The upper course through pasture land that we'd just traversed was below us at Seceda.
Finally, Onsite Training for the 2014 Val Gardena Mountain Run
Bill responded with an enthusiastic "Yes!" when I blurted out: "Are you having a good time at my party?" No one milling around would have guessed that we were both suddenly in exceptionally celebratory moods. We were sitting on an old wooden bench eating tuna out of foil packets with plastic spoons while intermittently being hit with an icy cold wind and there'd been no invitations to a party.

But joyous and exuberant we were while sitting with our backs to the Seceda cable car station at about 8,200' in the Italian Dolomites. We'd just powered up 4,200' of slopes through woods and then intermittently muddy, high elevation pastures on our second-ever dash on the upcoming 9 mile mountain run course.  Our completion time was only 5 minutes faster than our first effort last September, which still put us completing the route more than 10 minutes over the allowed time. We had hoped to finish under the 2:30' cut-off but even though we'd missed the mark this day, we were unexpectedly experiencing something even more important, which was what we weren't feeling.

Last fall when we reached the peak we felt triumphant to have made it in even close to the allowed time but we were absolutely exhausted. We'd planned to eat lunch in the little restaurant at the upper lift station but our stomachs had zero capacity to receive food. I'd stashed a medium-sized bag of potato chips in my pack, our newest gluten-free emergency food, and we nibbled on the chips while we staggered down from Seceda to the much cheaper Col Raiser lift 1000' below. 

Looking east from Seceda, including the last leg of the course. The air was exceptionally clear that day.
We were zombies, we felt catatonic, we were absolutely wasted on that fall day. But on this, the last day in June, our huge output left no negative imprint on our minds or bodies. We weren't stiff, sore, achy, uncomfortable, stupid, or spaced out. Once we'd caught our breath, we started tending to practical matters like positioning ourselves to receive the most sun and the least wind to dry our sweat drenched flesh and clothes without chilling. Bill's water bag had begun leaking the last 15 minutes of our effort requiring being even more strategic in our actions to quickly dry his saturated pants, pack, and warm clothes.

The more time that passed, the more thrilled we were. Normally we would have been feeling worse and worse but instead we continued to feel quite comfortable, which fueled our celebratory feelings further. Not only had we summited the mountain, we'd simultaneously peaked with something else, but we weren't quite sure with what. 

Was it our year of more focused fitness training; our new, ultra-low carb/ketogenic diet; or some combination of the dozen little things we were doing differently that had flipped a switch in both of us? As the hours went by, it became clear that we had both catapulted ourselves to a new level of athleticism which was the culmination of months of multiple intentions. Whatever had fundamentally changed for each of us was far more significant than the numbers on the stop watch.

Taking It All In
The weather during our first 10 days in Val Gardena in the Dolomites had been unusually poor and the forecast for our next 10 days was miserable as well. There had been rain, or forecasted rain, almost every day and rather than the typical afternoon thunderstorms that can be worked around, many of the days had morning rain as well.

The meteorologists were clearly struggling. Our favorite Italian weather website that lists winds at several elevations and the amount of rain expected each hour wasn't close to being reliable, which it had been in prior years. We'd been on the fence about making this long speed hike/run on Sunday or Monday because the forecast predicted a bit of mid-day showers on both days. We finally settled on Monday to give ourselves an extra recovery day and we scored. Sunday turned out to be a dreadful, all-day rain day with overnight snow and Monday, the day we were partying on the peak, was dry and mostly sunny all day.

The disappointing and unpredictable weather had been chaotic for both our altitude acclimation and conditioning. We'd had to violate all of the rules for optimal acclimation and training recovery in order to take advantage of the fleeting windows of dry weather.   

Having picked the right day for our big effort added to our delight. Not only did we enjoy comfortable conditions for our peak exertion, the previous night's storm and snowfall had cleared the air. The panoramas from the Seceda area are among the best in the Dolomites and the brilliant skies made the views all the more spectacular. We happily fussed with Bill's wet gear, then eventually ate, all while admiring the stunning vistas all around us.

