September 23 - 30, 2013
My soggy right shoe squished and pumped muddy bubbles with each step. I knew I was on the wrong course after the trail dove into a small stream and came up a slippery slope on the other side. I boldly landed my foot flat in the middle of the stream, and sank all the way to the knee.
Our Tuscany trip started with a day in Florence. A motley crew of ten running and non-running yoga enthusiasts, most of us were from the Boston area, two Pittsburghers, and a young woman from England. It was warm, sunny, and dry. We ran that morning along the river Arno, a popular place for locals to run, walk, and cycle. Anxious to get out of the crowded and cigarette-smoke-filled city, we piled into a van and went through introductions on the way to Borgo Pignano, a Tuscan villa an hour and a half southwest, our retreat for the week ahead.
Pignano is a gem. Serene idyllic surroundings make you feel like you just walked into a Renaissance painting. Nearly a thousand acres of Tuscan hills filled with organic gardens, vineyards, olive groves, and horse-riding fields. Built in the 12th century, Pignano's main building resembles a castle perched on a cliff overlooking spectacular eastern views of hills, hills, and more hills. Volterra, only seven miles away, sparkles with city lights at sunset. On a clear day, you can see the Mediterranean coast.
After getting over the initial paralysis from the astounding views, my eyes zeroed in on the countryside searching for possible trails and running routes. The land is criss-crossed with dirt roads and paths, most of them unmarked with some exceptions like the famous pilgrimage route, Via Francigena, which has been traveled by foot and hoof for thousands of years and traverses hundreds of miles.
One thing you learn right away when running in Tuscany is that those rolling hills are actually not-so-small mountains. They keep climbing without a break for miles, as was the case with one of our running routes leaving out of Pignano. It was all downhill on the way back though. We warmed up with dynamic range of motion exercises, and huffed our way up the hills occasionally stopping to admire the scenery.
The daily plan was to do one easy run in the morning, followed by a day of exploring the Tuscan lifestyle, wine, shops, and cafes included, and finishing with a session of yoga, and meditation at sunset. Sometimes, yoga came first to enjoy the stillness at dawn before every thing and everyone wakes up.
A morning in Tuscany is a magical time. The air is still cool. The slanted sun rays stream across the landscape lighting up the trees and hills with golden glow. Nature is waking up slowly to bird songs and the rustle of lizard tails in the grass.
A young Italian-looking personal chef was assigned to our group. As I first walked into his kitchen, I tried introducing myself in Italian, "Buongiorno!". "It's OK," he replied in perfect American English with a slight Long Island accent, "You can speak English. I am from New York." Lenny turned out to be a huge hit with everyone in the group, preparing delicious and creative vegetarian meals every night. On a work exchange, and by referral from a head chef of an upscale New York restaurant, Lenny had already spent a month at Pignano as an assistant chef, and we were his first group. Whoever said that you cannot go wrong with food in Tuscany was right. Our day trip lunches were equally delicious, including the daily gelato, which you cannot get away from in any Tuscan town.
Our day trips included the medieval towns of Volterra, made vaguely famous in the Twilight book series as the stronghold of the oldest vampire coven; San Gimignano, also known as the medieval Manhattan for its many medieval towers; Montalcino, the home of Brunello wine, one of Italy's most famous wines; Siena, considered the capital of Tuscany according to some; and Monteriggioni, a tiny castle town perfectly preserved over the centuries.
One day, we traveled to the Mediterranean coast to the small town of Cecina Mare. According to our hosts, we could run in a pine wood forest along the coast, on flat ground for a change. As soon as our runners caught a glimpse of the turquoise waters and sandy beaches, the short trip decisively turned into a full-day trip. "You have to pry me off this beach like a tick off a deer's bottom," were Paul's exact words.
Two-Euro Tuscan wine at a nearby beachside cafe only added to the resolution to stay until sunset. For some of us, though, the best part of Cecina Mare was the Pineta, or the pine wood forest, which stretched for miles along the beach with wide (and flat!) trails covered with aromatic pine needles. It felt so good to run there that our easy pace turned into a 7-minute per mile tempo. Needless to say, after the run, we all jumped in for a swim.
As with many running and yoga retreats, we chose to run a local race: the San Galgano Run, an hour away from Pignano, which offered two options: 22k and 5k. Picturesque and medieval, San Galgano is an abbey set among grassy fields surrounded by patches of forest and mountains. Having run all week, we opted for the 5k. Upon arrival we realized that we were the only foreign participants. Race officials already expected the seven of us who signed up for the 5k (“Ahh Americani!”) and had our race packets ready. We took photos and ran an easy mile to warm up.
I had a feeling that something may go awry, not in a bad way, but in an unplanned unexpected Italian sort of way. What could have given it away? Perhaps that it was the first rainy day since we arrived in Tuscany. Or that all 5k participants had no numbers, unlike the 22k runners. Race officials explained that the 5k was just a “fun run…for families.” Adding to our apprehension, we noticed that most runners looked like serious lean and mean 'mountain goats' and represented running clubs from all around Tuscany. Even the low number of 5k participants, no more than twenty, seemed strange, while the 22k race had at least two hundred runners.
We lined up behind the 22k'ers. After the inaudible start, as the longer race moved on, we waited for our cue. The race officials stared back at us equally expectant. "Are we going?" someone asked. "Si! Si! You go too!"
