To Watch a Man Run

Featured on Ultrarunning Magazine on September 3rd, 2015.

To be honest, I have never watched him run for more than a couple of seconds at a time. Because I don’t run. So when he took off, whether it was for a race or a morning run, I could only witness a few steps in the air. Except that one time he made me run to breakfast in boots and a skirt because we were late.

I am 28, I write and I change plans. I have changed countries, languages, ideas. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to try everything, in the restless quest to beat the world spinning. The outdoors and sports were the most centering, and that hasn’t changed. Swimming, horseback riding, hockey, you name it.

Running never crossed my mind until last year, when out of the blue (I still have not outgrown myself) I decided to do the Spartan Race in Milan. I started training on my own, and with my running roommate. To my surprise, I ended up running for longer and faster than her. But after the race, it eventually faded away. Jobs happened, life went on and I tried other things like pole dancing and aerial silk. I know, I know.

Then I met him.

31, Newyorker, he had moved to Milan to teach Math, on the quest to move out of a life he knew too well. Smart, funny, an ancient soul (and blond– yay), we happened. He said he liked ‘running up mountains’. In the States he ran awesome trails (like Manitou’s Revenge, Vermont 100 Miler Endurance Run and lots more) and did the USA Ironman too.

First time we woke up in the same bed, it was 5am and he went for a run. He came back an hour later, showered, made us coffee and we were both off to work. I instantly liked that routine, while he began to worry I didn’t.

I had never heard of utramarathons before, or met anything beyond a jogger for that matter. I mean– there is not even a name for this sport in Italian. Though the races pack the calendar all year, as I found out soon enough. We met in mid February and on March 28thwe were riding a train to the famous Cinque Terre region in the Liguria Coast for the 47K SciaccheTrail race. 3000D+ in some of the most beautiful scenery my country has to offer, and he was excited. My standard answer for just about anything is “I’m in!” so there you have it.

The train station of Monterosso (start and finish of the race that crossed all five towns of the Cinque Terre) stands only about 50 meters from the beach. You get off the wagon and in the water, literally. As we walked under the gentle sun through the crowded main (and only) street, he would look around and guess out runners from their calves or shoes. He would make bets on who would win and I would try to remember, to hold him accountable later. After he got his race pack, we spent the rest of the day eating and drinking on the pebbled beach, thanking the gods above for the waves and the breeze. He told me about prerace jitters, about why he loves these races, and I saw all of it flowing through him like a dance.

At 6:30am the next morning, the sky was clear and I was kissing him good luck, while indulging in a new feeling. The runners resembled a pack of wolves, and everyone else seemed like forestlands waiting for them to be back from a hunt. Took me a minute to realize I was holding my breath.

As he was fighting with his bib (he always does), I was wondering how it would be out there. Then ‘guns’ fired, and they were off. A few hours later, I went for a hike myself on the first part of the racecourse. I love hiking, but was a little out of shape. So I was out of breath in 15 minutes. I envied them, cursed in three languages and pushed on. When I got to the next town, I wanted more.

He said it would take him around seven hours to run it, so I made sure I was at the finish line just after six.

I missed him by six minutes. He got in 20thout of aprox. 120, smiling like a kid and talking to his new friends. There was a very manly man making fresh mozzarella and music coming from somewhere. I could not believe this show was for free.

When we got back, he told me he worried I was not liking the whole running routine and would resent it, making him resent me. I fell from the tree. ‘Can he not tell how cool I find all this?’ I thought. I cleared that up and we went on.

In fact, we exploded: in just a few weeks we had booked four trips, two for ultramarathons.

I loved the idea of exploring this new scene, and the fact that he’d be running for so long each time gave me a chance to roam on my own too. Woo hoo.

But it was not going to be easy. In fact, it was going to be a mess. On May 9th, he ran Transvulcania. The 73K and 4415D+ race up the volcano of La Palma in the Canary Islands. He had asked me twice to go with him, but it was just too expensive for my junior editor pockets. Instead, I followed him via the race live coverage, tracking his position and chatting online with the race moderators. Funny guys. They posted amazing pictures that made me very jealous.

1400 people ran that day, over 400 didn’t finish. He came in 343rdand came back the next day with volcano ash coming out everywhere, torn muscles and the usual happy grin. A week later we broke up.

Running had nothing to do with what happened, and a lot to do with what didn’t.

Like every mountain runner, he has his motives, though they all do it for the same reason: the freedom, the joy, the respect. That, I know. But not all trails have good markers.

Like at the Amalfi Positano Ultratrail in the Amalfi Coast south of Naples. A 52K race I found for him when we were dwelling in romantic energy. As I mentioned, we had everything booked so we decided to go. What the hell.

It was May 31st. We arrived in Naples by train, and rented a car to reach the town of Agerola where the race would start and finish. We drove by Vesuvio, the dormant 25.000-years-old volcano that has been haunting the region for centuries.

As we approached the peninsula that hosts the entire Amalfi Coast, construction faded away and it was nature’s turn again. Right before we arrived, a fjord-like majestic rock bowed at the horizon from the next hill, and the quiet of it all shut us up, instantly.

By then, I knew more about his races than he did. Schedules, locations, courses. He used to say I was ‘good at life stuff’. The truth is that I am a good (top notch, really) supporter, and if I sewed up his shorts or brought him fresh clothes after he trained was because his trail was his only– but the gear and the sweat I could help with. And so I did.

The race itself was ‘old school’ as he put it: a 1stedition ran by locals, with no tracking chips and runners getting lost for a couple of km because of the markers.

The tiny town of Agerola faces the sea up on the hills, like so many towns in Italy: little gems that self-sustain in their beauty. From 6am dogs rested in the shade, old men chatted hanging onto their sticks, and that colorful feast of running gear I liked so much the first time I saw it, glowed in front of me once again. It was peacefully exciting.