Feeling perfectly normal instead of somewhat ill by the time we hit the 8200' summit was a bonus for our altitude acclimation. One of our goals during our 3 weeks in the mountains before the race was to linger for hours at elevation to maximize our acclimation. On this day, we'd planned to put on our extra clothes as soon as we reached the top, quickly eat our light lunch, and take the lift and bus back to our apartment to collapse. But since we felt so fresh, we opted to make it the equivalent of a 2-day event. We topped-off our morning's intense athletic effort by spending the afternoon exploring the upper trails around the Seceda lift to spur our bodies to normalize to the altitude.

Looking up towards the backside of the Seceda mountain 'chain' on a hike a few days earlier.
We alternately stood by and sat on our wooden bench 'drying station' at Seceda for more than an hour and were finally spurred to move on by one too many passing clouds that dropped the temperature. Wearing all of the few extra clothes we carried up, we slowly walked up to and along the ridge just above the lift station. The exertion warmed us and we were treated to more stunning views. 

From the edge of the high ridge we looked down onto a trail we'd hiked for the first time a few days prior and looking in other directions revealed more trails we'd hiked and mountains we'd been on in previous years. Wandering on, we found a place relatively sheltered from the wind to sit on terraced earth to further lengthen our acclimation time. Doing so made the decision to carry our waterproof sit mats seem inspired.

Almost all of our conversation that afternoon revolved around the exceptional views afforded by the very clear skies and the exceptional ease in our bodies. We were familiar with the delightful but stupid blush of endorphins and were certain that what we were experiencing went beyond those fun chemicals. We spent 4 hours at the top meandering and sitting to extend our acclimation time and to savor whatever it was that had changed in our physiology.

Putting It To The Test
Our hours of delightful, purposeful meandering down to the cheaper Col Raiser lift that would save us $20 was an even better bargain than we wanted: we arrived a couple of minutes after it closed for the day. So much for the easy lift and bus ride back to our apartment:  at 5 pm we were now committed to walking down off the mountain and we paused to evaluate our situation.

Our European sourced ketogenic breakfast.
We'd trimmed all of the excess weight from our packs for the trial run to Seceda on what was planned to be a short day and as a result, we had no extra food and only 1 tiny flashlight instead of the usual 4 we carry between us. We were able to refill our empty water bags but the 3 nearby huts selling food were already closed. Bill whipped out his electronic map on his iPhone and we settled on the most familiar route home--a series of trails that we knew should get us in before dark and wouldn't have us relying on the buses for which we lacked an evening schedule.

Instead of the euphoria of the day being dashed by what would normally be a crisis, we anticipated that this obstacle would fully reveal the hidden power of our 2-month old, ketogenic diet. During the course of our afternoon at elevation, we had concluded that our diet that switches on efficient fat-burning for fuel had likely had been the major factor in preventing depletion from the big exertion in the morning. We guessed that it somehow interrupted the usual toxic flood of metabolic byproducts in our tissues though we didn't really know how.

We couldn't make sense of how the ketogenic diet was so dramatically improving the comfort and power of our muscles but there was no arguing with the results. We'd pushed to maintain our maximal sustainable effort on the event course for more than 2 and a half hours without snacking or pausing and were content to eat when it was convenient at the finish line. We had no difficulty digesting our meal, which was usually an issue after such a hard workout. The prospect of walking for another 2 hours without food was met with a shrug whereas in the past my "Food now!" desperation for eating on schedule would have triggered a metabolic meltdown. 

As hoped and expected, we had no trouble walking out with a brisk pace. Our rate of gain when we were confronted with steep slopes was in our usual range when fresh and our cheery dispositions didn't degrade a bit. Neither of us experienced the weariness from this extra effort that should have set in hours earlier.

Having essentially done 2 day's worth of outings in one day didn't take a toll on our bodies that day or the next. We didn't crash when we got in for the night as would normally be the case. We made dinner, bathed, and went to bed like nothing unusual had happened. In the morning my expected stiffness and achi-ness after such a big effort didn't materialize. As we each explored our tissues with our standard repertoire of stretches and self-massage, we found no signs of distress. Amazingly, our muscles were as soft and pliable as they were the morning of our huge effort. 

