Someone recently asked about my most memorable trail run. Gosh, it’s hard to pick the most memorable. But I might describe a marathon through mountains not far from Florence on my 41st birthday, where I was the only American and surrounded by Italians while running through a mossy forest. Ridge-top views revealed cloud-filled canyons, and verdant peaks of nearby hills poked through the mist like islands. A stone cottage housing an alpine club came into view midway on the course, and several white-haired volunteers dressed in aprons stepped forward. They began pouring glasses of red wine—yes, wine at around Mile 14!—and dishing up bowls of steaming penne.
At this Tuscan version of an aid station, I pulled an energy gel from my hydration pack, held the foil packet for all to see, and said to one who spoke English, “In California, this is what we consume on long runs.” I was laughing, as though presenting something as ridiculous and alien as space food, and when the man translated my sentence for the others, they all pointed and laughed, too. “Mangia, mangia!” they told me. “Penne pomodoro o pesto?” Only in Italy!
Around this time of year, many people are planning a trip to Italy, or at least dreaming about it. They’re probably picturing the Coliseum, the Grand Canal, the Duomo, the Vatican, the David, the fashionable women, the plates of pasta—all the iconic images that inspire masses to visit and fall in love with Italy in spite of its crowds and political circus.
Everyone should see those cultural and historical treasures, but I’d also urge any visitor to go to the countryside to run or hike. Our family traveled through Northern Italy for more than a month last year, and running—or hiking, with the kids in tow—enhanced our appreciation for the country and its people immeasurably.
What follows are suggestions on where to run, including links to several running events. If your travel dates can’t line up with them, the websites can be a useful starting point nonetheless for mapping an excursion in the region. (Get ready to use Google Translator, as most are in Italian.)
I’m extremely grateful to our friends Luciano Zanardo and Serena Richardson, who provided these tips. They’re a trail-running couple who divide their time between Berkeley and Treviso (near Venice), and they helped Morgan and me tour the region and register for races. If you don’t have local contacts, consider a tour with an outfit such as Dolomite Sport.
“Trail running is flourishing in Italy, with a calendar that’s getting pretty busy,” says Luciano. “The north and center tend to be more active, and the whole region around Florence and Siena has great hills and events. Spirito Trail is the biggest online community and resource for trail running.”
Luciano and Serena’s favorite event takes place near Siena on October 16: Ecomaratona del Chianti 42K (26 miles and 3000 feet elevation gain), with 18K and 10K options. “The course is rolling, mainly through dirt roads and not super technical,” says Luciano. “The atmosphere is great, food is delicious, and views are varied and sometimes surprising, between nature and ancient little villages.” Adds Serena: “The marathon leaves from and finishes in the center square of Castelnuovo Berardenga, a small town near Siena. The organizers provide dinner before and lunch after the race, abundant aid stations, and thorough orientation and instructions throughout. We stayed at a beautiful agritourismo a short drive away, Agriturismo Montaperti, but there are also hotels right in Castelnuovo Berardenga so one could roll out of bed to the starting line. This could be a good destination race for the whole family.”
On the first weekend in May, my favorite run described in the opening paragraph takes place in Prato, “Da Piazza a Piazza.” It’s actually a two-day event totaling 75K (47 miles and 12,000 feet elevation gain), but you can do what I did: just the first day’s 40K (slightly shorter than a real marathon). The event is noncompetitive—there was no official start time; people just embarked on the course whenever they showed up—and it’s designed more for hikers, with a minority running the course. The event gets is name because it starts in the town “piazza” (public square) in Prato, runs through mountains to the first day’s finish in the piazza of Montepiano, and returns a different route to Prato.
For hard-core trail ultrarunners, Luciano recommends the June 5 Trail Del Malandrino 70K (47 miles, 15,000 feet elev.).
Summer is the best time for running and hiking this mountain range in northeastern Italy. The weather is more mild, the “rifugi” (mountain huts or lodges) are open, and races are organized, says Luciano. “Between the end of July and the third week of August, they’re pretty crowded and it might be difficult to enjoy solitary single tracks in the most famous venues.” He suggests going toward the end of June or early July, or late August to early September.
The Lavaredo Ultra Trail 90K (56 miles, 17,000 feet) on July 2 is “tough, tough, tough, but the organizers are really passionate about the Dolomites and trail running,” says Luciano. Register early, as it fills quickly.
For an easier course—relatively speaking—consider the Transcivetta 23.5 K (15 miles, 6400 feet elev.) in mid-July (date TBD). “It’s teams of two people, great views, pretty rocky and technical, but it’s relatively short and one can take it slow.”
On September 18, 40 miles north of Venice, the Troi de Cimbri 55K (34 miles, 10,000 feet elev.) takes place. “The middle part runs through a wonderful forest located in a plateau 3000 feet above sea level,” says Luciano. “It’s a top-grade yet friendly and family-style organization. I can’t recommend this one enough.”
We found paradise while renting an apartment for a week in Vernazza, near the middle of the Cinque Terre’s stretch of coastal villages. The popular trail connecting all the towns gets quite crowded midday, so head out early. Trail maps and permits (there’s a toll system to use the trails) are easily available in each little town. Look on the map for Trail #8, my favorite, less-crowded alternative.