grin that last an instant and that I’ll remember forever.
Then, when I turn back, he’s no longer there.

I run in the gloom. For a moment, I turn off my head-torch. To see the perfect darkness surrounding me.

Perfect

No one’s there, only strange lights like eyes among the trees, between reflections of my head-torch and reflectors on the markers. Creeping noises through foliage and naked branches, rustle of dry leaves underfoot. Whispers.

They're looking at me

Mad, drunken descent. I’m lost. Just now, of course.
Where am I? I tighten the beam of my torch, reducing it to a thin lance of light, and turning my head slowly I let it flow, scanning the black panorama around me. There, a reflection, the marker, uphill. I scramble up scratching myself through twigs and underbrush. I’ve lost five minutes, not an issue. After a while I catch up with two unmoving competitors, who watch me with spirited eyes. Everything all right? Yes, they tell me, a distant look on their faces. We’re restarting now. Sure, guys? Yes, Yes, don’t worry. Their voices, their eyes, elsewhere.
I throw myself down again senselessly. I want to take someone else, climb up another position at least. Of course, I fall. I get up, restart. What’s the point of spraining an ankle here, just to try and finish it 118th instead of 119th? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter, I go down at breakneck speed anyway.
Vegetation grows extremely thick, the narrow trail passes through what my altered senses perceive as a primal jungle.
Then, there are lights, balloons. A small lake. Last station.

Last station

I go in, a man greets me with a huge grin and an almost moved look. Bravo, he says, you’re there, come on, you need anything? I heartily thank him, I indulge myself in a few chunks of cheese and I start again.
The black lake peers through the foliage.

Black water through the foliage

And now I plummet down on the last, perhaps three kilometers, the so-feared lakeside; all race long I’ve been imagining it as some awful ordeal where I’d certainly been walking, probably even crawling.
And instead here I am, running with everything I’ve got, the smell of the lake in my nostrils and music, there at the north point, where lights bob with each stride; I overtake many competitors of the 57 and a couple of the 90, and in less than fifteen minutes it’s over.
Finish line.
Cheering, loudspeakers announcing my name over the music, indistinct pats on the back and handshakes.
One-hundred-seventeenth general position. Sixteen hours and a half. Longer than anticipated, but still an honest time for my standards. But time and rankings are the last of my thoughts now: in the coming days, I’ll be fiddling about with algebra and a variety of comparisons (realizing with disbelief that I covered the last 30 km, with all that elevation gain, in less than three-and-a-half hours—damn!); but now I just passively register them.

Finish line

I sit on an impressively comfortable bench, breathe. I stand up—a lash at my right calf (a contracture I’ll be dealing with for a couple of weeks); I ignore it and, limping toward the supper area (I have an inhuman hunger that will last for many days), look at the finisher medal, observing it like an alien artifact, as though I don’t exactly know what it is. Then I realize it, and tears fill my eyes. It takes a certain effort to hold them back and maintain a badass air.
I eat, and this beer I think is well deserved.
Ghosts: from my bench, I look at the pale faces surrounding me beneath multicolored flags. How different we are from the geared-up, athletic individuals of this morning! Wraiths of ourselves, exhausted and hobbling, faraway looks on our faces, and yet we all have a strange, deep light in our eyes that only we can comprehend. And only in part.
Today, we’ve passed the limit, we have pushed ourselves Beyond; and then, with a totally irrational defiance, we went further. Fearfully beyond (that’s what ultra means). We died and were resurrected, not only once. And now here we are, together.
Going back to the gym: those 500 meters are excruciatingly long. I split them with a nice coffee at a bar. Delicious. I reach the gym.
After a jolly, warm shower together with some other survivors, I take advantage of the presence of marvelous physiotherapists; an invigorating massage is just what I need now, because it’s eleven p.m., more or less, and I have a couple hours of driving ahead of me to get home.
And somehow I get there.
Though I won’t describe the pitiful scene of me climbing the trail leading to my house. Really, it’s better this way.
And now? Now the season’s over. But next year we’ll have to do more.

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