A personal account from the Nove Colli Fundraising Run

June 10, 2024

The Nove Colli Run, 200km across northern Italy, is a course more famous in the cycling world, but one that Mario Castagnoli decided should be run.  And, 25yrs ago, he did just that.

On the Saturday before the race, I'd completed my training run involving hill repeats, and then drove on to help with some rowing coaching. I've started to get back involved since Delilah started secondary school, and am enjoying putting something back into a sport that has shaped so much of my character.  I digress...

I got out of the launch after the session and couldn't stand.  Here we go again …. my back had gone into spasm.

I got to the boat house and lay on the floor, tried to stretch a little but I knew it was pointless. Shit, this was bad.

Sunday arrived; I tried to run.  I managed100m and then I was walking.  Not a chance. I walked around the village trying not to panic. Months of training, endless hill repeats and, here I was, with a step up onto a pavement being a significant challenge.

Monday, and I was in pieces.  I attempted the treadmill, walked a bit, got up to a km, and stopped. I tried this a few times during the day. In three days I am due to fly to Italy to tackle a 200km run and I can only do a single kilometre on a treadmill…   Hold your nerve Ben, you’ve been here before;  it’s far from ideal, but recovery has been possible.  I booked a sports massage appointment with Brad; it was brutally painful and he'd never seen me so bad.  An hour and a half later, some dry needles and a lot of "just breathe through it", and I was out;  feeling a bit battered - but hoping there was progress.

I messaged Laura Morris, my osteopath who has helped me through many ‘bad back’ episodes and shared the news. She replied, enquiring about my mental state as much as my back.  Once again, Laura proved herself a miracle worker, and over the course of the next couple of days she got me back running, helping me to focus away from the issue and, above all, reassured me that it would all be ok.

A commute to the airport, a flight to Bologna and a rather protracted journey south via train and bus …. and I’d made it to the venue.  So by Saturday, finally, I was on the start line.  I'd made it this far, now it was time to execute.

It’s a very apprehensive time before a long run starts generally, but this race bought with it an elevated level of angst. I was a good foot taller than the vast majority of the field,  was the only Brit on the start line and spoke about three words of Italian.  This was one of the more confusing race briefings.  Another runner chatted to me briefly … "You are very tall, ha ha, you walk on the hills, simple simple, ha ha" and that was about all I understood. I checked with Mario – to see if I had missed anything from the race briefing (all in Italian); he looked up at me and said "Ah Ben, just keep going and turn on the tracker". I am pretty sure the 45 min detail had included more than that!

And then, we were off.  Considering I couldn't run 100m less than a week ago, this was a decent start.

The course is pretty flat to start.  We were marshalled out of the seaside town of Cesenatico and towards the hills. A mixture of roads and gravel cycle paths through increasingly more rural countryside. The 100+ field soon started to thin out and the gaps emerged. It was hot, not crazy hot, but enough to need to think about managing salts.

The first hill came, I made some gains up it. I'm not a fast runner, more of a diesel locomotive than a turbo-charged petrol.  I work hard on the hills, use my engine when others need to conserve, I lose all those hard-fought gains on the downhills. Over the top and down the other side... ouch. Excruciating double stitch, entire diaphragm is tense and cramping.  I think the nervousness about my back had left me tense and as the profile changed it triggered. A message to my crew, a message to Laura and the advice came back; I kept going and about 5km later was in a better place. Would this happen on every hill? There are eight more.... this could be a problem. Note it Ben and move forwards.

I always struggle in the first half of these races.  It's a hard place to be mentally as you must constantly focus on the coming back into the present. If you give any oxygen to how far you have to go, you are toast.

The race is hard, it's 200km long (125 miles), there are 9 significant hills (ranging from 4-9km long each) but the part that was really playing on my mind were the timing cut offs. From the 4th hill summit onwards, you have to get through timing gates - and they are not generous. To give you an indication, I would need to go through 100 miles in under 24hours.  I'd not done that before - even on a flat, Thames Path 100 miler.

At the top of the 4th climb you go through a Finishers’ Arch which is the end of the 85km race, but not even half-way for the main event.  The ultimate false summit. I left the aid station with 45 mins leeway on the cut off.

