As I so proudly proclaimed in my previous Trails & Ales column, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to travel around the world due in large part because of my passion for trail running and beer. Originally it was about traveling to trail running races, but more recently it has been equally for the beer. My globetrotting excursions are remembered and memorialized by mountains, trails races, local beer styles and the people with whom I have been fortunate to share each of them.
Many stories have emanated from Italy, a country I have visited at least a dozen times. It’s the land where my mother was born and lived on a hilly vineyard in the Friuli Valley as a child, a place of positive memories of family and food, but also of horrific stories of bombs and death during World War II. Perhaps my most fond memory is from an epic race weekend last year with some of the world’s best mountain and trail runners in a locale known as Malonno, a comune in the province of Brescia, in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. That’s right, the Italians like to make things complicated.
I was invited to Malonno by Italian race director Alessandro Scolari, a passionate mountain running advocate for Corsa en Montangna and an all-around nice guy. “Skola,” as he is known, wanted me to test my mettle on the FlettaTrail, a dastardly hard 21K mountain race, and the Piz Tri Vertikal, a crazy steep Vertical K race.
What is a Vertical K? It’s basically an excruciatingly steep time trial on a trail that rises 1,000 vertical meters (or roughly 3,280 feet) over a fairly short distance. When you run a Vertical K you are in essence physically redlining from the very beginning and often resorting to crawling on all fours near the end, both because of the terrain and because you can barely stand on your own two feet. You think 30 to 45 minutes of running is short and will go by quickly, but it feels like you’re running for hours with your lungs and legs on fire—or at least that’s how it felt for me in my inaugural attempt at this grueling kind of torture. It makes you want to exclaim loudly, “Porco Cane!” (That’s a bold Italian slang phrase that literally means “Pig Dog!” but actually is the equivalent of “For God’s sake!”) If you are a sadist, this is precisely the type of race for you.
The races in Malonno were nothing short of world class. Finishing the Vertical K at the top of a mountain, after just starting 40-some minutes earlier, and looking down on the little specks that were people felt like a huge accomplishment. The full-course meal at the top of the mountain included a cold Birra Moretti, and was one of the primary motivations that got me from point A to point B as fast as I could go. The FlettaTrail mountain race the following day was on par with a world championships, both course- and competition-wise. Almost all of the best Italian mountain runners were there, and with some fast Scotsmen, Eritrean, French and Spanish runners peppered in, it was a star-studded “who’s who” of the mountain running world.
But it wasn’t the races that I remember so much as it was the people. Puppi, Giaducci, De Gasperi, Gemelli Demateus, Fabio, Ville, Skola, Marco, Sgarbi, Manzi, and Douglas are who I remember more fondly. It was getting a whole Italian Planking Team started. It was the gelato on Lake Como after the drive through the mountains.
When the good people from Bèpete BAM—who actually make a mountain running beer!—found out that I was very into the culture of beer, they sent me off with a shirt and a case of Birra Artigianale Malonnese. No, not a few bottles or a six-pack, but a case that weighed about as much as I did! “I have a flight tomorrow and I don’t have a big suitcase, guys,” I told them with a smile, knowing full well that it meant it was time to celebrate with some of my newfound friends.
As Anna Sgarbi, a local middle-of-the-pack finisher in the FlettaTrail race so eloquently phrased it: “Beer has no boundaries and it doesn’t matter if you run fast or slow.”
As I have said before, trail running is all about community, and beer has allowed me to imbibe in that community, connecting with people from other cultures and backgrounds—even when the traditional communication barrier of language is not always successful. The trip to Italy was one of my all-time favorites, but perhaps still equal to similar trips in which I have enjoyed the intermingling of the culture of beer and running in Japan, Switzerland, France, Austria, England and the good ol’ USA, too.
The moral of this story? For me, it’s not about just the running and certainly not only about drinking beer. It’s about the community that is apparent where the two meet. So whether home or abroad, enjoy where you are, who you are with and the social connections that bookmark those occurrences—and if you’re like me, the experiences of drinking a post-run beer and immersing in that community—because, after all, those are among the most memorable stories of our lives.