Our team ran the Gozo Half Marathon on Sunday 28th April this year and stayed on for a week after the race to enjoy this little known but beautiful Mediterranean island. We’ll write more fully about our time there in the September issue of our magazine but for now here’s a collection of videos that we shot whilst running, kayaking, walking, picnicking, sailing, segwaying and more. If you’re looking for a relaxed, traditional Mediterranean island, quiet villages and plenty of open areas awash with opportunities for outdoors activity consider Gozo!
Brief Facts We flew to Malta with Air Malta - https://www.airmalta.com/ Great service from the UK and many other European destinations, and the same price as the budget airlines like Easyjet.
We transferred from Malta to Gozo by car and ferry, all arrangements were made through the Maltese Tourist Authority - https://www.visitmalta.com/en/home Their website is easy to navigate and has a great choice of options for tours, transfers, hotels, etc.
Our hotel was Ta Cenc Spa on Gozo - http://www.tacenc.com/ One of the finest we’re ever stayed at, anywhere. Service, food and cleanliness are what you’d expect from a 5* hotel yet there is more to this rural paradise than this. It’s built on Gozo’s highest point and offers stunning views over the huge estate surrounding it, the majestic cliffs less than 20 minutes walk away and the picturesque islands of Malta and Comino. It's the only hotel in the region to be built on a 150 hectare Natura 2000 site, with undisturbed skylines that stretch as far as the eye can see thanks to the single storey/low rise nature of it’s rooms and public areas.
The Gozo Half Marathon - https://www.gozomarathon.org/ This race is the oldest in Malta/Gozo, having first been run in 1977. In 2017 the race was awarded the prestigious 3-Star Certification from European Athletics. Two years later European Athletics awarded the 5-Star rating to the 10K race that goes on at the same time as the Half Marathon race. In 2019 more than 1,450 athletes from 60 nations took part in one of the races, making this truly an international event.
It was perfect for us, as we both love to travel and race but have varied interests when it comes to running. I like to run hard at longer distances so took the Half Marathon on whilst Nita likes shorter distances taken at an easier pace, so she ran the 10km. It's one of the most scenic (check our race video out below), friendliest road races anywhere.
Divers Cove - https://www.gozodive.com/ We went diving and snorkeling with St Andrews Divers Cove, the marine life was good and we had a marvelous experience with an octopus which tapped Dave on the hand as he rested doing his safety stop.
Here's a quick look at some of the other experiences that we had on Gozo and Malta.
Check out the September issue of Trek and Run for more photos and info.
Tours & ExperiencesPosted by Dave Wise Mon, August 12, 2019 09:48PM We visited the Royal Pavilion in Brighton earlier this year on a few days layover between Malta and Toronto (Brighton is a 50 minute train ride from Gatwick Airport, trains run several times an hour). It's a pretty town by the sea with lots to offer; a decent, well priced hotel or 2 (our favourite is the Travelodge on West St), many vegan restaurants, a great marathon (it takes place in April and is the 2nd largest in the UK), an old fashioned pier and of course the Brighton Pavilion. It's a fascinating building when viewed from the outside - the Brighton Marathon will lead you right past it - and inside it's stunning. No photography is allowed within the various rooms but the images that follow, which were supplied to us by (and copyrighted to) the Royal Pavilion & Museums, will give you an idea of the fairy-tale setting that awaits you. We took the audio tour (fantastic and well recommended) and our visit lasted a little over 90 minutes. For those who want to linger there is a tearoom where refreshments can be had inside or on a balcony. There was an exhibition going on at the time of our visit that we thought excellently curated. I shan't write much more as it's enough to say that we loved our time there and recommend you make the Pavilion a priority in your schedule if you're based in Brighton, London or anywhere nearby. It's spectacular. There's also a very special new exhibition coming to the venue in September of 2019. Here's some info supplied to us by the Pavilion staff which details more about the building and the exhibition.
"Exquisite items of art and furniture owned by George IV will
return to the Royal Pavilion, Brighton & Hove for the first time in
170 years on 21 September 2019.
Items lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection include majestic
15-foot high porcelain pagodas and the Kylin Clock, an extraordinary golden
extravaganza featuring turquoise Chinese lions.
The Royal Collection loan of more than 124 unique decorative items will return to the
Royal Pavilion while extensive building work is being carried out in the East Wing at
All the items were originally commissioned or bought by the visionary Prince Regent,
who later became George IV, who transformed a former lodging house into an
extravagant, exotic palace inspired by a romantic vision of Chinese and Indian
design. For the first time ever visitors will be able to see how these stunning items
would have looked in their former home.
A collaborative venture between Royal Collection Trust and the Royal Pavilion &
Museums this unique project lasting two years will show the Royal Pavilion as it
looked before the items were moved to Buckingham Palace by Queen Victoria in
Keeper of the Royal Pavilion David Beevers said; “We are thrilled to have so many
pieces which were commissioned by George IV for the Royal Pavilion to be on
display here. They are beautiful items with a wonderful history linking them to the Pavilion. We
are so grateful to Her Majesty the Queen for giving us this opportunity to display
them in their original setting as they were nearly two hundred years ago.”
Councillor Alan Robins, chair of the Tourism, Development and Culture Committee
of Brighton & Hove City Council said; “We are delighted to receive this generous
loan from the Royal Collection. I’m sure many of our residents and visitors to the city
will be keen to see these splendid pieces in the ideal setting of the Royal Pavilion.”
The Royal Pavilion, part of Brighton & Hove City Council, is considered George IV’s
most exotic extravagance. He first visited Brighton when he was the Prince of Wales
and was thrilled to be able to enjoy the delights of the town away from the formality
of the royal court in London.
He soon commissioned Henry Holland and later the architect John Nash to transform
his original humble lodging house into a palace fit for a prince, adding domes and
minarets and furnishing the interior in the most lavish and opulent style.
He sent his most trusted courtiers to purchase beautiful wallpapers and ceramics
imported from China and commissioned the designers Frederick Crace and Robert
Jones to make his romantic and fantastical visions a reality. The Prince loved Asian
and Chinese design and employed the most talented craftsmen to make items
designed in the Chinoserie style which later became the height of fashion.
With his love of visual arts and fascination with the mythical orient, The Prince
Regent set about lavishly furnishing and decorating his seaside home.
He especially loved Chinese ceramics mounted in France and England with giltbronze mounts, Chinese export porcelain and furniture, and English and European
furniture in exotic styles.
Many of these decorative ornaments and works of art were removed to Buckingham
Palace and Windsor Castle by Queen Victoria in 1847 when it was thought the Royal
Pavilion might be demolished. A lot were incorporated into the new spaces at the
Palace, particularly the Chinese-themed interiors of the Centre Room, the Yellow
Drawing Room and the Chinese Dining Room.
Over the years some items of original Pavilion decoration have been returned by
monarchs including George V and Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth II. Most of the
items returning on loan from the Royal Collection have not been on public display for
many years, having been in rooms at Buckingham Palace not on the visitor route but
used by the Royal Family for charitable events.
George IV’s exquisite taste and opulent style can still be enjoyed in the spectacular
palace visited by over 325,000 people every year. The loan of the Royal Collection
items is expected to increase visitor numbers and add a new dimension to the
experience of visiting the Royal Pavilion."
