Running in the mountains with my mates makes me feel very alive. So I thought an international trip to the Italian Dolomites could be something to aim to for a 40th birthday celebration with the lads. Then Ron went to Bologna for a sabbatical, and the PHE conference lined up and suddenly serendipity happened in 2016.
RON’s editorial notes: This run was entirely Mike’s idea, as was this write-up. I’ll leave Mike’s work largely untouched and merely add a note here and there when he shows signs of senility or delusion (he is approaching 40 you know).
So there we were, Ron and I getting off the train at Porretta ready for 3 days of running in the Italian Apennines. The Apennines are not as famous as their Northern counterparts the Dolomites [RON: earthquakes aside], but the tight timeframes we were working to meant that the much closer location (and ready access by train) meant the Apennines were the way to go.
Somehow I managed to break the Indian Summer, and my arrival in Italia marked the end of the Golden weather. But we started up the hill, running alongside the river in a baking hot Emilia-Romagna day.The trails in Italy are marked by a white and red stripe sign, which is great because you often get a reminder of what trail you are on mid-run (when they bother to include the trail code). The downside of this system is that it is often hard to appreciate degraded red and white paint on a weathered, rough surface (Italy has a few) and they aren’t reflective so low light makes the visualisation task harder. But it does mean you get to play spot the marker as you run though rocky trails, and holiday villages.[RON: Now before we get started, by the time Mike actually turned up fit and fresh off the plane I’d gone through a good 15+ iterations of a possible 3 day mountain run. The original criteria of keeping to high alpine ridges had somewhat diminished as serviced lodging and lunch re-supply options disappeared following the end of the Italian vacation/trekking season. Aside from lunch and lodging requirements the route needed quick evac (as we were travelling v.light) and bad weather re-routing options. And it needed to be relatively easy to navigate in all conditions (the network of marked and unmarked trails can get overwhelming in places). So we headed for some loosely defined loops in the regional park Corno alle Scale.]
Day 1: River to Lake to Village to Mountain.
We had a bit of trouble following the marked paths on our way to Lago di Suviana and ended up on some of the local roads. Not ideal, but these roads are about as pleasant as you will ever encounter – low traffic volumes and amazing scenes of old-Italiana life as you run past small farms and orchards. The heart rate would rise with the barking dogs approaching, but only once were they not contained by a fence. Saw some wild deer in the forest once we re-found the trail which was pretty cool.
We had a late start so by the time we dropped down to the Lake we were ready for a lunch stop. This happened to be at a local restaurant, who were gracious and happy to host us sweaty runners inside [RON: nothing ‘happened’ here – this was a planned eating location]. We enjoyed a pasta [RON: I had a wild hare ragu and tagliatelle, think Mike had gnocchi in a simple tomato sauce] and beer and made our way onward.
The lake was obviously feeling the effects of a dry summer so the views at waters-edge were not spectacular. We retraced our steps up to the ridge, then onto a new track as we headed down toward the river crossing at Pavana. This was a neat piece of trail with wild berries in the open and the shade from the pine forest a welcome relief from the 25+C temps we were facing.Across the river we traversed around the face of a steep escarpment and staying on the contour, made our way from one ancient village/holiday spot to the next. This was a similar running experience to the Eastern Okataina walk away – lots of leaf litter and variations in gradient without any significant hills. Trail finding (marker finding) was an issue, but we made steady progress. This took us back to the river at Moline del Pallone and we were ready for the final run for the day – the climb to Mount Cavallo and its namesake rifugio.
This was a rugged climb, initially past some more beautiful towns, and then through more pine forest. 25+ degrees of both temperature and gradient for hours is a good recipe for weariness. Add to this the nasty horseflies who buzzed around your head and then landed to bite you (hateful hateful creatures) and it was a good bit of running slog. And we spotted more wildlife – wild boar.
[RON: it wasn’t until about lunchtime we were actually sure that the rifugio was actually open and expecting us – I had left some unanswered messages and we had our fingers crossed when we set off.]
