Ciao Grazie

Another race report, another heavy feature for the Wild Trail Runners. I write about this lot fairly frequently now. It is Probably representative of how much time I spend with them because they are a truly wicked bunch. Trips to Italian mountains to run races? Yes please, I’ll have some of that!

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Wild TR on tour

Last year I followed the adventure of a group of the Wild Trail Runners from my phone in the comfort of home, watching as the group either ran or crewed the SciaccheTrail, and I was jealous. The trails and scenery looked spectacular and they looked to be having so much fun. So when they arranged to go again I was straight in there.

The SciaccheTrail is an event held in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. The race is roughly 50k and somewhere around 2500m of elevation gain. You start and finish in the town of Monterosso Al Mare, looping out and up into the mountains then along the coast, up and down into each town of the region then back to the finish line where it all began.

I set out to Italy without a (running related) care in the world. There would be a group of nine of us and I’d have no pressure on the race itself. With MIUT two weeks away this was always going to be a tune up event for me. My one focus was to see how the recovery is/was afterwards to benchmark for later in the year where I have two ultra mountain races within 3 days. No doubt I’ll write more about that in the weeks and months to come but for now it is the time to see how that might work out!

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Shake it out!

Leaving London on the Thursday I stayed in Pisa overnight and took the early train to Levanto. Meeting the crew (who arrived the day before ) at 9am I was able to join them on the now customary ‘shakeout run’. We ran over to Monterosso Al Mare and experienced a tiny section of the trail we’d explore the next day. It filled me with excitement.

That evening we returned to Monterosso and registered and collected quite possibly the most generous race pack I’ve ever received. The race is part of a regional festival and besides the obligatory race T-shirt and sponsored goodies (like a hat from La Sportiva) each runner received a bag of local produce including pasta and wine! How good is that?!

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Start line vibes

The next day we rocked up to the start line ready for the 7:30am start. With under 300 runners it was a very easy and low key start. Before we knew it the countdown had begun and we were released. The first part of the course head out of Monterosso Al Mare along the coast back towards Levanto before which we began the first climb.

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The sun is shining…

That First climb was steep and busy. Steps and Rocks were the terrain but generally it was soft underfoot. The first summit at Monte Negro took us into, and through some tree lined paths which were a delight. The morning mist that shrouded the summit soon started to giveaway to the glorious bright sunshine as morning broke. I’m beginning to love those early morning sunrises when I’m running high up near the clouds and hear nothing but the sound of my feet tapping the paths.

Soon we came upon the first aid station followed by a long road stretch along the top of the mountains before dropping sharply and then beginning the next big climb towards Monte Soviore. Further on we’d reach the highest point of the race at Monte Malpertuso after the third climb. The climb began with a steady switchback along the roads where Kirsty caught up with me. We ran together interchanging paces as is overtake her on the climbs and she’d wizz past on the downs. An all too familiar experience for these races now!

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Running with Kirsty

Running through some more tranquil tree-lined forests I was at peace and smiling. Then up ahead some guy came over the hill towards the runners. He had a Wild Trail Runners shirt on and I was curious. My mind clearly wasn’t thinking as it was Matt. Of course it was Matt. He was out to support us all and said he’d be around the 20km mark!

Shortly afterwards Kirsty reappeared again and we ran together. We have a similar race pace and stuck around each other chatting away as the forest was very runnable. Soon she’ll be leaving for New Zealand and I’ll miss having her pop up in races to run with. She’ll be missed from the group.

We began a long down hill section as we headed towards where the course would loop back and head towards the town of Riomaggiore. Much of the previous section it was all incredibly runnerble. Just before the edge of the loop, Kirsty pulled up with cramp and as I reached the end of a down hill section we arrived at an aid station. I shouted back at her to carry on. This aid station was phenomenal. I’d been loving the oranges so far, blood oranges and so juicy. I’d heard about the cakes at aid stations and i had resisted the panettone up until this point. Here I couldn’t resist the cakes anymore though when I caught sight of a giant crostata. I love a good jammy crostata and started stuffing my face. I had three pieces and grabbed a forth along with more oranges and biscuits and cracked on. As we left a camera man called out to me ‘ciao’ and I smiled widely whilst shoving biscuits and tart into my gob.

The course continued downwards towards the town and we began traversing the first of many vineyards we’d run through that day. I whipped out the camera for more photos and as we were posing Maggie popped up behind us and we ran on as a three for a bit. This section was beautiful as we weaved through the various vineyards overlooking the coast.

