I like the idea of destination races: you get to do a race that is unique plus you get to travel! Sounds like a great deal to me, especially when combined with some vacation time before and after the race. Having run the Prague Marathon three years ago, it was time for another destination race in Europe, this time a small and relatively unknown trail race in northern Italy on September 25th.
Suzanna and I registered for Trail del Moscato, a set of small races running through the terraced vineyards of the Piedmont region of Italy. Suzanna signed up for the 21K Nordic walk and I for the 54K run, serving up 9,186 feet (2,800 meters) of elevation gain over 54 kilometers. The previous 50Ks I ran had 4-5,000 feet of gain, so I knew this was a bit of a jump in elevation, but somehow I didn’t realize the true significance of the difference. Maybe in retrospect that was a good thing because if I had, I likely wouldn’t have signed up for this crazy-tough Italian trail race.
Ultrarunning magazine categorizes races on a pair of 1-5 scales: one for elevation profile and one for surface, with 5 being the highest category for each. Trail del Moscato scores a 5 on the elevation profile based on the fact that’s there’s over 250 feet of climb per mile! So it wasn’t just me – it was extremely difficult! Trail del Moscato is a loop course that starts and ends in the tiny town of Santo Stefano Belbo.
The start was set for 7:30 am, following a 10 minute pre-racing briefing in Italian. I didn’t understand a word of the briefing. Nor was I able to communicate with any of the race officials or other runners since unlike in the big cities like Rome or Florence, very few people in Santo Stefano Belbo spoke much English. Still I wasn’t too concerned since I had studied the race website which included English versions of the key pages.
About 50 of us lined up at the starting line. The gun went off and we ran a few hundred feet across cobblestones and concrete before cutting right into a dirt trail that went up for a few miles.
Mile 1 Surprise
Around a third away up the first hill, just before my watch alerted me to mile one, the race suddenly became more of a challenge as I heard a buzz in my ears as a swarm of bees, undoubtedly disturbed by earlier runners, attacked me from behind managing to sting me around 8 times in my right thigh, left buttock, and, worst of all, in the base of my skull. The pain was pretty jarring and lasted for most of the race. Worst of all it gave me a pretty nasty headache. A few seconds after my unfortunate encounter with the bees I heard another runner scream so I know at least one other runner was stung.
With the pain of the bee stings unrelenting and fearing, with that many bee stings, I might suffer an allergic reaction, I took a Benadryl pill that I had in the pill pocket of my hydration pack. Worrying more and more about the bee stings, I downed a second Benadryl tablet a few minutes later.
About 75% of the race is on trails up, down, and through the terraced vineyards and spectacular views of the valleys below with grapes surrounding almost every step of your way. Another 20% or so of the race was through forested areas with the remaining 5% through a handful of small towns. The uphills were steep and relentless, with my trekking poles coming in mighty handy. The downhills were sometimes so steep you were pretty much doing a controlled slide. The flats were few and far in between. It was almost constantly up and down.
As you can imagine, with only 50 runners over 54K, I ran the majority of the race alone. Still, I managed to hook up with some other trail runners for a few good stretches. The aid stations were pretty basic, supplying water, an electrolyte drink, and a few food items. I carried plenty of food so I didn’t need any and refilled my hydration bladder about half way to which I added an extra package of Tailwinds Nutrition powder. And every so often I picked a few grapes.
Descending into Despair
Between miles 16 and 17, about four and a half hours into the race, I reached the top of a very steep downhill section and started running down. I reached the bottom of the hill after running and sliding for about a quarter-mile, though the steepness of the hill made it seem much further. But there had not been any race flags for a while. When I got to the bottom, I soon realized that I must have missed a turn. Many sighs and a few curses to myself later, I reluctantly turned around and struggled back up about 7/8 of the hill until I located the missed turn. Fortunately, I had my running poles; without them, I am not sure what I would have done. This, mistake took a lot out of me, both physically and probably more important, psychologically.
I achieved another low point a few miles later as I reached what I thought was the 4th of 5 aid stations, I took my race map out of my pack, pointed to aid station 4 on the map, and grunted something that I am sure was indecipherable to the volunteer working the aid station, so that they could confirm that I had reached 42 K or 26 miles (marathon distance). The volunteer pointed instead to the third aid station at only 34 K (mile 21). A difference of only 5 miles, give or take a few kilometers, but it seemed a world further and I immediately descended into a funk. At this point, I was having trouble keeping it together, suffering from the bee stings, GI distress, the hot sun, and of course, the relentless uphills.
