Wednesday, July 27, 2016

BADWATER135 Race Report

It was the beginning of February when I received that letter: 
Congratulations, You're in Badwater 135! Only 100 people are selected to run it every year and I could hardly believe I was actually in! Such a thrilling moment! This is THE race that started it all. 

In fact that sparkle was ignited back in late 2010 when my fascination and curiosity for the world of Ultrarunning soared high while reading the stories of perseverance and dedication of legends of our sport like Marshall Ulrich, Lisa Smith, Pam Reed, Dean Karnazes and many others.

Badwater Course Profile

I had just returned with couple of frost bitten toes, a load of heavy gear and a large 1st Place Medal hanging off my neck from the YUKON ARCTIC ULTRA. My "grand plan" this Season was to run the 2 most Extreme (Coldest and Hottest) Ultras on the planet and, well, it was getting real!

In less than 6 months time I would have the opportunity to run between -40 up in the Yukon Territory (CANADA), just below the Arctic Circle, and +120, in the Death Valley (CA, USA). The hottest place on earth.

Sounded like a great idea to me... So, I planned my training ahead of time and gave it all I got!

Fast forward 5 months, I found myself sitting on a comfy bed in Furnace Creek Ranch, explaining the final logistics and rehearsing the Nutrition and Hydration plan with my team, just a few hours before the 3rd wave start (11pm) of the BADWATER135.

All the supplies were getting stocked in the Support Vehicle, a sparkly light grey Dodge Caravan, as we moved our final things out of the room and headed out by 9:45pm.
25 gallons of water were stocked under the seats, my CarboPro packs, Metasalt Elecrolytes, all the extra gear and some fruit and nuts were all packed and ready for battle! We picked up about 100Kg of fresh Ice at the General Store on the way out, neatly placed those heavy bags in the coolers and off we were towards Badwater Basin.

The role of the support team/Crew in such an extreme event is fundamental.
The temperature is so hot and extreme that without the proper planning a runner can incur in serious dehydration and eventually critical health issues. Keeping the runner "cool" and hydrated is mandatory and in this case it means having all the logistics figured out. This can make a substantial difference between making it to the finish line or getting a DNF.
For this reason I had 2 Crews ready to switch every 12 hours, in order to keep everyone alert and awake throughout the Race. The first Team was made by my father Cesare, Paolo, Domenico and Michela. An all Italian first team that would stay with me during the night section, from the start till sunrise. The second team was made by Daniele, Ashley and Brian. I knew their experience would play a substantial role in the later part of the race.
The special atmosphere around the start is always hard to explain, with that funny gut feeling tingled by the daunting thought of what you're about to do...running 135 miles (217Km) in the hottest desert on earth through 3 mountain ranges...the toughest challenge on earth was about to start.

After the ritual group photo, the National Anthem and the countdown, at 11pm on the dot, we were off! The adventure had begun in a warm 115' F. Despite the heat I felt comfortable running around 7 to 8 minute/mile covering the first 17 miles in 2:20. I was in 4th position at that point.
Right from the very beginning the crew would stop every mile or so to give water, nutrition, change the ice bandanas, etc... I gave a written down plan to them with specific instructions on when I needed something, all based on time rather than distance. The timing was good and all went well just until Furnace Creek, the first checkpoint. 

I had run out of water since Golden Canyon (2 miles before FC) but I kept running along although I could not spot my Crew for a seemingly endless time. 

We passed by the checkpoint and still could not see my vehicle. I was already dry and getting frustrated. The flashing lights of all the vehicles parked on the side of the road just past the checkpoint made me hope they could be just a bit ahead. So, I kept pushing and, once I reached that block of cars, I still could not see my Crew. It's been almost 4 miles and I was out of water, it's only when I started cramping and felt dizzy that I realized I had to ask for water to another crew or runner.         
  
For some logistical issues before and after the checkpoint 45 minutes went by until I saw my crew again and I was not happy at that point. I was swerving down the road, my head was spinning and my muscles were cramping... and we were only 20 miles into the Race! I tried to regroup with a little power nap and taking in some extra fluids but I just couldn't shake it off. There are times you go through debilitating low points followed by exhilarating highs, but this time it just never turned around and I kept pushing and working hard all night. By sunrise I felt like I was already in a pit. Not good, we were in Stovepipe Wells, I still had 95 miles to go and the first climb was just about to start.

I tackled the climb with great hopes since I trained particularly well on that knowing I could make a difference on the uphill. Of course, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. I struggled throughout and could hardly keep the bounce. The heat was on as I dragged for the 15 mile and 5.000ft climb up to Towne Pass. When the sign came in sight it felt like an oasis in the desert.   The 10 mile stretch downhill to the Panamint Springs Valley was a true relief and my pace was decent at that point, although I was struggling to "feel" the stride and reaching that effortless high I was waiting for... I waited and waited but things only got worse. The asphalt around noon back down to the desert floor was scorching hot and the heat waves ahead of us looked like water puddles in the distance. I could feel the heat through my shoes and took a strong effort to keep moving along while trying to stay cool and hydrated at the same time.