RunsPosted by Dave Wise Sat, August 10, 2019 03:35PM (For the full review and many more photos, see the September issue of our magazine. All photos featuring the race logo are by Sue Sitki - https://suesitkiphoto.shotsee.com/) The Happy Trails Tally in the Valley event took place at Dundas Valley Conservation Area near to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Jenn and Dave from our team took on the 24 hour event; there were also a multitude of other events taking place including the imaginative and tough 'Gong Show' (where runners take on a 7km loop on the hour, with the 24th and final loop being a full on race between any runners that have made it through the previous 23 hours). Before we go into our usual 8 point review, here's a short film showing the course.
1 Pre-event info True to the precedent set by previous Happy Trails Racing events, the pre-event information for Talley in the Valley was very thorough. We knew what to expect of the course, the aid station options and the location itself. The physical address was provided as well as instructions on entering the park and getting to the correct parking area. I am a bit of a planner and so I really enjoy thorough pre-race instructions, as it takes away some of the ‘unknowns’ and allows me to plan out race morning in better detail and with less stress.
2 Event location (parking, facilities/washrooms) This was my first visit to the Dundas Conservation Area and I must say, it is a wonderfully scenic area. The location was an easy 1 hour drive from Toronto city centre and the trails were beautiful; the park offers a mix of rail trail, winding forest trail, blanketed pine needles trail and of course, hills. Once parked it was just a short walk to our main camp and aid area where we had plenty of space to set up a sun shelter or tent, or you could just drop your supplies in the designated bag drop tent. Also, a shout-out is due to the regular patrons of the conservation area who were extremely patient with us taking over the trails for the day and offered up encouragement, plenty of good mornings and space on the trails.
3 Aid Stations (snacks and water/fuel) There was one aid station on the course, located at the start/finish area. There was water, 'Skratch Labs' electrolyte drink, ginger ale, coke and all of the typical ultra running fare including sweet and salty snacks, PB&J sandwiches, potatoes, chips, pizza, grilled cheese, quesadillas, noodles and Mes Amis Catering (https://www.mesamiscatering.com/) brought in some of their lovely chocolate and fruit based energy bites that were vegan, dairy free and very good running fuel. I love them as they’re not so sticky that you have to chew them for ages but not so crumbly that the bits get stuck in your throat. These are important matters when you’re 50km into a run and your head’s moving more towards the clouds!
The drinks were served in reusable EcoCups, which we think is a brilliant idea. They can be washed, sterilized, and re-used over 100 times and then recycled.
There were also portable toilets located at the aid station.
4 General atmosphere of the Event HQ (event staff, volunteers, other runners, what’s there for spectators) I keep saying that Happy Trails Racing puts on races where everyone feels welcome, but at every event I am reminded of just how great they are at this and how much I appreciate it. The same amount of support is offered to the person walking a single lap as is offered to those toughing out 100 plus miles. The volunteers were working overtime in the soaring temperature to make sure we were hydrated and full of salty and fruity snacks. It didn't matter if the volunteers were filling up water bottles and cooling wraps with ice around the clock or boiling up some instant noodles at 3am; if you needed it they were helping. These events really are a little community unto themselves. Some of the volunteers were runners who had finished their distance and stayed around to help out which is so nice. And the other racers and their crew were social and ready to offer up some blister protection or sunscreen if they even think you may have needed some.
5 Course (length, technicality, scenery) The course was a 7km loop and non technical. There were a couple of hills that most of us taking part in the longer events walked from the very start but nothing that was going to make you start crying too early in the day. The overall elevation gain was 130m per loop and it was a pretty run.
Now here’s part of the information that was provided to all racers, it’s comprehensive and it gives you a run down of event options and a course description.
“Participants will run a 7km loop through the unique Carolinian forest in the Dundas Valley Conservation Area. The loop is primarily made up of groomed double track trails with rolling hills and approximately 130m of elevation gain per loop. Although there aren't any major climbs on this course, the constant rolling hills will wear you down in the later stages of the race.
Choose between running a single loop (7k) or for 6/12/24 hours and see how many loops you can complete in the time provided. Runners who complete 23 loops (100 miles/161km) will earn themselves a custom belt buckle while all other participants will also be recognized for their hard work with a custom finishers medal.
Looking for something a little different? Try "The Gong Show"! This is an elimination style event, inspired by the Big's Backyard Ultra, that we are super stoked about. Participants will be given 1 hr to complete the 7km loop. Runners who successfully complete the loop within 1 hr (which may seem easy at first but will eventually become very challenging), will wait at the start line until the gong is hit, marking the time cut-off for the loop AND the start of the next loop.
Please note: regardless of how fast participants complete their loop, they can't start their next loop until the gong is struck, which will be every hour on the hour. Participants remain in the event until they can no longer finish a loop within 1 hour OR until the race reaches 24 hours. If there is more than 1 runner to start the final loop after 23 hours, the first runner to complete the final loop will be the winner. However, ALL runners that make it to the 23 hour mark will receive a custom belt buckle since they will have run 100 miles. Last year's event saw 9 runners (out of 35 starters) reach 100 miles, but only 2 went on to complete the 24th loop- 1 male and 1 female! This race is awesome to watch as there is quite a bit of strategy involved. Ideally, runners will want to run a comfortable pace and conserve energy but will also want to leave themselves some time to fuel-up at the aid station and have a short break before heading out for another loop.
In the 6/12/24 hour races there are no DNF's (Did Not Finish). Each runner that starts the race will be recognized for the distance that they complete, regardless of when they stop. In the last 30 minutes before the completion of each timed event, we will have race volunteers stationed at different points on the course to mark how many kms into the loop the participants are when the time is up.
Course Description: The first 2km are run on the Sawmill Trail and are amongst the most scenic on the course. Expect the most elevation change during this section but also beautiful sections on soft pine needle trails. Just after the 2km marker you will hit a drinking water station. This is a great place to cool down if it is a hot day. There is also a portable toilet here. The next 2 km are on the rail trail. Last year's runners felt that this was the most challenging part of the course- especially mentally. However, this year, since we are running in the opposite direction, it will be 2km of running on a very gentle decline. In theory, this should be the easiest section of the course. However, beware of the mid-day sun as this portion offers the least shade. The final 3k consist of rolling hills but I would say that there is more up than down. You will finish at our Race Headquarters in an open field where there will be an aid station and cheering spectators."
Shoe choice - I wore trail shoes and I’m glad I did. We had a mostly dry week before the race and there were still a few puddles and slippery bits. 6 On course aid stations (water points, sprinklers) After about 2km there was a cold water tap, a bench and a few shady trees. In the heat of the mid afternoon I took several rests here!
7 Race kit, medals and awards The race kit was minimal and functional. Participants were given a buff (these are so very useful in so many ways and always welcome in my house), a really soft t-shirt that I will actually wear (over the years I've donated more race shirts than I have kept but not this one!) a whistle which is very functional for my daily bike commute and just all around use for solo running and that's it. The kits don't include a pile of papers or things that might get tossed away and I really appreciate this less-waste aspect of their race kits. The medals are no less impressive. Each event has a medal unique to that event, and in this case it is a very lovely green medal with images of trees on it, resembling the lush forest and tall pines we were repeatedly passing by, and the award for the top finishers of the different distances was a sample pack of local craft beer or kombucha in a really nice carry case. 8 Post-event info (photography, films) I’m tempted to repeat what I wrote after the last Happy Trails race, as the photographer was once again the brilliant Sue Sitki (https://suesitkiphoto.shotsee.com/) and she was as good as ever. Sue is always very encouraging and fun, a perfect race photographer doubling as an enthusiastic supporter. The photos were online within 2 days and they were all free to download and of great quality. Couldn’t ask for more from a race photographer, and bravo to Heather and Jeff for including them in the race package.
