The 58th Trofeo Vanoni Relay
This prestigious event takes place every year in the little town of Morbegno, nestled in the Valtellina Valley in Northern Italy, a hotbed for mountain running. The route runs along the historic centre of Morbegno and the ancient paths that lead to the village of Arzo. The individual records are held by Alex Baldaccini (28’21 “in 2012) and Anna Pichrtova (21’41” in 2007).
143 teams (with 3 athletes) had entered, each taking turns to run the challenging 4 mile route. With almost 2000ft of climbing and a crazy descent to the finish, this was a race perfectly suited to my style of running. If Carlsberg made mountain races…
The Trofeo Vanoni is twinned with the Snowdon Race. I’d been selected to represent the Snowdon Race GB team following my 3rd place finish at the Snowdon International in July. Joining me in the team were the two other top GB finishers in the race, fell running legend Rob Hope (who was 4th) and Yorkshire speed merchant Tom Adams (5th). The women’s team was just as impressive, Lindsey Brindle (2nd), Katie Walshaw (3rd) and World Mountain running silver medallist Emmie Collinge (winner of the Snowdon uphill only race).
Pictured above: (L to R) Tom Adams, Lindsey Brindle, me, Katie Walshaw and Rob Hope.
We were also joined by the Welsh team…Richard Roberts, Pete Ryder, John Spill, Heidi Davies, Katie Beecher and of course my good mate Math Roberts. We were all in charge of looking after Math – famed in the town for his late night drinking sessions. One year he fell asleep in a bush and almost missed his flight home after extreme post race celebrations.
True to form, he woke up Marco (the hotel owner) on the very first night coming back from the pub! Haha!
I was desperate to make the most of my 5 days in Morbegno so that meant running as much as possible before and after the race, but careful not to tire myself out before the big day. We arrived late on Thursday and set our alarms for an early start the next day. The plan was to catch the bus to San Martino and head up Val Di Mello for an easy run in the mountains. Rob had done something similar on the same trip a few years ago so he was our guide for the day. Pudsey & Bramley might want to consider him for leg 3 of the FRA relays next year as he proved himself more than capable with a map in his hand!
The landscape and surroundings were absolutely stunning. As we climbed steeply towards Passo Di Zocca it made us all appreciate not being stuck behind a desk at work, this was the kind of run I only usually dream about.
On the way up we talked about how fast Kilian Jornet runs uphill on his DVD, a sprint compared to our paltry pace. We thought it would be funny to take a few of our own Kilian style pics at 2000m. Plus it’s a great advertising for Salomon as Rob is one of their top sponsored athletes.
Pictured above: Me x 3, John Spill (star jump) and Rob Hope in various ‘Kilian’ style poses.
We also managed a visit to the beautiful town of Colico on the Saturday. The italians were very entertained by our midday swim in the freezing cold waters of Lake Como…
Pictured above: The beautiful Lake Como and our quick dip!
The ‘Braulio’ Brothers
Forget the Brownlee brothers, there’s a new partnership on the running scene…Rob Hope and yours truly.
Aside from Karl Gray, my fell running heroes are Ian Holmes, Rob Jebb and Rob Hope. All 3 are fell/mountain running legends in their own right, plus they’re still competing at the highest level and have been for the last few decades. What I also admire about them all is the fact they’re just a great set of blokes, no bravado and no arrogance. So for me spending 5 days with Rob was like the equivalent of going on a football holiday with Gary Lineker.
Funnily enough I’m not entirely convinced the italians share my love for the ‘Great White Hope’…
Pictured above: Comedy timing on the start line!
Rob and I were both keen to sample the local food and drink. Popular in this region is Braulio, made only 60 miles from Morbegno in Bormio. It’s an aperitif made from mountainous fruits, roots and berries. You can’t drink pints of the stuff but it’s nice to enjoy a couple on a night and it kept me off the Peroni, which I’m prone to drinking too much of! We aimed to work our way through most of the top shelf in the hotel and sample the best local liqueurs. My personal favourite is Genepi, worth a try if you’re next in Italy. I’m hoping after drinking so much Braulio they might offer us both some sponsorship in return for some free advertising.
The women’s race
The women’s race was an amazing spectacle to watch. I was very jealous that they got to start at such a reasonable hour (11am and our race started at 2pm) but very relieved they ran separately. That was because Emmie Collinge was simply outstanding and I wouldn’t have wanted to race her. She led from start to finish and smashed the course record to pieces. Italy’s star runner Alice Gaggi was 2nd but couldn’t compete with the ferocious pace that Emmie had set on the long climb.
Pictured above: (L) Emmie at the finish and (R) the top 3 women.
The rest of the GB women also ran superbly. Next home was Katie Walshaw (7th), just a whisker in front of Heidi Davies (9th) and Lindsey Brindle (10th), with Katie Beecher in 13th. Heidi suffered from some serious blisters on the descent so did really well to finish inside the top 10. At 17 years old I’m confident she’ll be winning the race in years to come. Lindsey also ran well considering she was full of cold, her pace on the descent was incredible.
Results of the women’s race…
The men’s race
Prior to the race we had to declare our team to the organisers for the race programme. We decided to go with Tom on leg 1 for a controlled and sensible start, Rob for an experienced and solid leg 2 and me for a ‘headless chicken’ style leg 3. If all went to plan we knew we could be in with a chance for a top 5 finish and individually we all might have a chance at sneaking into the top 10 of the fastest legs.