The Panamint Spring Checkpoint (72 miles into the Race) was ahead of us for a seemingly endless period of time, never getting closer. I finally met my second team right at that station and after a couple of minutes break under
the shade of the porch, my pacer Brian and I took off for the Father Crowly ascent. We moved up consistently and got to the Darwin Checkpoint (90 miles into the Race) in 17 hours on the clock, in 7th position. 90 miles covered and 45 to go. Alright, this was the moment! The Race was going to start then... or at least that was my plan. I ate something, cooled down for a second and hit the road, ready to tackle the 50km downhill to Lone Pine as fast as possible!

In any Ultra it's necessary to have a goal but it's also important to be able to adjust and adapt as you go without getting frustrated. It's a mental game so I forced myself to pick up the pace but that's when my kidneys (and my stomach) started hurting, reeeal bad.
I then realized I had not peed once since the start................ so I stopped for almost an hour laying down in the back seat of our Van right on the side of the road to regroup and drink as much as possible until I felt a slight urge to urinate. A root beer colored liquid came out and that's when my wheels completely came off.
(napping during the 2nd night)

The sun was going down but the temperature stayed up as many runners passed by while I pretty much walked the last 40 miles (70Km) of the race. My body was hurting inside and my legs just would not turn or keep the rhythm. 

I pushed and gave it all STILL I could barely even walk. I just didn't want to quit. Ash (Ashley), Brian and Daniele cheered me on, kept pushing and never doubted me throughout, walking with me and keeping me up for a second night until we reached the last final 12 mile and 5.000ft climb up to Whitney Portals by sunrise. It was a very demoralizing feeling, especially when you enter a race with high hopes and eventually you find yourself dragging, watching loads of other runners plodding along and not being able to react... it's something I never experienced to this extent before and it was quite a humbling experience.


"Crawling on the way up to Mt. Whitney Portal"
My initial goal was to finish in between 24 to 26 hours and, given my actual preparation, I believed that could have been fairly achievable. I took an extra 10 hours. What started as a Race turned into a 45 final stretch death march... Our time of 34:00:10 placed me in 25th position while registering the fastest Italian time on this Course up to date.

Ultimately my goal was to make it there...and I can proudly say I did it! 
It didn't matter the time, it didn't matter the position. I knew I could do it and even if I had to walk it all. I didn't want to let this opportunity slip away and the "Yukon&Badwater" Season .

To put things in perspective: I took 17 hours to do the first 90 miles and EXACTLY 17 hours to do the final 45... needless to say I learned a lot and, if I'm lucky enough to be given the opportunity again next year, I'll be back and ready this time!

I'm not going to get into inspirational quotes or anything like that, we know Ultras are hard and that's why we do it. I stripped down to my core to cross that finish line and only made it thanks to the unconditional support of my Crew. Despite the Result not being "exactly" what I wanted I am still proud I had the chance to challenge myself on such a brutal course. I was seeking sheer adventure and that's what I got.

I'm thankful beyond measure for all the support of my team (from left to right): Brian, Ash, Daniele, Cesare, Michela, Paolo e Domenico. We shared a memorable adventure I'm sure we'll never forget. This one was truly conquered gritting teeth and ultimately that's how it's supposed to be.

Special Thanks goes to the outstanding support of 

ALTRA
CARBOPRO
2XU
SHplus
SIMPLE HYDRATION
ZWITTY ULTRA COACHING
IRUN4ULTRA

for making this a reality!

...The next day we got up and, without much planning, on a whim, we drove back to the portals where I started running again, back down the Road towards Death Valley on a BADWATER double attempt.

Report on that coming soon >>>

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

UltraMilano-Sanremo 2015 - Race Report

 
It's undeniable, all Ultra Races are hard. There's no way around it. They're great challenges, and as such they bring its participants to push beyond themselves. Some races are extremely long, some are very technical, or at high elevation, others are super hot or bone chilling cold. Whatever the Challenge may be these Events inevitably leave a mark inside all the amazing athletes that cross the finish line.
 
The UltraMilano-Sanremo idea was born straight from the ideal and belief that anything is possible, even running 7 marathons non-stop, from the city of Milan in the North of Italy, all the way through the Italian Riviera to Sanremo, just "steps" away from the French border.
UltraMilano-Sanremo (or UMS) offers a gorgeous course, with ever changing sceneries and lots of miles to have fun with!! The weather is mostly mild, so no worries there, what really makes this Race unique is its distance. Being Europe's longest single-stage Ultra Race (175 miles / 285Km long) it certainly is a (as Dave Krupski called it...) FORMIDABLE distance to deal with, no matter how fit and prepared you are. This year, at the Second Edition, the cut-off time was set at 48-hours (instead of the 42 from the 2014 Edition).

 
Certosa di Pavia
UMS can roughly be divided into three sections:  (1) the Italian countryside, from the southern outskirts of Milan to the village of Ovada at the base of the mountain (the first 75 miles)

(2) up and down the mountain (Passo del Turchino) (Miles 75-97), and

Ovada and Turchino Pass in the distance
(3) the Ligurian Coast (Miles 98-175), where runners literally hug the Mediterranean Sea all the way into the finish line at the Sanremo Yacht Club, only a few miles away from Monaco and France. (Here below)  


Italian Riviera - Ligurian Coast
After a few hickups from last year Organization my partner and Co-Founder of the UMS Riccardo Marvaldi and I decided that on the Second Edition a New Association, composed by a close and trusted group of friends of ours, would take over the Event with the desire to offer a truly Epic experience to all the Runners coming from all around the world.