However we didn't feel up to walking 17 hours to Brenner Pass pushing a stroller.
Our sense the previous afternoon of having upped our game was doubled that morning. We unexpectedly had different bodies and we were just starting to get acquainted with them. We felt so good that we set out for a moderate hike on the usually achy 'day after' instead of taking a rest day. And a few days later I read that our delightful experience with greater energy, better endurance, reduced muscle soreness, reduced recovery time, and retention of cognitive functioning with exertion were all expected results of our new ketogenic diet--amazing! It felt like we had found the next best thing to the fountain of youth. 

Being so satisfied with our fitness accomplishments of the last year and feeling like we had already had our own private victory party on the mountain run course was a very good thing: when we returned home that evening it looked like we might not actually participate in the mountain run at all. The poor long range forecast had tanked for event day and we agreed that we weren't going charge up the mountain during a storm.

The forecast had gone from showers during the event interval to being a truly nasty day. High winds, temperatures in the 40's, and all-day rain weren't what we were prepared to hike/run in and we hadn't a clue if the event would even be held under those conditions. Not participating because of foul weather would deprive us of our bragging rights for doing our first, and probably only, mountain run but what we already did have was so much more valuable. 

Welcome to our wind sheltered reading room above Passo Sella at 7800'.
We continued to ride the emotional roller coaster that resulted from checking the forecast 3 times a day for the next 10 days in search of windows of good weather in which to hike and train. And should one of those dry windows coincide with the mountain run schedule, we'd be delighted to celebrate a second victory party: we'd love to savor the sweet closure after a year of anticipation. We still hoped we could have it all. 

Reading 'Rooms'
The happy coincidence of receiving free bus passes from our Val Gardena lodging hostesses this year and wanting to maximize our time at elevation for altitude acclimation resulted in us redesigning our relative rest days while in the Dolomites. Usually we'd jealously preserve our free time on rest days by walking up a nearby scenic valley, eating our picnic lunch, and heading back to bury our noses in our computers at our 5,000' elevation apartment. But this year we took a bus and sometimes a lift to go to 6,500-7,000' to walk and read.

The new rest day routine cost us an hour-plus in round trip transit time per day but we did manage to read during that interval on the days we found seats on the buses. In addition to usually bagging 3-4 hours at elevation, we had the pleasure of stunning views, occasionally by walking to almost 8,000'.

These rest days demanded strict discipline from us lest we'd have charged-off like jack rabbits up some enticing, distant, steep trail. Instead, we did our best to stroll for a half an hour on a short trail we'd likely seen over the years but not actually walked on and then sit to read for 20 minutes. Then we'd either stand for a few minutes before resuming reading or wander on to yet another vantage point to settle-in.

Looking to snow-covered Seceda from Passo Sella 4 days before the event.
For more than 10 years of exploring this corner of the Italian Alps, the equation had been "Dolomites = moving" so it was challenging for us to do less when outdoors. The first 4-5 outings were a constant tug-of-war between doing and not doing. And sometimes the cool temperatures, wind, rain, or  snowfall eliminated the sit time, but we eventually got the hang of the new rhythm and loved the tranquility of it. Yet another new and unlikely skill we'd developed from having the mountain run in our sights this year.

My pre-trip research about moderate-level altitude acclimation didn't deliver much guidance for us and we weren't even sure our brief excursions to higher elevations would help at all. Perhaps sleeping a week at 4,000' and then 2 weeks at 5,000' were the only effective strategies. But when we shaved 12 minutes off of our course time between our 1st and 2nd efforts to 8,200' that were only 6 days apart, we knew something was working so we pressed on with our outdoor reading room approach to acclimation.

Whew! We made it.
Va Bene! (Very Good!)
We did it! We completed the mountain run event for which we'd been crafting a conditioning program for the last year based on the opportunities available to us during our travels. We were very pleased, especially since we abandoned running about 25 years ago and switched to cycling because we were sustaining too many injuries. We only actually ran about 45 minutes of the course and only for a few minutes at a time on the relatively flat stretches, but that was the plan and we met our time goals.

The weather forecast for event day dramatically changed every couple of hours to every couple of days for weeks but it usually included some rain on race day. The emotional ups and downs of whether we'd participate or not wore me out. I was disappointed to feel that I wasn't excited by the time our shoes hit the dirt. But nonetheless, we both felt very satisfied that we participated and completed it several minutes under the prescribed time at both the mid-course check point and the finish line.

