Ajánlott oldalak, rendezvények


Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run 

Thanks to my son’s 3-year-long obsession with volcanos, this year we spent our summer holiday in Southern Italy. Although Virág was planning to rest up after the exhaustion and stress of writing her doctoral thesis, our itinerary included conquering one volcano a day. And of course, three weeks without running is hard to imagine for me. When I mentioned to Csabi Németh that we were travelling to Sicily he said at once: there is Mount Etna and a 64K trail running race on it. I checked out the date of the race straight away and it turned out that (after some minor alterations) it would fit perfectly into our itinerary!

Black ash, 40 degrees Celsius, an altitude of 3000 metres. You can’t really prepare for such circumstances here in Hungary. All I could do was wear a black long sleeve shirt even when training in 30 °C. Szabi Orsós helped me to brace myself for what lay ahead and I was hoping that all the training I did earlier this year would make do.

Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run


Before the race I spent a week acclimatising on Vulcano Island. Every morning I ran up to the crater towering above us, which – owing to the latest eruption in 1980 – is a great place for practicing running in ash and pumice, and to top it all, in the direct glare of the sun in more than 40 °C. On our night treks to the summit crater of Stromboli I could also experience how my shin guard would protect me from larger pumice stones but volcanic ash would fill up my shoes in no time.

Two days before the race we arrived at fuming Etna and I ran a short section of the race with Márk Horváth, the only other Hungarian contestant. We came to the conclusion that the track markings are perfect, as in some parts almost each metre was marked with a ribbon. Since Márk had also been on holiday in Sicily for a while, he knew and informed me that the track wasn’t that bad, but when descending from the summit in the couloir we would be ankle-deep in volcanic ash.

Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run


We spent the day before the race with relaxing and exploring the town of Taormina, then in the evening we got our race numbers and had our “last supper” at the pasta party for the competitors. We were lucky to meet Marco Olmo there, the iconic Italian runner who won the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc twice. Although Olmo is already 68, we were pretty sure he would be among the first to cross the finish line.

Thanks to the constant hoo-ha of our Italian “neighbours,” getting up at 4 am was no problem – I hadn’t slept a wink. We had a one-hour journey to the start line, Piano Provenzana tourist station in the north Mount Etna, lying at 1800 metres. In the final hours before the start I was quite worried – would there be enough light in the forest or would I flounder since I had left my headlamp at our accommodation?

Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run


The crowd was gathering at the start line. Márk and I were standing in the front, as I was planning to be among the first ones to finish. I put gel and an empty bottle in my small rucksack, and two flasks in my fanny pack, one of them filled with water. It was dawning when at 5.30 the 138 runners started off. Apart from a short climb, we were going downhill for the first 15 kilometres of the trail. A French runner was leading; Márk and I were a few metres behind him, then in the forest, as the speed was increasing, I was falling more and more behind. I didn’t want to speed up but tried to concentrate on my movement, especially because the ground of this lower area was covered in friable tufa with some sharp rocks that could easily make me trip over. At times the sloping parts of the trail gave their place to short uphill sections. I was slowly catching up with the Frenchman leading the race when an Italian runner also caught up. As we shook hands he introduced himself: he was former champion Vito Catania.

Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run


As we proceeded there were more and more uphill slopes, and the Frenchman was slowly dropping behind us. Soon we reached the part that we managed to explore a few days before, so I was running on familiar ground.

The temperature was still quite pleasant, about 20-25 °C, and since this part of the trail was running through the forest, the sunrays couldn’t reach us yet. The soil was almost entirely of tufa; in some shorter sections we also found ash finer than sand and solidified, rugged lava flows crossing the bulldozed road.

Whenever we reached a concrete road, we were met by a couple of fans, and ever so often we also came across with the chief organizer, who was following the events with his Fiat Panda. There were refreshment points at every 5-10 kilometres. Despite my fears I found that everywhere we went we got the same attention and kindness as the local champion, Vito. My wife told me later that my name was announced at the start in every ten minutes, since I was almost always before Vito – if only by a few steps. Indeed, it was quite strange that he wouldn’t want to take the lead and when I stepped aside, he would rather wait for me than overtake. So the tactic I chose was to run at a pace I found comfortable – neither too fast, lest I should get tired, nor too slow, which would have enable other runners to catch up with us. Meanwhile, I was trying to chat a little with Vito, but he only talked in Italian since he didn’t speak any English, and I replied in English, if I could make out what he said.

Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run


Having run about 20 kilometres we found ourselves at the first severe uphill slope, which led to the rim of an inactive crater. It began to dawn on me what conditions we were about to experience. In lack of trees, the sunrays were beaming at us directly, and the black mixture of tufa and ash was quickly turning hot. Running uphill on the sandy, friable soil, it was getting increasingly difficult to proceed, so often we could only walk. In some parts there were patches of hard-leaved vegetation. I soon realized that it was more practical to run on the vegetation, which ensured a more or less steady tread, than to try to eschew it and balance on ash. The friable, unstable ground was particularly unpleasant when running sideways; we had to keep on running slightly upwards in order to compensate for slipping back. The parts with tufa and ash were frequently intermitted by solidified lava fields. In these areas the lava only solidified a few years or decades ago; therefore the flows created a very rough surface with sharp edges – if I had tumbled on this terrain, I would have surely got quite a few cuts and bruises.