In order to be able to set up the Race we dreamt off only couple of years ago, Riccardo and myself became the Race Directors... and this is pretty much how the Event went down:


Thursday April 30th, 2015: Pre-Race Meeting at ALTAVIA, in Milan.
While all athletes stroll around shaking hands, getting to know each other or diving straight into warm hugs when finding a familiar face, we are getting ready to begin. The beauty of this sport lays right there to me... It's not about the "competition", or the ranking position at the finish line, rather it's about sharing what will inevitably become an unforgettable experience. Pushing through limits is never easy, quite to opposite, but when you break through it's very special. Something all these Athletes experienced before and know first hand. There's a tangible connection, a true feeling of camaraderie fills the air between words of support and honest encouragement.
It's with this Spirit and wonderful Attitude that we started the Pre-Race meeting where we explained the course, how to follow the road book and handed out Race Bags.      
When Runners of the caliber of Liz Bauer and Joao Oliveira share their positive outlook it's something simply extraordinary. What makes this race so special to me is the "size" of the Challenge in itself. You know where and when you start but you are not quite sure you are going to make it till the end. It is not a matter of time, splits or finishing position rather a simple, harsh, endurance challenge you undertake completely by yourself. It's a journey into the unknown and that's how the concept was born about 3 years ago.
 
Friday May 1st - 10am - Caffe' Carlotta, in Via Alzaia Naviglio Pavese was the meeting point for the Second Pre-Race meeting where we explained once again the course, Race Rules, how to follow the Markers, Safety rules and all the important information we needed to share with the Athletes and their Crews.

The Race Start was schedule at Noon. A few minutes before the whole group was ready as we invited the runners to take place behind the starting line. After a quick Entrants checks, with no further delay, we started the 10 seconds countdown... 3... 2... 1... and with all the excitement buzzing in the air our runners were off to a 175 mile long journey.
 
Being a completely new Organization our resources were limited but we all worked tirelessly to help support the runners on the course, although it was mandatory to have a support Crew for each runner for Safety reasons. Nevertheless our Team patrolled the Crews from the very beginning of the Race and for the following 48 hours, supporting not only the physical but also the mental aspect of each runner, trying to do our very best to make them feel safe and not alone on such long stretches of road.

The checkpoints were located at about 20/25km (12 to 14 miles) from each other and for this improvement we must thank the support of great Organizations and Associations such as L'Arte del Movimento Pavia, Ovada Trail Team and of course the Italian Red Cross.
Their collaboration was not only an honor for us but needless to say it was very fundamental!

 
Dave Krupski (USA) took the lead for the first 25 miles at a very fast clip. A small chasing group made by Fabio Costi (ITA) and Joao Oliveira (POR) followed slightly behind.

The Portuguese Runner was the first one to get into Montebello della Battaglia Checkpoint located at around 31 miles, in just over 4 hours.

Quite an impressive time given that they still had to cover around 6 more marathons that day!!!


Marco Mazzi in Masone
The race unfolded itself quite nicely and between very long stretches of road and busy town centers the runners reached Ovada before taking on the Turchino Pass, one of the hardest sections of the course.

The temperature up until that point was as perfect as it could be for running, a light breeze and a mix of sun and clouds kept the runners steady without any heat related issues. When the (first) night time came though, the temperature dropped immediately, especially heading up Masone and the top of Mt. Turchino, and to make things worse a heavy rain fall took over the mountain making the passing very treacherous.
Luca Sala on the way down Turchino Pass

Unfortunately some Athletes dropped due to extreme fatigue or injury but thankfully most runners and Crews were prepared for the adverse situation and we all moved on to the last stretch (75 miles - 120km to the finish) on the Riviera Ligure and the famous Via Aurelia.
 
Joao Oliveira (POR) at the Finish Line
At this point every mile felt longer as the legs got heavier but the front runners pushed the pace relentlessly to reach their final goal! Sanremo was in sight and in the end Joao Oliveira (POR) was the very first Runner to fly through the Finish Line and set a New Course Record in 30h.15m.22s.

Christian Fatton (SUI) followed shortly behind and then the Italian Luca Sala took Third Place!

For the following 20+ hours we kept welcoming Runner after Runner that made it to Sanremo. It was something I never had the chance to live before but participating and sharing those moments with each and every one of them was such an inspiring and moving experience that I will never forget, and for this I am grateful to all of our Finishers.


Liz Bauer (USA) at the Finish Line



The phenomenal Liz Bauer (USA) was the first Woman to cross the Finish Line just minutes from the cut off time! What a Finish!!!

It was such an honor to share the last few miles next to her and help her accomplish what she set out to do!



Sunday May 3rd - Sanremo Yacht Club: The Finish line was right by the beautiful Sanremo Harbor at the Sanremo Yacht Club. The Award Ceremony and Party was held by the water and a soft green grass carpet was spread all around to offer a soft ground for many sore feet.

UMS2015 Finisher Awards
The excitement and Spirits soared high as we set up the Stage for the Awards. Our DJ was spinning some up-beat tunes while people drank, ate and ultimately had the chance to relax, share and celebrate their accomplishments!

