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!

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Running encounters

Yesterday I worked, today I wanted to go to the seaside. But it was raining, so we decided to set our sight on a new mission: finding the very elusive Tuscany training camp.

We turned in circles for maybe two hours in the middle of nowhere in the countryside of Tuscany. We stopped to ask for directions two or three times, with local people being very kind to us and pointing us to other people who should have known more, but nobody could point us to the right place. What we were looking for was the track on dirt that hosts the training sessions of a group of strong Ugandan and Burundian runners.

We were going to give up, but we wanted to go down every possible avenue before heading back home, so we went to the tiny village where the runners live. We got to their hotel and saw a fast-looking guy. We approached him and we chatted for a while. He offered to show us the track and kindly accompanied us to see the track. We weren’t particularly impressed with the track itself, but mainly with the extraordinary kindness and peacefulness of this young runner, Jacob Limo, a sixteen-year-old from Uganda. He has already represented Uganda internationally and we wish him all the very best for his running career.

Sometimes the best things come as a surprise. It was refreshing to talk to this Ugandan boy whom we would have probably never met, had it not been for our passion for running.