We soon began the steep descent to Riomaggiore which was tough. Very tough. It was a Steep down hill on cobbled Steps and paths. For the first real time that day I felt my body begin to talk to me. My feet were sore with raw toes and achy ankles and knees were registered. I altered my technique and was actively braking as I continued down. Maggie went flying past and vanished off. She’s such a strong down hill runner. As we entered Riomaggiore Matt was there again grabbing photos and cheering us through. Hi fives and cheers were embraced and I swung a sharp right straight back up to some steps as I blasted on and skipped the aid station in the town.

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Maggie enjoying the views from the Vineyards above Riomaggiore

The Aid-stations were now every few kms and I didn’t need them all. Making sure I’d fill my bottles I could skip one each time. As we climbed up and out of the town I was back with Maggie and Kirsty and we climbed to together until Kirsty pulled up again with cramp. We left her (sorry!) as we powered up. At the top Maggie and I ran the huge bridge before beginning the next climb. This was a tough climb through old stone paths along the vineyards. We took some photos and Maggie pointed out that this was our first race together. I’ve run with her so much now since we met just over a year ago that I hadn’t even realised we’d not run an event together. As I stopped to take more photos Maggie carried on. But what a photo it was…

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This caught my attention

Soon we were running down hill again and I was passing runners this time and feeling strong but Maggie was no where in sight. The next undulations took us to the town of Manarola. Were we run down into the busy tourist streets and straight through and back up. The aid station volunteers ensured runners navigated the crowds of tourists with ease. On the climb or I caught up with Maggie once more. Again we walked and talked and she directed me to a public tap half way up some stairs (she did the race the year before). We soaked our hats and carried on. Not too far further up we reached another aid station were I began to refill my Tailwind (my little travel bottle technique is working a charm!). Maggie left left me at the aid station as she doesn’t stay long at all. A few moments later, with coke in my belly I cracked on. It was hot now in the heat of the day and the fuelling was becoming critical. Whilst I’d eaten loads of fruit cake and biscuits, I needed to constantly hydrate. A benefit of having so many aid stations is that they don’t get busy. I presume because like me, most runners wont stop at them all.

In the distance the start/finish of Monterosso Al Mare loomed. It seemed so far away. There must still have been about ten miles to go and the trails and towns came and went. The climbs now between towns were all steep steps and combinations of natural as well as man made paths. The streets and towns were packed with locals and tourists alike and the trails were windy and often involved crossing small rivers. I Thought of the finish and powered on.

We sort of by-passed Corniglia and then headed into Vernazza. A lovely little port town with amazing coloured houses. I stopped on the path and joined some tourists taking photos. As I had all day long I greeted them with “Ciao Grazie”, the limits of my Italian vocabulary. After leaving Vernazza I’d occasionally glimpse Maggie in the distance as the paths crossed or I could see her running the other side of a cliff as I could see up ahead where runners were going. I carried on knowing there were no more major climbs of note to overcome. I was in the zone and running. The finish now appeared closer. I could sense the end. I was momentarily stuck behind two Italians with poles. They didn’t seem keen to let me pass and I had to buy my time. I saw an opportunity and powered past. Then I focused on not stopping. After making such a clear statement I couldn’t let them catch me again. I kept going. Rounding the bends and powering the last few steps onto the main road. A down hill finish. I could see Maggie ahead for the last time as she was crossing the line and I kicked on. As I neared the finish I noticed the cheer squad of Matt and Tamas clapping to see me home. Straight away I was rewarded with the lovely wooden medal and shared a hug and a photo with Maggie. As we collected some ice cold beer two lovely old ladies hugged us (they must surely of regretted that!) and congratulated us (I presume, they were Italian). And, best of all, we each received 10 Euros cash at the end (a deposit back for the racing chip!). Amazing. I Felt like a pro being given money at the finish!

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Glad to finish that one!

We hung around and cheered the other runners home and saw in the rest of the team as they arrived one by one. We cooled off in the sea, or at least I dipped my feet and ankles in, it was freezing! Before celebrating with Maggie as she was presented on the podium as the 9th female (the SciaccheTrail rewards the top ten males and females). After which we headed to the free pasta party and filled our stomachs with more amazing local produce of vegetarian lasagne, seafood pasta, grilled octopus and veg, and that was just the mains!!

