Montefortiana race, 44 kilometres with snow and ice

Ecomaratona Clivus 44 km, Monteforte d'Alpone, Italy
22 January 2017

Well, I don't think I have ever underestimated a race so much. This was just meant to be a warm up for next week's ultra, and while I knew it was going to be hilly I was blithely unaware of what else was going to be in the mix. I didn't expect the Verona countryside to throw up any serious challenges. To be fair, I don't think there is usually so much snow and ice on the course, and everyone had been talking about the unusual amounts of recent snowfall, but this turned out to be a much harder day than I had been anticipating. Despite perfect blue skies all day race conditions were little short of treacherous in many places.

Even before the start the Italians had provided me with entertainment. There had been no pre race information so I had emailed the organiser to ask the location of the race expo and start - basic info in my view. His reply: Dietro la Piazza della Chiesa (behind the church square) which I found vague to say the least; every Italian town has many churches and a quick search told me that Monteforte d'Alpone has three. However I found my race ok because the start was by the church with the tallest tower.

Then, as we waited on the start line the national anthem was sung; the Italians didn't pay the blindest bit of attention but went on talking at full volume. I had to check with a woman next to me if this was indeed the national anthem. When we started running there was a lot of pushing and shoving. But, as a contrast, at the early aid stations, which were very busy, the runners queued patiently and yelled when someone tried to jump the queue.

This was billed as an off road race so I was a bit surprised when we started with several kilometres on roads, heading quickly out of the small town of Monteforte d'Alpone. The start was very crowded with two races going off at the same time, my 44 km and a 26 km. The weather was perfect and once we had left the town we were surrounded by vineyards. Looking back you could see the very tall spire of the town's church looming out of the valley. Yes, we had started with a long climb.

I think it was just before the first aid station that we hit the ice for the first time. There had been small patches of snow by the roadside but suddenly, as we went off road, the whole path became one continuous stretch of ice. It was constantly undulating and the short steep downhills had me petrified. Often on bends there was nowhere to run, or even walk, safely. There were lots of falls, and I was determined not to be in that number, so I inched along like an idiot while everyone passed me. I had read recently that the technique for coping with such conditions is to disconnect your brain but I don't like that idea much; I'm sure my brain performs some useful functions even while I crawl downhill and besides I'd be too worried about not managing to reconnect it. I observed that some people had spikes on their shoes which could account for their not being slowed by the ice at all.

Once I saw a guy fall and he just skidded on down the slope. I don't think this was intentional. But this gave me an idea - I could go down the steeper slopes on my bum. So I did this. Four times during the race I sat down at the top of an icy slope and slid down. More than actually doing this, I think my awareness that I had this option kept me sane.

I had started to worry. I wasn't sure how I could manage 44 kilometres of such conditions. The snow wasn't only on the higher ground, as we had descended from our early climb, and even when we reached a clear stretch of road or trail the ice would soon reappear. I worried about making the 21 kilometre cutoff as I feared I was moving extremely slowly. As a precaution, and in contrast to usual ultra behaviour, I resolved to run as much of the uphill as possible so that I could walk the downhills.

The fabulous views made up in part for the running difficulties. I noticed the scenery when I felt brave enough to lift my eyes off the ground for a few seconds. Small villages, hillsides covered with vineyards and churches on hilltops. Sometimes we ran right through the middle of a vineyard, between the rows of vines. You could see for miles and miles. One thing I found unusual was looking down on the hilltop churches: usually I am looking up at them.

As it would turn out the conditions were worst in the first part of the route. Leading to the half way point we had a very long climb and I was seriously concerned about the inevitable descent. We reached a ridge which was cold but fortunately not windy and followed it for a long time. Up here there was a lot of snow, but it was mainly hard packed and definitely runnable. You had to be on the lookout for patches of ice, which appeared among the snow often and unexpectedly, but I found I could make a decent pace and I relaxed. The sun had been shining here for the past week and I was surprised it hadn't melted the snow.

Our initial descent from the ridge was gradual and luckily not much ice. It was like a ski trail winding through woods. I jogged along happily, knowing that I would be able to finish this.

The hours passed and the hills kept coming. The second half featured a great deal of slippery mud.  But people were still having heavy falls on an unexpected patch of ice. A moment's inattention was all it took. The later aid stations were in small villages and it was nice to run through the village streets. We had a surprisingly steep descent late in the race, on loose ground. People seemed to me to take this more slowly than they had taken the icy descents, but it could just have been tiredness showing through. I was very pleased to be still able to run at this stage.

After an eternity I could see the spire of the Monteforte church. What a relief. I couldn't quite see how we were going to reach the church but our circuitous route brought us from vineyards suddenly into the town centre and a welcome finish line. The finish area looked like a battlefield and was knee deep in litter as there had been many races run during the course of the day.

Just before the finish I came very close to a woman I had been following early on; she was carrying walking poles, then and now, and on the treacherous early slopes I had worried about falling towards her and becoming impaled on the spikes of those poles, and she was still carrying those poles in what I regarded as a dangerous way!

I was really satisfied with my run even though I was far down the field. I had beaten my early despair and had a good day.

Then I spent a long time queuing for things: a too large shirt, a tiny bowl of tortellini and a show bag with a packet of fresh pasta (Italy, I guess) and a packet of cooking cream. But better than that, 2 bottles of wine. How nice to run in a wine region. And I had another souvenir too: the next day I found several painful splinters in my fingers from where I had clutched at prickly branches during some of the descents, the tips of nasty long spikes that had penetrated my gloves.

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