Small Race Packs A Big Wallop

All-star lineup on tap tonight for Europe’s oldest road race.

Written by: David Monti
(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

It’s ironic that Italy’s most competitive summer road race, the Giro Podistico Internazionale di Castelbuono, which will be held here in Castelbuono for the 85th time tonight, is also its smallest.  Founded in 1912, when Italian Giovanni Blanchetè was the winner, the race remains only for top athletes.  This year’s start list shows only 36 names, led by Olympic Marathon gold medallist Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya and four-time IAAF world road running champion Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea.

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Certainly an elitist approach has played a role in keeping out the recreational runners whose entry fees, merchandise purchases, and travel spending keep the global running industry afloat.  But a bigger factor here is the snaking, ten-lap course on Castelbuono’s narrow streets which are surfaced with either cobblestones or tiles fashioned out of volcanic rock.  At the narrowest points, the course is only two meters wide and cannot accommodate more than a few dozen runners.

“We take out the runners,” said race director Mario Fesi pretending to pull a colleague off of the course by the back of his shirt yesterday.

Fesi, 53, the chain-smoking boss of this race for 16 years and a former athlete, was explaining that lapped runners are removed from the 1130-meter loop if they are passed by the leaders.  He said that lapped runners could potentially get in the way of the contenders and ruin the photographs and television images of the winner breaking the tape in the Piazza Margherita where the start and finish of the race has taken place for nearly 100 years.

The course itself is difficult.  Runners must complete ten counter-clockwise loops, rounding the village’s fountain in the Piazza Margherita at the conclusion of each “giro.”  The first half of every lap takes the runners up a steep hill, before they make a sharp left-hand turn to plunge downhill on a different street back to the Piazza.  The hill, combined with the rough footing and sharp turns, makes the course very slow.  Some of the world’s greatest distance runners have won here –Paul Tergat, Gelindo Bordin, Martin Lel, Hendrick Ramaala, German Silva, Khalid Khannouchi, and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot amongst others– but the winner often does not break three minutes per kilometer (4:50 per mile), a pace top athletes can hold for a full marathon.

Another irony is that hardly anyone runs for fitness here.  An isolated hilltop village at 423m (1387 ft.) of elevation set in the center of Sicily’s 8000-acre (3237 hectare) Parco Delle Madonie, the only flat area in the town is a dirt football pitch (it’s too dry here to maintain a grass field), and a small park which has a 500-meter dirt loop and a 300-meter track.  Besides two visitors from America, only one jogger has been spotted by this writer far this week.  He is a member of the race staff.

What the race lacks in size it makes up in both athlete quality and spectators.  The course will be lined with “tifosi” squeezed behind barriers on both sides, and there will be a big crowd in the Piazza to watch the fountain turn and the finish.  The race also enjoys live television coverage on one of national broadcaster RAI’s two sports channels.

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