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The wooden medal is made by a local shop

Eventually we headed back to our flat in Levanto and chilled out before we couldn’t stay awake any longer.

The next day a few of the group went for a hike whilst Yvette and I joined Matt on his training run. It turned into a photoshoot for me as I had won a place in the Adidas City Run race which I couldn’t make. So I did my ‘hour’ along the Italian coast.

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The weather the next day wasn’t so enjoyable!

Another excellent weekend adventure running. What better way to explore the Cinque Terre region?!

Player 1 vs The Serpent Trail

*** In the summer of 2018 I ran the Serpent Trail 100 event. Shortly afterwards I wrote a blog. possibly my favourite personal bit of writing to date. At some point later in the year I noticed the blog had vanished. WordPress claim it was deleted and unrecoverable. I sobbed a little. Over the months since I’ve tried to recreate it. It isn’t the same, it is no longer an original thought. It is merely an attempt at remembering what I wrote in 2018 and preserving my memory for old age. Either way, here it is…. ***

Player 1 vs Serpent Trail

The Serpent Trail. A serious of footpaths and routes weaving through West Sussex. Aptly named from the slithering shape it creates from Haslemere to Petersfield (and that it is a habitat to British species of snake). The 64mile path is home to a small (but growing!), local-ish race from Tom and the team at Freedom Racing. I just couldn’t say no to giving it a go. It would be good training for my upcoming CCC adventure.

I headed down after work on Friday where I planned to camp the night before the race. The organisers had arranged for a shuttle bus service to take us from the campsite at the finish line to the start in Haslemere. Nice and easy. After checking in and registering with a lovely friendly welcome, setting up tent and collecting my bib and dib-dab tracker whatsit I went to bed. It would be an early start with the bus leaving at 5am.

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Rolling start…Freeeeedom

I chatted to a few other tired runners on the bus and tried to get a little more shut eye in before I really had to wake up. A long day lay in wait. Arriving in Haslemere we walked to the start, hidden behind a pub and, just like that, we were off. A sort of rolling start began as we all just began running. Finding our stride, heading out on to the Serpent Trail we were off!

The early mile or two confirmed a few thoughts I’d had. My mind was in overdrive. The day was still very young. We’d not yet covered but a few miles and I could sense the challenge ahead. It was the height of summer. A warm one at that. The Serpent would become my nemesis. My opponent. The challenger I’d have to overcome. I recalled the computer games of my childhood. The early 90s. It reminded me of the platformers and the ‘beat em ups’. Player 1 vs the The Serpent Trail. I was in control.

Within barely a few miles I heard my name called out. I turned to meet the warm smile of Ally. We shared mutual friends. We’d never met but we’d been told about each other running. We ran and chatted and soon found out we were neighbours!

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Making friends on the trails

The sun had started to come out and the early morn was breaking. We celebrated the warmth of the daybreak by getting lost. Not alone though. Others followed us. Somehow we were tracking back the way we came. Ally felt familiarity in the route. She recalled a gate we went through. I wasn’t so sure until a little further along when I noticed a trail sign on the bottom of a tree. It was a weird place to put one and I’d spotted it first time we passed. We back tracked and were soon on the right path again. Joking with the camera man we saw for a second time.

The first aid station was soon a welcome sight. Today they would be spread out over a decreasing distance as we closed in on the finish. The first was ten miles in. We didn’t stay long. We grabbed some stuff and carried straight on. Passing through we saw a runner who’d already lost his battle to the Serpent. His head was wrapped in a bloody bandage. Sights like this often fill me with fear when running. Accidents can happen and when they do they can be pretty bad. The Serpent clearly had his tricks to try and win the battle.

Ally and I ran together for a fair few miles before eventually we went our separate ways. We promised not to get lost again. I broke that promise almost immediately. Before too long I was coming up behind Ally once more as we ran along a road section. I don’t know how it happened. But I could feel the draining effect it had. The Serpent sapping my energy with his mind games. I’d have to focus more. I couldn’t afford to keep getting lost. In the heat any extra distance I covered would mean the Serpent would pound me down and win this battle. Not today I thought. Not today.

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Early morning smiles (pre getting lost!)

