Ronda Ghibellina 45 km, Tuscan hills
I've done a lot of races but I still run up against the unexpected. When I checked into my hotel in Castiglion Fiorentino for this race I asked at the desk for directions to walk to the race expo, which was also the race start. The desk lady was so sure that I shouldn't walk to the expo that she was not prepared to give me directions! She said the road was a highway and definitely not to be used by pedestrians. I knew she had a point since many Italian roads don't have a shoulder. This put a temporary damper on my plans for running the race, but then I asked myself just how impossible it could be to walk two kilometres on a busy road.
Not impossible at all. I had a most enjoyable stroll to the expo, walking up through the old town and then out to the race HQ along a quiet road which had the ancient town wall on one side and a grove of olive trees on the other. On race morning I asked for a lift with some other runners.
This was a hard race, there's no other way to put it. For me it was seven hours and 21 minutes hard for something not much longer than a marathon - 45 kilometres of steep ups and downs with possibly my slowest ever average pace of 9.8 minutes per kilometre. This wasn't a total surprise because I had seen the results from previous years and I knew that a finish half way down the field would mean running around seven hours. I didn't get all the white stuff like last weekend (although there were several icy patches and some frozen trail) but the hills were serious and I came down many of the loose descents at a snail's pace. For much of the last quarter, after I had cleared the final checkpoint and cutoff, and therefore knew I would have time to finish, I could only think about finishing.
We started by running through the town, probably waking a few people up with a stampede of a thousand legs early on a Sunday morning, and headed for the hills. Soon we were in forest, climbing in single file on a narrow trail. Breathing heavily. The trail was stones and dirt, often slippery. Occasionally the trail dipped down perilously and I was scared of slipping, so scared that I had to let masses of runners go past me and then immediately on the next climb I would be stuck in a slow moving line. Coming down on my bum, so successful last weekend, wasn't an option on the dirt. I knew that once the field spread out I would feel more comfortable, so I just regarded this part as a way to reserve my strength for later on, but it was still frustrating.
We came, eventually, out onto a ridge (hello frozen puddles and frost) with a view back towards the town and other tiny Tuscan hamlets and farmhouses. In all directions endless hills. All lovely under that deep blue Tuscan sky. Today was the first day of 'la merla' the Italian word for the final three days of January when the weather is supposed to be the worst of the year. Not this year. Nevertheless, race requirements had us carry a good raincoat and thermal.
Just as last weekend, the conditions were never as difficult again as in the early kilometres. We spread out a lot and I ran alone much of the time although I would play cat and mouse all day with the same crowd. I'd pass them on the uphill then they'd pass me coming down.
Much of the race was spent in the forest with those constant climbs. We would go high, come down a bit then go up again. Sometimes we came down a long way so we had a long way to go back up. I'm not talking small undulations, either. Much was not runnable. This was the sort of terrain where I could imagine the wild boar roaming - they are on all Tuscan menus - and I hoped not to encounter any. Especially after I overheard a couple of runners chatting about them. But what made these forests extra enjoyable to run was that we were on the edge of a ridge so there were frequent views of the countryside below and around us. Unlike last weekend, we ran through forest and scrub with very little time spent in civilisation. There were rare incursions into villages and once we ran through an olive grove on grass, but mostly the terrain was wild.
At one point high on a ridge there was a range of mountains on the horizon with a thick covering of snow. It must have been a really long way away.
Both the rationale for the route and the race geography became very clear to me as we approached the 33 kilometre checkpoint. I could see exactly where we had run along the ridge tops. These hills were arranged in a horseshoe shape to the east of Castiglion Fiorentino and may have represented the Ghibelline controlled area (one of the two main medieval clans here). And even though I could see Castiglion Fiorentino hazily in the distance (its hilltop towers made it easily recogniseable) I could also see that there was a huge hill standing in the way between me and the town.
We had to make a long descent down to an aid station in a small village back down at our starting elevation, and then commenced a very arduous climb up the hill I had observed. With only 11 kilometres to go I did not expect this section to be more than mildly uncomfortable. But the climb was endless, in forest and then on a dirt road of sorts. I was passing people but I couldn't wait for the top. My only comfort was that the top would have to be close to the finish. But glimpses through the trees didn't make the town appear close at all.
Someone ahead of me asked a marshal where the next aid station was and he was told it was at the top of the hill so I held on hopefully. He had made it sound like it was two minutes away. Hah! I was still half an hour away.
The race support was very good, with lots of marshals near the more treacherous spots and several checkpoints where they scanned our race numbers. They clearly didn't want to lose us. The marshals had lit little bonfires so a smoky smell heralded an encounter with a marshal.
The route was marked well with yellow tape but I still managed to go wrong three times. The first time was just after a checkpoint and the marshal yelled at the group of us who had gone wrong. The second time I missed a turn, but because the route had been so well marked I soon noticed the absence of markers and turned back. Funnily enough what I had sailed past was a sharp downhill which I did not end up liking at all. The third time I was following someone when he lost the route so we were able to correct ourselves.
There was an SOS number printed on our race bib (in case of a runner being found unconscious in a ravine, I guess) and also race requirements had included us having to carry a cellphone. Despite the fact that my phone didn't actually work in Italy I brought it anyway and I took this opportunity to try some race photography. My first time at this. I managed very few decent photos. By the final checkpoint the battery had died so the phone wasn't going to be much use to me. Like my whistle and raincoat it was just dead weight.
After about a year I got to the top of the hill. I mean, I got to the aid station, and was dismayed for two reasons: it wasn't yet the top and I still had almost six kilometres to go to the finish. Eventually, eventually I did reach the top, and there then followed a wonderful downhill. It was wide and fairly smooth and I could do what felt like flying down.
At the bottom we still had two kilometres on roads, snaking around the edge of the town. Tortuous, but I passed many people because I was still able to run while many were walking, and everyone was calling out 'dai, dai' (give, give) which is what Italians call out for encouragement.
We got a beer at the finish in a souvenir mug. Wonderful, and a reminder that I had run all day through to the drinking hour! We also got a plate of real Tuscan food: pasta, roast pork, white beans, salamis. Then I very slowly walked the two kilometres back to my hotel, showered and rinsed my running gear, had two aperol spritz at a bar near the hotel where they had a big range of appetisers and went to bed.