Once again I dig myself out of the snow. The narrow trail of deceptively lightly-packed snow continues to give way under the force of running, seeing me disappear up to my waist yet again. ‘F**k sake’ is uttered on my exhaled breath, as my hands flail in the snow; a further pitiful attempt to move forward. This beautiful, white-carpeted landscape of mountains in the ski resort of Santa Caterina Valfurva in Northern Italy has been reclaimed from the skiers, the affluent and the Oligarchs by runners, albeit just for a day. But as my footfall finally returns to more hard-packed snow, I’m tempted to rescind; perhaps, just perhaps, skis are more suited to this terrain after all…
Three hours earlier and 1,000 metres lower, our departure is bathed in warm spring sunshine. Already 12 degrees, we ready ourselves to head back into the throes of winter, having spent the previous weekend wrestling our way along knee-deep snow filled trails. But the race ahead would not be a sufferfest of yomping through unpacked snow. This was a race on prepared ski tracks, which meant fast running. Well, that is what we thought.
T-shirts at 2,000 metres
Looking back now, this past winter wasn’t all that bad. Since our last mountain race in early November, the snow hadn’t arrived until long after Christmas. Posting pictures on social media in T-shirts at 2,000 metres over the festive break was proof that our running was virtually uninterrupted. Of course, this was abnormal weather, and since January there’s been a fair covering of the white stuff. Fortunately for us, today was not about skiing; it was about opening our mountain running season with a race on snow at a world famous ski resort.
Santa Caterina Valfurva, established in an Alpine bowl surrounded by the high Ortles mountains, has been known in skiing circles for decades, having hosted countless World Cups and for Deborah Compagnoni (see YouTube video below), a resident who dominated the downhill scene in the 90s. She even has a slope named after her; one that runners will get better acquainted with on June 24, when it plays host to a brutally steep vertical kilometre (now part of the SkyRunner World Series).
Cross-country ski, head for warmer climes or…
In fact, you could say we’re already in training for that race, followed two days later by the 30km Livigno Skymarathon. So how should we train over winter? In the absence of mountain races, keeping motivated isn’t the easiest task for some. With the high peaks essentially out of bounds, you could race cross-country (as did we at the Italian National Championships), kit yourself out with some cross-country skiing gear and clock up kilometres that way, or head to warmer climes and bid farewell to the mountains. But what if those options don’t tempt you?
There are some solutions, and there are more snow running events cropping up each season to fuel this hunger. Close to home, we wouldn’t consider missing the Santa Caterina Winter Trail, a 14km race now in its second year. Just before this year’s race we scour our Strava accounts, wanting to gauge exertion and feel marginally more prepared than just turning up an hour before the race.
Ski tracks reserved for feet without skis
We have the expected race track-esque journey up the valley, battling dawdling ski-loaded cars. The village of Santa Caterina is still half-asleep when we get there. A few old men are outside, thumbing newspapers on benches despite the thermometer showing minus twelve. It is still early and the sun has yet to rise above the mountains, so it’s still icy in the valley, which is surely keeping the tourists indoors. Those skiers, we muse, must be sleeping off last night’s apres, or they just knew that today the ski tracks were reserved for feet without skis.
Snow races are not uncommon in the Central Alps, and most races go by the not-so-innovative name of Winter Trails. The Dolomites began their own 8km and 15km races this February, the Dolomiti Winter Trail. Switzerland’s Arosa hosts more races in early February, and then of course there’s the latest Central Alps, big-bucks Vertical Up series (see YouTube video below) where you can race up famous ski slopes by headtorch on skis, foot or snowshoes, with gradients reaching 86%. (We’ve heard that runners definitely have an advantage here and there’s 1,000 Euros for the winner).
An unceremonious battle of willpower
As the sun polevaults over the peaks, the skiers and runners convene by chance at the epicentre of the ski resort. Caught unawares by the presence of so many runners, the skiers look on perturbed. The pistes are still open today, the chain lifts running and even the cross-country ski tracks that we’re about to race over are still open for use. We grab this opportunity to scout out the best colour clashes and interesting use of diamantes in outdoor clothing.
Our race starts and it’s all runnable until we hit a section of a few kilometres that prompts an unceremonious battle of willpower, as legs disappear through the ice crust and into the snow. A gap opens as the leaders forge ahead. How are they just gliding over the snow?
A helter-skelter of ups and downs on a 40% gradient
After 5 km, we re-cross the start line and take to the nicely patted-down cross-country ski tracks. Up and down from now on, steep, helter-skelter-like descents and climbs, then a concrete ascent (up to 40% gradient) before a trail guides you up the mountain to 2,200 metre and the final traverse, overlooking Santa Caterina. But there is no time to enjoy the view, the warm sun has wreaked havoc on the snow, meaning line choice is crucial, otherwise you’ll be cursing once more.
Crossing the line it is a shock to the system, the anger sparked by the frequent waist-deep trips through the snow still gnaws at you. ‘Argh, COME ON! I just want to run,’ the inner voice has been shouting. But the surroundings do their best to calm you; yes, these winter trails are something special as the ski stations are taken back from the affluent and Oligarchs. And, yes, they are an abrupt introduction to the sensations of racing once again, having to the control the inner dialogue coming somewhat like a stark slap in the face. But now the race is over, the season is started, so it is time for us runners to enjoy our own style of apres.
6:30am the next day we sneak out of our hotel, our spiked Arctic Talon 275 shoes grinding on the roads as we jog to the snow. Today the ski tracks are for the skiers, our day of sidelining them is over. But even though we know this, and even though it is a brisk minus 5, we head out for a quick pre-breakfast jog, just to remind the skiers that sometimes they have to share the mountains in the winter.
For more information the Italian website Corsa In Montagna is a trove of information, listing virtually everything bipod-related across Italy, Switzerland and further afield.