Clare Gallagher - Rust Busting in Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre, land of vineyards, history, and stairs, has 120km of trails, that need to be maintained!
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After training through a slushy Colorado winter, I headed overseas to Italy, to the La Sportiva SciaccheTrail race in the famed Cinque Terre region. I’d heard about the sickeningly steep trails from ultrarunner Sally McRae, who spoke highly of the touristy villages and intricate trail network. Even more tantalizing, I’d heard that Cinque Terre was in desperate need of more advocates for the trails. SciaccheTrail race founders, Christine and Nicola, told me that the region would greatly benefit from more hiking and running tourists, over the annual flocks of cruise ship tourists who do not do much to contribute to the local economy. I thought, maybe I can promote some sustainable trail tourism while blowing out my quads and drinking wine? It was decided. My first trail race of 2018 would be SciaccheTrail.
The Truth About Cinque Terre Trails
Cinque Terre is comprised of five idyllic villages clinging to Italy's rugged coastline overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Historically known for wine vineyards, lemon and olive groves, today, it’s less fortunately known for large tour groups taking selfies in front of seaside colored houses. Being a trail runner, the fact that most tourists don’t explore the actual hillsides was beyond confusing.
Cinque Terre vineyards rise and the region's iconic colored houses perch on the coastline, high above the Mediterranean Sea
Even more perplexing, Cinque Terre National Park has a complicated history of promoting large guided tours in the villages in lieu of encouraging tourists to explore the vast trail network. The trail network exists because hundreds of years ago, the paths between farms were the only connections between the villages. The trails are not only accessible, they literally cut through the villages. During this year’s edition of SciaccheTrail, we ran straight through four of the villages. And when I say ‘through,’ I mean we pounded down stairs onto the village streets and then grinded our way up and out of them, hence the race’s pointy elevation profile.
Unlike hikers and runners, tour groups of 30+ people often come straight off tour buses from the cruise ship port, a 20-minute drive outside the villages. The groups shuffle into the villages with pre-packed lunches, take photos of the villages, rarely spend money, and then leave. Most never set foot on a trail. Little do they know, the trails actually boast the best views.
While reconing the course leading up to the race, other visitors I saw on the trails were mostly on the coastal sections, nearest to the villages, and they ranged between dedicated hikers and runners to casual walkers wearing flip flops or dress shoes. Based on the attire I saw, it’s clear that the National Park doesn’t promote ‘how to prepare for hiking Cinque Terre.’ Then, somewhat disappointingly, I was surprised to see the higher ridgeline trails completely empty, while just a few miles away the villages were packed with people! Amongst tourists and the Park Administration, it felt like there’s a general lack of awareness of the full complexity and beauty of the region.
I thought, "maybe I can promote some sustainable trail tourism while blowing out my quads and drinking wine?" It was decided.
For one, there are over 120 kilometers of varied trails. From rugged and rolling forested singletrack to narrow, flat wine vineyard connector paths to brutally steep stairs, you could spend a lifetime running these trails and never get bored. During my pre-race preparation, I took note that I would need to race in a hybrid shoe capable of excelling on all surfaces: from cobblestone and pavement, to rocky singletrack and loose dirt descents. The low profile lugs and lightness of the Lycans were perfect for the mixed terrain.
Leading up to SciaccheTrail, I was so consumed by exploring and learning about the National Park issues, I hardly had a moment to get nervous about the race. It was a good thing because once I started the first climb on race morning, I was humbled into a hands-on-knees power hiking and just accepted it was going to be a long day.
Settling Into Race Mode
Once I settled into the rolling ridgeline trail that hovers far above the five villages in dense forest, I relaxed a bit and felt so grateful to be racing again. This was my first trail race since last year and boy, did it feel good. I could tell from the start that my winter training in Colorado had paid off. Aside from fitness testing, one of my favorite parts about racing is honing into myself and my surroundings. I love that I have to nobody report to but myself and the trail. It’s genuine peace. Peace, plus a bit of trail talk.
