It’s almost 11 o’clock in the evening and once again I’m standing at the starting line of a 120k race, stretching through woods and over mountains.
By Carl Johan Sörman
The Ultra Trail del Lago d’Orta – UTLO 19/20/21 october 2018
The odds for me to finish today’s race are not in my favour. One year ago, I had been standing at the very same starting line. Although that time I had chosen to DNF after 75k – an evil stomach germ refused to let me eat anything during that race. And four months before now, I had started out on the Lavaredo Ultra Trail but had been forced to DNF after 40k, due to a glute and back injury that suddenly arose. On top of this, an hour before today’s start I felt the need to take a painkiller since I have experienced a light headache and dizziness for the past couple of weeks.
All in all, it feels a bit shaky to be standing at the starting line this evening.
In front of me I see both last year’s winner and runner up, Manser and the local Ornati, ranked 47 resp 87 in the world on the distance. Two monsters that I really have to watch out for. I must NOT run at their pace at the beginning!
So, finally a mighty piece of music is played to fill us with courage and awake our fighting spirit, and soon after we are released. To my delight the start is relatively slow. Without effort, I pass the runners in front of me and I can position myself just behind the head of the snake of runners, who turns out to be Ornati. Even though we run at a very comfortable pace, the other runners let us two leave them behind us.
Already after 2k we are out of Omegna and begin the first climb of the night – a more than 1000 meters high descent. Wise from earlier races, I let Ornati run away from me. Soon Manser passes me as well, and I let him go. For a while, I see his flashing red light from the backside of his headlamp but it finally disappears for good, leaving me alone in the dark.
It takes me just over an hour to climb the 7k to the first top, but after that there are long stretches with graceful downhill running which are only occasionally interrupted by some smaller descents. I enjoy the solitude in the woods while I swoosh down the mountain. It’s silent and calm in the night and the temperature is pleasant. Sometimes the silence is shattered by the rattle of a chestnut falling down from a tree. Usually I’m a bit scared of the dark, but I feel safe in the glow from my headlamp. The trail is marked with reflective markers and they are visible at great distance.
I imagine they are will-o’-the-wisps showing me the way.
Later on, I have been hunted by two light sources for a while. I do what I can to suppress the desire to run away from them as I must not let them affect my pace. But it is hard – especially when running downhill. If I run too hard now I know for sure I have to pay a high price for it later in the race.
The chestnuts, spread all over the ground, look like cute, tiny hedgehogs, and sometimes they give me a friendly little bite through the mesh on the side of my shoes. However, suddenly I feel a sting in one of my toes with every step I take. I decide to make a quick stop to investigate it, and when I get my shoe and sock off I find a chestnut thorn that I can remove with ease. Despite the stop, my hunters do not catch up with me. But a couple of kilometers later they are right behind me, and I let them pass. Quickly they disappear in the dark, and once again I can run in peace at my own pace through the magnificent autumnal forest.
31k later we are back in Omegna after having finished a first “little” loop east of the city. My plan was to start slower than last year but, even though I have restrained myself, the 3h and 16 minutes I have used so far have been faster than in 2017. I fill my water bottles, eat some banana and have some coke. The two runners who passed me earlier are also at the station when I arrive but leave before me. But my stop is quick and once I’m back out on the track it does not take many minutes before I catch up and pass them.
Then, a stone paved trail takes form in front of me, heading towards the skies, and I grab for my running poles. One hairpin turn after the other, the trail winds upwards. Past a church and further up. One of the two runners behind me passes, but I have managed to unhook the other one. Now I’m in fourth position. My goal for the race is to finish within 17 hours, among the top ten – so if I don’t lose too many positions it does look quite good right now.
The toes see what the eyes don’t
Many parts of the trail are very technical, with slippery rocks and twining roots, but experienced as I am at running on mountain trails I’m doing fairly well. Although as I run down a grassy slope my eyes miss a little rock, pointing up from the ground. My toes do not miss it however. Suddenly I’m lying flat on the ground. I do a fast reality check. Nothing seems to have fallen out of my bag. Luckily there were no other rocks to fall on, so the only visible signs of the fall are just a dirty knee and shoulder. My left hand and my toes hurt a bit, but it’s nothing that will stop me from running, so I continue on.