But we made it up to our rifugio and rest point just before 7pm. Our host Maria was a character. A bit hard on the exterior (not happy with our later than guessed arrival), she was very proud of the rifugio and the region and was soon won over by Ron’s Italian [RON: I think it was more my charm than my Italian Mike] and our obvious delight and wonder for the trail in the area. So a hot shower, and cooked dinner of local delights (including locally harvested chestnut pappardelle, tortelloni, porchetta, oven potatoes, and vegetables) and a half litre of wine was just the thing for weary runners to make our sleep super sound that night. [RON: I should also note that Mike got scolded by Maria for eating the bread she left as a trap before she started serving food]
Day 2: The Weather Wins
We woke up bright and early (well I did, thanks jet lag) and had a typical Italian breakfast of cookies, cake and coffee. Then it was out into the moody grey clouds for our attempt along the ridge and into the high alpine region of the park. The clouds thickened in that first hour, and the rain started, a little drizzle becoming proper rain. But the temperature was good, we began at 1287m and climbed up to 1500m or so, but the temperature was probably in the low teens, very pleasant for rain on the mountains. Then the thunder started. Distant at first. We were taking stock underneath a hut on the ridge when the sky lit up and within 3 seconds an earth-shaking long roll of thunder made us take notice.
It’s fair to say that Ron was less bothered than I, his eyes alight at the drama around us. I was more aware of the potential for death (low odds, but still real). Our original plan was to stay on this ridge for hours and work our way up above the treeline at around 2000m. This was not such a good idea anymore so we made quick plans for a new route. We would swing down the hill to Piannaccio village for lunch before climbing back to our rifugio for the night at Segavecchia [RON: Good call Mike, I’m attacted to lightning, not sure if it’s mutual].
The run downhill in sometimes torrential rain was one of the best rain-runs of my life. The trail was gorgeous, very runnable and we were warm so it was super fun cruising along (except when the thunder would freak me again on occasion). Spotted a few fire salamanders on the way down too [RON: Despite my encouragement for Mike to give them a lick, he refused. Turns out to be a good call as they can as cause strong muscle convulsions, hypertension/hyperventilation, death, etc.].We wound our way down and arrived at the beautiful little village ready for a feed. Once again, the Italian welcome was very generous. Ron would get a good conversation going while I smiled and nodded like a simple but good tempered cousin. Some of the laughs surely came at my expense, but if that built rapport with the locals, then I would happily wear that.
We were more than happy to sit outside for our meals, saturated as we were. But Marco, the owner, got a coat rack out for all our wet gear and kindly ushered us inside by the fire. We were then treated to a glorious two course (three if you count Ron’s gelato) meal [RON: today we order a local bottle of red (premium sangiovese), I don’t recall Mike’s primo but I had a bean, ham and pasta soup, and we followed it up with crescintine (a lard fried hot bread served with cured meats, cheese), and finished with espresso]. We even had wifi (especially nice when roaming data is $10/Mb). Marco then sent us on our way with a glass of his home made mint liquor. What a guy!
The road climbed up for about 3k to the rifugio, and we were there a bit earlier than expected with our reduced course. So we did a little loop before coming back down to Segavecchia, notching up a few extra kms and some serious vertical meters as nearly everywhere went up from our valley.Another hot shower [RON: Well one of us did, you used up all the hot water] another great welcome from the proprietors. We were joined at this establishment by a group of 6 Italian hikers in their 60s. This made for a more boisterous atmosphere than the night before where we were Maria’s only guests. Another amazing meal sourced from local ingredients, three courses of bliss, red wine and noccino [RON: we had a half litre of house red pre-dinner, some local lentil and grain dish to start, tagliatelle al ragu for primi, and for secondi Mike went for the pan fried scarmorza cheese with grilled vegetables while I went with the grilled sausage and vegetables, with another half litre of house red. I don’t remember if we had dessert – suspect we did]- this is how you run in the mountains people! After a less-than-excellent sleep (sharing a room with 6 old men is rather noisy with the continual toilet stops, farting and snoring), we got up early to give ourselves time to make the most of the final day.