Our best estimate was that for the first 2/3's of the course that we were about #6 & #7 from the end of a pack of about 200 runners. We advanced our positions a bit in the last 1/3 by 4 runners for me and 2 for Bill. As is typical, Bill was out ahead of me for the first 2/3's of the course and I finished about a minute ahead of him. My endurance after the 2 hour point tends to be slightly better than Bill's and I definitely have less trouble with altitude than he does.

The essentially all-day rain forecast from the night before the event improved in the morning with the forecast rains holding off until the start at 10:00 am. Luckily, it was dry until 11:00 when we had a few rounds of sprinkles and then they stopped. About 15 minutes before we finished, the brewing storm cut-loose and we were pelleted with fine hail and then hit with a drenching rain. Only the slow-pokes like us sat around in soggy clothes waiting for the awards ceremony to begin because the hot shots started crossing the finish line a little after an hour on the course, long before the rains hit.

No duffers at the back of this pack.
And my, but were the real mountain runners hot shots. We felt quite out of place at the start line. We expected to be in a pack of about 30 duffers in the back. We assumed that they would surge ahead of us in the beginning and we'd slowly start passing them on the sustained steep stretches after an hour or so. But the duffers didn't come out in numbers and we were highly conspicuous with our body fat percentages that are in low  teens and not single digits as was the norm in the pack. I must say however, when the awards were presented by age category, the hot shots looked horrible. Whether it's the extreme sun exposure of their sport or the toll the hard training takes on their bodies, many looked 20 years older than they actually were--nice legs but their faces were trashed.  

I had secretly hoped to receive a 3rd place award for my age group (55+ was the last cut for women), even with my snail-like pace, since few older Italian women are athletic, but that wasn't the case. I did however get something better than a basket of food, which was a free helicopter tour of the Dolomites for 1 in the 'random' drawing at the end of the ceremony. 

I was approached by a man at the finish line who overheard me saying we were from the US--a man who turned out to be the awards presenter. At the time I mistook him for a tourist but as we chatted he mentioned that 6 helicopter rides were included in the drawing at the end of the awards ceremony so I should be sure to attend.

We had planned to head back to our apartment shortly after finishing because of the foul weather but decided to linger for the cultural experience.  And just by 'chance', my number was drawn almost at the end of probably 20 minutes of drawings, more than 2 hours after we finished. It seemed highly likely that the mayor doing the presentations drew another number and awarded the gift to me. It was all too much of a coincidence and I suspect he enjoyed adding a little more international flair to their event. Luckily we would be back in the area for a week at the end of August so hoped to take the helicopter ride then. Bill had enough harrowing experiences with helicopters and small planes in his work that he no longer even likes to fly in 'big birds' but he is going to buy a ticket to join me for this one.

Hiccups & Purr-fection
Our year of planning and strategizing for participating in the mountain run event had a mix of last minute upsets as well as delightfully perfect coincidences. The persistent and unseasonably cold and wet weather was the source of a most of the unhappy gyrations. 

Bill at the finish line in the rain.
For a year we'd been anticipating overheating issues during the uphill-only run in the typical mid-70's weather. I'd shopped for months to find the perfect long-sleeved, UV protecting, breathable shirt and was surprised to find a running cap rated for over 65 degrees. We didn't bring running clothes for other than typical weather because the needed selection of garments wouldn't have fit in our bike panniers. And we'd decided before leaving home that if the weather was really harsh, we just skip the event  altogether. As it was, we unexpectedly resorted to running in our long johns because of the rainy forecast. My wool shirt was too warm for the event for all but the last 15 minutes of it, which is when the hail started.

The muddy trails from the daily rain had Bill contemplating wearing different shoes than we'd been training in. We'd selected our Altra's which are specifically designed for running on gravel-like rocks for the event, but Bill almost switched to higher traction shoes that would have afforded less protection from the sharp rocks. A small thing, but the need for such decisions added to the last minute stress.

Then there was the host issue. We moved from Selva to Ortisei the day before the race to be close to the start line and to readily pick-up our race numbers at 5 pm the night before. But our new host wouldn't let us into our apartment until 4 pm. We had expected to have the luxury of the entire afternoon to unpack, lay out our gear, shop for groceries, and prepare our pre- and post race food. Instead, it was a scramble: dinner was hours later,  we got behind on our hydration, and we missed our bedtime. I had a restless night's sleep because my precious wind-down time had been spent scrambling to get organized.

