Planes, trains and boat trips!
When the call went out for ‘running journos’ to descend on UTLAC – Lake Como Ultra Trail for the second edition of the UTLAC250 and UTLAC30, I almost fell off my chair in the panic to reply YES YES YES!
I mean who wouldn’t want an all expenses paid weekend in Lake Como Italy, right?
Image: Ben Wells
Andrea, our race contact set up the whole trip. Booking flights, checking train schedules, and arranging the hotel for the weekend. All the travel arrangements went to plan other than the rather embarrassing situation of picking up a €50 fine on the train for not ‘validating’ our tickets! If you’re planning a train journey in Italy please Google this and don’t be caught out like we were!
Having gotten over our fines very quickly, we arrived in Lecco to darkness. This took me back to many previous snowboarding holidays in the Alps where you can see all of the twinkling lights up in the mountains. Even in the dark this place looked epic and we couldn’t wait to see what it looked like in the morning.
With the race now being in its second year, the organisers had decided to go all-out by inviting folk from the UK running media to come and experience the race for themselves.
We were put up in the Hotel Griso. Located on the shoreline overlooking the lake, it has Lecco in all its splendour as the backdrop.
The next morning with the sun shining fully in the sky we had our first daylight glimpse of Lecco and the surrounding landscape.
This place is breathtaking. Even in the slightly rainy weather we had for most of our trip, the place just oozes charm and classic Italian vibes. The locals told us that the rain that a lot of Italy had been suffering with of late was unseasonably odd.
Having said that, there was plenty of cloud break and warm sunshine to bask in over the course of the weekend. The rain didn’t dampen our spirits as we took in the ample views to be had of this classic Italian lakeside town.
Originally I’d hoped to run the full 250km race that circumnavigates Lake Como, (I like to get my money’s worth!) but a clash of annual leave at my day job meant that I’d have to settle for the much shorter but no less impressive 30km race run over the weekend.
The full UTLAC – Lake Como Ultra Trail 250km race that takes in all of the mountains around Lake Como, runs from Lecco on the Wednesday and finishes at the weekend back in Lecco, having circumnavigated the whole lake.
This years winner Robin Fournier from Switzerland came in on Friday afternoon, a full 8 hours ahead of last years winning time. This almost took the organisers by surprise as they busily put the finishing touches to the finish line experience.
Robin Fournier, winner of the 250km race. Image: Sam Hill
This is no mean feat considering how technical this race is on parts of the course.
Before travelling to the race I was told that Italian mountains are ‘sharp’ and I didn’t really understand what that meant until I saw them for myself!
Our first experience of this was in the afternoon of our first day.
After filming the winner come through to a rather surprised small crowd, we headed up into the hills that made up the final descent of both races in the hopes of getting some shots of last years winner, Peter Kienzl, heading into Lecco to take second place.
Being in its second year, this race is in its infancy, but you can already tell that it’s going to become a go-to destination race for ultrarunners. It has the feel of a low-key UTMB race, perhaps how that particular iconic race was in the beginning. Locals battling it out in the mountains over great distance with the odd Brit thrown in for good measure.
I’d wanted to run a mountainous European race for some time so when the opportunity arose I knew it was a no brainer to get out there on the course and have the experience for myself.
What we noticed was that the terrain underfoot was indeed sharp, in fact it was sharp and slippy in places. I thought I’d encountered some ‘technical’ routes in the Peak District, Lake District and Snowdonia, but this was on another level!
It was hard to pick your way through even as we power hiked at slow speed. Added to that was the pouring rain that made the jagged rocks feel like death traps at times!
In all honesty, this didn’t give me much confidence for our race on the Sunday, with visions of having to pick my way down the mountain at slow speeds just to avoid getting mangled on the slimy razor sharp rocks!
My buddy/photographer for the weekend, Benjamin Wells from Dolgellau, is no stranger to technical downhill running. But even he noted the severity of the terrain at times.
As it turns out, the race organisers had taken note of the situation and decided to re-route the final part of both races to avoid the sharper stuff. A wise decision and one that shows the attention to detail that the UTLAC team has.
Andrea, the man behind the scenes, has been busy working to make UTLAC a slick organised event. Which all of us in attendance can testify to. From the very detailed website that translates well into English, to the the race pack that includes every bit of information that you could need. Along with tickets for our boat trip to the start of the 30km race, beer and food tokens for after the race, there was a selection of gels and snacks provided by the race sponsors.
You get the impression that they want you to remember this race and enjoy it so much that you tell everyone you know about it.
While we’re on the subject of details, all of us Brits that took part in the 30km race took note of the same thing, the course markers. I’ve not ran any race that’s had the same amount of route markers on the course. Obviously we all dutifully downloaded the race GPX, but I’m 100% sure it wasn’t needed. In fact I don’t think I even looked down at my watch until the end of the race. Testament to the organisation of this great event.
The 30km race is no walk in the national park. In fact this race starts rather interestingly with a boat trip. The race entry includes a breathtaking 40 minute boat ride on Lake Como to its starting point in Ballagio.
On the boat you get to see the full scale of not only the lake itself, but also the mountains that we would be climbing up in a few short hours.
Ballagio is a beautiful small town on the lake north of Lecco. It looks as inviting as every part of this shoreline is. With its busy restaurants and cafes wafting fragrant smells of freshly baked goods and strong Italian coffee.
This race is a proper European mountain race that has it all, I mean literally everything! Cobbles, mud (lots of it) slimy rock, lung busting climbs and very runnable forest trails. All with breathtaking views of the mountains, quaint villages and Lake Como to be had.
The start line feels like a UTMB event where upwards of 300 runners all cram into the cobbled streets to await the triumphant start.
After a race briefing in Italian and a quick mention of all the nationalities taking part, the race was on and we moved through the narrow streets up to the trails above the town.
Image: Sam Hill
Once everyone powerhiked up the first muddy climb and onto the first trail high above the lake, the field thinned out slightly and it was possible to overtake other runners on the sometimes breathtakingly narrow paths.
The race gradually climbs from start to finish with the real kick at the end with the 4000ft final climb up Monte Moregallo, before descending the same height back down to the lakeside in only 1 short mile.
If you’re a hardened fell runner this will test your limits. If you’re an amateur ultra runner from the UK like me, you may take some time to pick your way down the muddy slimy rocks for fear of going full head over heels! (Which I did a couple of times)
Then when you think your quads can’t take anymore, you have the final 2ish miles on the flat tarmac back to Lecco to stretch them out.
All to a proper festival finish of blaring music, roaring crowds, beer and food. A great day out on the trails in anyone’s book!
Will I be back for the UTLAC – Lake Como Ultra Trail? 100% but I just need to figure out if I’ll be doing the 30 again or diving into the 250. Watch this space!
All images: UTLAC unless otherwise noted.