The Oval Glass Award was handed out to all the Finishers while the first 3 Males and (only) 1 Woman were awarded Special Prizes on the Podium.

 Joao Oliveira (POR) & Liz Bauer (USA) on the Podium

The festive atmosphere was deepened by emotions when the National Anthems played, it was all around a wonderful time when lips were singing along and a few tears came out too. 

All in all we (as Organization) could have not been happier with the outcome of this year's Event. All Runners and Crews shared their approval and their positive and supporting comments only super charged our momentum!

UltraMilano-Sanremo 2015 has certainly left its mark and laid solid ground for a great Future ahead. Everything is already ON for UMS2016 and many exciting news are going to be shared very soon. The New Start will most likely be held at the very beginning of April while Registrations will open in September.

If you are looking for a real challenge we look forward to see you at the Starting Line next year, and know for a fact that when you'll cross the Finish Line it's something that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Special Thanks to Daniele Cardi, Luca Ammirati, Edoardo Marvaldi, Cesare Graglia, l'Arte del Movimento Pavia, Barbara Bonfiglio and the Ovada Trail Team, Croce Rossa Italiana, Yacht Club Sanremo and all the Friends who supported us and helped us out through those 3 crazy days!!!

Arrivederci!!! Till next time, see you out there!
Michele

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Triple Crown FKT - March 16th, 2015

When a guy like Nickademus Hollon make a plan for a run you know for a fact that it's going to be a long and intense day (and "only" one day, if you're lucky...). I was beyond excited when we started talking about the Triple Crown FKT attempt, although the timing with training wasn't perfect, I just couldn't pass on the opportunity to share the trails with such an hardcore athlete.

Mt. San Gorgonio (11,505ft)

The "TRIPLE CROWN" is a challenge that brings runners and hikers to climb the 3 highest peaks in Southern California: Mt. San Gorgonio (11.505ft), Mt. San Jacinto (10.834ft) and Mt. Baldy (10.064ft), consequently and all in one day. Although these mountains offer several trail options to reach the summit the FKT (Fastest Known Time) we wanted to go for consisted in running from the very bottom to the top and back of each mountain through their hardest routes.
Mt. San Jacinto (10.834ft)

Mt. Baldy (10.064ft)

The date was set only a few days prior and on Sunday, March 15th we met in Palm Springs, CA where my friend from Grand2Grand, James Garner and his lovely wife Juanita, offered us to stay at their home for the night.
Their hospitality extended far beyond and after all the packing pre-run was done we enjoyed a delicious typical Mexican dinner and shared lots of stories and laughter together.









The Plan: Start with Jacinto, then drive to Gorgonio leaving Baldy as last.

- Cactus to Clouds ---> 14 miles to the top and 14 miles back down, with 11.000ft of +/- Elevation

- Vivian Creek ---> 7 miles to the top and 7 miles back down, with 6.000ft of +/- Elevation

- Bear Canyon ---> 6 miles to the top and 6 miles back down, with 6.000ft of +/- Elevation

4:45am: Wake up call.
After a quick last minute gear check I slip in my ALTRA Lone Peak 2.0 and by 5:30am we got to Cactus to Clouds Trail Head. The air was still, the temperature was already warm and there was not a soul in sight as we moved the first steps upward. We set off on a comfortable but steady pace as we tackled the first section (and most technical) of this ascent. 8.5 miles to the Tram Cable House and over 8.500ft of Elevation gain...
A beautiful sunrise lit up the sky and the desert floor helped us switch the focus on the daunting task ahead, even for just a few brief moments.
We reached the Tram House in 2:46minutes (with a 2:50 target) and that immediately translated into a big confidence boost... the day was going to be a fun one. On the last 5.5 miles we encountered lots of snow and icy patches that inevitably slowed the pace down, nevertheless we summited in just 4:08minutes, leaving about 12 minutes to spare off the previous record.

Our main goal was to "save the legs" and try to be conservative so we set out on a good cruising effort without bombing the downhill, especially in the last 8 miles section with an impressive quad busting incline. The temperature was very comfortable up to the final stretch descending into Palm Springs. To make things more fun, the last 3 miles I ran out of water and with a high of 96F I knew it meant trouble, but didn't say anything to Nick cause I knew he was running low of liquids too. I started feeling sick and dizzy, and then more sick. Once we got to the car I could barely stand and felt almost unconscious to the point that I seriously doubted I was going to make the other 2 remaining peaks. 

An icy gallon of water sometimes can do miracles and indeed it did, in just a few short minutes we were driving off Highway 10 Gorgonio bound. While I was on the wheel, Nick was able to get us some rice, fruit, mixed nuts, etc. to eat and take advantage of that driving break to stomach some solid food, although my nutrition during the run was spot on with my HAMMER Gels and PERPETUEM.

Gorgonio Trail Head - I was dreading leg pain and stomach issues while reaching the Parking lot at the bottom of the mountain but I felt as magically recharged, for some reason, and we set out going up the river at an impressive cadence. I kept on telling Nick that perhaps this was my favorite trail in SoCal, cause some sections of it reminded me of the Alps and the deep wood smell is something I look forward to when running up there.

