My alarm woke me at 330AM. I ate two bagels with almond butter, brushed my teeth, and was out the door. I got to the train station, paid for a return ticket and headed to Gatwick Airport without taking my return ticket stub. On the train, I woke up suddenly from my light sleep, to see the train almost empty and about to leave for the next station and take me away from the airport. Shoot, I almost missed my stop, but manage to get out the doors just in time. I clear customs, board my flight, and find that I am seated next to a couple with a young baby. Fine, I have headphones, Spotify plus a bunch of Podcasts and it’s only a two hour flight. I’m on holiday, it’s not worth getting irritated with.The flight arrives in Pisa. We are told we have to wait on the plane, as there are industrial strikes happening and customs is incredibly busy. Fine, I arrived safe, and I will be on my way to Cinque Terre soon enough. The weather looks good, nothing to be annoyed with. I get through customs, and exit the terminal. Walk to the train ticketing counter and see a sign saying train strikes until 9PM. Train strikes. What?!?!. Ok so now I am getting annoyed. No trains, surely that isn’t right. Ok, relax, speak to the lady at the desk and see what she says. “Trains are on strike, some might be working. Here is a bus ticket to Pisa Central Station, try and get a train from there to La Spezia, and then from there to Manarola. I don’t know what trains are working today. Sorry”. Fine, I guess I’ll either be on my way or waiting for the rest of my crew to arrive later (it’s 9AM at this point). I find some wifi, let a few people know I arrived safely and what is going on. I call Maggie, and let her know the trains are on strike, and that I would touch base when I find out any more news (she was on the train to the airport with the rest of my crew to join me here). I get to Pisa Central Station, and YES (*internal fist pump)*, there are trains running to La Spezia, just infrequently. Doesn’t matter, I have Tribe Bars and the incredibly delicious and addictive Kallo Dark Belgium Chocolate Rice Crackers (I seriously am addicted) to snack on, and it looks like a train departs soon. I’m waiting on the platform, and the I hear a message over the speakers in Italian. My rudimentary grasp of the Romance languages is enough that I could decipher the words ‘depart’ ‘one’ ‘front’ and ‘La Spezia’. Right, a train is departing to La Spezia from what I think was the front of platform one. I’m on platform six. Ok, RUN. Finally, I am sitting on a train, and en route to Manarola. I have my snacks, I haven’t been delayed too much, and whilst I wish I had purchased some water (I haven’t had anything to drink since London), all is good. After an hour, I capture the sight of something out of the window. MOUNTAINS. My adrenalin surges, and all the drama since my 330AM wakeup in London disappeared (in context I had the most minor of inconveniences to deal with). I was close to Cinque Terre, one of the most beautiful regions in the world. And I was here to do what I love, to run, and to spend time with some of my closest friends. And eat. And drink (both coffee and wine).
This was my second trip to the Ligurian region of Cinque Terre, and I returned for the same reason. The Sciacche Trail 47km Ultra-Marathon. Whilst I had seen beautiful photos of Cinque Terre, a famous destination along the Italian Coast, it wasn’t until 2015 that it become front of mind. It was through social media and Youtube, that I was first exposed to trail and mountain ultra-marathons. Nike Trail Elite runner Sally McRae, was the first ultra-runner I became exposed to. Her incredible story of racing the Western States 100 Miler in June of 2014 captured my attention, and it was a somewhat epiphany in that moment that I knew running 100 miles through the mountains was what I needed to do. Whilst that part of my story is documented in a previous blog post, it was via Sally that I found out about this incredible race in Italy. Her 2015 Sciacche Trail race report tells the full story, but in essence, the actions of the Cinque Terre community led by Christine and Nicola (race organisers and Cinque Terre Trekking owners), led to funds being raised to fly and support Sally’s participation in this race. I followed her journey to Cinque Terre closely, and after seeing the photos she posted, reading her race report, and following the Instagram accounts of the Sciacche Trail and Cinque Terre Trekking, I knew it was somewhere I needed to visit. Maggie didn’t need much convincing, and Weronika and her boyfriend Dewet joined us in August of 2015 for a long weekend of sun, wine, coffee, incredible food, and some of the most beautiful and technical trails I have experienced.
The beauty, soul and spirit of Cinque Terre, coupled with the hospitality of Christine and Nicola, ensured that the 2016 Sciacche Trail Race would see us return. And that we did. The moment I stepped off the train in Manarola, it was about 1PM. I hadn’t eaten since 330AM, aside from some of the snacks I had with me. I was dying for some water, but I had only one thing on my mind. I needed to be up on the trails. I needed to be moving, flying up and down the cliffs. I walked up the hill to our accommodation, dropped off my bags, and within 10 minutes was out the door and ascending the steep staircase to Volastra, the first town you hit leaving Manarola on the way to Monterosso ( which is the final 12km stretch of the Sciacche Trail course). The fact that I was tired, hungry and rather dehydrated, didn’t matter. The events of the day, all faded away. All I could see were the trails. The man-made steps, ancient and worn, the vineries lining the steep ascents, the defining characteristics of that region. I’d run the trails before, and still every single step was just magic.
