Climbing Tuscan Hills
“Stupid, stupid, S T U P I D!!! Next time you know there’s a risk of running in the dark, bring a headlamp you imbecile…”, I cursed under my breath as I ran faster and faster down the steep and rocky slope, surrounded by black, slender trees, occasionally glimpsing the tiny golden lights of the Agriturismo Castiglionchio in the valley below. The purple disc of the sun had slipped behind the Tuscan hills to the west quicker than I expected, thus starting to drown our little valley in close to pitch black darkness at an alarming pace. Idiot.
Leaving our little medieval tower at Montioni an hour and fifty minutes earlier, I promised the missus and Panda I’d be back before dark. “Well, shouldn’t you take your headlamp just in case?”, miss H asked me while at the same time trying to coax our feisty daughter into relinquishing her tight little grasp of a brand new – and now completely tattered and torn – movie magazine. “Nah, I’ll be fine. Besides, I’ll be carrying a water bottle in one hand and don’t want to be burdened with extra weight. It’s not like I’m afraid of the dark, Lovely”, I winked, stepping out through the door and heading down the stone stairs to the terrace.
Well, let me tell you, there’s nothing like a haunted forest, some hooting owls and the knowledge that hungry wild boars live in the woods you’re running through in order to quite vividly bring out a healthy and quite frankly paralyzing fear of the dark. Trust me. And had I brought my cell phone just in case I twisted my ankle or broke my leg in the middle of this black jungle? “It’ll just jump around in my pocket, Lovely, annyoing me no end.”
Well, I’d imagine being eaten by a flesh-eating owl would probably be pretty annoying too.
And the afternoon had started so well. Closing the iron gate flanked by the stone lions behind me, I had turned up the gravel slope and started running uphill at a leisurely pace, carefully planning my long run in my head. When training for ultra races, I tend to switch from distance to time in my training programme, meaning that instead of scheduling today’s longrun for 25 km I was planning to run for 2 h 05 min’s, the equivalent of that distance on a flat surface during ideal conditions. Hilly terrain like these Tuscan hills would give me fabulous training for the vertical climbing during Lavaredo Ultra Trail in June, and I was – still am – planning to make the most of the topography where our little family had chosen to spend my first month of paternity leave together. It was pretty smooth going and after only a kilometre or so, I came across a middle-aged Italian wearing a beret who, at seeing me run up towards him, raised his clenched fist towards his chest, pumping the air. I smiled back with a puffy “ ’Sera! ”, crested the hill and continued along the serpentine road around a small church. After around 40 minutes, I reached the top of the highest hill in our valley. Monastero dell’Incontro, a Franciscan monastery, is perched at the very summit of the hill and according to local history, there existed a small chapel here as early as the 8th century A.D. As you can see from the graph below, it was quite a climb to the top.
On the western side of the monastery, the asphalt road turned into a wide and rocky path that dove down again into the woods, and I maintained my planned counter-clockwise loop of the valley. The trail was marked along the side with white horizontal blazes sandwiched between two red stripes, like small Austrian flags, and despite the sharp and plentiful stones, I relished the feel of running through a beautiful Italian forest after so many months of snowy and icy trails (and a lot of air-conditioned and wobbly treadmills). Emerging from the trees by the half dozen or so houses of Moriano, I realized I had to make a detour of at least 40 minutes if I wanted to run for two hours without repeating myself when reaching our tower too early. Instead of running down into the valley again towards Castiglionchio due north, however, (idiot, idiot, I D I O T) during the last 30 minutes of daylight, I turned in the opposite direction and followed the trail that soon enough turned into a gravel road and after a while into an asphalt country road. At Cimitero di San Cristoforo, I clocked 20 minutes of my detour and turned back towards Moriano again. Only when I arrived, the sun had long since hid behind the hill of Monastero dell’Incontro, and I had trouble identifying the right path down into the valley. Far below me, I could see the lights of Agriturismo Castiglionchio well enough. Only problem was a black hole of an abyss between me and my goal. To cap it all off, I had drunk all of my water and eaten my last Bounty bar.
It’s a funny thing, fear of darkness. It’s so real and scary when you’re a kid (My brother’s fear manifested itself as a dark and hairy gorilla living under our bunk bed. My brother slept in the lower bunk.), and you think you’ve outgrown it as you grow into a – hopefully – sensible adult. Not so. After two rounds of Hail Mary’s, I still hadn’t reached the bottom of the pit and the lights from outside the Agriturismo had long ago vanished behind spider-like branches and impenetrable bushes. I ran slightly faster, passing a completey dark and unlit ghost stone mansion and turning around the corner of the façade, I finally found a lit asphalt road leading straight towards the huge Agriturismo 300 metres further on. My bladder relaxed all of its built-up tension at once, and I suddenly understood the point of the high absorption index of my daughter’s diapers. Suffice it to say that my running shorts were quite dry, thank you very much, as I passed Castiglionchio on my right, running the final stretch towards the lion gate and sending a quiet but heartfelt thanks to Our Lady of the Mentally Slow Athletes that I hadn’t broken an extremity or knocked out a tooth.
All in all, a longrun with a little more excitement than I had bargained for.