A few runners made their own films and the race organisers circulated them through their social media.
RunsPosted by Dave Wise Mon, July 01, 2019 06:33PM (For the full review and many more photos, see the July 2019 issue of our magazineAll photos featuring the race logo are by Sue Sitki - https://suesitkiphoto.shotsee.com/) The Happy Trails Sunburn Solstice event took place near to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Jenn and Dave from our team took on the full distance, starting at sunup and finishing over 15 hours later at sundown. Before we go into our usual 8 point review, here's a short film showing the course.
Pre-Event Info If I had to say just one thing about Happy Trails Racing it is that everything is well thought out, and the pre-event information was no exception. The initial details available on the registration site are very thorough and give a good idea of what you are getting in to. We were sent several emails prior to the event with all the pertinent information including detailed notes on how to get to the location, what to expect for snacks, and support during the event. We were even notified by the event organizers of the switch to smaller race bibs in an effort to cut down on waste (bonus points here for their work to minimize footprint), and even what leg would work best if we were pinning these bibs to our shorts.
Event Location(parking, facilities/washrooms, pavilion) Everything about this location was great. The drive was a reasonable 1 hour from the city centre, which in my mind is to be expected when you want to be on trails that wind through a forest. The directions and address provided worked perfectly, and made it really painless to find the park, complete with flags and signs marking the park entrance where the event parking was ample. With that being said, my two standout items about the event location were the bathrooms and the pavilion. The bathrooms were located in a park building just off the start/finish line, so no porta-potties for us! And the pavilion provided a much needed source of shade, a spot for the food/drink area and an opportunity to socialize with our fellow participants, volunteers and spectators before, during and after the event.
Aid Stations(snacks and water/fuel) The food and drink options at the pavilion were everything an ultra runner would want. We had electrolytes provided by Skratch, water, sodas, sweets, fruit, salty treats, boiled potatoes, peanut butter and jam sandwiches and more. The volunteers generously cooked up pancakes, grilled cheese, and pierogis among other things and Mes Amis Catering brought in some lovely little chocolate and fruit based energy bites that were dairy free! I always bring my own food, as I don’t want to rely on the events having vegan options but I had so many fun and appealing fuel options that I ended up bringing about half of my food back home at the end of the day.
The drinks were served in recyclable cups. This is epic. There are so many plastic cups wasted at running events it’s insane. I’m a runner and I care about the environment so I hate it when I see so much waste generated by a big event. So I absolutely love that Happy Trails use cups that they can sterilize and use again and again and again. All races should do this, hopefully soon they will.
General Atmosphere of the Event HQ(event staff, volunteers, other runners, what’s there for a spectator) I could note enough positive observations to fill a page but for the sake of space and time, I will keep it brief. Happy Trails Racing's Directors (Heather Borsellino and Jeff Rowthorn) put on races where everyone feels welcome. The atmosphere was incredibly warm and upbeat and the volunteers, runners, staff and spectators all seemed to be having a great time. All of the participants out on course were offering words of encouragement to each other as we continued to cross paths throughout the day, while the volunteers were fully dedicated to keeping us happy, hydrated and fully fueled.
For spectators there was plenty of seating and 2 basketball hoops in the shade of the Race HQ shelter. One of the beauties of a 4km looped race is that you can see your running friends quite often as they pass by. Some spectators were also acting as race crew for their friends and family and they had loads of room to lay out their bags, food and spare kit as well as a good sightline down the final straight of the course so they could see their runners coming and get things ready for them so as not to waste any time.
Course(length, technicality, scenery) The short film give you an idea of the course. It was the most beautiful little 4km loop I’ve run in Ontario. There’s very little to disturb the natural sounds there - it’s far from a main road so traffic noise is minimal and I only heard a couple of private aircraft going over all day. The first 3 to 5 minutes of the route is on tarmac path then you enter a wood which remained quite dark all day such was the leaf cover. After that you go downhill and the lake appears on your left. At dawn this was a millpond. The path curves right and the lake is always on your left until you reach the turnaround at about the 2.5km point. During this time there are a couple of up and downs. Nothing serious, the sort of climbs and descents that escape your attention when you start running but do seem like Mont Blanc after a few hours!
The forested sections were dark due to leaf cover and since there’s a fair few roots and rocks sticking up these will most likely be your biggest hazard. If you take your sunglasses off before you get into the dark bits though you should be fine, there’s nothing major waiting for you.
You can tell by my description that this is a very runnable course. It’s far from flat but you should be able to put on a pretty good total mileage, perhaps just 15% down on what you’d achieve on the flat.
Shoe choice - I wore trail shoes but the course was dry enough for road shoes and the enhanced grip that trail shoes can offer wasn't really needed. Keep an eye on the weather the week before the race and that'll help you make your choice. You can also of course take both road and trail shoes and leave the pair you're not using at the central aid station. The loop is only 4km so any decision you make on the day doesn't have to be one you stick with for very long.
On Course Aid Stations(water points, sprinklers) There was a water point at the 2.5km turnaround, and a sprinkler just after the start/finish line, which offered a welcome rain of cold spray through the hottest hours of the day.
Race Kit, Medals and Awards This race kit showed the RD’s passion and attention to detail. The t-shirt has a well designed and appealing logo (the sort I’ll happily wear as an everyday shirt) that’s screen printed onto a soft cotton shirt. In the bag, which was also screen printed with the Happy Trails logo and which will make a decent shopping bag, there was a sapling - yes, a real tree! - a whistle and a decent pair of running sunglasses.
The tree was an especially nice touch. Not only did it come from a local nursery so it was advertising a local business but also it’s one of the best things you could offer at a trail running event. If you think about it, every trail runner must enjoy nature. It’s their playground. Yet time and time again I see trail running events that seem like they’re organised by people who care more about playing to the crowd than guiding their runners in the right direction. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with Happy Trails. The tree was an inspired gift that hopefully has all runners planting, maybe for the first time, and also thinking more about the environment. I don’t have a garden but I’ve found a place to plant my sapling because the world needs more trees and it’s up to every trail runner to take up the challenge of trying to make that happen.
The finishers medal was in a stained glass style. I’ve got over a hundred race medals and this is the best designed. A beautiful mix of creative ability and race medal knowledge. The race awards were equally thoughtfully designed. I was lucky enough to get second place in the event and received a framed original art piece by Heather, one of the race directors. I usually don’t like to put my awards on show as they can be somewhat vulgar at times but this went straight on the shelf in full view and there it will stay.
A couple of days later the race directors released the Wolf Patch and Bear Patch Awards on their Facebook page, both of which are awards voted for by runners who took part in the event. The Wolf Patch is for a runner who exhibits a “pack mentality" by showing an abundance of compassion and camaraderie on the course to the other runners, staff, and volunteers.The Bear Patch is for a runner who exhibits strength and perseverance with an inspiring gritty and gutsy race. They never give up - even in their lowest and most challenging of moments. These are excellent ways of rewarding people for something other than their speed or endurance.