I pass another lonesome church in the woods, but this one stands out from the ordinary. Someone has decorated it with light strands along the corners, creating an odd atmosphere. There is a water source by the church and I stop to fill one of my bottles. At the aid-stations I usually add sport drink powder when refilling the water bottles, so my mouth becomes very sugary after a while. The occasions when I get to drink clear spring water are therefor truly wonderful. Besides, my nutrition-plan seems to work perfectly. For UTLO, I have tweaked my usual plan a bit. Due to the long distance before we get our drop-bags, I have chosen to bring gels for the first time. At my previous races I have only used liquid gels, but they weigh more per kcal. As a clockwork, I take a liquid gel every hour and a gel every half-hour. I realize that I like the gels much better than the liquid ones, and from now on I will most likely use these instead.
My journey continues rapidly down the technical trails, when I suddenly notice the weak light from my headlamp. It is hard for me to make out where to put my feet to avoid falling or to twist something. I’m surprised since I had chosen my somewhat heavier, but stronger headlamp today. I stop to get out the extra lamp from my bag, thinking I will use it as a handheld lamp. The light from my extra light is much stronger though, and I switch lamps completely. I can now see clearly again, and it feels much better.
On my way to the highest peak, Monte Croce (1640 masl), I wake up a pheasant rooster. He is lying just beside the trail but is way too tired to escape. He just glares with a strict look at the lunatic that has disturbed him. Last year, when I was fighting my way up the very same mountain, it was dawn. Then I stopped at the top for some hot tea and a fantastic view with Monte Rosa in the distance. This year I’m in a much better position, and it’s still pitch-black. No time for a stop at the top. I give my “Ciao” to the race crew and a couple of big goats, and hurl myself down the other side of the crest. No time to lose. The mountain top is one of several places where it’s very foggy and damp, which makes the track extra hard to run. Tricky to see where I can put down my feet, and slippery. But it’s nice to be running downhill again, after the long, steep climb.
The time and kilometers pass by. Then the dawn finally come, and I can take off my headlamp. After all the hours of wearing it it feels great to get rid of it, and as the dark subside I can finally get to enjoy the glorious views. Unfortunately, I give the surroundings a bit too much attention, because suddenly I cannot see any course markings. I continue for a couple of hundred meters, but decide to check the map on my cell phone. The GPS says I have slipped from the race course, and I instantly turn around. I misread the map a bit, though, and end up in a sheep paddock. I climb up a tree so that I can jump over a fence, climb a small hill, and then I’m back on track. In the end I only lost a couple of minutes, I think.
Running with the Cattle
After another stop at an aid-station, followed by a big climb, I’m running on a long, nice descent. Then I hear a lot of cowbells and in front of me I see a hoard of cows being herded down the narrow forest road. On the one side of the road there is a steep upwards slope, and on the other side there’s a steep downhill slope! There remains only one thing to do. I shout at the shepherds to let them know I’m there, and sprint through the cows. Some cows clear the way for me while others run in front of me or just stand still. It’s a bit scary, but I manage to get through all in one piece. Relieved, I run through a hairpin turn and what awaits me there? An even bigger hoard of goats! I scream “Posso?!” (which means “Can I?!”) to the shepherd who smiles and answers “Vai, vai, vai! (“Go, go go!”). I make an alarming sound and dive into the hoard. The goats are more polite than the cows and better at clearing the path, and soon I’m through and can continue my adventure.
After 75k and over 10 hours, I finally enter the village Arola. Right before the aid-station I see Frida and Ines (my partner and my daughter). They have just arrived, which is lucky, since I’m ahead of my schedule. Quickly, I get my drop-bag and refill my runner’s vest with new gels. And – as usual – I drink 2 mugs of Coke and eat some banana. Coke is like liquid gold to me, full of wonderful kcal and with a taste which neutralizes all the gels and sport drinks. It was here in Arola that I DNF:ed last year, so from now on everything gets new and exciting to me.
