Sun, Champions, Friends, Smiles…and An Awful Lot Of Ks!

​By Francesco

After a hectic week of work, it’s time to share with you the wonderful experience I had in Tuscany for a 3-day running retreat in the fields surrounding Siena, more precisely on the gravel roads of San Rocco a Pilli. My wonderful wife had discovered this interesting initiative while I was in Strasbourg for work and sent me an email telling me that it could be fun to participate. The details were few and (antisocial as I am) I was sceptical in the beginning, but after mulling it over for a while and after sending some emails for clarification to the organisers, I decided to overcome my “fear” of other people and just go for it, even if in the end this meant being away from Chiara for a few days, since she had to work in Zurich over the same exact weekend. In hindsight, I must say that it was the right call and I really enjoyed my time in Tuscany, coming out from the weekend with useful insights and a wonderful experience “in the pocket”.

So, what am I talking about? Well, I’m talking about the possibility of training at the Tuscany Training Camp on the roads and trails where 3 Olympic medals were “built” with hard training and tough work-outs, besides running with some of the most promising athletes of the Ugandese and Burundian long distance running national team, as well as accompanying in training Anna Incerti, one of the best female Italian marathoners of all times. And boy, was it fun! Running is a wonderful activity, but its essence, its spirit lies in running with a group, making it a social event that can hardly be topped by something else. Nevertheless, in my life as a runner, I’ve always run solo: even in races I always had troubles running with a group and I’ve always been a frontrunner. So, I’ve really missed the company and fun that running with other people can give, with the exception of the running sessions with my wife, which I love and cherish.

Photo by Nicola Giovanelli

How did it work? Well, the “retreat” started on Friday evening on the 400m dirt-track built by the Ugandese coach in the fields surrounding the former aiport of Siena. This place is truly inspiring to run and do tough work-outs and, in addition to the 400m track, there is also a 1k cross-country track with sharp edges, jumps and small bumps where one can train for the winter season. When I arrived, the team was testing the performance of the Ugandese runners with a special metabolic analyser, a machine that (in simple words) measures all parameters of the “engine” of a runner. The tests were open also to us but unfortunately I first had to attend a medical check-up and couldn’t do it, but I was able to meet again with the others after their first run in the area.

Photo by Nicola Giovanelli

So, in the end, my real “retreat” started only the day after, when we ran a 34k long run with Anna Incerti and her husband, Stefano Scaini. In the end, we finished our effort in 2 hours and few minutes, starting with 18k easy followed by a 16k-fartlek: during the run we were accompanied by some of the Ugandese runners and it was nice to lay in the pack and “stroll” together on the quiet gravel roads in the woods and fields of San Rocco. The time flew by while chatting, joking and panting, something really different compared to the boring sessions that sometimes long runs turn out to be. The temperature and weather were perfect and I really enjoyed my time, putting in some really needed mileage if I want to run a marathon in December. The afternoon was devoted to resting, recovering, foam rolling, technique training, chatting and visiting Siena, which is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

After dining together, it was time to sleep and get ready for the last “easy” day of the retreat, when we put in 20k on an easy pace to clear the muscles from the toxins built up the day before. Once again, we explored the surroundings by taking a new path, this time a more hilly one, but my enjoyment of the run was still at top level, leading me to a full recovery both mentally and physically. After a quick session of stretching and foam rolling on the pool side and a lunch together, it was time for me to leave and catch a plane in Malpensa in order to get back to Brussels.