Two weeks earlier, my big upset came from injuring both feet by wearing my compression socks on a training outing. Compression sleeves for the calves and thighs are all the rage for athletes and I thought my course-textured, toeless version of compression socks I use for international flights would minimize my feet sliding in my shoes. But a mid foot joint for the little toe of my left foot was squealing when we reached our turn around point. I decided to remove the sock on the right foot as well and even though it hadn't been uncomfortable, it immediately became painful. I iced my feet for days afterwards and felt lucky that both feet fully recovered before the event. Now I know at least 1 reason why the serious athletes wear calf sleeves instead of footed compression socks.

What a nice touch: backpacks being transported to the finish line.
Pre-race delights included being taught a tracking exercise to literally straighten out the path my left foot travels upon striking the ground. I was shown it just before we flew to Europe and it was magic for me. In hindsight, the tracking problem is likely what caused me to dump-over when trotting along on a flat bit of trail in Tucson back in February. The eerie familiarity of that spill got my attention in June when in a similar situation I when down on the same side on a flat length of trail in the Columbia River Gorge. It was creepy to realize I had some sort of unknown issue that could drop me in a flash and then so wonderful to find a simple fix that only took about a month to capitalize on--just in time for the big run. And lucky Bill, the exercise seemed just right for increasing the symmetry of foot strike for his feet as well.

Our new, ultra low carb, ketogenic diet that was initiated at the end of April delivered an unexpected boost to our endurance by forcing our bodies to become very efficient at munching through our stored body fat instead of relying on sugary sports products to keep us fueled. And a week before the event I read a comment in a ketogenic diet book regarding chugging 2 cups of water 5 minutes before a significant athletic activity. Apparently as soon as one starts exerting your plasma volume expands, which gets the effects of dehydration rolling. Drinking just before kick-off interrupts this cascade yet doesn't allow enough time for the water to get diverted into pee as excess. It worked like a charm when we tried it a week before the race and it worked just as well on race day. We felt better at the outset and had to carry less water using this exciting new trick that we will employ in the future.

We jumped at the chance to do this mountain run because it seemed like the only mountain run that we had a prayer of completing in the prescribed time. It only goes up, which is our strong suit, so last July we put it on our calendar for 2014. A secondary draw that really delivered was that it was in Europe. We anticipated that it would be an interesting cultural experience and it certainly was. 

Some of the gifts in our "gadget bag."
We grumbled all year about paying 19 Euros (about $25) each to ride the lift down after the event but we discovered that our 25 E entrance fee included a free ride. In addition, we each received a gift of a Head sports jacket, though we left them behind. They only had size Large and they were too heavy and bulky for our traveling life though we enjoyed wearing them on race day. Also unexpected was delivery of our backpacks of post-race clothes (and Head jackets) to the top, though we didn't include enough items because we expected to descend immediately after crossing the finish line. The free pasta party (with beer of course) at the top didn't fit our diet but it essentially gave us a free pass in sit indoors in the almost warm restaurant without buying anything. And gosh, who expected to be in a little event in the Italian Alps and have 5 of the top finishers be Kenyan's residing in Austria?  

We were making out like bandits on the price of admission up until I won the free, 15 minute helicopter tour of the Dolomites. It will  cost us 105 E to include Bill, so there went the break-even point. But we won't complain too much and we will chuckle the whole time about our presumption that the drawing was rigged in my favor by the mayor.

On the Road to Austria
We'd hoped to ride a lift up to one of our 'reading room' venues for an easy day of hiking the day after the race but it was just too rainy. Our recovery activity was instead strolling around town in our rain suits. Ironically, after an unseasonably wet 3 weeks in the mountains, our first day on the bikes was in typical, mid-70's weather and the next 5 days were pushing 90 degrees with high humidity. We're all at the mercy of the weather all of the time and this early summer of extremes made that perfectly clear. But heat or rain, we would stay on schedule and begin biking to a series of new hiking venues that Bill had lined up for us in Austria and Germany.