80km and almost 2,500 metres of vertical through the mountains, forests, villages and vineyards northeast of Florence. Starting and finishing in the Piazza Michelangelo, a hilltop square offering the most famous views of the city. This EcoTrail 80km is what destination-race dreams are made of.

All photos by Dave Wise

Usually I make my first race of the season one in which I can do my best. Maybe set a PB in to start the year off on a high note. The spring is when I’m fresh from winter training and rested because I haven’t raced for a few months, so I generally see it as a time that represents a great opportunity to realise my full potential.

Take last year, for instance. I ran my last marathon of 2017 in the November, then had a month off before starting to prepare for the Malta Marathon. I trained smart and went into the race in late February, 2018, feeling fantastic, and as a result knocked 9 minutes off my PB, finishing in just over 3:03. It felt great to start a season with such success!

But this year is going to be different. The winter temperatures at home in Toronto have regularly dropped to below -15C during the past 3 months, making training outside for more than 2 hours at a time a struggle. And what trails there are in the city had become ice rinks by December, so any hope of getting any vertical training in over rough ground was quickly squashed.
Of course, there were indoors training facilities if all I was looking for was long-run fitness, but a running track was never going to give me the leg and core strength necessary to take on an 80k trail race with over 2,400 metres of climbing.

So why have I chosen a race I’ve no chance of running a PB in, as my season opener?

Well, apart from the fact that I’ve started to view timings and placings as a race’s boobie prizes (but that’s another blog post for another time!) I’d first run an EcoTrail event in Paris, several years ago, and loved it. We’d started the 50k in cold sunshine near the Palace of Versailles before running through 40k of hilly, stark post-winter woodland and emerging onto a grassy slope with Paris arrayed below us. I remember the exhaustion of a hard run evaporating as I’d spotted the Eiffel Tower. That was where the finish line was, right under this iconic monument, just 10k away!

That had been the high point of the race for me, not the finish but that moment where I held trail running and high culture in the same focus, in the same passionate feeling. I love the trails, mountains and forests but I also love art, interesting architecture and opportunities to further my education and powers of discernment so to combine them all in a race experience is for me a huge win, and to realise that during a race was a memorable moment, one of the finest of a long running career. And now I had the opportunity to do it again, in Florence, one of the centres of fine art! How could I do anything other than grasp that opportunity!

It’s clear I guess, I’m excited for the race. The 80km route will take in villages that I’d read about in classic books (such as Fiesole, which had first come to my attention in ‘A Room With A View’) and I’ll be running through the very vineyards that give birth to Chianti wine. There’ll be some mountains to explore that I’ve read nothing at all about and also, after it all, I’ll still be in Florence, surrounded by the art of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Botticelli, as well as some of the finest food in all of Europe.

So I’d signed up with no hesitation and now race expo day has arrived and here I am, holding my race bib pack, looking out over the red roofs of Florence to the mountains beyond. I know that they’re going to kick my butt big time tomorrow and I don’t care one little bit. I feel the full joy and appreciation of being able to contemplate finishing a tough 80k ultra as I move into my 51st year; I’m so lucky, and grateful.

I make a few selfies in front of a full-size copy of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ statue and take another long look at the 280 degree panorama of city and mountain.
I enjoy the birds chattering among the olive trees, and the friendly, down-to-earth vibe of the other competitors who are, like me, soaking up the sun and the occasion. Then I begin the walk down the hill – towards the throngs of tourists promenading over the Ponte Vecchio – and onward to an early night at my B&B.

12 hours later I’m strolling back across the Ponte Vecchio, only this time the crowds are gone and it’s just me, enjoying the first rays of sunrise illuminating the medieval buildings. I haven’t even started the event and already the day is one to remember; sharing this iconic, beautiful site with no-one but a few sleepy birds is something I’ll remember forever.
I’m feeling remarkably calm and rested. Usually I sleep badly before a big race, but not last night. Maybe that’s partly because my B&B – Velonas Jungle – is luxuriously comfy and extremely quiet, or that my dinner – at Il Vegano – was clean, tasty and nutritious. And maybe partly because the pressure is off. I know I can’t perform at my highest level in this race so all there is to do is completely relax into the experience. The weather forecast is predicting a high of 20C and sun, and I’ve got all day to complete a distance that I’d usually expect to knock off in under 9 hours; this is going to be a dream day of running in the Tuscan hills!