Post-Event Info(photography, films) The race photographer, Sue Sitki (https://suesitkiphoto.shotsee.com/), was very encouraging all through the race. She was always yelling out where she was and telling you what to do if you wanted a good photo, such as, “Go full stride soon, it’s going to look great as you come over the bridge!”
I’ve worked as a photographer and know how hard it is so I was surprised to see Sue out there all day, for as long as we were, in the hot sun. Great stamina Sue!
The photos were online within 2 days and they were all free to download and of great quality. Couldn’t ask for more from a race photographer, and bravo to Heather and Jeff for including them in the race package.
Good Tastes of Tuscany are based on the 13th century Pandolfini estate in Lastra a Signa, a village just outside of Florence.
They offer accommodation, tours and more and I visited them to take part in their single day cookery class (they also offer multi day classes for those wishing to delve further into the intricacies of Tuscan cooking). There were 4 of us taking the course. Our teacher was an experienced local chef who'd worked in many of Florence’s 5 star restaurants and knew the Tuscan cuisine inside out. Many tips came our way during the course of the day such as don’t tip the pasta out of the boiling water when it’s done, instead use tongs so you don’t damage the pasta and you retain the water for use in your pesto so you can thin it to your taste.
Having spent the morning preparing stock, tomato sauce, walnut pesto, ribollita (Tuscan peasant soup), handmade pasta, eggplant parmigiana and artichoke salad under Chef's guidance (he allocated us individual jobs and we worked together to complete each task) we sat together and ate it together with a bottle of the estate’s own wine. An excellent day, and certainly the most informative cookery class I’ve ever taken.
After class I took a walk on the dirt track that skirts the Pandolfini estate. It leads up the hillside and past the old villa of the opera singer 'The Great Caruso'. Walking to the left of the Caruso villa's main gate I passed a pool on my left where his maid used to wash the singers laundry. Further on the landscape opened out to reveal slopes of olive groves on my right drawing the eyes to mountain ridges and distant villages. The area is well known for it's traditional character but such is the draw of Florence that few tourists venture here. In the 2 short hours I walked the track it showed great promise as a trail running or mountain biking route and I'm sure that as the famous 'white roads' of Tuscany get busier and more commercial then this area will see an increase in traffic.
Within days I was back in England cooking a vegan version of eggplant parmigiana for my family. I did a great job, I'm told by my sister, and for that I have to give thanks to the cookery course. We bring many things back from our holidays - tshirts, postcards, fridge magnets, etc - but the knowledge to cook for your family and please them has got to be one of the most useful, and valuable.
To check out all of that Good Tastes of Tuscany offer see their website
Fattoria Lavacchio is a organic farm near Florence. It's a special place, and quite unlike any organic farm I've visited. Most modern farms use chemical pest control or fertiliser to increase yields, whilst most organic farms use natural fertilizers (which can also be quite bad for us, such as copper). However, Fattoria Lavacchio doesn't use artificial pest control or fertilizer at all. Instead they use nature.
To pay them a visit I caught the train to Pontesieve, a village in Rufina Chianti region about 9 miles east of Florence, and from there Mr Tatsu drove me to the farm.
“The farm was built in 1700 by the Peruzzi' family and 100 years later passed into the hands of the Marquis Strozzi Sacrati of Mantova,” he explained as we made slow progress up the winding hillside. “Then, having fallen into disrepair, the Lottero brothers bought it in 1978 and undertook a complete restoration to how it looks now. Since then the farm has combined old methods with the most modern techniques to produce organic wine, olive oil and fresh produce and has looked to harmonise it’s activities within the balance and boundaries set by nature.”
“See the rows between the vines,” pointed out Mr Tatsu as we walked along the top of one of the vineyards. “There’s mustard growing there, the insects don’t like that so they keep away from the vines. The other plants among the mustard are fava beans. They give plenty of nitrates back to the soil, which the vines take out. But we use the smaller type of fava. If we used the larger type of beans the insects might be attracted to the area, but they’re not interested in the small beans so they’re left alone. So really, you might say that to combat harmful pests, we create a habitat where animals and plants that keep the pests away can thrive.”
Before heading for a tour of the wine cellars we accompanied Paolo and his dogs Peggy and Pippo out into the forest to hunt for truffles. Paolo trains the dogs by soaking pieces of bread in truffle oil, hiding the bread under the carpet at home and then rewarding the dogs when they find it. By this method the dogs learn that if they find the truffle, they get a treat.
There are many types of truffle and they can be found most of the year, although it’s not an easy job and Paolo said that for reasons unknown to him it’s getting harder than it was. Perhaps it’s climate change, or an ever increasing demand for the truffles. There have been attempts to grow them commercially but truffles are independent little things and insist on growing where they want. All the commercial companies can do is provide what they think is the right environment for a truffle to flourish and to introduce the spores; the rest is up to the truffle itself.
Even if those attempts eventually succeed I’d still rather hunt in the forest with dogs, as we did for the next hour. It was good exercise going up and down the hills, and good for the spirit to be out there in nature gathering food with the help of another species. By the time we got back to the farm I was high on the experience and quite determined to convince my friends that they too must come to the farm and do the same thing. A life lived without a single truffle hunt is barely a life lived at all.
Later, at the farm ‘Mulino A Vento’ restaurant, chef Mirko Margheri cooked us a vegan feast. We ate at a table overlooking some of the farm’s vineyards. There was cacao coloured pasta with a hint of truffle, savoy cabbage wrapped in broccoli leaf sat in a masala and turmeric chickpea cream, a colourful starter made from pureed veg, and a sorbet for dessert. We drank ‘Puro’, which is 100% sangiovese, and ‘Pachar’, a blend of Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc and Viognier grapes (which are all grown on the top of the hill to the east of the restaurant). The wine was excellent, and tasted all the better for having been made with grapes from the fields within sight of my table. Maybe I wouldn't have thought this could be so before my visit but in Tuscany, where things like types of soil and quality of ingredients are treated seriously, one is encouraged to think of such things. And I'm glad of it!
I met Alessandro, the guide behind Inspiring Tuscany Tours, outside of Velona's Jungle Luxury Suites in Florence just after breakfast. We talked a little about the eco-bikes we'd use on our tour - it was the first time I'd ridden an electric bike - and what we'd aim to experience as he fixed the batteries onto the frames of our bikes.
"We'll be looking for the authentic Florence," he explained. "Something that lays beyond the art galleries and that makes up the fabric of the city. There'll be history, vineyards, wine tasting of course, and more. Are you comfortable on the electric cycle? Ok, let's go!"
Florence has such a beautiful face that you can have a good time just walking around on your own. However, if you want to really experience the heart and soul of the city then you’ll need a guide who thinks outside the box a little. Alessandro is such a guide. Cycle touring or hiking might not be the first thing you think of when planning a trip to the City of Art but if you’ve a few hours or even a day free in your schedule and a wish to take a look past the dazzling surface of the city, then do check out what Inspiring Tuscany has to offer.
We biked across the River Arno and into the suburb known as the ‘Galileo Hills’. Our initial aim was to visit the villa where Galileo worked then to cycle through the surrounding countryside to enjoy a taste of the rolling hills and vineyards for which Tuscany is world famous.
I flipped the lever on the handlebars to ‘Eco’, one of several settings that will add an electrical shove to whatever peddling you do. At the bottom of a hill I got into low gear and flipped to 'Tour' and the extra power swept me to the top. I didn't even have to rise up out of the saddle.