The weather was gorgeous, the sun was shining, and I was climbing up with a renewed energy and spirit. The views along the coast, looking down on Manarola and then sweeping across the ocean, to the other towns far away, are always breathtaking. The trails here are dangerous. The views are so captivating, you need to make a very conscious effort to look at where and what you are running on. Add to the fact that the trails are at many points extremely narrow, uneven, and both the ascents and descents are filled with sharp and unstable rocks, makes running any of the trails a challenge when you are focusing. With this in mind, I found myself stopping constantly for the first 15 or so minutes. Just taking in the views, breathing the air, and enjoying the moment. There is such a beauty and soul that resonates, and having a healthy body that allows me to just run along these trails, is something I am very thankful for. I just ran, and ran and ran. Passing tourists that were either terrified to see someone running what they were struggling to walk, or tourists that were just so impressed and would cheer and high five as I came flying past. Either way, I was doing what gives me the greatest pleasure. Running wild and free, high up on the cliffs, racing from town to town. Volastra, Corniglia, Vernazza and then finally Monterosso.
The time flew by, and I was full of relief, joy, satisfaction, and far more at peace with the world. Any trail runner knows this feeling, when the trails come alive and take a presence that nothing else can come close to capturing. There are places and trails everywhere, and some are more powerful than others, and they are all subjective to each person. For me, Cinque Terre and the Sciacche Trail is up there as one that stands out. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t run there, but I know it definitely captures my attention every time. And that is the reason I came back. When my crew arrived, we got together for dinner. Joining me, I had Maggie and Weronica making their Cinque Terre return, plus Becs, Chris (another Aussie), Sophie and Bec. We ate amazing local food; freshly caught seafood, freshly baked bread, regionally produced olive oil, pesto and we drank the fantastic local wines. Italy in my humble opinion, has some of the best food in the world (most of my favourite foods are Italian), and is a serious contender for the number one wine making country in the world. It was over this delicious and lovingly prepared food that we talked, laughed, and appreciated being where we were, enjoying each others company. And that, is the most important factor. We all met through Nike Run Club London, through our love of running, which grew to our love of trail and ultra running. But our friendships transcend that, and that is why we flew to Italy. To share and experience this race together, our personal journeys interwoven into a fabric of togetherness. It was in this spirit that more wine was consumed, the laughter got louder, and we eventually got to bed, feeling very content with life. Saturday saw me up running again, and taking the time to explore Corniglia, which previously I have only just run through. I got back in time for brunch, which for me was a staple Italian diet of coffee and pastries. Every time I am in Italy, I just adopt the culture and the diet. The simplicity in coffee and freshly baked pastries, is something I relish. I rarely eat pastries in London (at least not part of my general diet), but it’s always different in Italy, and one of my favourite things to do. The remainder of the day was race registration, briefing and then dinner. And some more wine, particularly for Chris and I, who had the luxury of only supporting the race. Then for most, it was an early (ish) night.
Race morning. Lots of European style lycra, and lots of male runners. A significantly disproportionate amount of male to female runners. A statistic which is sadly prominent in ultra-running. Out of a total of 242 runners toeing the line, only 39 were women; 16%. Five of these women were my crew. 12% of the 39 women. As the start of the race loomed, the starting line filled. We said goodbye to the girls, gave them our individual messages of support and love, and then made our way back to a vantage point to cheer and get some photos of the start. Chris with his injury, found a static position, whilst I roamed around the start and got some extra photos. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a strong female presence off to the far right (my left) of the start. Intensely focused, dark ponytail sitting off her shoulder. Determined, calm, and looking ready to run HARD. It was Sally McRae. She had kept a low profile since arriving in Italy, and whilst I had hoped to have met her prior, I totally understood that she would want to rest and focus. This was the first time I had seen Sally, and I was both proud and excited that I would have the privilege of watching my favourite runner race. The person that inspired and more importantly empowered me to start ultra-running. And in that moment, she looked up, gave the biggest smile, and waved to me. That is Sally. Intensely competitive, focused, driven, determined, but the kindest, happiest, and friendliest person. With that, grinning like a kid on Christmas morning, I walked back to where Chris was. The race started, and it went off FAST. Which race doesn’t though. It could have been the start of an Olympic 5km. Sally ran past and I gave the biggest cheer I could muster, getting another smile and nod of thanks. Then our girls came past, I snapped a few photos, and Chris and I yelled and cheered as loudly as we could. And then they were gone, heading deep into the Cinque Terre National Park, where majority of the race would take them, before they headed back to the coast and to Riomaggiore, where the final 14 or so kms would see them run the coastal line, and through each of the Cinque Terre towns before finishing in Monterosso.