So, what do I take away from this experience? First of all, that I train like a real amateur (ultimately this is what I am) and that pro runners are pro for a reason. Obviously, they do not need to juggle their training sessions with work and other duties and therefore there is no need to squeeze out the quality from every minute of the workout. They pace themselves, they push themselves to the limit when there is a need to do it, when it is profitable to do so. Easy is easy and hard is hard. This leads to two main advantages: firstly, they train more efficiently and get to better results much faster, and secondly they can do amazing volumes of training with a lower risk of injury or burnout, something that leads them to still enjoy running even when basically it is the only thing they do: there is still joy in their running, and the atmosphere in the group is cheerful and healthy. Second of all, even pros can have a wonderful family life: seeing how Anna and Stefano spent their whole time outside training with their 4-year-old daughter was inspiring. It was like they got energy from her and her happiness, which tells and teaches a lot about the balance that even a pro running family can enjoy. Thirdly, I rediscovered running in a form that I had never considered before, the social and yet challenging form that pushes you to tie the shoes and take the first steps with a smile on your face, even when what you are about to do is difficult. This does not mean that in the past I was sad while running, but the feeling is just different, positively different. Then, there are all the wonderful people I’ve met during these days, Italians and foreigners alike. Sharing experiences and running tips and tricks is always useful, because it allows you to question your routines, which is really important in order to get better. And finally there is the location, a genuine paradise for runners and sporty people. The tracks and trails are many, the elevation gain can be there if you want it but there are still many flat places to do some mileage without getting bored. The cuisine is tasty and the places where to stay many. There are many hotels, b&bs and old houses (poderi) where one can relax and enjoy “la bella vita” and the sunny weather. So, to sum up, a wonderful experience that I hope can be organised again in the near future…this time accompanied by my wife!


Today we run in… Molenbeek

by Francesco

Chiara was in action today for the 10k Foyer, a race of the Run in Brussels Challenge, a nice initiative that is helping us discovering Brussels while running races all over the city. Great race by Chiara (2nd place) and wonderful atmosphere during the whole race: keep it up Molenbeek, it was great!


Race recap by Chiara

I loved this race! The atmosphere was great from the very beginning. A group of mums from the neighbourhood gave out our numbers, while all the kids together got ready for their race (400-800-2.5 k for the little ones). Everyone was very relaxed and we got to cheer for the kids as they came in on the final stretch.

Although we had a plan – to start conservatively and increase my pace with each loop -, it immediately went out of the window. The pack started off on a very fast pace and I didn’t want to be left alone in the wind, so I stuck with them and then hung on for dear life. It payed off though! I got a new PR on the 5 k and still managed to finish strong. I loved the way Francesco cheered for me all the way through the race, always encouraging me and pushing me to really go for it, even when I wasn’t quite so sure I had anything left in me. It turned out he was right most of the time!

But perhaps the best thing was the post-race experience: Francesco got to enjoy a well-deserved beer for the modest price of 1 euro, and I helped myself to a generous portion of a heavenly Turkish delicacy, a sort of a savoury pastry filled with herbs and feta cheese (for the even more modest price of 50 cents/piece… I got myself three). While we were waiting for the prize-giving ceremony we were entertained by a bunch of local kids singing and dancing and by a group of adults playing the drums. Their enthusiasm was contagious!

Thank you Molenbeek for a great race and all the love. We’ll be back!

… Waiting for better times ;-)

DSC_2670Sometimes not training is much harder than any training. Setbacks are part of the journey, and it is normal to feel down when you can’t do what you like. I have a minor knee issue and was only able to do some strength training today because running hurts too badly, but hopefully we can fix that soon. In the meantime, I want to share some reflections with you.

But this is also the time to look back at what we have done together. I had never run until about two years ago, and Francesco only started coaching me about a year and a half ago. Since then, he has taken me to the point where I’ve run a full trail marathon, 2 half marathons and a good handful of shorter races (not necessarily easier though!). We’ve run some races together, some on our own, some for each other, as in the case of a relay race.

I broke the 2 hour barrier in my very first half marathon, which was also my first race ever. On my second half marathon I smashed my PR by more than 10 minutes, finishing strong in 1h45′. We ran our first trail marathon together, on our honeymoon, and won it. I had never run a trail race OR a marathon before, but all I could think was that all the training that we had done had really paid off. Having a coach can make all the difference to your running, really, both in terms of motivation and in terms of the results you can achieve. So I thought I would post a sample week of the training that I do, in case you’re interested. You can also follow us on Strava and contact us for more information.

Here is my past week of training:


20′ warm up + 30′ fartlek (3′ hard 2′ easy)x6 + 5′ easy


AM 35′ + PM 30′


rest day


AM strength training

PM 15′ warm up + 10×200 @40” (200m jog in between) + 1000m @4’20”




20′ warm up + 10′ tempo pace + 5′ easy + 5′ hard + 5′ easy


8 k race (2nd place for me)


New track, old habits…

So, we finally went to a new track here in Brussels, which is located at the VUB sports centre (Flemish University). After registering at the desk and getting our card with 10 sessions on it (under 20 euros of cost, card included), we tested the track and I found some old toys (barriers) that maybe will be used again in training. The track is nice, quite and shielded from the wind…not the fastest around but fast enough! Besides, it should be lit until midnight and you can access the changing rooms and showers…fingers crossed, it is true! To sum it up: we discovered a new place and we like it!

