Running a Trail Race in Italy: The Montanaro Trail in Tuscany

Tuscany Views

I’m going to give it away from the beginning. Our first international race; our first DNF. It doesn’t feel great to admit it, but it was most definitely the right thing to do, and I would not have given up the experience for the world.

Elevation Profile

DD had to do it. He had to find a race in Italy, and not just any race: some mountain trail ultra in a small town in Tuscany where the website was/ is entirely in Italian. Thanks to the wonders of the Google translate Chrome plugin, we were able to muddle through the posted information and various directions. I tried hard not to look too closely at the Elevation Profile.

We couldn’t find any information in English, apart from the aggregator website that listed trail ultras in Europe – where DD first found the link. We did stumble upon 2 videos (here, and here) past participants had taken of the race. Looking over past participant lists indicated that all the last names were pretty much Italian. We might possibly be the first native-English speakers who would be running in this race.

There were 2 courses offered: the 58k Ultra (Gara Lunga) distance, and a shorter 24k (Gara Corta) distance. I wished we would have chosen the shorter course instead, but that’s DD for you, willing to jump in, head first, with nary a backward look…

Montanaro - Mandatory Equipment

We deciphered the site to the best of our abilities, concluding that the biggest difference in this kind of race was the requirement to submit some sort of medical certificate that indicated we are fit to run the race. We were to also make sure we had with us during the race, a list of required items. Here’s a translated version. There was also a list of recommended items.

We finally emailed the race to see whether we could get a better explanation of what needed to be on the medical certificate. What we received back:

Il certificato deve essere un certificato medico agonistico in corso di validità alla stessa data della competizione (18 settembre). A presto


The certificate must be a medical certificate valid on the same date of the competition (September 18). See you soon

 A Google search had yielded some results – one even indicated that we might need some extra tests: “…cardiac stress test (with electrocardiogram), urine test, spirometry test…”

In the end we ended up presenting this form to our doctors and did not have any problems in getting it filled out in time for our trip.

We arrived in Italy on the afternoon/ evening of the 15th, spent a day in Rome on the 16th, and the next day — the 17th — traveled to San Marcello Pistoiese. The nearest recognizable town (the one more Italians tended to recognize) — was Pistoia. Trains took us to Pistoia, where we stopped for lunch, and then a bus provided the remaining transport to San Marcello.

Tuscany View from the Bus (DD photo)

It was wonderful to be driving into the country. Almost immediately, the scenery changed form small town/ city to wonderful country-scapes of rolling green hills dotted with the orange slate roofs of Tuscany.

Bus Driver

Our bus put-putted up narrow mountain roads and before we knew it, we were in the little town of San Marcello di Pistoiese.

We walked to our airbnb, and was warmly greeted by our host, Sandra. Our little apartment was small and clean and  perfect, and a 3 minute-walk away from Race HQ/ the race start.

Bar Baccarini, Race HQ

According to the race website, packet pickup was at the “Sala Baccarini” – some looking around on Google Maps indicated a “Bar Baccarini,” so we assumed (correctly, thankfully) that this was the same place. Indeed, signs helpfully led us up a flight of stairs to registration and pickup.

Packet Pickup

They examined our required items most assiduously, ticking items off the list, making copies of our medical certificate and handing us the copies back.

Race Schwag

They handed us our swag bags which were very interesting (mine was pink; DD’s is the blue one, folded up, with a village on it), but filled with all sorts of useful stuff: 2 bottles of water (naturale and “frizzante”), a bottle of sport drink, a 3-pack of chocolate milk, and a jar of jam, which we could use for breakfast on race morning.

Afterwards, DD and I walked to the local Coop (supermarket) to get other items for breakfast. We obtained a hunk of bread from the in-store bakery, some Italian Cream Cheese (the tubs of Philly’s Cream Cheese were too large for our one breakfast), some mortadella, instant coffee, and a couple of yogurts. We were to return to Race HQ for a briefing later that evening (7:30p).

I fretted a bit about the lateness. If the briefing was not until 7:30, we’d be eating dinner past 8pm and getting to bed who knows when. Then I remembered that we were only steps from the start line.

Race Briefing

We took a seat near the back, and soon the program looked like it was about to start. Then, a couple of gentlemen approached us and we were introduced to Fabio who said he would be our translator for the evening, informing us of the most relevant parts of the briefing. A couple of who had come in late also changed their seats to be closer to us, and we soon realized that there was another English-speaking runner here from London. Mark was planning on the 58k, and Katie, who does not run, planned on taking advantage of the 7k “Nordic Walking” option. Fabio’s English was excellent, and we got the gist of most of the briefing.

La Campana

After the briefing we wandered around the corner to restaurant La Campagna, where we had peeked in earlier, around 6pm, but we were gently turned away since it was too early for dinner. The host/ owner seated us in the back room, where there was only one other table filled with four adolescent girls. They stared for a moment, and got back to chattering and giggling.

