Northern Italy: Races and Places to Run and Hike, Dolce-Vita Style

Ordering pasta and wine at an aid station midway through the "Da Piazza a Piazza" trail run near Prato, Italy.

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.

That's me running the Cinque Terre trail between Vernazza and Monterosso.

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.”

Serena and Luciano (left) with Morgan and me at a 10K trail run in the Prosecco wine region near Treviso. All participants received bottles of wine!

Near Florence:

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.”

Running the Ecomaratona del Chianti (photo courtesy of Serena Richardson)

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.

A stretch of trail on the Da Piazza a Piazza course.

For hard-core trail ultrarunners, Luciano recommends the June 5 Trail Del Malandrino 70K (47 miles, 15,000 feet elev.).

The Dolomites

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 didn't run in the Dolomites proper, but we hiked and ran a stretch of the Alps to the west, above Lago Garda. My son Kyle hiked around the top of this ski area!

Cinque Terre

Vernazza, probably our favorite destination in all of Italy.

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.

Want more ideas? Search “Italy” on, and check out one more site Luciano recommends: Il PalettoBuon viaggio!

A Cinque Terre hillside along the coastal trail near Vernazza.

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7 Responses to Northern Italy: Races and Places to Run and Hike, Dolce-Vita Style

  1. Renato February 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    According to the organizers the next edition of Ecomaratona del Chianti is October 16th 2011.

    • Sarah February 4, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

      Thanks, Renato – I fixed that date!

  2. Naomi February 4, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    While I have always dreamed of going to Italy, I never considered it for a running trip. This post makes me want to go there even more! Those rolling dirt roads look like a runner’s bliss!

  3. masmassy February 10, 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    Hello there! I feel so proud reading your post about the “Piazza a Piazza”, the two days walk around the Bisenzio Valley in Tuscany. I was there too, for sure… and yes, it is true that most of the walkers do that just to eat every two hours of walking. It is not that common to read such an objective and pleasant narration about Italy by an American. I hope you’ll be there this year too, I can’t wait for it to start and most of all, I so need to know that people from abroad still like our land and food and traditions no matter what is lately on the news. Maybe we will be running to celebrate Berlusconi’s entrance in Jail!!!

  4. Leslie Gerein February 13, 2011 at 5:35 pm #

    WOW, Sarah! Just discovered your new blog and I love the idea: a blog for those of us who love to travel and run trails. Sweet. I went to Italy in September to do the Ultimate Running Tour of the Aosta Valley – a 330 km race called the Tor Des Geants. No doubt I’ll be back to enjoy the Alta Via trails in the future, maybe at a more leisurely pace. I see you’re hoping to do Trans Rockies this year – find a partner and do it! It’s like going to summer camp for grown-ups, you’ll love it.

  5. Mike Salvano January 3, 2015 at 4:28 pm #

    I would like to run a half marathon or full a couple of hours south of milan.
    Any suggestions?
    Than Mks Mike


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