© Philipp Reiter
If you follow the international trail running scene you’ll no doubt recognise Italian athlete Martina Valmassoi’s smiley face. A true all-seasons mountain athlete, Martina is a ski mountaineer foremost but has enjoyed many high profile ultra-trail running podiums alongside her skimo accolades, which have seen her represent the Italian national team and win team races such as the legendary Sellaronda Ski Marathon.
In March this year, with a bounty of snow on her doorstep in the Dolomites, Martina set a new women’s world record for the most vertical elevation accumulated on skis in 24 hours. After organising the entire attempt herself, she clocked an incredible 17,645m (57,890 feet!) on a slope in Auronzo di Cadore, Italy, eclipsing Rea Kolbl’s world record set a week prior.
At the time of our phone chat, Martina was preparing for the 80km Lavaredo Ultra Trail race, which she went on to win – congratulations, Martina!
You have the Lavaredo Ultra Trail race this weekend, is that right?
Yes, it’s kind of exciting because it’s the first time I’m here at home for the race. As I’m the community manager and race photographer for Salomon Running, I’m usually in Chamonix at this time of year for the Mont Blanc Marathon weekend. So this is the first time I got to be here for the race. I’m doing the 80km race – because it was almost a last-minute decision, the 120km would have been too much.
How difficult is it to switch from months of skimo to trail running?
Where I run [at home in Italy] it’s ski trails or very technical trails, so I am much more used to hiking than running. It’s quite hard for me to switch from skiing to running; I think just the movement is much harder and my body needs to relearn the movement every time. I can switch really easily from running into skimo, even though you’re usually carrying more weight, but the opposite is so much more difficult. You know, your calves hurt so much. Just 30 minutes of running feels so long at the beginning [laughs], but I think I’m finally there… So yes, running is harder!
That said, you recently qualified for the Italian team for the Ultra World Championships in November!
I have always missed the qualifying races because they were in winter and for me, it’s physically impossible to qualify for a running event in March because I’m skiing. This year’s qualifying race was in May which is still quite early, but I tried to do my best. And also Thailand (where the world championship will be held in November) was also a pretty appealing location for a race!
What was the 70km qualifying race like?
It was a really hard race because it was a real running race – not really any hiking. The 70km was really runnable and no long climbs, just always lolling and hilly. But somehow, I managed to get it done [laughs]. Now I am ready to race again [at Lavaredo] in a course that matches my strengths more. And also at home. It looks great, so I’m excited!
Your 24-hour ski world record idea came to you while you were skiing this winter?
Yes, I had been skiing a lot – I’ve never skied as much as this year because we were really lucky with the weather conditions. For once, we got snow out of the door, so I was basically shovelling snow and skiing [laughs]. I had some good workouts, even strength workouts, shovelling snow!
Why did the 24-hour attempt appeal to you?
I was doing many hours just out ski touring, and I was hoping to do some long skimo races like Pierra Menta, but they all got cancelled. I always need some kind of extra motivation – not that I don’t do the things I love, but I kind of like to have some kind of ‘final destination’. So I may be just ski touring, but I know that I’m preparing for something, whether it’s a project or a race. I need to set a goal.
I would have loved to have done a touring traverse or a project in the mountains, but I could not have done it alone. It involves even more planning and making sure the weather and snow conditions are right. Although the 24-hour attempt was something massive – as I had never done anything even close to this – in my mind, it was easier to plan.
You didn’t train specifically for the attempt though, is that right?
I did what I usually do in training. The only specific thing that I did for the record, three weeks before, was a 2-week build-up where I really increased the amount of hours and elevation in my schedule. I didn’t think ‘because I am doing a record on the slopes, I’m going to do my training on the slopes’, because that wasn’t my focus. I wanted to train for it in the most enjoyable way, so I thought this project should be an excuse to explore more.
So in this two-week block, I only trained 6 times on the slopes for three hours on average and didn’t do anything really long. I did one test training session where I wanted to test the pace I was going to try to keep for the 24 hours. At first, I thought I’d try to stay on the slopes for 12 hours, but finally, my test was 6 hours. I was like, I can’t do it for more than 6 hours, I would be so bored that I would never start the attempt! So that was the most specific training that I did – 5000m on the slope that I would attempt the record on, just to understand what was possible and what was manageable.
What kind of elevation did you accumulate during the 2-week block?
Besides this slope training, I did 60 hours of training in two weeks. I was aiming to do the elevation of the previous record – so not Rea’s, but Malene’s (Malene Blikken Haukøy) record, which was a little bit more than 15,000m. I was planning to do 2 weeks with 15,000m every week, which is kinda hard if you don’t want to be on the slopes that much. I mixed up everything; training with lighter skis and training with heavier skis. Somehow, I managed to do 60 hours and 31,000m of ascent in two weeks.
Were you happy with your preparation?
I did the build-up right. It was something I’d never done before, but I enjoyed it a lot as I really explored and did many adventures rather than just laps on the slope. It meant that when I started the attempt, I was feeling positive because I knew I had done the preparation the way I wanted to do, not how you are supposed to, maybe. So no matter how this goes, I enjoyed the process and I’m happy about what I did. That was the main thing for me. I wanted to be happy at the start of the record attempt and not frustrated.
In the video compilation of your attempt, you looked upbeat…
I just had a really positive attitude throughout the whole attempt, but of course, I had low moments too. I was always sure that I was going to finish the thing because that was my priority. Getting into the night, I was lucky because a friend of mine joined me, so at least I had company. Even if you’re suffering and even if you’re silent, you’re not alone and it gives you some more confidence.