Shortly after we received our first courses (including a salad that included tuna fish), Mark and Katie, the folks from the UK, came in. We chatted a bit until the rest of our food arrived, and DD and I left soon after we finished, hoping to catch some sleep.

We woke to this forecast

It had been overcast and somewhat sputteringly drizzly during the day. Looking at the forecast for the following day, however, was a little disheartening.

With Mark, a British runner

We rose around 5am to rain, but by the time we made it outside, half an hour to the start of the race, the moisture from the sky had ceased falling.

Almost game time!

And so we were off. Danny has already written up a better account of the day, as well as taken better photos, and graciously agreed to let me post them here!

We started off in the heart of the little town, and pretty much immediately headed uphill.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

View of San Marcello Pistoiese as we climbed away from the town to begin the race. The climbing would continue for miles, only getting steeper and steeper.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

Ominous clouds and valleys filled with fog characterized the beginning of our day, until we entered the steep forested climbs that made up most of the next few hours.

Thankfully, the rain stayed away for the most part. We might have felt a few scattered drops while were in forest, but we were definitely lucky with the cool but fairly dry weather.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

The course was extremely well marked. Open, grassy areas had frequent orange flags, as seen here. These were extra handy when descending cross-country from the top of the mountain on wet clumps of grass clutching to a steep hillside. Not every section of the race was on an actual trail, but even the non-trail sections were marked.

The forests were marked with red and white ribbon, as well as more permanent red/white blazes and what I hope was biodegradable orange spray paint.

comment from race organizer: yes, it was biodegradable spray paint.

Up, up, up!

We continued through the woods, up, up, and up. Most of the trail was rocky and technical, and sometimes covered with damp, slippery leaves.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

The moment we broke above treeline, the views became significantly more dramatic.

And so did the steep sides of the mountain. Turns out we were ascending to the top of an arête, a knifelike crest we would follow to the highest point on the course.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

Orange flag, permanent wooden trail signs, red and white ribbon hanging from a pole, and a fellow racer heading towards Monte Gennaio, looming in center frame.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

The trail became narrower on the grassy arête, and the closer we got to our highest point, the more vertical it became. We had trekking poles, but if we didn’t, hands would have been necessary in some places.

Meanwhile, the grass is wet and the muddy/rocky trail is slippery, and 60 degree slopes on either side of us drop hundreds of feet.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

Atop Passo della Nevaia, connecting Monte Gennaio to the Mountaineers’ Refuge, and our last relatively horizontal section before we hit the almost completely vertical rise to the top of Gennaio.

On a clear day, the Adriatic Sea is visible to the east, the Corsican islands to the southwest, and the Alps can be traced to the north all the way to Mont Blanc on the France/Italy/Swiss border. Today was not a clear day, but damn it was beautiful.

Up to the Mt. Gennaio Peak

Here we make the final ascent to the peak, up nearly vertical grade, with dropoffs to the side. It was windy, and cold – I had to put on an extra shirt before we started this climb.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

Standing on the penultimate summit before Gennaio, I waited the thirty seconds in the cold wind for Claudine to come into frame – we were always together, trading the lead.

Gennaio’s summit is on the right here, in reality less than 100 feet away. There was a group of a half dozen race volunteers there marking bibs to show that indeed the summit had been reached rather than skirted.

Once past the summit checkpoint, we shimmied down the other side, half slip-sliding down the steep, wet, grassy trail, using our poles for balance and our butts when the poles failed, until we hit the more substantial piece of single-track that traversed the ridge below, looping us back to Passo della Nevaia.

We had been leap-frogging a pair of Italians up the mountain for the last six miles, but clearly they were strong downhillers, because the moment after their bibs were marked, they were gone. I can’t fathom moving as fast as they did down that treacherous slope, but perhaps they were more familiar with the course, or perhaps they were born without fear.

Those volunteers must have been mighty cold for the hours they were there. On the lower-traverse loop back, one of them called down the hundred feet to me through the wind: “Molto benne! Good job! Good job!”

It was no secret among the volunteers who the Americans were.

Course monitors on the summit of Mt. Gennaio

At the top of the mountain, course monitors stand in the wind and the cold to mark runners’ bibs. We now had to begin our crazy descent, which was as steep as our ascent.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

Just beyond Gennaio’s peak was a quick drop of thirty or forty feet, then a bump back up 75% of that to a sub-dome of sorts, where I turned back and took this photo facing south-southwest, where you can clearly see the Passo della Nevaia ridge line extending southward from Gennaio.

From here, we dropped down to my left and then took a right on a trail which followed the contour back south along just below the ridge, then acquired the ridgeline again just past the Passo. There was a little climbing again to a subsequent knob before the race markers turned us off the trail and down a steep cross-country line over wet grassy clumps.

We hit treeline and found ourselves crashing down through a steep trailless forest (beech or chestnut, I think, moving too fast to tell) floored with slick wet leaves. Despite a complete lack of trail, there were ribbons marking the intended path very clearly, so at least we knew which direction to let gravity pull us down as we tried to stay upright.