The good, the bad… and the fun

After telling you all about our experience, the time has come to give you an overview of what this race (and everything attached) might have in store for you. Virtually every person whom we have told about our project of running a trail marathon in the mountains of Northern Mongolia has reacted with (polite) scepticism: why would we want to choose such a remote place, let alone such a hard challenge, for our first steps as husband and wife? Why not choose to spend a fortnight on the beaches of Bali or in a luxury tourist resort on some African coast?

The answers are manifold, but can be perhaps summed up in one. We took a giant leap of faith, getting married and promising to ourselves that we would forever be together. It was only logical to take another little step in the direction of being brave and making the most of this unique opportunity and this very special time we have now. We feel extremely lucky and privileged. We can always go to Bali and join the scores of British pensioners on the safaris in Kenya, but honestly I had my doubts as to whether in ten years time, hopefully with some kids around, or in forty years time, probably with more than a few aches and pains if I continue to be so reckless, I’d be able to run a trail marathon (although after witnessing the incredible feats of our fellow runners in Mongolia, I am much more optimistic about my future running career for the long haul). The good news for you is that you don’t have to get married to run this race. Francesco wrote a beautiful post about the people we met there, and we were the only honeymoon couple there.

If you are interested, I hope this post will help you make up your mind as to whether this race is worth it. I promise I will not sugarcoat anything at all. Conversely, I hereby declare that it is my intention to point out all the things that I didn’t like, regardless of the fact that you might think I am a pain in the ass for complaining so much.

I am not a camping enthusiast. When I started dating Francesco, one of the first conditions I put was that we would never go on a camping vacation. This honeymoon of ours went dangerously close to it, but does not fall into that category because we did not have to set up our own tent and we technically had a bed. That said, do not expect a luxury accommodation. The tepies and gers all look very cute, but it rains inside – and it rained a lot during our week at the camp… In fact, we only had two dry days and luckily race day was one of them (until late at night, when the last 100k runners had to finish under the pouring rain).

The food – as already mentioned in my previous post – is very much the same all week: nothing to complain about, but if you don’t want to eat sandwiches every day you might want to bring some food from home (also, I think comfort food can go a long way when you find yourself in a new place and when the conditions aren’t always ideal). You will also have to bring warm clothes with you, as the temperatures rarely, if ever, go beyond 20 degrees, and the nights are cold (around 5 degrees). You can ask to have a fire made in your tepie/ger, but communication with the locals is very limited. Everyone will say “yes” and flash a giant smile, but rarely do things get done. For instance, we were told that we could have hot water (in a giant 2-litre thermos) in our tent any time, but whenever we asked we were reassured that they would bring the thermos, and most of the times it never materialised. There were basically three levels of (non)communication: we talked to the organisers, who talked to the people who managed the dining ger, who talked to the boys and girls who served the gers and the tepies of the guests.

The bathrooms and the showers are located in an autonomous building. The lavatories were clean, which I appreciated, but the showers have absolutely no pressure whatsoever and hot water is rarely available, which makes taking a shower very difficult, as it is usually not warm enough outside not to freeze to the bone. Considering that this is a camp for people who are training to run a marathon/100k and are pretty active, much could be improved. I am proud to say I managed to wash my hair three times over the week, mainly thanks to the above mentioned thermos of hot water, which I sneaked into the shower to have enough hot water to rinse the shampoo. On the plus side, there was a sauna available every day for 90 minutes for the ladies and 90 minutes for the men, which was nice, even though it wasn’t quite hot enough.

As for the leisure activities, we didn’t take part in too many, as our body was already struggling to adapt to the changes and we didn’t want to make things even harder before the marathon. Some participants took the opportunity to use the kayaks on the lake and do yoga, and we went on a horse riding 1-hour tour the afternoon after we ran the marathon. There is no wifi available at the camp, so we spent the rest of the time taking naps, walks, pictures, reading and writing. Getting to know the other runners and chatting with them over a cup of tea was perhaps the best part. It is so rare for people from so many walks of life to find themselves in the same place for so long and to be able to share a passion. Every one of us had a very different story to tell, but all were incredibly interesting.