 
Time went by fast simply cause we were having a blast... only the last couple of miles were a touch frustrating cause of the snow situation. No doubt it was very slow going to the top so there was no time to spare. We snapped a shot and then charged right back down. Looking at Brett Maune's splits I knew this was the time to push the pace and create some gap. So we did setting into a fast clip flying down the mountain.

When we got back to the car I was very positive and hopeful for Baldy.
Our lead at that point had gone up to 45 minutes and Bear Canyon was the only thing in between us and the FKT record.



We got to Baldy Village at around 7pm. The sun had already set behind the ridge but the sky was still very bright. I envisioned that moment all day long and there we finally were. It felt good, although in some pain I was happy, truly happy. During the time off in the fall and winter I had missed that feeling of simplicity and rawness that comes with these type of adventures. The climb up Bear Canyon brought me right back to reality and as the dark was creeping up on us and the steep ascent we both started feeling the weight of the miles. We reached the summit in just over 2:25 with darkness all around and a frozen wind blowing hard against us. The best part was when I realized that I was shivering with my thermal sweater on while Nick was "chilling" in his tank top!

A quick picture and off we were, once again and for the final stretch of our journey.
6.5 miles and about 6.oooft of descending remaining. After running the other 2 mountains earlier in the day made this downhill a grinder. We both took turns and pushed each other when at our lowest. It was tough, no doubt, but I was again thankful for the incredible experience.
We tapped the trail head sign at 11:15pm and we were officially (or at least on our watch) done!

Here's our FKT timeline:

- Start: 5:31am

Grubb's Notch: 2:46:45
Top of Jacinto: 4:08:10
Palm Springs: 6:49:48
Vivian Creek TH: 8:01:05
San Gorgonio Summit: 10:45:36
Vivian Creek TH: 12:11:24
Bear Flats TH: 13:44:39
Mount Baldy Summit: 16:10:05
Bear Flats TH: 17:44:17

- Finish at 11:15:25pm after 17:44:17
(15:16 total running time ---> 55 miles and 23.oooft of +/- Elevation)

Thanks to my sponsors for the great support and for sharing the passion:
ALTRA SHOES - HAMMER NUTRITION - SKINS COMPRESSION - SIMPLE BOTTLES

On to the next adventure, see you out there!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

GRAND2GRAND ULTRA - What an Adventure!

It's been 2 week since the end of the G2G. I haven't been updating my blog in a while but this time I felt the urge to share a piece of what I considered a wonderful Adventure. There is so much to tell: Great Stories, Unforgettable Moments, Joy, Tears and Laughter... but this time, instead of writing a typical Race Report, I decided to post a note I wrote the last night of the Race, in our tent underneath a thundering sky:

     "There are things in life that for a reason or another tend to define our true self. It's hard to describe but those moments inevitably carve a very special spot in out minds that leave indelible traces worth memories of a lifetime.
 
      It's 4am of Saturday September 27th. The last stage of the Grand2Grand Ultra is only hours away as I find myself staring at the rare stillness of camp. All my fellow runners are asleep. It's quiet and it's cold. The big thunderstorm that hit us last night is still very much hovering around us but a break through the clouds above my head shows a majestic view of the milky way.
I find myself overwhelmed with a river of emotions.
 
     Most people out there cannot and perhaps will never understand the reasons that brought 104 Ultra Runners from all around the globe to challenge themselves through 170 miles of relentless running, unsupported, into one of the most beautiful yet grueling landscapes on the planet.
G2G is considered one of the hardest events in the world and often we are questioned why we do it. Why would you put yourself through so much harshness and pain?
My first answer would be, it's about the simplicity of life and the wonderful feeling of accomplishment when we cross that finish line. Sought after day after day.
It's pure joy, and sharing that joy together goes far beyond the competitiveness of the event itself.
I crawl back into my tent with teary eyes knowing that today would be the last leg of our journey. It's the Community that made it so special to me.
It's been a wonderful journey, a real adventure. An experience I will never forget. I feel incredibly lucky and blessed I had the opportunity to share all if it with some of the best people I've ever met. The friendship through harshness and the solid bonds this race has created are bound to last a lifetime.
 
      My thoughts go out to my wonderful tent mates and to all the tough runners at Camp! To all the crew members who dedicated their time and efforts and worked relentlessly day in and day out to help us reach our dreams! And of course to the incomparable support of the people of Kanab, and to Tess and Colin Geddes, the kindest and most fun race directors I've met!
 
      It was all their hard work that made it possible and gave us the opportunity to conquer an unfathomable goal. We all lived in the simplest and rawest of conditions through strength and tenacity, from the first to the last I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for making this race an unforgettable experience."
 

Ok ok, maybe I got too emotional but hey...
Anyway, Matt Brown and the other photographers did a fantastic job tracking and chasing us through all kind of terrain. It would be a shame not to share some of their outstanding work:
 
Start of Stage 1 - Grand Canyon North Rim















Finish Line - Stage 6


See you next time! 
 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Las Vegas to Los Angeles 300 miles for Telethon

 
"The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience"
Eleanor Roosevelt    
 


     This is the story of what we experienced during our fantastic expedition through that desolate corner of the world called the Mojave Desert. Accompanied by three extraordinary travel companions (Riccardo Marvaldi, Simone Gandolfo and Andrea Languasco) without whom this experience not only would not have been possible but perhaps it would not even have had the same meaning.

