In June, Run the Alps’ friend David Loutzenheiser visited the Dolomites mountains of northern Italy and took part in the Dolomiti Extreme race. David found an enthusiastic community and a warm welcome and, after running his 53km race, he had the chance to meet with race directors Paolo Franchi and Corrado De Rocco. He found out more about this special race, which is the biggest event the town of Forno di Zoldo hosts each year.
Part I: To the Dolomites
The Dolomiti Extreme trail race started like most other races, as an idea from a group of local trail runners to show off their area and try out a race. The race is based in Forno di Zoldo, a small municipality of less than 3,000 people in the southern Dolomites, located at an elevation of about 1,000 meters. Though quiet in summer, the region is popular with tourists in the winter months.
Since its inception in 2013, the race added a 20km distance in 2015, and a 103km the year after. This year, a total of 1,300 trail runners took part in one of the three events, and the race organizers envision a maximum of about 2,000 participants in the years ahead. Their goal is simple: keep the high quality of the race experience, while maximizing the infrastructure in this relatively small valley – there are just three hotels in the town. Dolomiti Extreme is a medium-to-large event from the perspective of European trail racing. As a comparison, Switzerland’s Sierre-Zinal hosts 5,000 runners, while the UTMB series of races welcome 10,000 participants. On the smaller end of the spectrum, there are hundreds of village-based trail races with 100 runners or so.
Dolomiti Extreme suffers from an issue common in European trail racing – a low participation rate by women. In 2019 only about 20% of the runners were female. When I asked about increasing the number of women, the race organizers responded that Italy is still fairly traditional when it comes to gender roles. Interestingly, they said that the way to grow the number of women is to increase the percentage of international competitors! Overall, 55% of participants were from Italy and 46 different nationalities were represented, the highest number for the race, yet.
Drawn to the Dolomites
How did I end up at Dolomiti Extreme? A few years ago, I had spent a month in Switzerland through a fellowship, and I was looking forward to seeing more of the Alps, but was hoping for a less expensive region. At about the same time, I attended a slide show at the Appalachian Mountain Club in Boston about the Dolomites. I was immediately drawn to the region.
One thing I like about running races, both road and trail, is that it often leads me to a town or region that I would otherwise never visit. So, I started searching online, and saw the Dolomiti Extreme trail race on none other than the Run the Alps web site’s Race Finder. It seemed well organized and promoted, and had a good website with all the key information. I had found my opportunity to travel to the Dolomites.
Challenges for 2019
The courses change a bit each year as race organizers learn from experience. This year, they also had to adapt to unusually large amounts of snow. As a result, the planned high point of the 53km and 103km courses was eliminated, and an alternate route was used to avoid long exposed snow crossings.
Race organizers had to cope with other challenges as well. In October, there was a significant storm that brought down hundreds of trees throughout all of the race courses. It was clear that there had been many hours of chain sawing downed trees to open up the course. Prior to the race, the organization raised funds to help clear the trails.
Part II: In the Moment at Dolomiti Extreme – David takes us through how it was to run this race in the following play-by-play account.
Finally, after much planning, race day is here, and I am running the 53km. I wonder, “What have I gotten myself into?” I hear there are almost 500 people in the 53km race alone. Will it be too crowded on the course? It’s a significantly larger field than the races in New England with which I am familiar.
I am disappointed to not go as high, but I completely understand the safety concerns of the race organizers, as they cope with the lingering snows. I’m grateful that they were able to adjust quickly.
The race begins at 5:30am. I decide to start in the middle of the pack. Here’s why: At home in a road race, I always start near the front to get ahead of the pack. But now I’m in a different country and in terrain with which I am not familiar. I want to start cautiously.
We start and go uphill immediately. At around the 7km mark, the trail became quite steep. In fact, there were a lot of steep sections throughout the race, both up and down.
Poles were used by those that had them. I was often pushing off my knees to gain extra power to climb. My crowding fears were realized as it seemed 100 runners were stacked tight together climbing the hill. Given the steepness of the trail it was almost impossible to pass others, but then again it was also an opportunity to hold back some energy for later in the race.
Italian call poles “running sticks” – an awkward translation if there ever was one. I’ve never seen so many poles in a race. I don’t get it, but I guess others have a secret that I don’t know. I imagine the poles getting in the way, and always having to either hold them or stow them. Sure, maybe in some instances they are beneficial, but are they worth it? I was a bit nervous of runners in front of me with poles, as some were not careful with their placement and would accidentally point them toward me when not using them for forward motion. Fortunately, there were no jabs this time around. (Editor’s note: Most trail runners in the Alps use trail running poles, something Run the Alps encourages its guests to try out, and we offer poles to runners not familiar with them on our trips. For more information on using trail running poles, see this article from Trail Runner magazine.)
