“Andorra!”… “Australia!” … “Austria!” … As the race official called out our country names we took our designated place on the starting line in single file behind our team’s fastest runner. However, the narrow streets of the picturesque Italian town of Forno are simply not wide enough to provide all 40 countries with a spot on the starting line and soon athletes started piling up in front of us. Assuming they would be sent back behind the start line, I resisted the urge to creep forward despite now being near the back. This proved to be a poor decision on my behalf and the crowd in front of me was not sent back, even after most took off just before the gun went! I found myself bolting down the flat streets well behind where I would have liked to have been and knew I would have to focus on working my way up the field.
The 12km course for the World Mountain Running Championships commenced with two laps around the quaint town Forno, in which we would squeeze between some classic Italian alleyways. I tried to follow one of the Eritrean runners as he nimbly weaved his way through the bunched up pack, but could not match his incredible bursts of speed whenever an opening appeared. I begrudgingly accepted the fact my flat speed simply wasn’t good enough to make up much ground in these first few kilometres and was telling myself that things would pick up when we started climbing.
The first major climb of the day arrived after 2km and involved a steady gradient up a grassy and rocky track that lead into the next town, Casette. The track was wide enough for two runners to run side-by-side, though at this stage we were still very crowded and trying to move up the field was very hard work. Never-the-less I enthusiastically started picking up places, trying to keep up a decent running cadence. Foolishly, I got a little bit too excited and soon my legs were screaming at me and I was relishing any opportunity to start hiking whenever stuck behind other athletes. To say the least, things weren’t going to plan! I knew the crux of the course was still to come and tried to remain optimistic.
Around four kilometres into race we reached the scenic mountainside town of Casette, which is home to not only beautiful homes and views, but also many staircases. In order to best show off these magnificent stairs the course looped up and then down various sets of stairs before heading up a particularly long staircase out of the town. I was hiking up most of the staircases, dropping back a place or two, but would then regain those positions on the way back down.
The next section of trail was protected by a canopy of trees and hence the track was still slightly damp and muddy from rain on the previous days. After a few ever steepening switchbacks we were onto a set of rock stairs and once I again I found myself hiking. I wanted to be running more but found at the time this was the quickest way to move up the mountain. My teammate Alan Craigie went past me at this point and I tried to not fall too far behind him. Not long afterwards, the slope turned downwards for a while, and I enjoyed the opportunity to open up for a little bit, passing Alan and several others on the way down. Unfortunately, this also seemed to set off a rather uncomfortable sensation in my bowels, but with no opportunity to relieve myself in such a short race, I simply grit my teeth.
I was now at the halfway point of the race and had reached the most technical part of the course. A steep and rocky climb stood before me and I started hiking my way up (my gut was far more settled when hiking!), passing a couple of athletes during the climb . At the top we entered the working marble quarry dug into the Bacino di Gioia, where the course wound along the white-powdery roads.
I relished the chance to once again open up on the long gradual descent into the heart of the quarry, again passing a couple of runners. However, doing so simultaneously had my bowels churning once more! The following series of short but steep ascents interspersed with short flat sections involved a cycle of hiking on the steep ups to ease the churning, followed by triggering it once more when running on flats. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to make it through the 600m flat loop that was cut into the mountain! The supporting cheers from leading Australian, Nick Wightman, along with my other Australian teammates, Alan, Michael Chapman and Robin Whiteley, as we saw each other passing in opposite directions, served as enough of a distraction to get me though and was also pleased to find that my Hokas were gripping to the wet marble quite well.
Coming out of the mountain, I was onto the home stretch, with supporters beginning to line the dirt road. Michael Chapman came surging past me and I shouted encouragement to him as he flew towards the finish line. Unfortunately, it seemed he had gone too hard too early and I soon caught up with him again, trying to convince him to stick with me. Instead, it was with a Turkish runner that I found myself playing an uphill game of leap frog and we both hiked furiously up the incline.
The cheers of some Australian runners kicked me into running mode once more and the incredible support of the crowd helped me dig that little bit deeper. People were yelling, cowbells were ringing and even chainsaws were being revved (if that won’t make you run faster then I don’t know what will!) in the support of each and every runner. As the final couple of hundred meters were counted down on trailside signs, I refused to look back to see where the Turkish runner was, giving all I could in the hope that it didn’t come down to a final 50m sprint with him! Luckily, it did not and I finished in 1:08:35 and was immediately congratulated by Nick before soon being followed across the finish line by Alan, Michael and Robin.
Although the race didn’t go quite as I had hoped, the experience of running through beautiful towns and even a working quarry has still left me with many great memories. Spending a week in Tuscany with my fantastic Australian teammates made for a wonderful trip and I am incredibly grateful to everyone who made it possible.