Day 3: Alpine Redemption
The weather was forecast to improve on our last day, and we had just one shot to try to get above the treeline and into some real alpine stuff. We awoke to blue skies with clouds whistling by in the strong breeze. It was game on. Segavecchia is at 980m and the high point in this part of the range is Corna alle Scale at 1980m. You climb straight up the valley and get there in 3.5k. You do the math, there is some grunty gradient at the end there for sure. It soon got warm as we climbed, then cold again as we got higher. Just before the trees ended at 1600m we donned warmer layers still.
And then we were out, in the high mountain tussock, climbing hand over foot as the clouds moved in and out, sometimes giving us a glimpse of the glorious valley below. I’m still new at the alpine stuff and it was a thrill but I was keenly aware of my lack of knowledge, so the stoke was mixed with fear. Ron was forging ahead, and his experience was reassuring, though the more precarious spots of our climb sent his heart racing too [RON: I’m not one for heights and the wire-rope rock sections had me in a fearful state]. We summitted around 100 minutes after setting off. The wind was howling and clouds were rolling right across the top, but Ron had the sense to grab a photo before we scurried out off the cold.
Then we followed the ridgeline path back towards where we had got to on day two. A few km in, high up on the ridge track we found red and white striped tape across the path along with some high vis ‘do not remove’ flags. As this was our only sensible way off the mountain we were obliged to cross, though crossing tape across the track was something that caused another anxious few minutes. Still not sure what it indicated, there were no rockslides or washouts to be seen.
The conditions didn’t improve, but we got to be on the leeward side of the mountain at times, including at a mountain spring of rememberance on top. I grabbed a photo and had a swig of the cool water, thinking of Bumpa, who would enjoy this tale of mountain adventure. Till then.
We re-entered the forest after an hour and a half and were treated to some really lovely smooth single track. One of the cool features of this forest was the number of different environments you pass through: baking tussock with centuries-old houses (think of a classic picture of Italy), pine forest, beech forest, alpine meadows, river wetlands… So much variety.
We took a steady descending route into the town of Casteluccio for our final lunch stop. The meals had been getting bigger and here they reached a climax [RON: this last meal was always going to be epic. I’d already done a reccie here and started a rapport with the proprietor Daniela. We had local beer, a starter of bread hot from the oven, olives, oil, and a caper/olive/tomato paste, for primi I had a Sicilian pasta I don’t recall the name of with cima di rapa, and Mike amused Daniela with his pasta sauce combo (you order them independently) which she then kindly corrected so he ended up with a pumpkin gnocchi with sage and butter. Sadly I don’t recall secondi, but we finished with torta di cioccolato].
Three courses, when one alone had me satisfied. We just about rolled out, and the Grappa certainly helped [RON: Daniela tried to dissuade me out of the grappa here for a more refined drink, no chance!]. Not the smartest idea to eat to popping point when you have a 5k, 300m descent to do immediately after [RON: it took me a good few hundred metres before I could actually break into a run]. There was some discomfort as we bounced down the semi-urban trail back to Poretta and the train.
3 days. 75km, 5500m climb.
An amazing trip, and one I would gladly do again. However, that would require an Italian translator. Ron’s language and planning skills were both essential for this mission. Many of our initial plans were changed when rifugio owners said they weren’t actually open [RON: despite indications to the contrary a week or two before]. The ones we did manage to get to (which were great) said we were the first Kiwis to visit that they were aware of. So, my appreciation to Mr King and his planning and persuasion for getting this adventure off the ground.
I think we did a great job of making the best of the opportunities we had, and feel we were also sensible in changing our plans to accommodate the conditions. We played our hand well, and the memories will fuel me for a long time. Grazie amici, arrivederci!
[RON: If there’s ever a race that requires running after a 3 course meal with wine/beer/grappa I reckon we’re in with a shot Mike.]