“The first runner just came through”, Chris tells me as I get back from a quick bathroom stop. I look at my watch and realise that he must have been flying. And well under CR pace. Wow. We were set up in Manarola, and I was running up and down between the aid station and where runners would come down from the Riomaggiore descent. Runners came through fast, as the top 10, then top 20 ran past. The first women came down at pace, and looked relaxed and ready to hammer the final stretch. She would be hard to catch, and the female CR looked under threat too. More runners passed, and still no Sally, and none of our girls. By my count, the top 10 women had been through before I see Sally running down the hill. I shout at a massive cheer, get a big smile and a “Hey Nic” as she hit the aid station. Christine gave her some more specific information about her position, and without breaking stride, Sally is off up the steep climb to Volastra. She was hunting down the top 10. Becs and Bec are next in, looking strong and intentionally running together (as was their plan from the start). Maggie and Weronica came next, and Maggie’s recent hip injury has flared up, meaning that running downhill is a no go for her. Considering the course is entirely UP and DOWN, it has been a tough day for her. But she was still there running, where most would have quit if they had even made the start line. Tough and determined, she kept going, with Weronica’s usual cheerful demeanour alongside. Not wanting to miss the finish, we headed to Monterosso to see them in (meaning we wouldn’t see Sophie at Manarola). I found a spot where runners pop up and run the final 400 or so metres to the finish line. A small set of stairs ascending to a long, smooth downhill. A ‘small’ set of stairs that felt like a mountain to the runners coming through. I cheered, high-fived and encouraged all the runners coming up, in all kinds of physical and emotional states. As Sally came up, I got another “Hey Nic”, high fived her, and saw her push hard to finish. WOW. She was outside the top 10 (women) by my count 12kms ago, and hammered the last section to finish as 3rd Women. What an effort, and one of the reasons why she continues to inspire. As our girls came in, Becs and Bec finished together as equal 10th Women, which was an incredible effort. Weronika, Sophie and Maggie all finished strong too. These five incredible stories are their own, and it’s not my place to tell them. I will however, say this.
Bec; You are tough and durable and run with all the heart in the world. Every single time.
Becs; You just don’t stop, you have a relentless work ethic, and it always shines (in and out of races).
Maggie; Most wouldn’t have started the race with that injury, and the fact you finished is testament to how resilient you are. You were the first person I began to train consistently with, for a reason.
Weronika; A quiet achiever, you go from strength to strength and always have a smile on your face. Stopping to pose for a photo before you climbed up to Volastra, is you in a snapshot.
Sophie; The first time I met you I told you I knew you would run an ultra. You raised me one, and without ever racing a marathon, chose a seriously tough ultra as your first. Massive respect, and I am genuinely sad I was occupied elsewhere when you finished.
As we ate, drank, and celebrated the completion of the race, I soaked up the atmosphere. The last ultra I was at I was racing, so my focus was understandably different. This time I was more aware, and the location was perfect. As people were still finishing, I got to finally meet Sally. We spoke about running, Nike, and a range of other topics. As the award presentations started, we got to see the top 10 women recognised. Bec was called up (whilst she crossed the line with Becs, her chip timing had her a fraction of a second in front), and not only would she be 10th, but she would be the youngest runner on the course. We cheered for Sally in what would be her first international podium finish. We chatted amongst ourselves, spoke to Sally some more, and then made the decision to head back, eat, shower and relax. We got back, the girls showered, and then in micro groups, we hung out, massaged sore legs, drank wine (included in the race packs), and enjoyed our final evening in Cinque Terre.
Monday morning I woke-up, for a final run. A final farewell to the trails of Cinque Terre, for this trip. It was again a different experience, as I got caught in a big downpour. The trails became incredibly slippery and dangerous at points, but that is a risk that comes with trail running. I enjoyed this new experience, and relished the opportunity to be out there one last time. With torn shoes and a smile, I bounded down the now very slippery steps back to Manarola, laughing out loud, before having my final breakfast in Manarola. Pastries and cappuccinos. My staple. And from there, it was back to London, back home. With memories filled with joy and experiences with some of the best people I know. And a longing for more adventures, in beautiful places, with incredible people. I will return to Cinque Terre. Whether to just train and enjoy, or to race next year. I will be back. And whilst that adventure is closed, our next one awaits. Transvulcania. 73kms, 8000m of elevation, and one of the worlds toughest and most competitive elite ultra events.
A massive thank you to Christine and Nicola! You are always so friendly and hospitable, and with your incredible team, you put on an absolutely phenomenal race. A race that is far more than just a race. It is a beautiful race, filled with history, spirit and soul, captured in 47kms of technical climbs and descents, with some of the worlds most divine views. It really is #notjustarace. I look forward to seeing you both soon friends.
And a big thank you to Tailwind Nutrition (UK). You put your support behind me and my crew. You have an incredible product, and it works every single time. The new Green Tea flavour is an absolute winner too!
*All Photos mine unless otherwise credited*
Sally’s website – http://www.sallymcrae.com
Sciacche Trail – http://new.sciacchetrail.com/en/
Cinque Terre Trekking – http://www.cinqueterretrekking.com
Accommodation in Cinque Terre – http://www.inmanarola.com