Updated: Sep 20, 2019
We are currently coming into a wonderful time in the Alps. We have seen the end of summer, and we have even had a light covering of snow reaching down to below 2000m, so it is safe to say that autumn is definitely upon us. I love autumn in the Alps, with the green colours of summer changing to reds, oranges and browns as the mountains seem to go rusty. At the same time the temperatures drop, and the mornings start to feel chilly, which I love and find perfect for running and hiking after the heat of the summer. There is also the anticipation as we move towards winter, and the chance to get back onto skis.
That said last weekend we left our beloved corner of the Alps, and headed to the Italian village of Pasturo, where summer is certainly hanging around for that little bit longer. We were there for the ZacUP Skyrace, a 27km course with 2650m of vertical. Last summer I ended my year doing the sky race in Limone, but I really had not recovered from the SwissPeaks 170, and I lost all strength and power in my legs after the first climb. It became a very tough fight to the finish as I had to let go of all my aims and expectations for a respectable time. Going to ZacUP was my first time racing this kind of distance since Limone. To add to the pressure I had been doing some guided running the previous week, so I did not have much of a chance to relax and taper going into the race.
The race is up the peak of Grigna, and it is dedicated to the memory of 2 men, 1 of whom (Gabriele Orlandi Arrigoni) had helped to create the race, and had been very involved in helping to organise it every year. This was the first edition since Gabriele’s death, and as you would expect there was quite a lot of emotion at the start of the race, which for me really put things into context. The fact is that it is great to do your best at a race, but ultimately we should be so grateful for the chance to run and play in the mountains (among so many other things), and we should never forget that doing well in a race is a great celebration of that, but it ultimately does not matter. It is the first time that I have been on the start line with a lot of people who obviously were very emotional having lost their friend, and it was a very humbling and grounding moment to share in.
When the race got going we started to climb steadily. The course is largely uphill for just over half, and then downhill until the end, but there are certainly quite a few changes of terrain within that. The first section of climbing is all fairly easy, which in some ways makes it all the more tricky as it is very close to the line of runnable for me, which meant that I was constantly trying to balance speed with not pushing too hard at the start. I had decided to take poles, and the indication that everything is about to change comes when you see the signs that you need to put your poles away.
From here until the top you are definitely more into power hiking mode with just a few shorter sections of running. There are also quite a lot of technical steps, all of which have either ropes or chains in place if you need them. Through most of this section we were in fairly thick cloud, which kept the temperature comfortable, but meant that everything was a bit damp, and slippery. As we got near to the top we suddenly broke through the cloud, and we were faced with an amazing inversion and spectacular views.
The last part of the climb was really good fun, with rocky terrain and fantastic views. At the top there was a refuge with an impressive crowd of supporters and an aid station, but there is no time to enjoy either as you start the descent on the other side of the peak.
The first section of the descent is pretty tricky, but it flies by pretty quickly and it does not feel long before you get into some less technical terrain. I would be tempted to split the descent into 4 parts, with the first part being the technical part right from the summit, and the second part being the less technical section of descent that followed. The third part is a section of fantastic single track running through the woods. It is a mix of flat and rolling terrain, and was great fun even with legs that could feel all of the climbing and descending that they had already done. It was in this section that I passed quite a few people who had obviously not got the pacing quite right, and who were struggling to keep running without the assistance of gravity. The final section was the descent to the village that was all on fairly cobbled paths and tracks. This was pretty tough on tired legs but the knowledge that the end was in sight was enough to keep me going.
Coming into the village was fantastic, and the people lining the last section of the route, and the high fives, were a very welcome boost, then just a final 50m uphill through the finish line, and it was all over. In all 4 hours and 8 minutes well spent.
For anybody considering doing the ZacUP Skyrace I would say go for it, with the slight proviso that it is not a course to jump onto if you like easy trails as it does have sections that are fairly technical. This summer I have done 3 races so far (Royal Ultra Skymarathon, Trail du Besso, and ZacUP), and what has been fantastic is that each race has had a real sense of community about it. Each has been very different, but very special. As I have said ZacUP has quite an emotional core to it, and I do think that what they have created is a very special event with a really high quality course.
Two final points that I think are worth mentioning are firstly if you are used to some high profile ITRA races something that is amazing about sky races like ZacUP is the value for money. I paid €35, and for that I got the race (which was amazingly well organised and run with lots of staff including plenty of mountain guides in the technical areas), an insulated vest, a reusable Hydropak cup, a selection of cheeses and biscuits, and a meal with a beer. Even if you did not want to run the race it would be great value.
Secondly I find it amazing how in Italy a mass produced meal at the end of a race can feature perfectly cooked al dente pasta. No broken down, congealed, stodgy pasta here. I find it amazing that whoever cooked the meal could do it so well in that quantity, but that high level of care and attention seems to reflect the way that the whole race is run, and I think that it is a real credit to the organisers, the volunteers, and the locals who make the effort to support the race, and it is a memorial to their friends that they should be proud of.