Our first major aid station, Rifugio del Montanaro, lay not far ahead. There waited friendly volunteers, a cute pup, and a smorgasbord of snacks. This was around when I started feeling that we were flirting a little too closely with cutoff times, and the growing pain in my knee on the downhills didn’t give me a lot of confidence that we would be able to make up significant time ahead.

Rifugio Aid Station

Our first major aid station was at the Rifugio del Montanaro – a mountain hut where hikers belonging to the C.A.I. — Club Alpino Italiano — may reserve for lodgings and shelter. It is generally available as a refuge for all hikers in the event of bad weather.

Rifugio Aid Station

Rifugio Aid Station

At an Italian Aid Station, Coca Cola, various fruit, and cheese, mortadella, salami, and foccacia is available. I could only drink some Coke and eat a small piece of banana. The foccacia turned out to be too dry, and I spit it out surreptitiously, not wanting to offend our hosts.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

Leaving the rifugio, we headed off into a foggy forest on a mix of undulating fire roads and single track. The elevation trend was clearly downward, but usually not too steeply so.

Still, I could feel familiar pain in my left knee that told me my quads were too tight, so I slapped on my patellar tendon strap and kept the downhill pace to a hustling hobble.

It was when I started to feel a new kind of knee pain on the uphills that foreboding visions of months of rehab flashed on my eyelids with every blink. All the new races I have yet to experience, the next two weeks here in Italy I’d like to remain ambulatory for…it was time to admit that I was unprepared for this race, and make the mature decision to live to fight another day.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

“You gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

The trail down to Pontepetri was literally dark and foggy, but the decision to drop out of the race helped lift some of that fog for me.

As much as I would have liked to complete the full course, this just wasn’t the day for me to do it.

We could not have asked for better weather, a more well-marked course, or more helpful volunteers. Nothing went wrong with gear or nutrition. I just wasn’t ready physically.

Montanaro Trail Race (DD)

Our final descent into Pontepetri wove through narrow passageways between overgrown fences and behind old houses before spilling us onto the streets, where a few kindly older men hosted the next full aid station: a table with water, sports drinks, Coca-cola and snacks.

Pontepetri Aid Station

We struggled as to how to communicate that we were done for the day, when I suddenly remembered the word, similar in Tagalog, which AM had mentioned the day before. “Basta.” I said, waving my hand horizontally in front of me. “Ah!” one of the volunteers exclaimed, and, following an explosion of Italian, waved us towards the fermata dell’autobus — bus stop.

It being a Sunday and us being the Italian-illiterate Americans we are, the bus schedule either said we had a half hour to wait or a day, so I stuck out my thumb until a nice young Polish couple picked us up and gave us a ride the five and a half miles back to San Marcello.

Post race pasta party

Once back at San Marcello we checked in with the race organizers to let them know that we had DNF’d, showered, and went to partake of the pasta party, included for the participants. It was a fairly hearty and balanced meal of pasta, meat, veg and a dessert. They also offered us beer, but we both just settled for water.

Mark arrives!

We had the good fortune to chat a while with Katie, whose husband Mark was the only other English-speaking participant, and ended up with the honor of being the first native English speaker to ever complete the Montanaro Trail race, in just over 9 hours, after he had taken a wrong turn somewhere and added a bonus 9km onto his own run.


When we dropped at Pontepetri, Runkeeper had recorded 15 miles, which lengthwise is about equivalent to the 24km Gara Corta option.

I know to many the idea of a DNF – of failing to finish a race once started – strikes fear in their hearts. To me, the more worthy the adventure, the higher the probability that something will not go as planned.

Claudine and I had a truly lovely day, surrounded by beautiful surroundings, worthy challenges, and generous hearts. We explored places new to us, and we participated in an event as American pioneers, the first of our countrymen to cross the starting line of the Montanaro Trail Run.

Other odds and ends.

Race Shirt

Race shirts were the same for men and women – I had a smaller size, of course.

Bibs and Timing Chips

Bibs, timing chips, and roadbook with course descriptions and directions.

Made it into the local online publication

Somehow a photo of me made it into the local online publication.


It was difficult to reserve a hotel in San Marcello. I emailed some of the establishments recommended on the race website, and even called our credit card concierge to see if they could make arrangements. One of the hotels featured on the website contacted by our credit card concierge said that they were closed that weekend; another hotel did not reply. About a week before our scheduled departure, I ended up looking on Airbnb and immediately was able to book an exceptionally cute place (1 of 3 in the immediate area) in a superbly convenient location.

Google Maps has awesome directions for public transportation. We used its guide to purchase train tickets via TrenItalia, which is a fairly easy-to-use website.

Finally, some more photos on Flickr here and DD’s photos are here.

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  • lila herbst

    wow, gorgeous photos, what a hike!