The race really showed how selfless trail running is. Nobody was racing against the others. Instead, everybody was just trying to find out how to overcome the rough patches, when to push harder and when to slow down, when to tap into their mental resources and when to enjoy the scenery and stop to take pictures. At the same time, everybody was cheering for the others and encouraging them. It was truly moving to see how everybody was greeted at the finish line, regardless of their time or ranking.

The race itself went well (of course it did, we won! XD) but for some people it didn’t go as smoothly as they would have hoped. Some got lost or struggled to find the green marks that indicated the trail to follow – I was lucky enough to run with my very own hero, camel, and guide, aka my husband, who showed me the way, but not everybody could count on that. The aid stations were placed every 12 k for the 42 k distance, and then at the 55, 65, 76 and 88 k for the 100k distance. Before the race we were told that there would be drinking water for us to refill our bottles, but when we got to the second aid station we discovered that they only had hot water, so we had to carry on with what we had. There were no gels nor electrolytes or packaged foods that one could carry to have in between aid stations, so we ended up relying entirely on what we had brought. The runners who finished the 100k were very happy about the warm pumpkin soup they were served from the 55 k aid station on though.

I really liked the blue t-shirts that were given to all the finishers, even though the sizes were all wrong, as were the sizes of the technical white t-shirts that were given to the winners. Had I known, I would have bought one of the right size for 15 dollars… We also got very pretty medals: they are shaped in a little ball that recalls a traditional Mongolian badge of honour and are engraved with the shape of the two mountains we climbed and the distance (either 42 or 100). Our photographer’s pictures were also one of the best parts! It is great to run a marathon, but if you can’t prove it on Facebook it never happened 😉

MS2S: la Maratona all’Alba della nostra luna di miele…

Finalmente un post in italiano! Eccoci al racconto della gara, che non è una traduzione del post in inglese, ma un altro racconto, perché tanto una maratona è abbastanza lunga da poterla descrivere in mille modi.

Facciamo un passo indietro per dare il contesto: siamo nel nord della Mongolia, in un campo di tepie e ger da cinque giorni, con il bagno fuori, le zanzare e i ragni più grandi che abbia mai visto, uno spazio vitale inesistente, una dieta raffazzonata e dobbiamo partire per fare una maratona trail, in montagna, con partenza a 1550 metri, picchi di 2500 e un dislivello di più di 1500 sulla lunghezza della maratona. A questo aggiungiamo che l’organizzazione è… alla mano (cosa che non ci ispira eccessiva fiducia) e che io non ho mai fatto né gare di trail né maratone su strada, e che quindi non ho idea di che cosa mi attende per davvero né in termini di distanza né di difficoltà tecniche. Ma Francesco corre con me, e in fondo anche prima di partire so già che andrà tutto bene. Dal mio canto, l’unica cosa che mi spaventa un po’ è la possibilità di perdersi: i boschi e le montagne sono simili a quelle del Trentino (almeno, alcune), ma quando si arriva in aree paludose o simil praterie, è facile perdere l’orientamento…e chiedere indicazioni a cavalli o yack sembra non dare buoni risultati.


Ci svegliamo alle 2.45 perché la partenza è alle 4.30. Tra l’altro, la sveglia ci viene data da un suonatore locale di uno strumento che è un mix tra un corno, un sassofono e un clarinetto: quantomeno folkloristico. La cosa è stata apprezzata da tutti, a eccezione di chi era nel nostro campo ma non partecipava alla gara. Rabbia comprensibile direi. Non piove, ed è una buona cosa non solo per la gara ma anche perché nei giorni precedenti abbiamo scoperto che la nostra tepie non è proprio impermeabile e che lascia entrare molta più acqua di quanta vorremmo.