There are some experiences so unique, so special, that for their great meaning leave an indelible mark in our lives. I'm talking about moments so extraordinary, so intense that inevitably carve memories in our mind, the good ones, those that when you think back you cannot help it but break into a smile.

This, "in brief", is what happened:

     
Tuesday, December 10th - 4:45 am - the alarm sounds relentlessly. During the night the temperature outside reached 25 degrees and, still wrapped in blankets inside the RV, we notice the ice solidified on the windows and between the cracks of the door. It's very cold inside as well but, between a joke and a laugh, Riccardo and I get up to prepare some breakfast. 2 slices of wheat toast with peanut butter and jam + 2 slices of sliced honey turkey and why not, a piece of dark chocolate. In a blink of an eye Riccardo is ready. The excitement is tangible and the anxiety of the wait begins to grow stronger. In the meantime Simone and Andrea are waking up as I prefer to distract myself pretty much with anything I can in order to keep my mind off of what lays ahead of me for the next few days.


My job will only be to Run. Simple. Direct.

Shortly before dawn, we leave the service station where we camped for the night and we near the famous sign at the entrance of Las Vegas. That is, in fact, the start of our event.

At 6:30am - Riccardo bid me farewell with a hug and a heartfelt "good luck". Simone and Andrea are in position... I take the first steps. We're off!!! I still cannot believe it but we are actually on our way...

The cold is still pungent. It takes only a few moments before the first rays of the sun begin to warm up the valley though. The sight is breathtaking and opens up a show of majestic jagged shadows, lights and warm colors between
the gorges of the surrounding canyons, leaving
us all speechless. Before the start I gave specific information to the crew regarding my necessities of eating, drinking, breaks, etc... with a routine that must be repeated every day from start to finish. Since this is not a competition I opted for a different approach on the calorie intake plan. Instead of many liquid calories, gels and/or sports drinks I decided to eat mostly "real" food. Pasta, bread, turkey, backlava (delicious greek pastry), cereal bars, snickers bars, dried fruit, cola, etc... alternating it all every 15/20 minutes. Regardless of the mileage. Every 6 miles the RV comes to a stop and awaits my arrival where, like in a NASCAR pit-stop, the refueling takes place. Riding the initial wave of excitement I close the first marathon in 3hr45mins. Perhaps a bit too fast considering the adverse initial uphill out of the sin city.

At this point we are close to Jean and, immediately after passing the small airport, we run into the first true obstacle of the expedition. The Las Vegas Boulevard, the road that brought us up to this point, enters an underpass of highway I-15 and pretty much ends there... on a very bumpy gravel service road. After months of logistic research I am bummed with anxiety as we call the Las Vegas Highway Patrol to ask for clarifications and a potential solution to our problem. Only 3 weeks ago they confirmed the fact that Las Vegas Blvd would take us smoothly till Barstow, CA and just now they point out that only an equipped vehicle/ Jeep can enter those sections. We thank them and hang up.


It is said that adventures are never such until something goes wrong...

So, the RV cannot take those service roads and I cannot run on the highway.

After a brief research with maps at hand we decide to split up. Our plan is simple: the RV will "leap-frog" me and await at each exit to establish a checkpoint upon my arrival. So, I put on my camel-back (water reservoir), take a handful of bars and dried fruit and set out again. After 8 hours we find ourselves in Nipton Road which also marks the 2nd marathon of the day

The day is still long, the timing is great, legs hurt a bit but overall I feel extraordinarily well. I decide to take a short lunch break, get some calories in and rest up for a few.

The beauty of the landscapes and the seemingly endless road ahead often distract the mind, always opening new doors to thoughts so profound that for a few moments it feels like flying...

The first day ends at 2am after about 20 hours of running and over 100 miles behind us. At this point we are near Zzyzx Road where we decide to close the doors and rest for a few hours.
     Wednesday, December 11th - The sun has not come up yet when I feel Riccardo's hand shaking me. I do not connect right away. For a moment the mind is light but then reality kicks in.

It's 5:30am and it's time to start moving again. My usual breakfast is fast eaten and my legs are hard as rocks. I'm not sure how to handle it as I try to move the first steps. From now on it's all uncharted territory. Confronting new situations inevitably turns into pure motivation to push even further. The day goes by slowly and with many difficulties. It's a slow forward progression with usually 3 miles of running paused by a minute walking to reload on calories, reset the pain in the legs and basically trying to get by. At 1:15pm we reach the exit of Harvard Road, Newberry Springs. Approximately 215km of road is under our belt. At each checkpoint (highway exit approx. every 5 to 12 miles) the camper continues to pass me by and at times I glimpse my crew dashing on the highway overtaking me and heading to our next meeting point. Somehow this also becomes a motivating stimulus to push on and try to cover the gaps between the outposts as fast as possible.
Since the temperatures are very low sweating is not a problem and I can maintain a good electrolyte balance simply by eating salty foods without the aid of caps or sports drinks. It's just after 8pm in the evening when we reach Barstow. After 37 hours and 30 minutes, it's finally time to leave the abandoned desert road and jump on the iconic "Historic Route 66" that will accompany us all the way to the ocean!
We decide to camp there, in a parking lot, for dinner and a short rest. The stress of being on the road for so many hours and the overall fatigue are starting to get heavy. Very heavy.