Moving on, for the second time that morning I waved goodbye to Ally. We planned to meet again at the finish as she kindly offered me a lift back. That would be better than spending a second night sleeping in a field. The second checkpoint was a welcome relief. The sun was in a prominent position in the sky now. Whilst I chatted to the volunteers Ally rocked up. We were allowed drop bags at this checkpoint and Ally was well prepared. She’d frozen isotonic drinks in her softflasks and put ice packs in her drop bag to keep them cool. Genius. I was a little jealous. Well played Ally! Immediately after setting back out I was lost again. Somehow I’d missed a turn and was running alongside a field of sheep. They were noisily bleeping and leaping all over the place. Perhaps trying to tell me that I’d fucked up and gone wrong, again.

Back on track I thought about the battle. I thought about those videogames I used to play. Each character had their special skills, their power moves and weaknesses. I was starting to understand what I was up against in my opponent. The Serpent’s main weapon in the battle was the path itself. The terrain. The path would twist and turn. It would vary from forest paths, to dirt tracks, to rooty-tree lined tracks, sandy hills and occasional roads. As soon as you’d get accustomed to running on one surface, the bastard would switch it up. Thankfully the hilliest sections were in the first half of the course. But I could use this to my advantage – with hills come viewpoints. With winding paths come alternative views. The course was scenic and I’d use this to my benefit and enjoy whatever was presented to me.

Sometimes though the terrain was tough. There was one particularly fruity climb just before the third checkpoint. The Serpent was throwing it down to us. Challenging us. Taunting us. Reaching the top I was dripping with sweat. I took the chance to replenish my energy and I spent a little while at the aid station – joking with the volunteer and cheering through other runners making sure they dabbed in. He offered me a job. I declined and set back out. It was hot. Morning had become midday. The sun was scorching.

I realised the Serpent was a sneaky opponent. He was one of those with the ability to call in allies. Collectively I came to think of these as an ‘army of bastards’. One of which was the Bastard Prick of a Sun. The Sun, although limited in duration, was unreachable. I couldn’t attack it. I could only avoid it. The Bastard Prick of a Sun rained down its relentless rays of heat, pounding the runners and terrain alike. This was a UK heatwave. Nothing sapped my energy more than the sun this day. I could only avoid it when the terrain gave me refuge in the forests and shade of trees. I weaved and dodged all day long finding those rest bites, those shaded tracks. If I could get to the evening, its power would vanish and I’d come through on top. Hours away though. In the meantime water and shade were my friends.

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Checkpoint jokers

The Serpent wasn’t the only one bringing support to the fight though. I had the camaraderie of other runners. I often thought of Ally and I chatted away with others as and when I could. In addition there were the volunteers. The checkpoints were the friendliest I’d ever encountered. A real family feel. Each one you were welcomed into and cheered out of. I’d use this camaraderie to see me through the battle.

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Before I knew it the Serpent upped his game. In the height of the midday sun, whilst the Bastard Prick of a Sun was showering me with heat, the Serpent lay down a gauntlet of confusing paths and sandy hills. It was tough. I went wrong multiple times. I was trying to interpret the signage of the Serpent Trail that were all ambiguously positioned. They could have been pointing down one of many routes. I had a gpx file but signal was poor and it often took too long to correct the course. Many times I chose wrong. Many times I extended my run and depleted my energy supplies. On one occasion I met another of the Serpents bastard army – Spikey Foilage. Running full steam into an overgrown path I ended up being shredded by spikes from Bastard Foliage. Damn. I was weakening. I needed to get back in this battle. The midday sun was blistering and my heart sank as realised I’d gone wrong yet again and had to retrace my steps uphill and once more through the Spikey Bastard. My legs were screaming from what felt like a thousand cuts. I was out in the open, running more sandy paths with little shade. My throat was dry and water wasn’t quenching my first. I carried on and used my wits were I could – My brain would be my biggest strength. Determination and stubbornness to repel the Serpent’s attacks. I’d run when I could, sticking to the shade and minimising the time I spent exposed to the sun. When exposed, I’d be sensible and walk in the sun to avoid overexertion.

Earlier than expected another checkpoint appeared in the distance. There was a tent. That meant shade. This was the best one. Exactly what I needed. It was full of friendly support , all the volunteers were Tom’s family. His mum and his sister were there and they were great and lifted my spirits and prevented me from succumbing to the beating I’d been taking. One of them offered me a cold wet towel to cool off. Lots of ice and food was available and I took as much as I could. Like in Streets of Rage and eating a chicken  found in a dustbin my energy levels were restored, the health bar refilled. The red turned to green. I was jubilant. I was back in the fight. I was on top now and ready to press forward and attack The Serpent.