It’s a little chilly at race HQ, the wind whips in from the mountains and across Piazza Michelangelo. A growing band of racers huddles inside a large tent. Many of them look like they’ve got some solid winter training in and many years of hard won experience – thighs like tree trunks are the norm. I hadn’t expected anything else, trail running has long been a popular sport in Italy and France – where most of the competitors come from – and whatever race you choose in those countries you know the standards are going to be high. I hear many languages in the gentle hum of conversation, this is a true international event. English spoken with UK, US and Canadian accents, French from France, Belgium and Switzerland, Spanish with hints of Mexico and Argentina, German, Russian, Greek, Slovakian, Polish, and a few more I can’t recognise. With five minutes to go we walk out to stand under the flapping ‘Salomon’ and ‘Suunto’ flags, our brightly-coloured clothes shimmering.

I take a deep drink from a water bottle that I’ve filled with 4 hazelnut cappuccinos. I love the feeling of a caffeine buzz kicking in just as the inspirational music starts a few minutes before the race begins. I move towards the front, I want to be in the start line photos. But many others have the same idea before me and the best I can do is 5 rows back. It’s ok, not that important. 10 seconds to go, ah, the sun isn’t warm yet but there’s nothing in the sky that says it won’t be later. I can’t tell you how good this feels after a long Canadian winter when the temperatures never climb above 0C. Just to be in shorts, about to run in green mountains, bliss. 5 seconds to go, I fully comprehend how lucky I am to be here. I smile, widely, and we’re off.

The track leads us immediately past a church and into a wooded area. I’m in the leading group of 20. The track is wide, I pass a few people. We move onto the road and head downhill, I pass a few more. I’ve studied the race route and know that the first 10km is either downhill or flat, so this is my chance to run to my full potential as I’m well trained on the flat. I know that running full out will come back to bite me later in the race but the mountains are going to do me in anyway. I may as well gain some ground here and just battle it out when the time comes. Maybe not the best strategy but it’s what I’m going with today!

The route flattens and takes us on a dirt trail alongside the Arno River. I squint into the sun, push hard but also make sure I enjoy the hazy scenery. A marshall says I’m in the top ten. I know it won’t last but I’m pleased with the effort so far. We head uphill past a series of small villages, Florence begins to spread out below my left hand.
Wow, I can see all the spires and the huge central dome of the Cathedral, the view makes my heart smile. The mountains rise away to my right, I’m in the shade of trees, the track is easy going and well marked. Life couldn’t be better.
I pass a couple of runners and accelerate away downhill before climbing again through another stone village where an old man stops clipping his vines, smiles and shouts ‘Bravi! Bravi!’. Really, even if I had all the money in the world, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing right now.

I move into thicker forest alternating with open heath land. Spring shows itself, the ground is scattered with primrose and violet, lizards scuttle among dead leaf debris, and the track is lined by bushes heavy with white blossom.

Now we’re into the more technical trails, I’m slowing down. A young guy flies past me on a tricky descent. I can’t follow. He’s skipping down a steep slope over unstable boulders with a confidence that says he does this every day. Maybe he does. If I tried that I’d turn an ankle pretty quick and my race would be over.

But it turns out he’s slower than me on the flat and uphill and I soon overtake him. We repeat this exchange of position several times over the next few kms. It feels good to be in a battle within a race. We reach the second checkpoint at Madonna del Sasso together; it’s in an old church, I’m unsure if I’ve ever seen such an impressive aid station…
I tuck into banana, orange, and biscuits and refill my water bottle with electrolyte drink. I’ve got a hydration backpack full of a sports drink to give me fuel on the run – there’s about 1,000 calories in there in total – and I’m not yet feeling the cramps that come with salt loss too much, but the sun is getting warmer and I’m trying to stack the odds in my favour as much as I can.

Trail events often differ from road marathons in several ways regarding care of the natural environment. The EcoTrail race regulations state that every runner has to carry their own reusable cup or water bottle; none of the plastic ones are offered at the aid stations. And if you’re seen discarding any trash – like a gel wrapper – anywhere but an aid station or trash bin, you’re disqualified. Fantastic, that’s how all races should be.

I leave the checkpoint first, make good ground on the flat path. But then it turns sharply downhill and the lad literally flies past me, I can’t believe he’s going as fast as he is. He’s either going to do fantastically well or he’s falling soon, for certain.
I let him go, put him out of my mind, enjoy the track as it leads past a mini waterfall and scrambles up over mossy rocks. I breach the hill and he’s there, 20 metres down the trail, lying on his left side, looking fearfully at his right leg. He rubs his thigh and then put his hand to his head, leans back into the undergrowth and swears. I can’t see any blood but his face says he’s done some serious damage. All thoughts of our little battle evaporate and I feel great sadness for him. We’re just 28kms into the race and it looks like his day is over.

‘What can I do?’ I pant. He shakes his head. I get painkillers out of my waist belt. ‘You want painkillers?’

‘No, I’ll be ok.’ I’m kind of pleased because I’ll probably need them after the first 50km.

‘You want help back to the checkpoint?’

‘No, go on, I can run.’