Time to go down now!
Hello, wow, you are steep. Let’s try to run all the way. Come on now!
Why are you so rocky?
When will your descent end? Why is this so long?
Holy, wow, this is a never-ending hill.
Do you know when the next aid is?
What an amazing section you are!
Look, so many people came out to cheer for you today. You’re a beautiful trail!
The low profile lugs and lightness of the Lycans were perfect for the mixed terrain—from cobblestone and pavement, to rocky singletrack and loose dirt descents.
Surely personifying inanimate objects is a useful tool in ultrarunning, as so much of the ultra process is mental. Whether I go to the looney bin for chatting with dirt has yet to be determined.
In all seriousness, how can I let myself let up during a race when the trail and I become friends? I never set myself versus the trail, but instead, I feel that I’m a guest on the trail, and together, we’re going to have a great day. So, when I noticed that some terraced walls that had recently collapsed from landslides were fixed, I said a quick thank you to the interim National Park President, Enzo Resasco; We’re back in business!
Resasco is the Park President for now—his future depends on national elections that are in gridlock—and in the few short months he’s been in charge, the trails have never looked better. According to local trail runners, Resasco is the first President to fix trails the same week a landslide occurs. In the past, trail maintenance has been an afterthought. The go-to course of action is to just close the trails. Thankfully, most of the trails were open for the race.
I flowed with stoke, keeping my pace to just below the edge of my limit. I remembered how much I love racing!
SciaccheTrail is one of those courses that isn’t difficult to become absorbed in. Sure, there’s 8,400 feet of elevation gain in just a 50k, but the majority of the climbing is in punchy bursts of stairs and steep trail climbs that eventually roll onto flowy single-track or the flat coastal trails that overlook the delectably aqua Mediterranean Sea.
My actual race competition was with another American, Amanda Basham. We stayed together for the first 13 miles or so, and then after a few aid stations, I pulled away on an uphill to seperate us for good. I felt very steady during the beginning, like I could run a 100k at the same pace, but in order to create a gap on 2nd place, I pushed the climbs. The week prior to arriving in Italy, I completed a Boulder ‘Hell Week,’ which consists of time-trialing up all of Boulder’s five major peaks. It’s with this unique group called Rocky Mountain Runners (founded by La Sportiva athletes Silke Koester and Ryan Smith). My times uphill from that week proved I was in great climbing shape. So, while trying to build a lead above the village of Monterosso, I remembered literally sprinting up Mt. Sanitas in Boulder just 10 days prior and I thought, hey at least I’m at sea level here!
Once I was racing with just men, I practiced rudimentary Italian to communicate with my new friends. But, I mainly just talked with the trail in those middle miles. I flowed with stoke, keeping my pace to just below the edge of my limit. I remembered how much I love racing!
Running For Something Other Than The Win
Towards the end of the race, I was undoubtedly tired, and mentally spent from having to focus so hard on the endless stairs and rocky trails. These are my do-or-die moments and there are three options:
•I can give into my fatigue and forget I’m racing. That’s the worst option. I will slow down and not perform to my potential.
At SciaccheTrail with two miles to go, I remembered why I was here: to learn about the trails and the history of the place. I thought of the cruise ship tourists that make life for locals extremely difficult during the busy season. I thought of the National Park’s lack of maintenance on its own trails. Then, I thought of the wonderful people waiting at the finish line, with bottles of the local dessert wine, Sciacchetra. I endured the final miles with a hopeful heart that one day, these trails would be the celebrated highlight of the region. That every tourist would know about the cultivation history of the steep coasts, the importance of the trail network and how best to explore it’s trails.
Up Next: Representing Team USA at IAU World Championships in Spain in May!
Preview & Photos 1-4: © Alice Russolo
Photo 5: © Serena Delzot
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CLARE GALLAGHER is a member of the La Sportiva Mountain Running® Team.
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