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Stories Experience


As I awkwardly push the button, the alarm clock lights up. It's two AM, I have only slept for a few hours, after continuously tossing and turning in bed.

A week has passed from the race and I still don't know how I could ever lose the race bib. I really don't care for medals, cups or awards - I simply don't want them. But race bibs, I keep them all. Dusty, muddy, crumpled, they all tell a race story and the struggle to finally get to the finish line. I sometimes think that if my house were to be on fire, the first thing I'd save would be my race bibs. I feel like crying. Number 130 from the 41st Western States Endurance Run will never make it to my bib collection box.

In the dark, at night, unseen memories from the race start surfacing. I had tried my best not to let them get to me, as I wasn't too happy about the way the race unfolded and tiredness helped me to keep those memories at bay. But then they come back and there's nothing one can do about it. Sparse, hazy memories, as always. Some wonderful, some dramatic and, as for every long journey, my mind swings from one to the other.

 The first is the most moving and has nothing to do with the race.

During the pre-race briefing, I am feeling very tense. Tired and still feeling the effects of the time zone change. In the packed hall of the Squaw Valley Olympic village, wherever I look I see a top athlete who will finish the race a few hours before I will. The entrants' list for this year is impressive. Amid the commotion I spot Gordon Ainsleigh practicing physiotherapy treatments on a camp bed (later he explained to me they are actually chiropractic treatments). While the top runners are being introduced to the crowd, the camp bed is available, so I shyly approach Gordon, and in broken English I ask him if he can help me too.

Gordon with his white beard, his calm and quiet demeanor, looks a bit like Santa Claus. I wonder if Santa has also run a hundred miler a year for forty years? He talks close to my ear to make himself heard over the frequent applause for the athletes on stage and moves me about to unlock my aching back. I entrust myself to him and finally get to relax.

I have always been fascinated by Gordon's hands. In each of the thousands of pictures of him on the race trails, his hands appear large, almost enormous when compared to the rest of his body. And now I realize that this person from whom the Western States legend stems, has managed to finally unblock my bones and joints  with his powerful hands. Something no other physiotherapist had ever accomplished before. I give him a hug to thank him and would like to stay around for a little while longer. I would love to acquire some of his calm to face the long trip ahead.

The second memory is wonderful. There's a lot to forget, many blurred memories in trail races, especially if they are very long. But the start is always unforgettable.

It's almost dawn and finally the tension dissolves. All I have to do is run. From Squaw Valley the path follows the ski slopes up to Emigrant Pass. It is warm already, but the air is still the pleasant crisp mountain air.  As I try to understand how to behave and what pace to keep during the race, I turn and see the sun rising behind me over Lake Tahoe. The colors are those that only the great American outdoors can give. It's something so beautiful it feels unbelievable. Yet another magical dawn in my personal collection. I keep an easy pace over a stretch of trail surrounded by blooming meadows graced by the orange morning light, while in the company of Stephanie Howe and Magda Boulet. It feels like a dream, a dream which would last over the next fifty kilometers. A dream with a taste of the pure essence of the American Trail Running. In each race there is always a moment in which time seems to stop and I magically feel perfectly in tune with the nature around.


The third memory is the most dramatic. My most difficult time.

I am at about seventy kilometers in the race and I stop for a tinkle. I feel it is a good sign that I need to stop to urinate. I have always run until now and I think a small stop can help me assess the current situation. As I stop, the apparent wind created by my movement suddenly stops. During the forty seconds stop, I actually feel my body temperature rise. I get moving again, but the magic moment is over. The dream is over. The climb up to Devil's Thumb feels impossible. I feel hotter and hotter and can't even remember how long the climb is. The race elevation profile has evaporated away from my mind. We're still at altitude, I thought the warmer part of the race was supposed to happen much later in the race. I feel like I am trapped in an oven. I panic, I stop, I feel like I am fainting. As it happened already twice, when I struggle this much I get to see myself from the outside, from a viewpoint situated one meter above my right shoulder. I see myself kneeling on the path, with Joe Grant passing me and briefly touching my left shoulder. Since Joe has long blond curly hair and beard, the above image verges on the mystical-religious side.

I try to catch a deep breath, but the air in the canyon is dry and blazing hot from the long Californian drought season. I stand, cannot stop here, I slowly carry on while trying to ration the warm water in my bottles. Many other runners pass me, all my plans and race strategies crumble like the sunburnt sand below. My brain will not remember all of those wintry lunch break runs with two woolly shirts and long trousers on, the four years it took me to finally gain entry to this race. Ninety kilometers still to go and, according to my plans, this was supposed to be the real beginning of the race. "Right now, this is too much for him, his race ends here". I need to get out of this hell to survive. I barely reach the next aid station and ask to sit. I really should have know better at the previous aid station, aptly named Last Chance!