I took off at a sprint hoping to catch the 22k leaders. The flat paved road at San Galgano turned into a trail that circled the abbey. I quickened my breath passing runners up a small hill and nearing the front runners. They maintained a steady pace of about 6 minutes per mile. Not caring about pacing with my shorter race, I kept pushing to catch up and glanced at my watch: one mile. The course turned into a single-track trail steadily leading away from the abbey and mostly uphill. Wondering where the 5k turnoff was, I started looking for race markers. So far, nothing indicated any sign of a 5k race. It has to loop back, I thought, and focused my eyes into the distance hoping to see the sight of San Galgano Abbey coming back into view. No such luck. The trail kept climbing, now softened into mud from the rain.
We crested a hill. I looked around. No abbey in sight. My mind started racing faster than my feet. What do I do? Turn around? Ask for direction? What about my other 'non-competitive' runners? That's when the trail dipped into a stream with no other option but to run across it. Wait a second! What happened to a nice clean 5k road race? Not a muddy hilly half marathon.
With no better plan, I dropped my pace to 6:30's and kept going. "Dov'e cinque kilometre?" I must have asked this question a dozen times. Race marshals on mountain bikes along the course had puzzled looks in response.
My Garmin beeped three miles. Oh well, it's official, I thought, I am on the 22k course. We had climbed a good elevation already, running through vineyards, flower meadows, and forested trails. The stunning vistas kept distracting my mind from making a decision. To stop or not to stop. I had never dropped out of a race. But wait, this was not my race after all. I hoped that my team members paid attention and noticed the 5k turnoff, and now were waiting for me wondering what happened. I decided to stop. But where? I was in the middle of a forested meadow running by an abandoned house with haystacks all around.
At the 9k marker, the trail decisively turned upward and refused to flatten out. At each turn, I hoped in vain for the steep slope to let up. Even the leaders slowed their pace to a 10-minute mile, many runners just walking up the hill. I joined in the walk.
After the 10k mark, the trail crawled out of the forest and onto the cobble-stoned streets of a medieval hilltop town. Most towns in Tuscany are hilltop towns, which explains the long uphill. I later found out this was Chuisdino, 10 kilometers away from San Galgano. The hills did not stop though, now with the added challenge of our muddy shoes slipping and sliding on the slick wet stones as we ran-walked up to the main square. Someone here has to know where the darn 'Cinque K' is, I fretted as I decided to stop.
At the 11k water tent and the top of the town, I finally found someone who spoke fluent English, Diana, who told me that the easiest way to get back would be to run back because the course ahead was more difficult. For a moment, I thought she was joking. Then I explained to her that was not an option and I was dropping out of the '5k race' and needed a ride back.
She spent the next ten minutes on the phone looking for my ride with no success. The weather decided that a torrential downpour would be most appropriate for this occasion. I stood and waited for Diana, chewing on banana halves and orange slices, as the 22k runners shuffled up to the water stop. Eventually, she gave me a disconcerting head shake and suggested that I should take a shower to stay warm. Not a bad idea! But where? No problemo, she explained, and walked me to a tiny travel agency right next door to the water tent. Apparently, this travel agency had a bathroom with a shower. I even washed off my muddy shoes.
Feeling like a million Euros, I stepped back out into the rain. Diana had good news for me: she found me a ride! But I would have to wait another twenty minutes. "Are they on their way?" I was hopeful. "No, he is here, in that church," she pointed across the square. "The priest will give you a ride to San Galgano, after mass." Of course, I hadn’t thought of asking the priest, my mind kept trying to see the irony here. Feeling gratitude for the final resolution, it occurred to me that I was lucky the race started at the abbey. A priest would be the obvious choice for a ride. If the race had started at a pub, I may still be in Chuisdino.
The priest was a man of few words, and none of those were in English. We rode in silence, both of us in contemplation, he - on his Sunday sermon, I - on what to tell my running crew. They waited for me in the van which looked as muddy as our shoes. It turned out that Amanda and Shelia stopped at the 6k mark and turned back, to find Stacie, who was in the process of getting herself lost in the woods. The three of them headed back but found it difficult because the race marshals promptly removed the course markers as soon as the last of the runners went by. With no trail, and no one in sight, the trio stumbled around for a while and finally came upon a farmer and convinced the man to drive them to the abbey.
Becky and Arlyce had happy faces, shiny medals hanging from their necks. The two stayed back when we took off after the 22k'ers. After the initial loop around the church, Becky witnessed an elderly Italian gentleman engaged in a verbal jousting with a race official about "Cinque Kilometre", at which point the latter waved the slower runners in the 'right' direction, still unmarked, but if you were a mind-reader you could have guessed it: loop around the abbey three times - et voilà! You got your cinque fun run, and a shiny medal.
In the end, I was happy with my 11k. It was the first time I dropped out of a race I was not supposed to run. Plus, the views were breath-taking. When we got back to Pignano, we had all day to relax, drink wine, do yoga, and retell our stories. Next year, we will know better and keep our eyes and minds open for more running adventures.
Slava Kolpakov is the founder of Running Treks, a travel adventure company that specializes in unique running and yoga retreats. In addition to Tuscany, he leads retreats in Puerto Rico, Spain, Portugal, and Mexico. Slava has lived and traveled in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas, and draws on his extensive experience to design these retreats. When at home, Slava teaches Yoga for Runners, practices Neuromuscular Therapy and Thai Massage at his center, East West Massage Boston, and runs with the area's local running clubs.