This is obviously perfect for touring groups. The fitter people can set their bikes to offer less electrical assistance whilst others can up the assistance to easily keep up with the group.
We cycled quiet roads where the grey, handmade drywall reminded me of Cumbria and the Peak District. It was so rural and typically Tuscan, just a 10 minute ride from the centre of Florence. Here is a typical view seen during a brief rest stop.
Galileo’s villa, in the village of Bellosguardo, is known locally as the ‘Umbrella Villa’ due to the domed temple-like folly that fronts it.
A plaque on the outside wall announces that it has also been home to a great many other famous people such as Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Browning and Henry James.
We cycled on past wisteria in bloom (visit mid to late April for the best chance of seeing wisteria at it’s finest) and arrived at the Verinchelli Palazzo, a stately home which has belonged to the Verinchelli family since the 13th century.
"We’re mentioned in Dante," said Thomas Verinchelli as he led us inside to taste some of his family's wine. "In ‘Purgatorio’, the second book, not the descent into hell," he quickly added, smiling.
Many palazzo you find around Florence have been brought by corporations and sterilized for touristic use but not this one. Walking through the Verinchelli home offered an authentic look into the modern lives of an established Florentine family.
In the cellars we toured the wine and olive oil making facilities. We sampled their own Vin Santo, a smooth 15% dessert wine made in 2013 and bottled 3 years later.
The urge to sample a few more glasses whilst we talked was strong, but we had to cycle back to Velona’s Jungle. It wasn’t far but there were some fast downhills to take into account and I wanted to be in full control of my senses to enjoy them.
Thomas waved us off.
“He’s a very down to earth guy,” I said as we cycled away. “Very humble, too.”
“It took a long time to find the family,” Alessandro replied. “I knew I wanted to find a family like the Verinchelli's but it’s not easy these days. Eventually I contacted them via a friend of a friend who I used to go to school with and whom I met years later by chance in the Far East. It was very fortunate! It’s the type of experience I’m happy to share with my guests. The Verinchelli’s are part of the fabric of authentic Florence. To meet them helps one to understand the city so much better I think.”
Inspiring Tuscany offers a great tour that lasted around 3 hours. The batteries of the bikes they have can last up to 160km, depending on the terrain and how you use yours, but as my tour showed me, you don’t have to peddle very far at all from the centre of the city to get a real taste of rural Tuscany. Contact Alessandro via the Inspiring Tuscany Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/inspiringtuscany/
Nishant is a fellow member of the Octopus Garden Yoga Studio in Toronto. I had a chat with him recently about his dramatic weight loss over the past couple of years and some of the lessons he's learned.
Nish, I’m interested to hear about your experiments in weight loss. In 2017 you tried to lose weight merely by dieting. Although you achieved your weight loss goal, most of what you lost was muscle mass, which you didn’t want to do. And then after returning to your regular routine, you regained some of the weight. In 2018 you tried again, only this time you added a regular yoga practice and resistance exercises into the equation with dramatically improved results. Basically, this time around, you lost 5 kilos but kept your muscle mass.
Yes, David, I attempted weight loss between 2015-2017 relying solely on a big calorie deficit. My weight went down rapidly, I lost about 25 kilos in all, and that was the end of it, I thought.
25 kilos?!! Let's not skip over that so quickly! That’s a huge weight loss. What were you eating during this time, and about how many calories per day? Did you feel well or tired during the diet? Did the lack of calories impair your thinking? What made you want to lose the weight? How did you know when to stop?
Yes, 25 kilos was a lot. I was on a calorie deficit of 800-1,000 per day for more than 6 months over the 2 years. My diet was really varied. I was eating semi-junk food initially, which made it considerably harder than it should have been. I think calorie deficits can be made much easier if one eats more whole foods. I felt cranky sometimes, but didn't feel a big lack of energy. It's hard to remember what motivated me in the first place. What kept me going was realizing how I felt so, so much better not being overweight. It's like you've been carrying a massive backpack your whole life and then you put it down. I stopped when people started telling me I looked skinny.
Towards the end of 2018 I realized I had gained back some of it (about 5 kilos) so I decided to lose that weight, again relying on a calorie deficit with a small bit of yoga and running thrown in. I had a DEXA scan before my weight loss and one after it.
Can you explain what a DEXA scan is please?
DEXA is a bone density scan which also gives you other metrics like how much of your body weight is made up of fat and how much is lean mass, or muscle. It is one of the few ways to accurately measure your body fat.
I was surprised by the DEXA results: I realized that of the 5 kilos or so I had lost, 50% was lean mass. One interesting observation of my DEXA was that I did not lose any lean mass from my arms, but a lot from the rest of my body. Looking back, it made sense since I was doing a lot of arm workouts like push-ups, and pull-ups.
I know that resistance training (lifting weights) is recommended during weight loss but I didn’t give it much thought, until then.
I decided to lose another few kilos, this time with a smaller calorie deficit and a more structured lifting routine. My lifting routine included pull-ups, push-ups, body weight squats, daily yoga, and curls using barbells. I didn’t want to get a gym membership and wanted to rely on my body weight more.
I’m not keen on the gym either. What turned you off from it?
Gym never felt like home to me. I didn't enjoy it for the sake of it, definitely not like I enjoy running or yoga. Gym felt like a means to an end.
I went from losing 0.8 kilos a week to about 0.4 kilos a week. I took photographs and measured my waist to keep a track of the body fat and realized that I was losing the same body fat with my latter regimen (which resulted in 0.4 kilos lost a week) as I did while losing 0.8 kilos a week, all the while maintaining my lean mass/muscles.
So you were eating more food, doing more body weight exercise, and only losing fat instead of muscle?
Looking back my advice for myself would be:
1. Weight loss is not the same as fat loss.
2. Keep a small calorie deficit. In my case about 18% of maintenance calories. Even smaller if you’re already lean.
What was this in real terms for you? Did you work out what calories you needed per day, about 2,500, then take about 18% from that number?
I know that my maintenance calories are 2,400. It depends on your weight, height, and frame. There are many ways to calculate that. I also have a Garmin watch that gives me a good estimate. I read a lot of studies on pubmed (a directory of trials (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/) and a blog called StrongerByScience on different calorie deficit targets. Your body can only lose so much fat before it starts to consume the muscles. One study puts that number at 55 calories per kilo of body fat. In my case that number comes out to a deficit of about 480 calories, which is a 20% deficit on my maintenance calories of 2,400.
My third and final piece of advice would be, include resistance training in your regimen, especially compound movements like squats and pull-ups.
So can we surmise from your experience that if you want to lose weight but keep muscle, then you have to operate on a daily calorie deficit and have a holistic exercise routine that is going to keep all parts of the body in use in order to keep the muscles active, such as yoga, pilates and maybe a little swimming, cycling or running?
Not quite. Resistance training (lifting weights or yoga) is different from other aerobic workouts like running, swimming, or cycling. RT involves breaking down the muscles which signals your body to keep building muscles. To preserve muscle mass it has to be the former. The latter, running, swimming, etc, while great for the body, does not do much to preserve muscle mass during a deficit.
You do a lot of yoga these days. Do you feel that you get enough resistance in class or do you do extra work away from the studio?