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Chicken from a bin. Classic

The second wind was embraced and I ran and ran. As the miles counted down I wondered what the football scores were. It was the World Cup and England were playing Sweden. For the earlier games, the aid stations had been updating scores on their welcome/sandwich  boards. It was good to follow the changes each stop and see how they finished. As I ran I started to realise I’d been running solo for quite sometime now. I couldn’t remember the last runner I’d encountered. I hadn’t been passed either and started to wonder what my position might be. I was expecting a checkpoint but it didn’t come. My water was running low and my feet were starting to ache. I ran passed a pub and there was a lot of noise from live music and the football. Soon after the checkpoint finally came into sight. There were two other runners there. A lady just leaving as I arrived and a man relaxing in a chair. I joined him. I tended to my feet, ate some food and drank back lots of coke. I don’t know how many cups I had. I could have stayed there for a long time. I was happy and getting comfortable too.

As I rested, another runner came in to he checkpoint. Shit, I am being caught. He was jovial. He joked he was done, he wanted to quit, he wanted the bus home. Only he wasn’t joking. He told us he’d spent the last hour in the pub watching the football and eating fish and chips. We all laughed and I was a little pleased I hadn’t been caught after all. I decided to get up and go. Time to end this battle and get it done.

Along the next section I started to meet runners from the 50km race. They were full of spirit and support. I chatted to a few and we exchanged encouragements. We were all sensing the end of the battle now. A little while later, enjoying yet another second wind, I could hear footsteps behind me. It was the runner who quit. What the fuck. We chatted as we walked on. He explained he was told it would be about an hour to wait for the bus and with just about 10km left he felt he might as well walk it in. Only he wasn’t walking, he was running and running strong! I let him go ahead. I was impressed. Although if he’d been in the pub for an hour before I caught him he was clearly a strong runner!

I carried on in my own world. For the last section I’d put my music on. An extra weapon to fight the Serpent and distract my mind. My own boost and distraction. The Bastard Sun had faded and I was winning the battle. After exchanging attacks all day the Serpent was slowly coming to an end. I came upon the last water checkpoint and grabbed some more coke. The sole volunteer cheered me in and urged me on. The next guy wasn’t far ahead he told me. He insisted I could make the top ten if I beat him. I laughed and explained he’d just overtaken me after being in a pub for an hour. “Oh” he said. I cracked on anyway. I was ready to finish.

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Evening views

Not long after leaving the checkpoint, in a field of lush green grass, I could see him. I could see the runner. He wasn’t alone though, he was with the woman I saw at the checkpoint and I could see they were walking. I caught them and had another brief chat. It turns out she was the leading female. Amazing! I carried on. I felt invigorated knowing that keeping ahead of them could put me in the top ten (if I trusted the volunteer’s counting skills that is!). Soon I came upon some more 50 km runners. I followed them as they navigated some fields. I’d switched off and wasn’t concentrating. They went wrong. So I went wrong. Dammit. I was running strong now and this annoyed me. The leading female and ‘pub runner’ we approaching behind. They were also running again. I could sense the finish though and soon we left the trails. We were back in Petersfield. I knew I was close as we emerged onto some roads I recognised from my walk from the train station the night before. But we ran passed the turning, we were running away from the finish and taking the long way, looping around the finish line via some riverside paths through some woodlands. I was still running. I wanted this. Finish strong is my mantra. The Serpent needed one last attack to be defeated so I pushed hard. I broke free of the trees and the darkness that was starting to fall, I burst up into the field and the finish line was in sight. The volunteers rang the bells and whooped me home. Shouts of “runner” triggered some lots of clapping from the crowd at the finish.  The Serpent fell in front of me to the screams (in my head) of “finish him”. I floated across the line with a finisher smile beaming across my face. Player 1 wins!

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Floating into the finish

As I was going to stick around and wait for a lift back with Ally I had a bit of time to spare. I showered and packed my stuff up. I grabbed some buffet food on offer and talked for quite sometime to the medics and photographer whilst I waited. It was fascinating to get an insight into what an ultra involves for them and certainly to appreciate all the hardwork that goes into supporting such an event. A few hours later Ally arrived and we were soon in the car heading back to reality. The Serpent Trail had been defeated. We both emerged victorious from our battles.

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Nice bit of wood that!