It was set to be the ultimate vacation – planned to absolute perfection. Two weeks of relaxing on the Amalfi coast in the Nastro Azzurro hotel, followed by two weeks of travelling around Northern Italy and racing in the beautiful italian mountains. Firstly in the prestigious Tre-Refugi relay and then the World Mountain Running Masters Championships a week later in Susa. It’s the stuff dreams are made of and needless to say after a month of hard racing in July, my body was definitely ready for a well-earned break.
“OBSESSED IS JUST A WORD THE LAZY USE TO DESCRIBE THE DEDICATED”
It will probably come as no surprise to most people reading this when I say I was still planning to train whilst on holiday. Mainly because I was staying in an all-inclusive hotel and there was a real fear that my GB vest may turn into a crop top after some serious over indulging on good italian food and fine wine. There was also another reason I wanted to continue training – I just love running! Now I understand that to 99% of the world’s population, running on holiday is a criminal offence. But to me it’s a lifestyle choice – it’s also the best way to explore new places and create memories that will last forever.
Pictured above: Il Sentiero degli Dei (The Path of the Gods)
The night before we were due to fly I searched the internet for mountainous places to run with spectacular views. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for – Il Sentiero degli Dei (The Path of the Gods). The name alone filled me with excitement. Within minutes I was downloading maps, visualising routes and planning my italian adventures. Then shortly after I had a major breakthrough – accidentally stumbling upon the Trail Running Campania website and completely hitting the jackpot! Unbelievably there was a night race in Praiano (15km from my hotel) the day after I was due to arrive in Sorrento – Night Trail Praia San Domenico. My mind was working overtime – would it be possible for me to enter and take part in the race? Would I be able to master the public transport system and find my way to registration? Most importantly – would I be able to persuade my wife to let me run? The latter obviously was the biggest and potentially the most expensive barrier in my quest to do the race. I knew it would require some serious powers of persuasion and it would undoubtably cost me money in the airport duty-free as compensation.
Pictured above: The race poster from the Trail Campania website.
I think it’s pretty obvious what happened next. My running kit and x-talons went straight into my suitcase and I emailed the race organiser, Michele, who confirmed I’d be able to race. Next mission – try not to get too drunk on Friday night (er…didn’t happen! Whoops!) and then safely attempt to get to Praiano.
“I COULDN’T HELP FEELING HOW LUCKY I WAS TO BE IN SUCH A BEAUTIFUL PART OF THE WORLD”
I’d barely even unpacked before I found myself waiting for a bus, dressed in full race kit. Needless to say I got a few strange looks from the locals as I stood on the roadside praying that the public transport service wouldn’t let me down. Aside from my hangover, it was here that I faced my first problem. The local tabaccheria had no bus tickets left and it was the only shop in the tiny village of Colli Di San Pietro where I was staying. I was just going to have to hope the bus driver would take pity on us.
After a nervous wait, the bus arrived and I did my best to explain to the driver (in my finest Yorkshire/Italian) that we didn’t have tickets. Cue a few fake tears, a dash of charm and major over use of the words ‘grazie mille’. Finally he gave in to my pathetic plea and let us both on for free. I was so relieved I’d almost forgotten about how many cocktails I’d downed the night before and started to look forward to how amazing it was going to be running on the path of the gods.
Pictured above: The beautiful town of Positano (www.winewedsandmore.com)
As the bus travelled down the famous Amalfi coast I couldn’t help thinking how lucky I was to be in such a beautiful part of the world. First we passed through Positano, the area’s most picturesque and photogenic town, with it’s rows of tiny houses tumbling down to the sea in a cascade of sun-bleached pink and terracotta colours. It’s the kind of town that should be on everyone’s bucket list of places to visit. A few minutes later we arrived at our destination, Praiano, known as the heart of the Amalfi and perhaps boasting the most romantic and fascinating views of the coast. I’ve been fortunate enough to race in some amazing places but this has to be an entry that goes straight in at number 1.