I do yoga at Octopus Garden Studio and road running, not much else. I practice hand balances and mobility routines as an extension of my yoga practice at home. I am at a satisfactory body weight and don't feel the need to do heavy resistance training anymore.
During your weight loss, did you find any online sources, or books, that were particularly useful in your attempts to lose weight yet maintain lean muscle?
The two best resources I can recommend for learning about fat loss are the website and blog I've mentioned - Pubmed and StrongerByScience.
One can be inundated with all this information. At the end of the day there is little to it other than, "Eat your veggies. Exercise wisely. Be consistent."
80km and almost 2,500 metres of vertical through the mountains, forests, villages and vineyards northeast of Florence. Starting and finishing in the Piazza Michelangelo, a hilltop square offering the most famous views of the city. This EcoTrail 80km is what destination-race dreams are made of.
All photos by Dave Wise
Usually I make my first race of the season one in which I can do my best. Maybe set a PB in to start the year off on a high note. The spring is when I’m fresh from winter training and rested because I haven’t raced for a few months, so I generally see it as a time that represents a great opportunity to realise my full potential.
Take last year, for instance. I ran my last marathon of 2017 in the November, then had a month off before starting to prepare for the Malta Marathon. I trained smart and went into the race in late February, 2018, feeling fantastic, and as a result knocked 9 minutes off my PB, finishing in just over 3:03. It felt great to start a season with such success!
But this year is going to be different. The winter temperatures at home in Toronto have regularly dropped to below -15C during the past 3 months, making training outside for more than 2 hours at a time a struggle. And what trails there are in the city had become ice rinks by December, so any hope of getting any vertical training in over rough ground was quickly squashed. Of course, there were indoors training facilities if all I was looking for was long-run fitness, but a running track was never going to give me the leg and core strength necessary to take on an 80k trail race with over 2,400 metres of climbing.
So why have I chosen a race I've no chance of running a PB in, as my season opener?
Well, apart from the fact that I've started to view timings and placings as a race's boobie prizes (but that's another blog post for another time!) I’d first run an EcoTrail event in Paris, several years ago, and loved it. We’d started the 50k in cold sunshine near the Palace of Versailles before running through 40k of hilly, stark post-winter woodland and emerging onto a grassy slope with Paris arrayed below us. I remember the exhaustion of a hard run evaporating as I’d spotted the Eiffel Tower. That was where the finish line was, right under this iconic monument, just 10k away!
That had been the high point of the race for me, not the finish but that moment where I held trail running and high culture in the same focus, in the same passionate feeling. I love the trails, mountains and forests but I also love art, interesting architecture and opportunities to further my education and powers of discernment so to combine them all in a race experience is for me a huge win, and to realise that during a race was a memorable moment, one of the finest of a long running career. And now I had the opportunity to do it again, in Florence, one of the centres of fine art! How could I do anything other than grasp that opportunity!
It's clear I guess, I'm excited for the race. The 80km route will take in villages that I’d read about in classic books (such as Fiesole, which had first come to my attention in ‘A Room With A View’) and I’ll be running through the very vineyards that give birth to Chianti wine. There’ll be some mountains to explore that I’ve read nothing at all about and also, after it all, I’ll still be in Florence, surrounded by the art of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Botticelli, as well as some of the finest food in all of Europe.
So I’d signed up with no hesitation and now race expo day has arrived and here I am, holding my race bib pack, looking out over the red roofs of Florence to the mountains beyond. I know that they’re going to kick my butt big time tomorrow and I don't care one little bit. I feel the full joy and appreciation of being able to contemplate finishing a tough 80k ultra as I move into my 51st year; I'm so lucky, and grateful.
I make a few selfies in front of a full-size copy of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ statue and take another long look at the 280 degree panorama of city and mountain. I enjoy the birds chattering among the olive trees, and the friendly, down-to-earth vibe of the other competitors who are, like me, soaking up the sun and the occasion. Then I begin the walk down the hill - towards the throngs of tourists promenading over the Ponte Vecchio - and onward to an early night at my B&B.
12 hours later I’m strolling back across the Ponte Vecchio, only this time the crowds are gone and it’s just me, enjoying the first rays of sunrise illuminating the medieval buildings. I haven't even started the event and already the day is one to remember; sharing this iconic, beautiful site with no-one but a few sleepy birds is something I'll remember forever. I’m feeling remarkably calm and rested. Usually I sleep badly before a big race, but not last night. Maybe that’s partly because my B&B - Velonas Jungle - is luxuriously comfy and extremely quiet, or that my dinner - at Il Vegano - was clean, tasty and nutritious. And maybe partly because the pressure is off. I know I can’t perform at my highest level in this race so all there is to do is completely relax into the experience. The weather forecast is predicting a high of 20C and sun, and I’ve got all day to complete a distance that I’d usually expect to knock off in under 9 hours; this is going to be a dream day of running in the Tuscan hills!
It’s a little chilly at race HQ, the wind whips in from the mountains and across Piazza Michelangelo. A growing band of racers huddles inside a large tent. Many of them look like they’ve got some solid winter training in and many years of hard won experience - thighs like tree trunks are the norm. I hadn’t expected anything else, trail running has long been a popular sport in Italy and France - where most of the competitors come from - and whatever race you choose in those countries you know the standards are going to be high. I hear many languages in the gentle hum of conversation, this is a true international event. English spoken with UK, US and Canadian accents, French from France, Belgium and Switzerland, Spanish with hints of Mexico and Argentina, German, Russian, Greek, Slovakian, Polish, and a few more I can’t recognise. With five minutes to go we walk out to stand under the flapping ‘Salomon’ and ‘Suunto’ flags, our brightly-coloured clothes shimmering.
I take a deep drink from a water bottle that I’ve filled with 4 hazelnut cappuccinos. I love the feeling of a caffeine buzz kicking in just as the inspirational music starts a few minutes before the race begins. I move towards the front, I want to be in the start line photos. But many others have the same idea before me and the best I can do is 5 rows back. It’s ok, not that important. 10 seconds to go, ah, the sun isn’t warm yet but there’s nothing in the sky that says it won’t be later. I can’t tell you how good this feels after a long Canadian winter when the temperatures never climb above 0C. Just to be in shorts, about to run in green mountains, bliss. 5 seconds to go, I fully comprehend how lucky I am to be here. I smile, widely, and we’re off.
The track leads us immediately past a church and into a wooded area. I’m in the leading group of 20. The track is wide, I pass a few people. We move onto the road and head downhill, I pass a few more. I’ve studied the race route and know that the first 10km is either downhill or flat, so this is my chance to run to my full potential as I’m well trained on the flat. I know that running full out will come back to bite me later in the race but the mountains are going to do me in anyway. I may as well gain some ground here and just battle it out when the time comes. Maybe not the best strategy but it’s what I’m going with today!
The route flattens and takes us on a dirt trail alongside the Arno River. I squint into the sun, push hard but also make sure I enjoy the hazy scenery. A marshall says I’m in the top ten. I know it won’t last but I’m pleased with the effort so far. We head uphill past a series of small villages, Florence begins to spread out below my left hand. Wow, I can see all the spires and the huge central dome of the Cathedral, the view makes my heart smile. The mountains rise away to my right, I’m in the shade of trees, the track is easy going and well marked. Life couldn’t be better. I pass a couple of runners and accelerate away downhill before climbing again through another stone village where an old man stops clipping his vines, smiles and shouts ‘Bravi! Bravi!’. Really, even if I had all the money in the world, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing right now.
