Up at 4:00am in Millazo. Quietly have a shower and eat porridge in the car as Angelo drives us to Linguaglossa. We are then driven down to Fiumefreddo on the coast. After applying sun cream and signing in we sit on the stony beach and wait. It’s twenty degrees already. The atmosphere is calm, small waves quietly lapping the shore. A few minutes before 8:00am we muster at the start area. The sounding horn goes and we set off.
As with any race, there is an unrealistic number of people in the front few groups. Only a few of us will remain as the hours tick by. I fall into an effort I believe I can hold for four hours. Within that margin of effort I also try and stay in a group (there are two or three solo brave souls gone ahead).The group is going up steep slopes too hard and taking the shallower roads too easily. As such I yo-yo from the front of the pack on the shallow drives and hang onto the back on the steeper roads. Eventually the group slows but I feel okay at this pace so I head on with one other.
The route up to Linguaglossa is rather uneventful and not so memorable – it’s the warm-up for the warm-up. But it is hot. Up to thirty degrees in the bright exposed roads. There are thankfully may water stations – mobile ones too. I take every opportunity I get to drench myself.
I hit the streets of Linguaglossa in about 1:09 into the race. This is the first handover in the relay race and we suddenly have company . Linguaglossa is a fairly ‘flat’ part of the race and saw the fastest 5k of the whole distance for me.
The road leading out of the town is very long and straight. It gently gets steeper until we hit a winding series of switchbacks. It is at this point in the race I feel in my element. The roads were beautiful tarmac, the gradient steep but constant. It was there, winding through the forest that I picked off many runners who had gone off way too fast. Soon I was on my own as I spiralled up the mountain through Sicily’s largest forest. I felt I had nailed my ‘forever pace’ on these slopes. I periodically had company from cyclists and a small car bouncing between runners shouting out positions and time gaps. All I could understand was I was fourth and closing.
Getting into 25+ km I could see third place. I was gaining on him smoothly. It took several patient kilometres for me to pull up next to him. Company gave us a boost and we ran on together. From 30km we were coming out of the forest and starting to see volcanic rock and ice lining the roads. The road was also getting steeper still – a trend I knew would only continue.
Briefly the road flattened as we approached Piano Provenzana at 33km (and 1800m high). This junction was busy with spectators as it sees the race transition to volcanic ask and rock. I hit the transition in just under three hours and although my legs were tight and tiring I felt good. It only took a few minutes for me to be treated to a lesson in just exactly how remainder of the race was going to unfold. A few hundred metres in, crunching through ash, we hit the first of the serious upwards swings. My feet were sinking in the ash, like rough sand, sucking all the energy out. It hurt to push hard against this sponge that was sucking the life out of my legs at an alarming rate. I had to walk. That’s okay, that’s what’s required on such steep, tough terrain. For the next kilometre I employed a frequent walk, ‘jog’ strategy.
Had I gone off too fast? I asked myself, power walking my way past petrified trees and the remaining green life up in this hostile landscape I had felt so in control, so strong on the tarmac, only to be brought down so swiftly, so brutally by the never-ending wall of black ash in-front of me.
Gradually, I walk, plod, jog, walk, walk, jog, walk, walk, walk and with some hands-on-knees efforts walk some more, up, up,up. All the green now gone, just black ash, ice and peaks in the distance. Every ten minutes or so I get to count off another kilometre as I power-walk my way past bemused hikers. Routinely I look back and I can see the runner in 5th place. It’s a strange situation, watching this inevitable overtaking unfold. He was clearly gaining on me and would pass but I had a good five minute of hearing him crunching away at the ash behind me before passing. I make a ridiculous token effort to stay with him that lasted all of thirty seconds before I went back to my sustainable, and less painful, plod. This happened at the 39km mark, he would go on to put five minutes into me I was struggling so much.
Three kilometres on I look back and see the next runner is in sight. He’s walking like I am but slowly gaining on me. This is even more comical than the last time. He’s only a few hundred metres behind me but we’re walking at such a similar pace it could take a while. The track leading through the 42 km mark is steep and this comically slow smackdown looks in danger of not going my way. Luckily just past 42 was almost flat track… and the finish only 800m away. It was like I could turn a key and start an angine, my legs sputtered back to life on the ‘flat’ ground and I was able to make Guiseppe eat black ash. Just 100m from the end the ground pitched up to a sickening gradient and my newly re-animated engine groaned, forcing a brief power-walk, before coming back online to let me cross the finish line in 5th place and 4:24:02 in the shadow of Mount Etna’s crater.