I carry on, as he says. I’ve done nothing for him but it’s all I can do really, offer the help, let him know there’s an option if he wants to bail, then get on with my own challenge.

An hour later I’m on a steep, limestone uphill section, squinting against the white glare of the rocks, giving it all I have, when he passes me. I gasp a ‘Bravi’, the lad’s got some guts for sure. He’s limping a little but he’s getting it done. Perhaps I’ll pass him again later but then again, this is the uphill, this is where I excel in our little exchange, yet he’s leaving me standing. Good for him, the trails have put him to the test and he’s responding with a great show of character. I feel proud to be in the same race as the lad.

We’re 35km in and I’m starting to feel my lack of training. The distance is no problem, it’s just the vertical metres that are killing me. My hip flexors and glutes are screaming and my quads are starting to do very weird things indeed. Shuddering, feeling one moment like they want to burst through my skin and turn outwards and next like they just can’t support me any more and will have me crashing to the ground any minute now.

Dammit, I should have trained better. I should have taken a few weeks out in February, flown south, got some serious mountain trail miles in. But how could I do that, I work full time, have a relationship to nurture, I can’t just take time out like that. No, no, the balance has been right, I worked out what the financial and emotional cost of doing better would be and decided against it. I got this right. It hurts like hell now but I knew this was coming, I knew I’d start to lose places as the race went on. Just cool it down, I tell myself, remember what you expect of yourself here, stop pushing so hard, get your phone out, snap some photos, the views are magnificent and this maybe the only time in your life that you’ll ever see them. It’s certainly a perfect day to be here. Clear skies, no haze, enjoy it.

41km in, I approach the 3rd checkpoint at Monte Senario, it’s a km away uphill. There’s a race photographer standing at the end of an avenue of cypress trees. It’s shady and cool and although I haven’t got much uphill running left in me I give it a bit of effort so my race photos have a chance of looking respectable. Vain I know, but I’ve never met a non-elite trail runner who doesn’t admit to thinking the same in the exhaustion of the moment.

I can’t imagine how on earth I am going to finish the 80km. Physically, I feel near to my end. I need to fool myself, to take my mind off the present, so I think of a D.H. Lawrence quote that I read yesterday that fits the situation right now…

‘For as we have candles to light the darkness of night, so the cypresses are candles to keep the darkness aflame in the full sunshine…’

Man, even without the cypress trees blocking out the sun all around, it feels dark right now. I stumble into the aid station buried under the church and gulp down minestrone soup. Then Coke, more soup, biscuits, fruit, and more Coke. I know the sugar rush will offer short lived energy and the crash will be coming, but I’ve got to gamble that I’m mentally strong enough to withstand it because physically I’m shot to pieces.

I’ve a full marathon to go with loads more elevation, I’ve said and thought it before but I have to confront the words, the feeling, again; I just don’t know how I’m going to finish. My head’s fine but my legs are jelly and now my ribs ache, an ache that’s spreading through my entire core, probably caused by the endless jolts, up and down.

There’s only one thing to do in a situation like this and that’s dig in and take what you can get from the experience. The track leading on from the aid station is very runnable. If I was feeling up to it I could push the pace hard here but as it is I poodle along on the flats, defend my thighs on the downhills, and give them a firm massage as I walk the ups. I pass a marshall who congratulates me for being in 8th position. I’m amazed, I feel like I’ve been going backward for hours but it seems that I’m doing ok really.

The large, grassy hilltop that I crest next has mind-blowing, smile-inducing views. I get my phone out and enjoy trying to work out how to capture it all.
‘Hey, you’re off track, this way!’ a girl shouts, she’s come up fast behind me and is now veering left down the grass into the valley. I look around, wow, she’s right, the view has distracted me, I’ve missed the markers. Lucky she was there or I’d be wandering off in the direction of Milan.

The kms are ticking down. Runners pass me and move away easily. The views never get any less beautiful. I feel a little sad that I can’t run at anywhere near full capacity. I’ve so much fitness inside me but a certain few muscles – hip flexors, glutes, quads – that I haven’t trained properly have the final say, and tell me that it’s a snail pace only for me until the finish line. It’s ok, I knew this was coming. I just have to remind myself of that and enjoy the day. Not actually very hard to do when the scenery is this special.

Alexis from France runs with me. We reach Fiesole and snap photos of each other standing at ‘The Window’ viewpoint with Florence laid out below us. We can see the finish line.
It’s just after 3pm and locals fill the sidewalk cafes, the clinking of wine and beer glasses has us wishing the last 20kms pass quickly.

‘Shall we stop for a quick beer?’ Alexis suggests.

‘Nice idea but I’m on my ass already,’ I say. ‘If I stop for beer it’s game over. We get a free beer at the finish line, yeah?’. Alexis nods and we run on.