I move into thicker forest alternating with open heath land. Spring shows itself, the ground is scattered with primrose and violet, lizards scuttle among dead leaf debris, and the track is lined by bushes heavy with white blossom.
Now we’re into the more technical trails, I’m slowing down. A young guy flies past me on a tricky descent. I can’t follow. He’s skipping down a steep slope over unstable boulders with a confidence that says he does this every day. Maybe he does. If I tried that I’d turn an ankle pretty quick and my race would be over.
But it turns out he’s slower than me on the flat and uphill and I soon overtake him. We repeat this exchange of position several times over the next few kms. It feels good to be in a battle within a race. We reach the second checkpoint at Madonna del Sasso together; it’s in an old church, I'm unsure if I've ever seen such an impressive aid station... I tuck into banana, orange, and biscuits and refill my water bottle with electrolyte drink. I’ve got a hydration backpack full of a sports drink to give me fuel on the run - there’s about 1,000 calories in there in total - and I’m not yet feeling the cramps that come with salt loss too much, but the sun is getting warmer and I’m trying to stack the odds in my favour as much as I can.
Trail events often differ from road marathons in several ways regarding care of the natural environment. The EcoTrail race regulations state that every runner has to carry their own reusable cup or water bottle; none of the plastic ones are offered at the aid stations. And if you're seen discarding any trash - like a gel wrapper - anywhere but an aid station or trash bin, you're disqualified. Fantastic, that's how all races should be.
I leave the checkpoint first, make good ground on the flat path. But then it turns sharply downhill and the lad literally flies past me, I can’t believe he’s going as fast as he is. He’s either going to do fantastically well or he’s falling soon, for certain. I let him go, put him out of my mind, enjoy the track as it leads past a mini waterfall and scrambles up over mossy rocks. I breach the hill and he’s there, 20 metres down the trail, lying on his left side, looking fearfully at his right leg. He rubs his thigh and then put his hand to his head, leans back into the undergrowth and swears. I can’t see any blood but his face says he’s done some serious damage. All thoughts of our little battle evaporate and I feel great sadness for him. We’re just 28kms into the race and it looks like his day is over.
‘What can I do?’ I pant. He shakes his head. I get painkillers out of my waist belt. ‘You want painkillers?’
‘No, I’ll be ok.’ I’m kind of pleased because I’ll probably need them after the first 50km.
‘You want help back to the checkpoint?’
‘No, go on, I can run.’
I carry on, as he says. I’ve done nothing for him but it’s all I can do really, offer the help, let him know there’s an option if he wants to bail, then get on with my own challenge.
An hour later I’m on a steep, limestone uphill section, squinting against the white glare of the rocks, giving it all I have, when he passes me. I gasp a ‘Bravi’, the lad’s got some guts for sure. He’s limping a little but he’s getting it done. Perhaps I’ll pass him again later but then again, this is the uphill, this is where I excel in our little exchange, yet he’s leaving me standing. Good for him, the trails have put him to the test and he’s responding with a great show of character. I feel proud to be in the same race as the lad.
We’re 35km in and I’m starting to feel my lack of training. The distance is no problem, it’s just the vertical metres that are killing me. My hip flexors and glutes are screaming and my quads are starting to do very weird things indeed. Shuddering, feeling one moment like they want to burst through my skin and turn outwards and next like they just can’t support me any more and will have me crashing to the ground any minute now.
Dammit, I should have trained better. I should have taken a few weeks out in February, flown south, got some serious mountain trail miles in. But how could I do that, I work full time, have a relationship to nurture, I can’t just take time out like that. No, no, the balance has been right, I worked out what the financial and emotional cost of doing better would be and decided against it. I got this right. It hurts like hell now but I knew this was coming, I knew I’d start to lose places as the race went on. Just cool it down, I tell myself, remember what you expect of yourself here, stop pushing so hard, get your phone out, snap some photos, the views are magnificent and this maybe the only time in your life that you’ll ever see them. It’s certainly a perfect day to be here. Clear skies, no haze, enjoy it.
41km in, I approach the 3rd checkpoint at Monte Senario, it’s a km away uphill. There’s a race photographer standing at the end of an avenue of cypress trees. It’s shady and cool and although I haven’t got much uphill running left in me I give it a bit of effort so my race photos have a chance of looking respectable. Vain I know, but I've never met a non-elite trail runner who doesn’t admit to thinking the same in the exhaustion of the moment.
I can’t imagine how on earth I am going to finish the 80km. Physically, I feel near to my end. I need to fool myself, to take my mind off the present, so I think of a D.H. Lawrence quote that I read yesterday that fits the situation right now…
‘For as we have candles to light the darkness of night, so the cypresses are candles to keep the darkness aflame in the full sunshine…’
Man, even without the cypress trees blocking out the sun all around, it feels dark right now. I stumble into the aid station buried under the church and gulp down minestrone soup. Then Coke, more soup, biscuits, fruit, and more Coke. I know the sugar rush will offer short lived energy and the crash will be coming, but I’ve got to gamble that I’m mentally strong enough to withstand it because physically I’m shot to pieces.
I’ve a full marathon to go with loads more elevation, I’ve said and thought it before but I have to confront the words, the feeling, again; I just don’t know how I’m going to finish. My head’s fine but my legs are jelly and now my ribs ache, an ache that’s spreading through my entire core, probably caused by the endless jolts, up and down.
There’s only one thing to do in a situation like this and that’s dig in and take what you can get from the experience. The track leading on from the aid station is very runnable. If I was feeling up to it I could push the pace hard here but as it is I poodle along on the flats, defend my thighs on the downhills, and give them a firm massage as I walk the ups. I pass a marshall who congratulates me for being in 8th position. I’m amazed, I feel like I’ve been going backward for hours but it seems that I’m doing ok really.
The large, grassy hilltop that I crest next has mind-blowing, smile-inducing views. I get my phone out and enjoy trying to work out how to capture it all. ‘Hey, you’re off track, this way!’ a girl shouts, she’s come up fast behind me and is now veering left down the grass into the valley. I look around, wow, she’s right, the view has distracted me, I’ve missed the markers. Lucky she was there or I’d be wandering off in the direction of Milan.
The kms are ticking down. Runners pass me and move away easily. The views never get any less beautiful. I feel a little sad that I can’t run at anywhere near full capacity. I’ve so much fitness inside me but a certain few muscles - hip flexors, glutes, quads - that I haven’t trained properly have the final say, and tell me that it’s a snail pace only for me until the finish line. It’s ok, I knew this was coming. I just have to remind myself of that and enjoy the day. Not actually very hard to do when the scenery is this special.
Alexis from France runs with me. We reach Fiesole and snap photos of each other standing at ‘The Window’ viewpoint with Florence laid out below us. We can see the finish line. It’s just after 3pm and locals fill the sidewalk cafes, the clinking of wine and beer glasses has us wishing the last 20kms pass quickly.
‘Shall we stop for a quick beer?’ Alexis suggests.
‘Nice idea but I’m on my ass already,’ I say. ‘If I stop for beer it’s game over. We get a free beer at the finish line, yeah?’. Alexis nods and we run on.
I tell him to leave me, I can’t keep up.