Somewhere between aid station 3 and 4, I slowed down quite a bit. When I finally got to the aid station that I thought I had arrived at earlier, I tried to communicate to the volunteer that I was done, spurting out some badly broken Italian while using the international sign for the end (moving the palm of my hand across my throat). I think he understood me but could offer no help in getting back to the start. It was at this moment, that another runner who had just arrived at the aid station, Massimo, spoke to me in English, much to my relief. He told me he we only had around 12 kilometers to go. Massimo too was hurting, finding the downhill running especially difficult and suggested that we stick together. He also mentioned that there was another runner just ahead of us and if we caught up to him we could all run, or practice something resembling running, together. I remember at this point that Massimo and I discussed the 10-hour cutoff in the race and the fact that we might not make the cut.
Downhill it goes
Finally having someone to run with and someone who spoke my language – literally – was a huge relief. At the same time, 12 K seemed like an infinite distance away. We caught up to the other runner and the three of us worked together. After a bit we caught up to a woman, so now there were four of us running, more or less, together. And while the others seemed to suffer caution on the downhill sections, I drew energy from the downhills. And it turns out we soon came upon a long downhill section of the course about 2 miles long, so I ran ahead of the group. In fact, at this point, I thought that I would finish in under 10 hours, especially if the downhills continued to the finish.
If I had been a little less delirious, however, and stopped to consult the map, I would have realized that there were three significant hills left in the race. About half way up the second hill, I was out of fluid and pretty much out of energy, having perhaps expended too much energy during that downhill stretch. So I sat down on the side of the trail and rested for about 5 or 10 minutes. While I rested, one of the runners I had been running with earlier passed me. I got up and continued to climb the second hill, but after a brief downhill section the course flattened out for a bit and the last hill came into my view, which climbed a steep 600 feet over about 3/4 of a mile. At this point, the site of that hill broke any shred of confidence that remained in my mind and I again descended into a very dark place. I’m sure it didn’t help that I had taken two Benadryl earlier in the race; I was so exhausted; so tired and craved sleep. At the same time, my Garmin watch gave out and went blank. What a metaphor for how I felt at that moment.
So I laid down on the side of the trail and took a nap. I’m not sure how long I slept there on the trail but I woke up as one of the remaining two runners, the woman, passed me. I started to get up but laid back down and feel back asleep. Finally, Massimo caught up to me and urged me to rise and finish the race with him. He asked me if I had any water left, and realizing that I was out, he gave me the few ounces that remained in his bottle. I took half and returned the bottle to him, very appreciative of his incredible act of kindness.
A short while later, the race sweeper – a guy on a bicycle who I had seen once or twice previously – caught up to the two of us and asked how I was doing (in Italian). Massimo told him that we were going to finish together and that we were out of water. The sweeper took off on his bike and returned 10 minutes later with water for our bottles as we crawled slowly up that last hill.
At the top of the hill at 52 K (32 miles), a number of race volunteers cheered for us and offered us water. There was a chair there and I recall sitting down as Massimo chatted with the volunteers. After resting for a few minutes, we refilled our water bottles, and walked down the hill together towards the finish line. I managed to reenergize a bit on the downhill and could have run most of that last 2K but decided to stick with my new friend who was struggling on the downhills.
Once we reached the town of Santo Stefano Belbo and spotted the spire of the Sacred Heart of Jesus church, we both got pretty excited and started running. Our excitement was tempered a bit when we realized that the course didn’t go directly to the finish line but instead looped annoyingly through the town. But we kept running, perhaps a little slower, when we realized there was more to run than we had first thought but soon enough we neared the finish.
The site of the finish line (and the yell of Suzanna’s “Here they come” when she spotted us) brought pure joy to my heart. As we approached the finish line, I reached out to Massimo and we locked hands as we crossed the line together. The elapsed time was 10:28, doing a quick check of the clock time on my phone since my watch was dead. The official clock had been turned off and technically, we were DNFs, having finished more than 10 hours after the start. (A day later when the official times were posted, Massimo and I were credited with a time of 10:11:30. I’m guessing that was the time the clock had been stopped.)
Massimo and I finished 51st and 52nd of 52 finishers (i.e., dead last), but I am still very happy to have competed in and completed Trail del Moscato. It was a brutal but beautiful race and stretched me to the edge of my being, but I survived and am better for it. As Scott Jurek would say, it’s all about digging deep inside of yourself to find what you didn’t know was there. And having a friend there to urge you on, doesn’t hurt either.