“HE’S THE FINEST RUNNER IN CAMPANIA AND THE DEFENDING CHAMPION OF THE RACE”
Perhaps it was a stroke of luck that we ended our bus journey in Praiano. For as soon as we’d stepped off, the driver ploughed straight into the side of an oncoming car and demonstrated just how dangerous it is to drive on the Amalfi roads. They must get paid a fortune in danger money! We didn’t hang about to observe the carnage it caused to the traffic, as we immediately faced our next challenge – finding the start of the race. In typical fashion I’d not researched the map to see where we needed to be, I just assumed there’d be signs pointing us in the right direction (typical bloke!). I put my finest Yorkshire/Italian to good use again and asked a few of the locals where we needed to go. ‘Up’ was the answer and sure enough after a few minutes of steep climbing we found a sign that convinced us we were on the right track. Now when I say ‘up’ what I really mean is ‘steep up!’ Getting to the start was the equivalent of climbing Trooper Lane. ‘This is going to cost me more money’ I thought, as I felt an angry burning glare from my wife.
After successfully finding race registration I then had to explain to the organiser that I was the crazy English tourist who had emailed him the night before. First question in italian – Did I have a medical certificate? Er…no! Time for some more Yorkshire/Italian, a woeful ‘please take pity on me’ face and a huge reassurance that I’d run a few mountain races in the past. Phew! It worked. Now just to translate the registration form…‘Parla Inglese’? Answer: ‘No.’ Thankfully someone behind me in the cue replies ‘Si’! It’s music to my ears. Cue the arrival of the hero in my story – Leonardo Mansi. He’s the finest runner in Campania and the defending champion of the race (although I didn’t realise this at the time). Leonardo looks every inch the athlete – small, light and exceptionally lean. He’s dressed in full Salomon regalia and it’s clear from his impressive physique that this is the man to try and beat. He also happens to be the nicest guy you could ever wish to meet and extremely modest about his athletic ability.
Pictured above: The smile masks my fear of getting lost during the race.
With registration complete, it was now time to focus on the race and pray that my £5 headtorch from China (Ebay special) would survive the night. Or rather – pray the batteries (I borrowed from a TV remote in the hotel) would last the duration of the race!
As clearly the only foreigner in the race I stood out like a sore thumb. I began to warm up, conscious of the fact that I was being sized up by all the other athletes. You didn’t have to speak italian to know what everyone was thinking. Who is this crazy Englishman who’s turned up to compete in this tough mountain race? Why is he not sat in a bar drinking cocktails and eating pizza like all the other thousands of British holidaymakers? He’s either a decent runner or one crazy loon! I suspected that most were thinking the latter. Leonardo approached. ‘Ben. What’s your best time for a 10K?’ I replied in my best italian. Instantly the mood changed and there was lots of frantic chatter amongst the other runners. It seemed I’d just suddenly become the pre-race favourite. Oh s**t! I thought. Why didn’t I just lie?!! I’m gonna have to win this bloody race now!
I’m stood on the start line. I’m wondering if I’ve made the right decision to enter a mountain race on the first day of my relaxing 4 week holiday. I’m worried I might get lost, I’m worried about my crappy headtorch and now I’m worried about not winning. I don’t have a clue where the race goes and the finish is in a different place to the start. This could easily turn into an absolute nightmare. I know I have to start sensibly so the trademark ‘scalded cat’ start goes straight out of the window. I’m following Leonardo and I’ll see how it goes after the first mile.