‘Enjoy the cold one, I’ll be there soon enough,’ I say. The track is so runnable now, man, I wish I had the ability to use it. If you’re coming to run the event next year, bear this in mind. The first half of the race up to the 3rd aid station is the toughest, if you can save some of yourself for what comes after, you’ll smash it.
I keep moving, the last few kms are passing without incident, I’m happy with that, I make peace with myself. I’ve done well, I’ll finish. I’ve enjoyed a truly magnificent day in the Tuscan mountains, my ass has been kicked by nature and my own limitations, and my heart feel full as a result of all this. Like this morning I’m on the banks of the Arno, and similarly the sun is in my eyes only now it’s approaching sunset and the cotton wool-like flowers of riverside trees float and sparkle like faeries. The track is crowded with locals taking a stroll and many of them understand what the race has entailed.
‘Bravi! Bravi!’ they smile. Just a half hour to go!
The final hill is in shadow all the way, the trees close in, it’s gloomy but all is good, I know the Piazza Michelangelo is near. Loud finish-line music and garbled announcements overpower the traffic noise. I see a break in the trees, then the fluttering finish line flags. I’m slow now but I still take it down a notch, this is the time to high five, to smile wide, to bathe in the accomplishment of finishing a tough 80km race. I raise my arms for the final 20 metres, look beyond the finish line to the silhouette of the ‘David’ statue. What a place to finish a race! I start laughing, this is great. Call it what you like, runner’s high, ecstasy, being held within the divine embrace, I don’t care right now, it feels fantastic.
Alexis is sat at the base of the statue. He finished in just under 10.5 hours. I’ve taken nearly 11. That’s over 2 hours more than my usual time for this distance but all is ok.
‘The beers run out,’ says Alexis. Ok, maybe not everything is ok…
We sit in the sun and trade stories about the run. This half hour after a race offers such a good feeling; I’m exhausted, happy, accomplished. I don’t even care about the lack of beer really. I’m in a city, a country, that does wine very, very well. There’s a reasonably priced bottle of Brunello or Chianti with my name on it at any corner store in town. I’ll pick one up on the way back to the B&B, along with a big bag of salty chips and some chocolate. I can see myself now, showered, smiling, elated, lying in my soft bed looking out the window over red rooftops to the mountains, washing down all the treats with a fine wine. Excellent.
What a race it’s been. A solid test in beautiful surroundings, perfect weather that topped out at around 21C, very well marked trails, decent aid stations, and lovely volunteers. And now I’m lying in the sun talking about running, and soon I’ll be walking down into the city with another 5 days ahead of me in which I’ll visit all the museums, see all the art, opera and gardens, and eat all the food. Life could quite possibly be better but at the moment I can’t imagine how. Thank you Florence, thank you my fellow runners, and thank you EcoTrail!
Transport - I flew to Pisa from London with Easyjet. British Airways, which have a slightly better reputation for reliability, also make the trip. If you book far enough in advance you should find the fares to be about the same. You can also fly direct to Florence but the fares are more expensive. I decided to fly to Pisa instead as there were more flights to choose from, they were cheaper, and the bus and train connections from Pisa to Florence are frequent and only take just over an hour.
Accommodation - I stayed at Velonas Jungle B&B, which is a 15-minute walk from the city centre and very convenient for the train station and the place where the airport bus drops you off. I loved this B&B, the rooms are amazing, the people very friendly, the breakfast (which is all vegetarian with plenty of vegan options) is first class and it's very quiet. Book directly with them for the best deals - http://www.velonasjungle.com/en/ Food - Top choices for me in Florence for a tasty, good value meal that's going to fuel you well for the big race, or help you recover afterwards, are: Il Vegano - https://www.facebook.com/ilveganofirenze/ Borgo Firenze - https://www.borgofirenze.com/ La Pepiniere - Floret - https://www.floret-bar.com/ There's also a superb food hall above the central market where you can get all kinds of food. I ate there a few times and was always happy - the pizza is very good.
Top Tip - In this city of great art, it would be a shame not to go to the opera. Our choice is Opera at St Mark's The standard is high, the prices are low, and all profits go to charity.
It's also likely that you will have heard of Michelangelo's 'David' statue, which is at the Accademia Gallery. It's wonderful, but the line up to get in is almost always very long. So if you don't want to stand around for hours, consider going to the Bargello Sculpture Museum instead where you'll probably walk straight in and find more excellent work by Michelangelo as well as a sublime version of 'David' by Donatello.
Download our free 'City Guide to Florence' for more in-depth information about what to do there.
It was freezing outside, this evening of March 6th. The weather forecast said it felt like minus 18 degrees. Many of us were huddled inside The Running Room, keeping warm while catching up with running mates, waiting until we were called outside to the start while the volunteers were taking registrations and handing out bibs to participants. We may have had different motivations for registering for this frigid 3k, but we were all there to try and make a difference and run or walk for equality.
The Secret Marathon 3K run/walk, which was held on the week of International Women’s Day, celebrates everyone’s right to be free to run. We were just a few of the women and men in Toronto and across Canada joining at multiple locations, or participating virtually, to follow the example set by the brave runners in Afghanistan and unite for freedom, gender equality and safe spaces for all. According to the creators and organizers of the event, thanks to all who participated The Secret Marathon 3K will allow the story of Afghan girls and women running for freedom to be shared across Canada through the film which is scheduled to be released Fall 2019. You can read more about the film and the 3k here.
"The goal of The Secret Marathon 3K is to celebrate our right to be free to run and walk in our community. Many women both here in Canada and in Afghanistan don't feel safe to run at night or alone and we want to change that by bringing our community together to celebrate everyone's right to be free to run or walk in their community." Kate McKenzie, Race Director
Regardless of the chilly temperature, the mood was light and everyone was happy to get started. We headed outside to the start where we listened to details of the event and the film from Kate McKenzie and Hirra Farooqi, the Toronto Co-Race Directors. Then we were off. Just like last year, the wonderful volunteers were on hand to make sure we followed the correct route and as an added touch for the weather, they warned us to slow down when we were coming up on some icy bits of trail. We followed a scenic out and back route through the park and along the boardwalk and although it was a cold evening, the sky was clear and the view along the boardwalk was fantastic. I thought about how fortunate I was. I often run alone and although I am cautious, alert and ready to change my path if needed, I have been lucky enough to feel safe in my community and comfortable with the paths I run. I know this is not often the case for many.
"By participating you are helping us to share the story through film and by making a donation you are helping to further the work of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Together we can empower women and girls through education and sport." Excerpt from the race registration information.
This event is wonderfully inclusive to runners and walkers of all speeds. Many of the participants were waiting at the finish to high-five all runners and walkers as we returned, including the race directors. Once everyone was back we were encouraged to head back in to The Running Room for refreshments and a prize draw. I personally made a beeline for the cinnamon chai tea that was being served, which really hit the spot after the frigid run.
Race Director Kate McKenzie and me, after the run
While I didn't win a prize or set any new personal bests during the run, this event is one that I highly recommend and I know I will continue to return each year that it takes place. At the time I was writing this, The Secret Marathon 3k had reported to have had virtual runners in 17 countries across the world, and 16 host cities in Canada with 38 communities participating. The event raised an amazing $15,935 in donations. This is enough to sponsor 53 girls to pursue their education for a full year in Afghanistan, empowering women and girls through education. To me, that is definitely worth a little cold weather running.