Pictured above: A sample of the race trophies
I couldn’t believe the scale of the support, in Italy mountain running is a serious sport and very popular. The crowds are well clued up and they know who all the top runners are. There were thousands of people spectating en route and the race was televised. I usually get pretty nervous before a race but this was on another level, I don’t think the pressure of the final leg helped either.
Pictured above: The start of the race
Before the race began we headed up to the top of the first climb so watch the front runners come through. So much for Tom’s steady start as he was leading the race from a strong field. To be fair he did look really comfortable and I knew at this point we were serious contenders for the win nevermind the top 5!
We headed down to the finish to see Tom come through to the changeover point in 5th place, clocking a very impressive time of 31:46. Next up was Rob and we listened on the loudspeaker as he began to pick off the teams in front one by one. He ran a superb leg and by the time he’d reached the top of the climb he was up to 2nd. I was bricking it, mainly because i knew then I was going to be embroiled in an epic battle with Julien Rancon of France, whose team was now leading the race. Worst still I’d have course record holder Alex Baldaccini hunting me down all the way. My heart sank, suddenly my ‘glory’ leg didn’t seem quite so glorious anymore! The double espresso I’d just washed down with a caffeine gel was going to have to propel me up the steep climb.
I waited nervously at the changeover for first runner to appear. In came the French and Rancon set off at a blistering pace. I waited again. Then suddenly Rob appeared, he’d had a stormer and sprinted through in 31:04. I was off! Chasing Rancon and running scared from Baldaccini!
The first climb felt relatively easy (probably my espresso and gel) and I felt great. I hit the road and still felt good, then it was onto another steep climb. I was struggling now. Rancon was well clear and realistically I was running to protect 2nd place. I was about 1km from the top on the final switchback to the summit and I made the mistake of looking down. Local superstar Baldaccini was closing in like a Cheetah on it’s prey…oh dear. The crowd were going wild, it was clear who they wanted to win. They were also screaming what sounded like ‘Die Ben, Die!’ in italian. Bit harsh you might think but thankfully I knew it was ‘Dai!’ – an encouraging word for ‘come on!’. Either way I was going to have to destroy myself in the final 2 miles to have any chance of protecting 2nd place.
I hit the descent like a bullet. I could’ve almost been in a 100m race with Usain Bolt. I’d practised the route twice before the race so I knew what to expect. The only problem was practising at a jog is very different to full on race pace. I overcooked turns, missed a few choice lines and was lucky at times not to break a leg. To be a good descender you have to take risks and I was taking them in abundance. I felt like I was playing roulette with an almost fully loaded gun. Thankfully I’d taken out extra travel insurance before the trip so I was running with some added confidence at least 😉
My risk taking had paid off. As I neared the end of the descent I was flying. My thoughts now turned to the final run in on the road, I’d not got much left in the tank. My pace was slowing as the gradient flattened and I honestly didn’t know if I could hang on. I didn’t turn around because I didn’t need to. I could hear the roars of the crowd and they were all cheering for Baldaccini. He was closing in fast and there was still 100m to go. I laid it all on the line, full gas! It was enough…JUST! In the end the gap was only 2 seconds but it felt as good as winning the race.
Pictured above: (L) The end of the race and (R) The Snowdon GB team – Rob, me and Tom
Rancon and the French had taken the win by just 16 seconds and Baldaccini had to settle for third behind us despite his heroic effort. I was buzzing! One of the best races I’ve ever done and to get a top team result with Tom and Rob was the icing on the cake with an italian cherry on top. Time to celebrate.
Pictured above: Me (2nd), Julien Rancon (1st) and Alex Baldaccini (3rd)
Trofeo Vanoni Facebook page
The presentation was a very grand affair compared to the kind I’m used to i.e. standing in the cold rain whilst prizes are dished out from the back of someone’s boot in a pub car park. We cheered the women as they received their well earned prizes and waited patiently for our names to be announced as the 2nd team. Before that was the presentation for the 3 fastest legs. In 3rd was Czech Republic’s Jan Janu who’d smashed leg 1 in a very impressive time of 30:33. He’s a class act. A few weeks ago he’d finished 10th in the World Mountain Running Championship in Wales. Baldaccini had finished just behind him in 11th and I was 31st in comparison.
Then something very strange happened. They announced my name as the second fastest leg…WTF! I couldn’t believe it, I don’t think the rest of the team could believe it either. I knew I’d ran well to hold off Baldaccini but he’d reeled me in all the way so I’d just assumed I’d ran a mediocre time. In reality he’d ran an unreal time of 28:48, only 27 seconds outside the record. I’d ran 30:21 including the second fastest descent, one of the best times ever posted by a GB athlete. Not bad for my Trofeo Vanoni debut. I can’t describe how shocked I was, in fact I still don’t quite believe it. It’s certainly the most money I’ve ever won for a race and coupled with team prize it’s the first time I’ve returned home from a trip with more money than I actually went with!
The trophy was pretty impressive too – a huge glass panel artistically decorated and designed to sit proudly on a handcrafted metal plinth in the shape of a mountain range. I had grand ideas of taking it home on the plane and convincing my wife to let me put it on display in the house. I carefully carried it back to the hotel and stored it safely in my room. Less than 12 hours later it was quite a different story. I carried it down to reception, carefully leant it against the wall and then watched it slide onto the floor and smash into a thousand pieces. Gutted. I could’ve cried. Everyone else thought it was hilarious including my wife when I told her the story.
On the plus side at least we don’t have to wear our Snowdon GB team polo shirts again…
Pictured above: (Top) The presentation – WITH trophy before I smashed it (Below) 2nd team and 1st Darts team