As the race begins I’m caught in the middle of the pack and it’s a real fight to get to the front. I dodge and weave before eventually settling behind the lead group. We sprint through the narrow paved streets, full of twists, sharp turns and steps. Steps – I’d best get used to that word because I’ll be running up and down thousands of them before I reach the finish. There’s almost a good kilometre of fast running before we hit the first climb and begin to climb hundreds of (you guessed it!) steps which seemed to last forever. It was here that I decided to throw caution to the wind and abandon my race plan. In a moment of madness I injected some pace and quickly opened up a lead on those behind. There was plenty of doubt in my mind as I feared I’d gone too hard, too early. But it was too late now, I had to stick with my brave decision and continue to work the climb.
Pictured above: Working hard on the climb as I approach the ‘Path of the Gods’ (courtesy of Fabio Fusco).
“THIS WAS THE MOMENT I’D BEEN WAITING FOR – THESE WERE THE VIEWS THAT HAD TEMPTED ME FROM THE COMFORT AND LUXURY OF MY HOTEL”
As I began to settle into a steady rhythm I was taking the steps two at a time and feeling pretty strong. I kept glancing back to see if there was anyone behind but to my relief I’d established a very commanding lead. My fears of getting lost were also put to rest, as the course was really well-marked with red and white tape. Leonardo had reassured me of this before the race but I wasn’t sure if he was just trying to tempt me into shooting off at the start in the hope that I might get lost. I should have had more faith in him, he is after all one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.
Finally, the steps began to disappear (for a short time) and I turned a sharp right as the route joined the ‘Path of the Gods’. This was the moment I’d been waiting for – these were the views that had tempted me from the comfort and luxury of my hotel. Part of me wished I could’ve paused for a few minutes to enjoy the beautiful sunset and amazing panoramic views. Instead I was a panting, sweaty mess but it didn’t stop me from glancing round from time to time to appreciate exactly where I was.
Pictured above: The sun sets over the Amalfi coast (courtesy of Fabio Fusco).
As I reached the highest point of the race, I sensed that I was soon approaching the main descent. It was a relief because the light was fading fast and I didn’t trust my headtorch enough to solely rely on it’s beam. It was because of this I sensed the urgency to increase the pace, running so quickly downhill that I’m sure the local spectators thought I’d stolen something. The descent was a series of steep and very thin steps. I was taking some big risks. The kind of risks you shouldn’t really take when you don’t have additional travel insurance for a serious mountain race. I tried not to think too much about that but instead just focussed on not breaking a leg as I bounded down, taking 4-5 steps at a time. There were a couple of moments where I nearly lost control. There were lots of hairpin turns, sharp corners, steep rock jumps and all the time I was looking further down the path so I didn’t take a wrong turn. Although I was flirting with serious injury, I can’t remember the last time I felt so alive. It was an amazing feeling – charging down the mountain at breakneck speed. People pay good money to ride on rollercoasters and here I was getting nature’s version for free (OK aside my 10 euro entry fee). I knew then, in this moment, that I’d made the right decision to race. It was worth all the worry, the travelling and the effort to get here. I was completely in my element. This is what I’d come to Italy for.
I was disappointed when the fun finally had to come to an end. I’d descended to sea level and by now it was pitch black. As predicted my headtorch was as good as you’d expect for £5. I might as well have been running with my iphone in hand, using the glare from its screen to guide my way. Nevertheless it did make the last section of the descent a little more exciting as there was a small wooded section before the main road in complete darkness. I wasn’t hanging around either!
“I’M NOT EMBARRASSED TO SAY I WAS SUFFERING. SUFFERING BADLY.”
What goes up, must come down. Or vice-versa in this case. I felt ready for the finish but a firm reality check told me there was still a long way to go with plenty more climbing to come. I glanced at my watch which read 8km. I still had another 3k to go and it was all up! This is gonna hurt! I thought. To be honest, at this point I don’t think I quite realised just how much! I felt strong on the first few flights of steps but then I quickly began to tire. Heavy legs from crazy descending and an unquenchable thirst that seriously threatened my chances of winning. I wasn’t used to this heat, even at night it was still too warm. I’d also drank the last of my water at 6km. Time to tough it out.