I tell him to leave me, I can’t keep up.

‘Enjoy the cold one, I’ll be there soon enough,’ I say. The track is so runnable now, man, I wish I had the ability to use it. If you’re coming to run the event next year, bear this in mind. The first half of the race up to the 3rd aid station is the toughest, if you can save some of yourself for what comes after, you’ll smash it.

I keep moving, the last few kms are passing without incident, I’m happy with that, I make peace with myself. I’ve done well, I’ll finish. I’ve enjoyed a truly magnificent day in the Tuscan mountains, my ass has been kicked by nature and my own limitations, and my heart feel full as a result of all this. Like this morning I’m on the banks of the Arno, and similarly the sun is in my eyes only now it’s approaching sunset and the cotton wool-like flowers of riverside trees float and sparkle like faeries. The track is crowded with locals taking a stroll and many of them understand what the race has entailed.

‘Bravi! Bravi!’ they smile. Just a half hour to go!

The final hill is in shadow all the way, the trees close in, it’s gloomy but all is good, I know the Piazza Michelangelo is near. Loud finish-line music and garbled announcements overpower the traffic noise. I see a break in the trees, then the fluttering finish line flags. I’m slow now but I still take it down a notch, this is the time to high five, to smile wide, to bathe in the accomplishment of finishing a tough 80km race. I raise my arms for the final 20 metres, look beyond the finish line to the silhouette of the ‘David’ statue. What a place to finish a race! I start laughing, this is great. Call it what you like, runner’s high, ecstasy, being held within the divine embrace, I don’t care right now, it feels fantastic.

Alexis is sat at the base of the statue. He finished in just under 10.5 hours. I’ve taken nearly 11. That’s over 2 hours more than my usual time for this distance but all is ok.

‘The beers run out,’ says Alexis. Ok, maybe not everything is ok…

We sit in the sun and trade stories about the run. This half hour after a race offers such a good feeling; I’m exhausted, happy, accomplished. I don’t even care about the lack of beer really. I’m in a city, a country, that does wine very, very well. There’s a reasonably priced bottle of Brunello or Chianti with my name on it at any corner store in town. I’ll pick one up on the way back to the B&B, along with a big bag of salty chips and some chocolate. I can see myself now, showered, smiling, elated, lying in my soft bed looking out the window over red rooftops to the mountains, washing down all the treats with a fine wine. Excellent.

What a race it’s been. A solid test in beautiful surroundings, perfect weather that topped out at around 21C, very well marked trails, decent aid stations, and lovely volunteers. And now I’m lying in the sun talking about running, and soon I’ll be walking down into the city with another 5 days ahead of me in which I’ll visit all the museums, see all the art, opera and gardens, and eat all the food. Life could quite possibly be better but at the moment I can’t imagine how. Thank you Florence, thank you my fellow runners, and thank you EcoTrail!

To discover more about the EcoTrail Florence 80k and 50k, check out their website – https://florence.ecotrail.com/

GENERAL TRAVEL INFORMATION

Transport – I flew to Pisa from London with Easyjet. British Airways, which have a slightly better reputation for reliability, also make the trip. If you book far enough in advance you should find the fares to be about the same.
You can also fly direct to Florence but the fares are more expensive. I decided to fly to Pisa instead as there were more flights to choose from, they were cheaper, and the bus and train connections from Pisa to Florence are frequent and only take just over an hour.

Accommodation – I stayed at Velonas Jungle B&B, which is a 15-minute walk from the city centre and very convenient for the train station and the place where the airport bus drops you off. I loved this B&B, the rooms are amazing, the people very friendly, the breakfast (which is all vegetarian with plenty of vegan options) is first class and it’s very quiet. Book directly with them for the best deals – http://www.velonasjungle.com/en/
Food – Top choices for me in Florence for a tasty, good value meal that’s going to fuel you well for the big race, or help you recover afterwards, are:
Il Vegano – https://www.facebook.com/ilveganofirenze/
Borgo Firenze – https://www.borgofirenze.com/
La Pepiniere
Floret – https://www.floret-bar.com/
There’s also a superb food hall above the central market where you can get all kinds of food. I ate there a few times and was always happy – the pizza is very good.

Top Tip – In this city of great art, it would be a shame not to go to the opera. Our choice is Opera at St Mark’s The standard is high, the prices are low, and all profits go to charity.

It’s also likely that you will have heard of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ statue, which is at the Accademia Gallery. It’s wonderful, but the line up to get in is almost always very long. So if you don’t want to stand around for hours, consider going to the Bargello Sculpture Museum instead where you’ll probably walk straight in and find more excellent work by Michelangelo as well as a sublime version of ‘David’ by Donatello.

Download our free ‘City Guide to Florence’ for more in-depth information about what to do there.

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