The desire to move forward is strong but the need for a break is overpowering and shatters my will. So we lock up and hit the bed for a few hours. 

It has just turned past 2am when we open up the doors again. The roads are still covered with ice and the feeling in my legs matches the uncomfortable environment that hosts us. With my face completely covered up I take on the road ahead leaving town well before dawn as we slowly move towards Victorville.


      
Thursday, December 12th - The RV overtakes me and in an instant it disappears over the dunes in front of me. The dark strip of asphalt rolls out of sight among the dunes of a desert that evokes the great myth of the West and much of that California Dreaming theme.

The images that follow are simply breathtaking. This is what I was looking for all along.
Perhaps just finding yourself in the middle of nowhere is where you can listen to yourself at best.

Miles pass and I see Simone and Andrea who are constantly busy documenting our expedition. Riccardo on the other hand continues to manage my food routine and at the same time publishes updates on our position/ developments on the website. Everyone knows their job very well and we all know our roles. Thanks to their support I can always find the strength to continue during the most critical moments.

After several hours we come across the Mojave River and shortly after we enters the first settlements. After about 50 hours of traveling we reach Victorville, which coincides with 200 miles completed. The pain is there, and it's obvious, but the real battle now is against the tiredness/ lack of sleep. I'm not the only one to have had very little sleep over the past few days and now we all begin to suffer. We pass Hesperia and, after a brief stop at the famous "Summit Inn Café", we are on Mariposa Rd where a problem reoccurs. Route 66 ends in a very bumpy service dirt road. A ranger who sees us approaching confirms the inability to continue with our means. The problems is a bit more serious now. The fact is that we are on the Sierra Nevada mountain range that separates Victorville from San Bernardino and the trails may be too demanding to be taken in complete solitude.


We have no time to waste, and a decision needs to be made: we have no alternative but to split up (again) and meet up about 6 miles down the hill side at the intersection between I-15 and 138 (Abiel Barron Memorial Highway) at Cajon Junction. It's time to pull back out my camel-back (water supply), put some bars in my pockets and hit the wide trail. Fortunately, in a few moments, thanks to the change of pace and scenery, I am able to regain a somewhat good pace and actually enjoy the dreaded section. The valley opens up in front of my eyes like a beautiful postcard and for a short distance I also come to crisscross the famous PCT (Pacific Coast Trail) before taking the 138 road downhill. Pain is still there but it's unnoticeable. To enhance the positive mood I receive a call from a friend, Top class Ultra Runner, Andrei Nana from Florida. His straightforward approach and inspirational words are exactly what I needed to hear... a great motivation to keep charging on! 

As I near the gas station where my crew was parked, I break into an uncontrollable laugh.

I guess the endorphins like to play tricks like that sometimes. My "happy moment" is short lived though as I see Riccardo walking towards me with a "not so happy" grin on his face. In fact we find ourselves in the most critical point of our adventure. Route 66 (in this next short section) joins I-15 (for about 2km/ 1.3miles) and becomes pretty much the same roadway.

Another logistical problem bound to become the biggest setback of our journey. Riccardo explains this to me and together we try to look for a different way out...

To reach Cajon Canyon Rd there is no other road or driveway beside highway I-15.
The only alternative is to take a trail from Lone Pine Canyon Rd (that connects to Wrightwood -the start of the Angeles Crest 100-).

From there the single trail goes up very steeply until crossing the ridge.

The fast descent is very technical and drops to the valley bottom to connect with Cajon Canyon Rd. Total distance: 7miles.
 
Here's the big dilemma: 7 miles of very technical trails (in the dark, with already 200+miles in the legs) or 1.3 miles on the highway (on the RV)?
This decision, however trivial it may seem, is not an easy one to take. The fact that it's getting dark influences my choice and so I opt to get on the RV to cover those 2 km on the highway.

First exit: Cajon Canyon Rd! And now begins the descent to the valley!

We get to run through the suburbs northwest of San Bernardino and by 9pm we arrive in Rancho Cucamonga. The road now is very different and marks the beginning of a new landscape. After the desert and the mountains the next big hurdle will be the 'city traffic'. We have traveled about 240miles at this point and the body says enough. This day was by far the toughest of all. The ups and downs follow ever so frequently and at this point I find myself in a big pit. We need to stop. I need food, massages, stretching, ice...and especially sleep!

      
Friday, December 13th - The alarm goes off early, very early and along with it a thought resonates loudly in my head: today could be the last day of our trip. The temperature is warmer. That helps but the shooting pain is a constant companion. The agony is there, clearly, and after so many days on the grind all that's left is a persisting general feeling of "uncomfortable being" that crosses over into mere soreness determined by a weariness that pervades all around.

Everything hurts. Head, rib cage, stomach, back and of course legs... the idea is not to focus on it though. It's with screaming legs and joints that I start a slow walk on the seemingly never ending Baseline Rd, which leads us westward.

As the miles slowly go by things seem to get better. The city is getting closer at each step and so does the ocean. At each break I had the chance to read all the messages sent from friends, close and far, and thanks to their support I can find the strength to make the last effort and overcome the difficulties.

Time goes by and more miles are put behind us. Along the way we pass right through some very characteristic little towns like Covina and, shortly after, El Monte. At this point there are less than 50km to the end of the journey and the thought that we might be able to reach the ocean before dark is getting more vivid as we move along.