I still can't get off my mind the face of the elderly gentleman who took good care of me when I sat on the chair. After I splutter a few words regarding the heat, he replies with a smile: "Welcome to California". His kind eyes behind his thick glasses and below his baseball hat are one of the most recurring images in my mind. Thanks to him, more than twenty minutes later I manage to leave the chair and stand. I had to spit away my last gel as it was making me nauseous. The goal is to avoid at all costs any stomach issues, so I grab a handful of fruit before leaving. I have never had fruit during a race, but I need to try something. From one aid station to the next I experiment, stopping and sitting down at each of them. The new strategy seems to work, I feel better and run well between aid stations, making up most of the time lost previously. I have few memories from this part, no images sticking, while I can still feel in my teeth the flavor of the sand I breathed.

I am worried about my family and Riccardo, they have been waiting for me for over an hour. I feel tired and have eaten nothing but fruit for more than five hours, though I try not to think too much about it. I am almost in tears as I meet them at Forest Hill. Seeing Irene and my kids after one hundred long kilometers is simply wonderful. I had been debating whether to have a pacer or an assistance crew, or whether to go it alone, as I tend to do. I don't really like other people depending from me. Then I followed some great advice from a friend (thanks Davide!) and asked Riccardo to pace me. Besides being a great runner, he speaks great American English and I am certain he will be of great help when I will be no longer in full possession of my language skills (even in Italian, let alone in English). I always feel sorry when someone needs to wait for me. Ricky can't wait to get started and i really don't want to disappoint him, so I run too. Rules say that the pacer can only speak to his assigned runner, which doesn't seem to be such a great deal, but when your thoughts are unclear, they overlap and get blurred due to fatigue, having someone to help you make some sense out of them can really make a difference.

Parts of the videos I had seen from the race overlap with reality and I realize I hadn't really gotten to grips with the race course. I tell Riccardo about this and he calms me down by telling me that the next section is pretty runnable, that many have suffered the heat and are going slowly. Sometimes it doesn't take much, just some good news, to turn the tables. Hours before then I had stopped thinking about the race, times and ranking; all this was put aside and the only thing that mattered was carrying on. I have a very clear image of us two running. The sun is setting and I am surprised I can still run this well. Following the same strategy, we manage to proceed relatively quickly, rising in the rankings up to 25th place. Riccardo is very optimistic (thanks Ricky!!) but I still give myself a target: finishing in under twenty hours. It isn't much, I already ran once a 100-miler in sub-20 hours, but as things stand it is a great target to have. I also realize I am balancing sustainable speed and and caloric intake. And if one can perform these calculations, it means one is feeling a lot better.

Finally, two images worthy of a postcard.

Crossing the American River at Rucky Chucky is just like in the movies. Life jacket on and off you cross the river with the water up to your shoulders. I dreamed about this moment for more than fifty kilometers. I imagined the relief from the fresh river water on my body. After fifteen hours and twenty seconds the dip in the river water is worthy of the struggle to get there.


Thinking of times and rankings, I realize that after 140 kilometers Riccardo and I, caught up in deep conversation, have missed a turn and ended up having to run five more kilometers, adding about twenty-five minutes to our time. Unfortunately, those twenty-five minutes allowed 10 fellow runners to pass us. Ten runners, each one with their personal pacer, which means twenty people in total, practically a full bus. We manage to overtake two of them, but at this point it really doesn't matter; even if the finish line is not as close as we thought, the end can't be too far, the night is quiet and calm.

The second image is the one I had decided to share with Irene. At the Highway 49 aid station, Riccardo and Irene swap duties, so she and I can go the last ten kilometers separating us from Auburn. This last stretch of course crosses the No Hands Bridge (aid station names are as always fascinating), adorned with thousands of lights, as its tradition requires. The moment appears solemn and just as I had imagined it. One of the side effects of these long races is that they are able to show your true self, after so many hours and kilometers all feelings surface and can no longer stay hidden. Just as I was about to express all my romance to Irene, a headlamp from another runner appears behind us (luckily), a runner with her pacer, quickly approaching the aid station. It felt a little like when finding out you're not actually alone and the magical moment just vanishes.


I look at the light peering through the window blinds with my sleepy eyes and I realize I am not in Auburn anymore, but in Milan. I turn to the bedside table, I open the drawer where I keep my bibs and I see the silver buckle. The journey is over, and finally I fall asleep.