He came in 6thout of 80 people, blowing me a kiss at the finish line and looking ecstatic. I had fallen asleep on a chair and was woken up just in time by the race host and his bullhorn– as he was promoting the local restaurant (with good reason) and thanking three generations of family for helping out that day.

From the sidewalk in front of the ever-present church, ‘my’ runner chugged a Gatorade and told me about the volunteers who paced them on the last kilometer, how they all ran extra and loved it and of how beautiful the scenery was.

While he was running I drove to Amalfi, down the u-turns of the hills by the glowing Mediterranean. I explored the streets packed with gigantic lemons and chili peppers sold as natural viagra, faded postcards and plants hanging from the balconies.

After the race we cruised to Capri, off the coast of Sorrento, where we adopted four sea urchins against their will and relaxed on the beach. On the way back, we stopped at Pompeii to travel back in time. It was one of the best weekends I can remember.

“Do you like all this?” he asked me a few weeks later, one afternoon we were hanging out in our new best buddies version. How we got to that, I am not sure. He started it, I adapted. I think the more we shared the more we liked it, one way or another.

We had a trip planned to Istanbul coming up and we went and we loved it. He ran there too and complained about how the city isn’t designed for it. We agreed we were great travel buddies.

“Totally” I replied.

That is why when the next planned race came up, I was more excited than he was. The Dolomiti Sky Run is a 136K hardcore race across the notorious mountain range of northeastern Italy, a part of the Southern Limestone Alps. It is beautifully demanding (the 11000D+ is no joke as he tells me), but he had had a demanding two weeks leading up to it, travelling a lot and finishing work. So he didn’t do it.

The 3-hour drive from Milan to Belluno (where the race would end, starting from Braies up north) was pleasant, as we left behind the flat plains of Padania and got closer to the mountains. The peaks tore the sky and their beauty tore me apart. I worried I did not have enough space in me for all that majesty.

Unsurprisingly, the proverbial night before was terrible. He was exhausted, irritated and then spent the hours before the race trying to sabotage himself. I tried to let him flow, like I used to, throwing his own words at him when I thought it made sense. Useless.

The starting town of the race was a tiny pack of houses and shops surrounded by forests and grasslands. When we got there, it was quiet and runners where gearing up. He had a look I had never seen before. No prerace jitters, no smiles, just the search for a way to get out of it and keep his ego intact.

He managed to lift his mood when he saw some familiar faces on the line up, and we agreed on meeting up a few kilometers in at the jaw-dropping Braies Lake, to give him some food and a way out in case he really did not want to keep going.

He didn’t. He dropped out and we stayed at the lake for a while, drinking beer and staring at the emerald blue water and the pine trees around it. I listened to him bullying himself into finding a bright side in what had happened until a few hours later, over dinner, he was bullying himself into feeling guilty he didn’t do it.

He is like the trails he runs. Tough, raw, up and down at the tightest turns. Since he wasn’t going to run for 27 hours, he went horseback riding with me (his first time), as I had planned to do while I waited. I knew he wanted to leave then and there, but he did not mention it. He liked the ride. I liked that he got to see me in my element, though I wonder if he has an opinion about it. I hope he is aware of this big, long opinion I have about his thing.

I blamed myself for a bit. I thought that maybe, since I was there, I should have pushed him to do it, knowing guilt would kick in if he didn’t. But guilt wars are an ancient thing, like running itself. It was his choice, and he wouldn’t have listened to me anyway.

The Dolomites took him on an edge he hadn’t been before, the end point of a debate he’d been having for a while. In my non-running feet I tried to be there for him, a pacer of sorts.

Four days later, he flew to Nepal to help out with the post-earthquake rebuilding. The journey and the hills of Pokhara led him back to his feet, and I was on the other side of a phone screen to witness it. He’ll be running the 80K Ultratrail Supramonte Seaside in Sardinia in October, another race I found for him a while ago knowing he would love the mountain tops, wild beaches and sand canyons as much as I do.

As for me, I went home to see my family in Sicily for the summer and volunteered at the 64K Etnatrail, a race up Mount Etna, at 3340m the tallest (and active) volcano in Europe. He wasn’t there running it, and for the first time I was on the other side of it. I cut cheese, bread and watermelons, poured gallons of coke into the runners’ cups, refilled their water bottles and cheered them on until I medaled them at the finish line. I got kisses, hugs and the best sandwich ever. I danced and laughed and met amazing people who were there for the simple sake of bringing everyone closer to their beloved mountain. I got an invitation for next year too. I went home overdosing with joy.

It’s been a year now since he moved to Italy, and six months since we crossed paths for the first time. He is getting close to his 100thrace in 10 years of running, and when I asked him months ago how he would celebrate he said “By running the 101st”.

We aren’t lovers anymore. I see us like two shoelaces of the same pair of shoes, tied with different knots. And I didn’t pick up serious running.

I dug into it, my way, reading and listening to anything I could find, feeling like I am missing something– same way he made me feel many times. But my thing is still riding on a 600kg pile of power on four legs. It is my pace, as hard as it is to follow.

Nonetheless, the volunteer bug is now officially part of me. In a way, his running helped me slow down and find things. Good things.

This story is mine and it is one in many, but it tells a universal tale. The one of freedom and of what it means to watch it flow, struggle and rise again.

Of finding a pace and being taken places you knew existed– but did not know you’d listen when they spoke to you. It is about being reminded there is only one finish line (his words).

Running may be the simple act of using one’s hardware, but I have learned it carries you further than your legs can go. And to watch it happen next to you is a powerful thing. So kudos to him, and all the shoes he burns through.


Originally published at hikeaboo.com on September 3, 2015.

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