Alle 4.30 fa freddo (ma pensavo peggio): siamo intorno ai 6 gradi, è estate ma d’altra parte siamo a un passo dalla Siberia qui, e il lago che costeggiamo per la prima parte del percorso è il fratello minore del lago Bajkal. Al via il gruppo di mongoli parte come una freccia (li riprenderemo tutti, tranne quello che andrà a vincere la 100 km, non sappiamo con quante scorciatoie). Partiamo con le frontali perché c’è un buio pesto, e con le frontali affrontiamo la prima parte ostica del percorso, 2,5 km di single track nella foresta, con radici, sassi, fango, tronchi per terra, a metà via e rami intricati proprio all’altezza della fronte di qualcuno (non della mia… i vantaggi di essere mignon), e innumerevoli, enormi cacche di cavalli, mucche e yak. Usciti da lì ci sono 10 km di strada sterrata, abbastanza piana, che affrontiamo con gioia: certo, bisogna stare attenti alle buche, ai sassi e agli yak e ai cavalli selvatici che ci guardano da bordo strada con un misto tra curiosità e aria di superiorità. Per fortuna nessuno a quell’ora è abbastanza baldanzoso da seguirci di corsa! Tra gli occidentali sembra ci sia voglia di prendere con calma quantomeno i primi due km e mezzo, quindi in realtà il primo pezzo diventa un piacevole riscaldameno, tutti in fila indiana. Grazie alla frontale prestata dal babbo, la Chiara fa luce a tutti e credo che la sua presenza sia stata motivo di gioia per diversi compagni d’avventura.

Francesco e io corriamo insieme a un altro paio di uomini per un pezzetto, ma poi decidiamo di tenere il nostro passo e li superiamo. Andiamo regolari, senza strappi, senza esagerare: siamo ancora all’inizio, ma non ha nemmeno senso andare troppo lenti sull’unica parte piana del percorso. Gli strappi li faccio io ogni tanto per fare foto, tirare fuori cose dallo zaino, mettere via le frontali…insomma, il mio piccolo fartlek mattunito sono riuscito a farmelo lo stesso. Mentre corriamo tranquilli si alza il sole sul lago, prima rosa, poi rosso. Sono ancora in grado di godermi l’alba, prima che arrivi la prima salita.


La strada qui è ancora decente, ma la salita è ripida e soprattutto eterna: ci mettiamo circa 50 minuti ad arrivare in cima, ma perlomeno ci godiamo i fiori – gialli, azzurri, e fucsia, in cima – e il panorama. Per chi conosce i posti, la salita ricordava lontanamente il tratto che da Sadole porta a Passo Sadole, anche se più larga. A partire da lì in discesa bisogna guardare dove si mettono i piedi, perché il terreno è insidiosissimo, come peraltro su tutta la parte centrale della gara. I sassi del sentiero franano continuamente, ma un’ulteriore difficoltà è rappresentata dal fatto che io cerco di evitare, oltre ai sassi, anche le enormi, continue cacche di cavallo che costellano tutto il percorso ma che qui si infittiscono, non lasciando spazio a nient’altro. Se dovessi davvero evitarle tutte dovrei volare, a questo punto. Nota positive: le cacche di cavallo sono morbide e quindi i piedi fanno meno male. Nota negativa: sono cacche di cavallo. La prima discesa comunque era bella impegnativa dopo la prima metà: infatti dopo un pezzo molto ripido si arrivava in una specie di prato con molti sassi nascosti nell’erba, per poi avvicinarsi a un’area piana ma paludosa. Sia le caviglie sia le ginocchia risultavano esposte a non pochi pericoli.


Arriviamo alla seconda stazione di servizio con tutti gli arti al loro posto, ma scopriamo che non hanno acqua da darci per riempire le bottiglie. O meglio, acqua ne hanno, ma solo bollente. Lasciamo perdere e andiamo avanti. Tra i due passi che dobbiamo fare in teoria ci sarebbe una parte più o meno piana, ma che si rivela essere una palude con zolle di fango instabili ricoperte di erba altissima dove la difficoltà di correre raggiunge picchi inesplorati: si affonda nel fango fino alla caviglia, poi nel tentativo di staccare il piede per fare il passo successivo si becca inevitabilmente una zolla che si rovescia portandosi dietro la caviglia o il ginocchio di turno. Le scarpe si imbevono di acqua e fango e a ogni passo ne pompano fuori un po’, per poi impregnarsi di nuovo col successivo.