As a long-suffering Leeds United fan I’m no stranger to pain but this was one of those occasions where I was going so far into the hurt locker that I couldn’t see a way out. I had no idea how many more steps were left to climb and I was even glancing back to see if I could see the glare from another headtorch. I’m not embarrassed to say I was suffering. Suffering badly. I’d love to say that I felt amazing, that I blew the rest of the field away with ease. But I’d be lying, it simply wasn’t the case. I don’t think people always realise just how much elite athletes push themselves during races. Lots of my friends see me at the top of the race results and think that winning just comes naturally, that I just turn up on the day and cruise to victory. Let me just confirm that I’ve never in my life ‘cruised’ to a win. If anything I can’t remember the last time where I wasn’t absolutely trashed and completely ruined after a race. So trashed that I’m on the verge of collapsing and gasping for air, as I struggle frantically to get my breathing under control. This was another one of those occassions. I literally squeezed every last drop of energy to get the finish, used every ounce of strength I had to climb that last set of steep steps. A few of the spectators near the top were cheering me on but I couldn’t even speak or raise a hand to say thanks. I must’ve looked like the slowest, sweatiest and least impressive race winner they’d ever seen. But I didn’t care. Because as soon as I saw that finishing tape I sprinted across the line with everything I had left and collapsed on the floor, gasping for air and struggling to breath.
You might at this point be wondering if I still thought this race was a good idea? The answer is easy. Of course it was, it always is. Even when I’m on my absolute physical and mental limit, going through the worst kind of pain imaginable – it’s always worth it.
Pictured above: Leonardo Mansi (L), me and Luigi Ruocco (R)
What made this victory even sweeter was that I’d broken the course record and won by over six minutes. It seemed that the rest of the field were also suffering on that last climb. I was relieved to hear it wasn’t just me. Had I known at the time I might have walked those lastfew sets of steps and taken it a little bit easier to the finish. Or perhaps not. Who am I trying to kid? I only have one race mode and that’s ‘eyeballs out’ all the way.
I was really happy to see Leonardo finish in second place, followed by Luigi Ruocco in third. Luigi improved his time from the previous year by minutes and I think it’s also the first time he’s made the podium. It was the performance of the night in my eyes. After the race we chatted, we ate and we soaked up the amazing atmosphere. It was a world away from the bustling streets of Sorrento and I really felt like I was experiencing the ‘real’ Amalfi coast and not just the tourist hotspots. For me this race was all about enjoying a unique experience. I had the pleasure of running on new, spectacular mountain trails and I made friendships and memories that will last a lifetime. THIS is the reason I run.
“THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE”
What also made the night for me was the generosity and warmth of the italian people. Firstly Leonardo who looked after us, the race organiser and his team who made us feel so welcome and finally Luigi, who gave us a lift home at the end of the night after we missed our bus. I was most grateful. Expecially as he’d travelled to the race with his young family and he’d clearly driven out of his way to take us back to our hotel. He asked for nothing in return so I offered him my prize of a one night stay in a 5* hotel in Praiano. I felt it was the least I could do to match his kind generosity. Besides, I’d also won a beautiful ceramic bowl, hand crafted in Positano, so this would serve as a perfect reminder of such a wonderful race. You’ll be pleased to know that it’s still in one piece and I haven’t dropped or smashed it…yet! 😉
A few days after the race I enjoyed an amazing day of running from Ravello to the top of Monte Cerreto with Leonardo, Luigi and Giovanni Tolino. I travelled over 4 hours in total that day via bus and moped but it was worth every effort. I must thank them all for giving me such amazing memories and showing me such a beautiful part of Italy that I would never have experienced on my own.
It’s true what they say…the best things in life really are free.
Leonardo’s hotel (Parsifal) is also worthy of a mention. If anyone is seriously considering a break to the Amalfi coast to relax (or run!) then this is the place to go. It also boasts one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen from it’s terrace.
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