This is motivating but I cannot, maybe I simply do not want to, focus on this right now. I try to be present in the immediate moment not thinking at what lies ahead. After 75 hours the highs are like a quick squirt of adrenaline and the lows are too foggy to even be able to describe them. A very emotional state of mind that I never experienced before, where thoughts fly untamed, rising and dropping as fast as a rollercoaster ride.Then, suddenly, something happens. The body (or perhaps just the mind) reacts to this river of emotions channeling the energy into a more positive attitude. It might just be the thought this ordeal is about to come to an end but after a second day completely off I am starting to regain focus and kind of feel in control of this routine. Thanks to the many breaks and slower pace (compared to a competition) I am able to digest and assimilate all foods properly. Even proteins. In 3 days I have eaten over 4 pounds of sliced honey turkey and I think this has contributed greatly to limit muscle damage. I am convinced that with this approach our bodies could get to cover much greater distances...


It's about lunchtime when we arrive in Los Angeles. The skyscrapers of downtown LA dominate the landscape and suddenly appear almost like a mirage from the busy streets of the suburb.The RV is buzzing through the traffic and just past Union Station we hop on 3rd St. where we meet my fiancé Lauren. She was not able to take part from the beginning due to some other work commitments but I sure am happy to be able to share the last miles with her! We go right through Hollywood and Beverly Hills. We find ourselves on Wilshire Blvd and, right after Rodeo Drive, we turn left on Santa Monica Blvd, which not only represents the last part of the famous Route 66 but also the end of our adventure. My spirit soars as I see Lauren hopping off the RV joining me on a bike for the last 5 miles. She starts to ride along side me. It's a great feeling. Simple but true. Almost transcendental. Right then, as if on cue, the cell phone rings in my pocket and to my great surprise it's Dave Krupski. A good friend and another Top class Ultra Runner living in Miami, which I had the honor to pace at Badwater last summer. His words are like a shot of energy and his cheering me on, right at that moment, have the same effect of an high school coach giving a motivation pep talk right at the last quarter of the final game of the season!

While I'm writing this, for some reason, I still remember telling him how much my rib cage hurt! But not the legs. For another weird reason I feel my legs hurt pretty much the same from the end of day 1 till that moment. After the first 80/100 miles I felt there was a sort of plateau, almost like a pain threshold which, once entered, stays the same and barely increases. Not sure if this makes sense to anyone as it still doesn't to me either.


Just a few miles to go. The road is straight. At the end, far in the distance, we can see the ocean as the sun is dropping inexorably. Time flies and my legs become extraordinarily light
Lighter than when I started over 3 days ago. I run and smile. Finally I see Simone and Andrea placed in front of the Santa Monica Pier anticipating our arrival.
As I turn on the main street, Pacific Blvd, which takes us to the last few yards of this run, I inhale a deep breath and let the cool evening air enters my lungs. I take a second (in my mind) to contemplate and ponder all that happened in the previous 3 days that have characterized a unique journey and that, in a way or another, has changed my life.

It wasn't an easy task, far from it, but right then it makes me feel majestically alive, full of joy!

The sense of accomplishment is worth every moment spent laying on the side of the road in pain, every time I threw up, every time the shooting pain creeped up my sciatic from the bottom of my feet to my back and every time I simply wished I was somewhere else. 
Right then an overwhelming feeling of wander takes over and along with it there's a deep sense of purpose, a pure taste of adventure impossible to find in any other demeanor in life. I am living in that moment. It's glorious and, although the promenade is packed with people, I'm the only one to know.
 
My head is still spinning more and more as we near the finish line, stunned by the fire red and warm colors lighting up the gorgeous sky... unique, sought after, desired and with all my effort finally met!
 
The last steps collect in them a myriad of emotions that are impossible to describe. We have arrived! Lauren kisses me. She asks me how I feel...I still do not know. I'm confused, "is this really over?".

Meanwhile, Riccardo, who struggled to find parking for the RV, joins us...we hug.

We stare at the sign that says Santa Monica Pier and take a few pictures. Everything else around us is a just a blur.

Thoughts fly high but one in particular persists: Our limitations are simply dictated by our fears. If each of us tried to overcome this illusion with the desire to find out what our bodies are really capable of I'm sure we could, in fact, overcome any perceived barrier. Always surprising ourselves of our true potential...
 
      

The moment is so intense that can only be appreciated by those who have lived it with me. 

Between the looks of curious tourists we get back to the RV, as if nothing had happened, and we head home full of emotions and with a lot of gratitude for having had the opportunity to live a dream and overall an extraordinary experience.




 I wanted to write this report to thank the people involved in the project: Riccardo Marvaldi, Simone Gangolfo, Andrea Languasco, Luca Ammirati, Riccardo Pizzi, Manuel Stefanolo, Albertina Borgatti and the Telethon Foundation.

Without their support this would not have been possible. There are stories to tell for days but I tried to make this report the simplest and relatively short as possible to leave to our director, Simone Gandolfo, the task of telling this story with his images.

To Riccardo, Simone and Andrea that from "simple" fellow travelers have turned out to be just like brothers. With respect and affection ... See you at the next adventure!