Becoming a stick insect
I don’t really know when it happens exactly, but at some point I realize my legs are really trashed. They can no longer run properly in the downhills and I’m forced to use my running poles pretty much all the time – regardless of if it’s uphill, flat or downhill. Like a morbid giant insect, with curved back and high intensity pole strokes, I punt myself along through the woods. I pulse through leaves and slip down slopes – dogged, determined and all the time alone. Just as I love it.
Another church emerges, but this time it is really something special. The church “Madonna del Sasso” is located on a high cliff with an amazing view over Lago d’Orta. But at the last aid-station Frida had told me that a runner was closing in on me. I feel that I’m not in a condition to race him, but I will at least try to keep him behind me a bit longer. I take a quick mental picture of the view and start the descent as fast as my legs let me. But a few kilometers later a Spanish runner catches up with me, and I let him pass. I follow in his footsteps for a while, but decide to let him go so I don’t bonk and get another DNF.
More animals en route – the hallucinations
Everything is beginning to be a bit confusing. I run over a bridge and think “Didn’t I cross this several hours ago?”. I also enter a village that I think I recognize. I begin thinking that stubs and old tree branches look like bulldogs, pandas, dragons and other animals. The sun is quite hot and I would love to change my warm long-sleeved shirt for the t-shirt that I have in my bag, but I don’t have the energy to do so.
At the last aid-station I ask Frida for a report, but I don’t really get any clarity regarding my position. As I interpret it, there might be additional runners closing in on me. We have a final mountain to pass before reaching the goal, 14k away. Actually, I feel kind of strong again when I hit the last piece of trail and I strive my way up to the top, full of courage. Reaching the summit, I’m a bit impressed of how fast and strong I managed the final climb. Although now, there is some more tricky downhill running ahead, which my thighs don’t appreciate.
Crying out to the Norse Gods
Then suddenly it happens! A runner flies by. And then another one, and possibly a third one! I get totally perplexed. They disappear fast down the hill and I do not stand a chance of keeping up with them. How the h**l can they have so much energy left?! I continue as fast as I can. Then I hear rustling and crackling on the path behind me. I think “Oh no! – not another one!”.
Suddenly I’m filled with energy, and with the force from a norse god I blast through the woods. My thighs no longer have anything to say in the matter, my brain has taken full control, and it is NOT letting any more runners pass. I finally reach the shore of Lago d’Orta and I’m now running along the lake towards the finish line in Omegna, still at a breakneck speed (for being the end of a 120k race). A couple of hundred meters before the finish line I see the back of a runner, and, even though I do one final hard sprint, he crosses the line 13 seconds before me. To my big surprise I finish in fifth place. The runners who had passed me during the last descent, together with the one who had been chasing me at the end, had run the 34k race! I’m very pleased, and the Spanish runner who beat me by seconds is definitely deserving his fourth position.
Aftermath. 10 minutes after the race I start feeling nausea and my body decides to get rid of the Coke, sport drinks and gels left in my stomach. Instantly I feel well again. After I had run CCC a few months earlier, my legs had started hurting so bad that I thought they were going into labour and I couldn’t eat for several hours. But today I do not have any pain in my legs, and after emptying my guts in Lago d’Orta I do not have any problem to start filling my stomach with food and beverages. In the evening, I need to use my running poles to be able to walk to the local pizzeria. My family is slightly embarrassed. Although, just two days after UTLO I can start my recovery runs and another 10 days after, I race (and win) a sky trail outside of Florence, fully recovered.
I feel that I have finally beaten the curse of the 120k race.
Carl Johan Sörman – born in Sweden, returned to trail running whilst living in Italy, where he now trains and lives in northern Tuscany together with his partner and daughter. “I have this urge… when I see a mountain summit… I want to get to the top. Running of course.” You can find Carl on Instagram