We had been running for 3 hours when we spotted Piano Provenzana in the distance again. Although in a straight line it didn’t seem to be far, we could only proceed very slowly because of the extremely rugged terrain ahead. We were at an altitude of almost 2000 metres, and above that there no roads but a bulldozed one for the tourist trucks. As there were no road signs at all, we could only find our way with the help of the surface and the track markings (in the lower, woody regions there were ribbons tied to the trees, while in the upper regions the trail was marked by orange flags on aluminium poles.)

Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run


We got back to Piano Provenzana three and a half hours later, having completed the first and easier half of the race. Heading for refreshments, we were greeted by cheering short-distance runners and fans. Again, it was a pleasant surprise that although quite a few organizers were bustling around Vito, I was served equally attentively. I got some more gel from Virág, and having refilled by water bottles, I quickly continued the race. I hardly ran 100 metres when Vito fell into line with me – this time he didn’t stay right behind but overtook me, speeding up. I realised that this was the end of our “friendship” and the beginning of the battle for victory. I quickly got myself together and caught up with him. For the next 10 kilometres shorter uphill and downhill slopes were alternating, but all in all we were heading upwards. During this uphill climb Vito’s pace proved to be too fast for me, so I was gradually falling behind, but in the longer straight parts of the trail I always saw him in front of me, in a few minutes’ distance.

I wasn’t running alone for long; the first short-distance runners (doing 24 kilometres) soon caught up with me. It was a bit irritating, because based on their number I couldn’t distinguish the short-distance and the long-distance runners, so in the beginning I asked everyone which distance they were running. I was quite stressed, as I didn’t know when a fellow long-distance runner would catch up with me.

Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run


At around the 50th kilometre we reached an altitude of 2000 metres and, leaving the vegetation behind, we turned onto the wide bulldozed road leading up to Etna peak. For the next 10 kilometres, I had to face an altitude rise of 1000 metres. At the bottom of the bulldozed road – which was in fact quite stable and hard – the 10% uphill slope made it impossible for me to run continually, so I was alternating running with brisk walking. Making headway was hindered not only by the altitude but also by the unbearable heat. I was constantly panting, so my mouth became dry but drinking more frequently didn’t help much, especially because my stomach couldn’t put up with the increased intake of water.

The fact that not even the short-distance runners could overtake me really boosted my confidence. What’s more, I managed to catch up with those who have outran me. I kept seeing Vito a few bends ahead of me; I estimated his vantage was about 10 minutes. At the penultimate refreshment point – at about 2400 metres – the short- and the long-distance runners took different routes, so I was running on alone. I was heading uphill for a while, then realised that there were no markings in front of or behind me, and Vito was nowhere to be seen. I started to panic – was I actually off the track? Luckily I met a couple who ensured me that there were no other roads; I was indeed running on the right track.

Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run


After 6 hours of running I reached the observatory at about 2800 metres and saw some orange flags in the distance. I also caught a glimpse of Vito, about five minutes ahead of me, it seemed – as it turned out in the end I quite underestimated his vantage. Having passed the observatory, I continued climbing up on a lava field, then as I was approaching the northern crater, the place looked more and more like a moonscape. At this height I couldn’t feel the heat of the sun that much because of the wind; it was blowing so hard that it almost knocked me off my feet. Passing right under the crater I was running on an even ash field – apart from a few steps covered in lava flow – and I often sank ankle deep into the black powder.

The highest point of the race – according to my watch – was at 3030 metres, from where a slight slope was leading down to the final refreshment point. I met several organizers in this section, as officially you may only go above 3000 metres with a guide.

From the refreshment point I could already see the finish line, lying 1200 metres below and only 5 minutes away. Márk had already explored this part before the race, so I knew that I had to head down in a 25-30% steep couloir, running in fine volcanic ash and descending 1000 metres in 2-3 kilometres.

I accelerated and ran with huge skips, sinking ankle-deep in the ash. Although I was wearing a shin guard, the fine grains quickly filled my shoes and so I had to stop twice to pour out the ash.

Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run


After the steep descent, there were lava flows again, then a ski slope, where the short-distance runners joined our track again. Right before the finish line my little boy ran up to me, so we did the last 100 metres together. At the finish everyone got a carved wooden medal and a custom-made “finisher” running sack (I only got the sack later, by post, due to some misunderstanding). The next thing I knew, one of the organizers handed me the microphone, asking me to say a few words about the race. In short: the landscape is magnificent, the organization is perfect, the organizers are friendly, but the race is damn hard.

At the finish I got a shock twice: first from a cold shower in the makeshift bathroom, second when I realized that the champion, Vito Catania won not by 5 but by 20 minutes! I congratulated him right away, and he gave me a big Italian hug.
Since we had to wait more than 5 hours for the announcement of the results, we decided to go back to our accommodation for a rest. When we returned to the race location, we found out that we had already missed the results. The organizers were sorry to confirm that they had held the ceremony earlier due to the bad weather, but in no time they announced my result as well.

Etna Trail 2015 – On the black run


Four days after the race, in the late afternoon, we set off to explore one of the most beautiful lava caves, Grotte del Lamponi. It was about 7 pm when we reached the sign indicating the cave but we had no idea which of the numerous openings in the lava field would be the right way into the cave. Suddenly a man appeared, he was collecting the track markings. I decided to ask him for help and as we started talking it turned out that he was none other but Carmelo Santoro, the chief organizer of the race. Carmelo put down his stuff, led us to the cave and even guided us through its most marvellous section. When we said goodbye, we took a photo together and he kindly invited me for next year’s Etna Trail.

Carmelo Santoro
Aganteo Volloca