You had some stomach issues in the night though which meant you stopped a lot, to begin with?
Yeah, I was aware that if my stomach problems were going to continue throughout the whole day, it would be a big problem because, in records like this, it’s about managing the time you have. Stopping 2 times every lap to go to the toilet wasn’t really ideal [laughs]. I knew that Rea wasn’t wasting time at all during her attempt. I read that she stopped just once to pee in the whole record, and I had already stopped 8 times to go – and not to pee!
The good thing is, I always tried to fix the problems right away. It was really cold and I thought that’s probably why I’m having an issue with my stomach. So then I kept my big jacket for the climbs and was really well dressed. I did 5 laps with lots of layers: 2 base layers, a Primaloft jacket and then I added a really big down jacket on top. I was kinda sweating a little bit on the climbs, but it (the warmth) saved me from going to the toilet again and again. After 8 hours, I stopped stopping for the toilet, so that had been a good decision. It was a lot about problem-solving in the lowest moments.
How were your feet during the attempt?
Before sunrise, I started to feel I was going to get blisters. That was my biggest concern before starting the attempt. I was sure my body and my mind were ready to face this thing, but I was really worried about blisters because if you open your feet completely, it’s really difficult to keep going. And of course, I’d never been in my boots for more than 8 hours before.
Before the attempt, I tried taping my feet up but after a while, the tape wasn’t sticking. So last minute I did something I had never tried before – a bit stupid, but it saved me! – and decided to wear Compeed [blister plasters]. They worked really, really well, but I was getting blisters under my feet. I didn’t want to stop again because I knew I had already wasted time in the night. I was still on pace, but being on track now doesn’t mean I will be for the next 12 hours – you always question whether it’s necessary to stop or not.
Last-minute, I decided to stop because I’d rather waste 10 minutes now than have blisters for 12 hours. I just changed my socks, so I put dry socks on and kept the liners that were a bit wet. And it worked.
You started your attempt at 5pm. How did you feel when it got light the next morning?
It was almost like waking up after a good night of sleep. I can’t really describe it differently because I felt so good. I wasn’t feeling like I’d been out 12 hours; I was feeling like this is a brand new day, I have tons of energy. It was a really beautiful sunrise. With the light and the new clothes, I started to go really fast. The last laps I did some [sprinting]. It’s crazy, honestly, I still don’t understand how it was possible. So the last 12 hours were more of a test [for myself] – I started to go faster and faster and figured out I could go way faster than I thought. So I tried to keep that pace for the next 12 hours.
What did you eat and how often?
In my plan, I was eating something every hour. I used Spring Energy Gels, who I am sponsored by – I really like them because it’s like normal food; fruit, rice, honey, peanut butter, and doesn’t feel like eating something artificial. They worked really well with my stomach. The goal was to eat at least one of them every lap, and every three laps to eat something normal like toast or rice, or I prepared some energy balls with oats, coconut, chocolate. And then I had some polenta.
In the night, I preferred soup because I thought it would be good to have something warm. I was eating really normally, so things I like to eat and things I know give me energy without upsetting my stomach.
Any time I was low in energy, I ate a bit more. I always kept one gel with me, or a bar, or a date or energy balls. Then I had a flask with 250ml of water or electrolyte. I was switching one lap water, one lap electrolyte. Not that I had any real idea of what I was doing, I just thought I’d alternate because I think it’s better! For the last 5 hours, I drank a ton of coke and that always works.
You organised everything yourself. How difficult was it to be athlete and organiser?
It was really difficult! I had to manage a lot of things last-minute because we were entering the red zone again in Italy for Covid with all the restrictions. It was so, so frustrating and stressful because I had decided on the slope and was preparing many things, and then I wasn’t sure I was able to do it, or able to get crew. Luckily, in the end, everything turned out well but I had to do multiple calls with the police, with the mayor… Everyone told me I should be getting lots of sleep before the record, but I think I was sleeping 4 hours a night because I was so stressed managing everything!
Because I was doing it at home, my friends who were coming to film and take pictures came to my house. You are trying to do an event as rested as possible, but you are hosting 5 people in your house, you have to cook, you have to organise the slopes, you have to call the police, you have to organise the tent for the ice stations… I was super happy to start the record attempt, to be honest, so I could just think about putting one foot in front of the other for 24 hours as my only task!
You’ve completed a lot of tough events – how did this compare?
It was completely different. First of all, I really liked it because it was the first time I was organising and doing a project like this myself. It was both scary and exciting. It was not about the record – I mean, I wanted to use it as a goal, but it was more to challenge myself for a long amount of time. Usually, I’m not someone who likes to try and break records or do this kind of challenge, but I talked about it really naturally, so I thought it was the right time to do it because it was not something that was forced.
How important was it for you to do the attempt at home?
When I was looking for where to do this attempt, other resorts out of my region invited me to do it there. But it didn’t want to do that. For me, it wasn’t about breaking a record but making a project to highlight the place where I live. It was important to ski all night, knowing I would ski my mountains, I would look at the places I’d been that winter, and when I was young. It was really, really important to me to be at home. I would have done it differently if I had not been able to do it here. I’m doing it at home or I’m not doing it at all!
Who are you sponsored by right now?
For the world record, I used Atomic skis and Scarpa boots. The sponsors that were really involved in the world record were Scarpa (boots), Crazy The Original (clothes), and Suunto.
My other sponsors are Ventura La Frutta Secca, Engie Italia, Spring energy gels and Tailwind nutrition.