Accolgo quasi con sollievo la seconda salita (!). Siamo in una foresta abbastanza intricata, con muschio ovunque, piuttosto morbido, e bacche rosse che sono molto invitanti ma che non mangio solo perché Francesco mi tiene d’occhio (scommetto che sono velenosissime, ma ho un’attrazione per le bacche, cosa ci posso fare). Nel frattempo invece mangiamo con regolarità, più o meno ogni 60 minuti. Un gel, un altro gel, poi una barretta, poi un altro gel, finché alla fine della gara non ne posso più di roba dolce e mi mangio un pezzo di grana che ci eravamo portati dietro insieme ai taralli e ai cracker. La seconda salita è decisamente la più tosta: molto breve ma con pendenze al limite. Se volete allenarvi per questa cosa qui, andate per funghi in Val di Fiemme sui pendii più ripidi… Per fortuna comunque il “sentiero” è segnato bene, nel senso che ci sono tantissimi alberi marcati con la vernice e il simbolo della gara. Difficile perdersi insomma, almeno in questa parte.


La seconda discesa è a rotta di collo e mette alla prova tanti partecipanti. Discesa molto ripida in prato aperto con sassi qui e lì. Breve ma intensa. Ci lasciamo indietro un altro paio di persone e dopo la terza e ultima stazione di servizio (dove hanno acqua fredda, per fortuna, ma nulla di edibile, perché con tutta la mia buona volontà non ce la posso fare a mangiare pomodori e frittelle) ci aspetta una parte più agevole. Purtroppo io a questo punto sono abbastanza provata dal mio solito dolore al fianco, che peggiora esponenzialmente in discesa, su terreni accidentati e quando bevo, e Francesco si arrabbia tantissimo con il suo zainetto, la cui cerniera decide autonomamente di aprirsi a intervalli regolari, rovesciando il contenuto qui e là e costringendoci a fermarci per richiuderlo, finché non decidiamo di rinunciare ad avere accesso a quello che abbiamo nello zaino e di legare i lacci della cerniera. In realtà era già dalla prima discesa che litigavo con lo zaino proprio per questo motivo. Tremavo al solo pensiero di perdere la frontale di mio padre, dato che sicuro mi avrebbe ucciso. Al traguardo però dopo aver controllato mi sono accorto di non aver perso niente. Oltre a questo ho corso per più di 20 km con una giacca attaccata in vita e mille cose in tasca. Per tenere tutto al suo posto, non ho potuto usare le braccia, cosa che rende la corsa un’attività poco piacevole. Per non parlare del tubo della camel bak che continuava ad andare in giro e sbattermi in faccia…odio quei cosi. Insomma, avrei potuto lavorare meglio con l’attrezzatura, questo è sicuro. Per fortuna il ritmo per me era abbastanza facile da tenere.

Gli ultimi chilometri sono lenti e lunghi. Sono vigile e molto lucida, anche perché a un certo punto intorno al 31° chilometro ho preso una pillola di caffeina che – lo so – mi terrà sveglia per 48 ore, e sono acutamente consapevole del fatto che con una proiezione più o meno attendibile posso chiudere sotto le 6 ore, e allo stesso tempo ho una paura bestiale di non farcela. Gli organizzatori ci hanno detto che questa maratona richiede almeno il 50% di tempo in più rispetto a una maratona su strada, ma io non ne ho mai fatta una, quindi non ho riferimenti. Francesco deve parlarmi ininterrottamente (cosa per lui alquanto inusuale) per evitare che sbrocchi del tutto. Andiamo avanti lenti, ma regolari, correndo senza pensare troppo. E alla fine, dietro l’ultima delle tante curve, vedo il traguardo e piano piano ci arriviamo, insieme. Una maratona è lunga, ma non abbastanza da capire che l’abbiamo fatta davvero, tutta quanta, e che ce l’abbiamo fatta insieme.

Abbiamo vinto noi. Yeeeeee 🙂 Ma io lo sapevo già che ce l’avremmo fatta! NB: mancano foto della parte finale per colpa del cacchio di zainetto…mentre per quelle dell’arrivo e della premiazione, stiamo aspettando.

Per davvero! Abbiamo vinto per davvero, non per modo di dire!

Interessati a cartine, dislivelli e ritmi? Ecco la gara su Strava:

Testo: Chiara e Francesco