I had no idea what kind of surprise awaited me when I came across a massive warning sign upon cresting a short climb in the middle of a grassy stretch of rough terrain about an hour into the Dolomiti Extreme Trail 20K race in the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy this past Saturday.
As I power-hiked past the sign and broke back into a run, thinking there might be a rocky stretch of trail or some muddy singletrack I’d have to navigate, a volunteer stationed at one of the trees ahead motioned for me to stop. “Attenzione”—be careful—he warned while handing me a rope, a first for me on the trails. A quick peek at the steep descent temporarily froze me in my tracks while I tried to make sense of the scenario. Looking down the hill, there was no clear-cut path, only a line of trees connected by the rope in my hands and more volunteers positioned at various points along the way—presumably to prevent inexperienced foreigners such as myself from falling off the mountain. I most certainly wasn’t in the comfort of my home trails in the Marin Headlands anymore. This was proper European-style mountain running.
“Non lasciare la corda”—don’t let go of the rope—advised the volunteer as I hesitated to take my first step down the steep slope, an admittedly uncomfortable situation for me despite the fact I was proudly donning the words “San Francisco Running Company—Mountain Running” on my chest.
“One step at a time,” I told myself as I began the approximately 150-meter descent. Despite my patient approach, it wasn’t more than three or four advances before my feet came out from under me and my ass hit the grass. Thankfully I held onto the rope and didn’t tumble the rest of the way down, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved to finally reconnect with a more trustworthy stretch of singletrack at the bottom.
As I started running again, I cracked a smile, happy that I found the courage to face my fear and confident that I was ready for whatever other interesting obstacles this high-altitude course might throw at me.
And believe me, the course had no shortage of obstacles—or surprises! The route alternated between rocky and smooth singletrack, grass-laden fields, and wide forest roads. It seemed if I wasn’t climbing, I was descending, an off-road rollercoaster with no shortage of postcard-worthy views that I wasn’t above stopping for to snap a photo. The course was well-marked even if the trail wasn’t always obvious or intuitive. Hundreds of blue banners and red flags every 100 meters or so calmed any qualms that I couldn’t possibly be going the right way,
Aside from a new level of technicality compared to the trails I’m used to running, the European trail runners I competed against are also a different breed. They have a unique love for the mountains, happy to power-hike whenever the opportunity allows and descending rocky, root-strewn stretches of trail with equal parts pure joy and reckless abandon. I mean, why run the entire length of a series of smooth switchbacks when you can skip the turns altogether and descend kamikaze style down the side of a steep mountain the until you reach your desired destination?! It gave a completely new meaning to cutting the tangents, which is perhaps why my watch said I had run 24K rather than the 20K that had been advertised!
Lastly, the amount of required gear for the race—backpack, 1 liter of water, solid food, emergency blanket, jacket, tights, long sleeve shirt, drinking cup and cell phone—seemed excessive for a 20K race, and was far more than necessary for almost any trail race in the U.S., even many of the 100 milers. But after experiencing the gnarly terrain, high altitudes and shifts in temperatures firsthand, the requirement made much more sense. This wasn’t an off-road race with groomed trails and a few hills mixed in to increase the degree of difficulty. It was as advertised: an extreme trail race.
That said, for all its unique challenges, the Dolomiti Extreme Trail was one of the most satisfying and memorable race experiences I’ve ever had in my 19 years of running. It was a great introduction to European-style trail running and forced me to spend a fair amount of time completely out of my comfort zone, which is where all worthwhile progress takes place. My finishing time of 2 hours, 22 minutes and 39 seconds was closer to what I typically run for 42K than 24K, which served as a good reminder that on the trails, time doesn’t matter much. I had to think, work and sometimes will my way through the next mile, which proved to be a worthwhile struggle as I was rewarded with chants of “Bravo! Bravo!” along the way by the volunteers and spectators, all of whom clearly understood and appreciated the difficulties runners were enduring in their mountains on this morning.
As race director Paolo Franchi told me, this event—which is headlined by an even more challenging (and popular, if you can believe it) 53K option—is his small community’s Super Bowl, their World Cup final. Everyone in the Val di Zoldo region comes out for it and assists in some way, whether it’s manning the registration table, serving food for the pre- and post-race parties, parking cars on race morning or providing support on the course. The event has more volunteers (400) than runners (250) and exemplifies the qualities of community and camaraderie better than many events 100 times its size.
Sometimes, the best surprises come when you have no idea what lies ahead of you.