I finally reached the top of the climb, and our elevation hovered around 1600m. After a long steep climb, the trail drops down a bit to a paved road, and 100m later to the first aid station at Passo Duran about 12km from the start.
I’ve run in races in many countries now, and it’s always interesting to see what is provided at aid stations. It’s never the same. I discovered that Italians have a sweet tooth, and the aid station reflected this with Coke, Fanta, Nutella, jams on bread, and chocolate. I wished for more salty products, as that is needed more than sugar. Fortunately, the aid stations did have a few types of nuts with salt, as well as bananas and oranges.
Next, we climbed to almost 2000m at Bivouac Grisetti, our new course high point, though six other climbs on the course came pretty close to this altitude. In total, we hit seven high points that were close to 2000m. All had fantastic views of the surrounding mountains. An impressive aspect of the Dolomites is that once high up, the views of mountains seemed to stretch to infinity. There were steep, jagged peaks in every direction.
The trail eventually dropped to 1400m at the village of Pecol, a picture-perfect alpine village that is a hub of winter skiing. There was still snow along the course in many locations, but the sections were short and easy to cross. This was the half-way point of the race.
After Pecol, it was a 5km long climb back up to the ridge, close to the 2000m level. Much of the next section of the race was through ski areas, with long open fields and expansive views. The course dropped to 1800m at Passo Staulanza, where Rifugio Passo Staulanza provides accommodations and food in an alpine setting.
The Italian mountain huts, or rifugios, are worth a mention here. There are over 100 rifugios in the Dolomites alone. Some, such as at Passo Staulanza, are accessible by car. Others are accessible via ski lift or cable car or, of course, walking or trail running. Rough mountain tracks that require four-wheel drive are used to supply the huts. Others are supplied by cable cars, informal cables on which the huts can winch up supplies, or by helicopter. Most huts open in the middle of June, weather depending. This year proved a bit later for many huts, due to the above average snowfall in the spring.
Passo Staulanza came at 37.5 km, or about two-thirds of the way through the course. The next part of the race took place between 1700 and 1800m and ran through a combination of pine forest and open pastures. Though we saw it throughout the race, jagged Monte Pelmo loomed in the foreground throughout this section.
With 10km to go, we made our last steep ascent of Monte Puma at over 1900m. A 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains and the valley where we would finish awaited us at the top, along with enthusiastic volunteers ensuring our safety.
After Monte Puma, it was all downhill to the finish. We were told that it was about a 53km race, but it was clear looking at my watch and map that the race was not over. Once the course hit the outskirts of Forno di Zoldo, I thought, “Okay, only 2km go!” Alas, that was not the case! We diverted around the edge of the town and, at around 57.5km, eventually the finish line appeared!
I was of course very happy to finish, and felt it was worth every effort to participate! A nagging chronic heel injury slowed me down during the second half of the race, so I was glad to be off that, but otherwise a great day. The Race Director was at the finish, so I immediately thanked him and then went off to recover.
The hundreds of volunteers throughout the course were incredible. I’m told that just about the entire town was involved in the race in some shape or form. They cheered us on enthusiastically and, as volunteers, they cared for our safety and ensured the aid stations were stocked and ready.
Each runner had a personalized bib with their name and the flag of their country. I was one of few Americans in the race, and many spectators cheered me on. It’s great to see the village welcoming visitors from all over the world.
Times are Changing: Trail Running Helping the Local Economy
Historically, the primary businesses in the Forno di Zoldo region include skiing and ice cream making. In past years, the valley emptied out in the summer season as ice cream makers spread out through Italy and beyond to sell their product. Now, though, thanks to Dolomiti Extreme, that’s changing a bit. The event’s growing reputation also brings trail runners back at other times of the year to train, or just to enjoy the incredible surroundings they witnessed during the race.
In fact, Dolomiti Extreme is now the event of the year, and just about everyone in the town is involved in either volunteering or cheering on the runners. It is growing – there will be two new races next year, 11km and 72km – and provides a huge economic impact of course. The race has even encouraged more year-round residency. One local resident who provided a shuttle service to the airports summed the race up nicely, both for locals, and for us trail runners who come to experience this beautiful region: “You runners,” he said, “have filled our valley with magic”.
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