I don't mind the night, running along with nothing but the cone of light from the headtorch to explore. My remote support crew headed to bed, while I would run until day break and await their supportive reengagement. By this time, I had noticed that the other runners all had support crews with them, in cars, following them up the road and checking on them every couple of km's.  I was on my own and this individual endeavour suddenly felt even more solitary.  During the heat of the day, Mario had clearly taken a little pity on me and drove past with a tub of strawberries - a supportive gesture and a much-appreciated acknowledgment.

It was about 0100, I'd not had a pee since 1500 the previous day.  Too much information perhaps – but this was an issue. I needed to get back on the right side of my hydration before sunrise - this could end my race.  It’s possible to deal with energy/carbs easily - run low, and a sugary drink will soon resolve the issue. Get your salts wrong, and every system in your body starts to fail.  The solution is not a "quick drink", it's a complex cascade of systems that need to get into equilibrium.  I just had to stick to the plan and never miss a salt tablet or water refill. This gave me an important and singular focus for the night.

Sunrise finally arrived, which is always an uplifting moment in a long Ultra.  It marks the end of a chapter of the race. I chuckled to myself;  I just had to run for the entire day. Often a race will start early in the morning, so by the time you reach dawn you are in the closing few miles. This race started at midday and was longer, so dawn heralded in an entire day of running.  Comical really.

The natural high of sunrise was accompanied by the inevitable onset of a head scramble onset. I just couldn't do the maths.  How far was it to my next aid station and how long did I have?  My crew were tracking me, the tracker was lagging, they were trying to work it out.  A marshal's car came down the road, signalling and shouting something. Was that it?  Had I missed the cut off?  Was it the end?  

I could see someone in front still running, so carried on.  A slight descent and I could see the aid station, with people waving as if to encourage me.  I went as hard as I could, bearing in mind I was coming up to 100miles, and my legs were not moving that well.

I arrived at the aid station with just 7 mins to spare.  I needed to pick up my kit, refill bottles and get out of there;  the time involved in these turnarounds really counts.  And now I was up against it, with a marathon still to go and more time cut offs to meet.

Hydration levels seemed to be improved; this was good, I felt I was moving pretty well, momentum was shifting.  My pigeon Italian translated the T-shirt worn by the guy in front of me which read "Italian Ultramarathon Champion 2023".   I have no idea what race that gets awarded in, but he must be decent. My crew sensed the need to build, and supportive messages were coming in.  I was lifted.

I made it to the top of the last climb – and hell that was a climb - 20% in places, and in the heat of the day.  A very cheerful aid station crew added to my buoyancy, and I was off on the descent.  10km of quad-shattering descent ahead of me, with each step being deeply painful.

The next aid station bought confusion.  A simple phrase, lost in translation, as I was told "15km to go".  I was sure it was 25km.  It must be 25km? 15km was far more appealing, I told myself it wasn't true, but it kept coming back into my addled, fatigued and sleep-deprived brain.

Onto the flat now, finally the long run into the town and finish.  Through a timing gate and I was back up to a 45min cushion, everything to play for now.  I went past a guy on the side offering water. I had some in my bottle so I declined as the final aid station was just a few km away.

The aid station never came.  My head was scrambled;  shouldn’t it have been 5-6km from the last one? Was that guy the aid station? Had I just said "no" to the last hydration on the course?  It was into the mid 20's now and bright sunshine.  Had I really just missed out on my last water?  what an idiot.   My crew were trying to work out the remaining distance and whether I was in the overall 30hr race time limit.  I was now, but without hydration I could soon be walking and then it would be over. The previous year a runner finished in a time of 30hrs, 2mins and 12s, DNF next to his name, Did Not Finish - 2mins outside the cut off.  This would be a brutal conclusion.

The kilometres continued. I was juggling the dregs of warm Tailwind in my bottles to try and make up a mouthful.  I turned a corner and there it was - the aid station as people waved and cheered.  Clarity, at last.  I had 10km to go, I refilled two bottles, took a swig of Coke and they said "last 6km to go" as I left, I double checked, they confirmed.

I messaged my crew, "let's take some souls", and I went for it.  Delilah had told me I was 23rd on the tracker.  I wasn't ever looking to a placing, but now with 6km to go,  finally I felt confident I would finish.  I saw some people ahead and threw everything I could at it.  In my head I was sprinting, although my watch will likely tell a rather more lacklustre story.  Nevertheless, I caught and overtook three more people, and that felt significant.

I crossed the road and onto a promenade;  people who knew what this lone runner was about to accomplish cheered.  One more stretch -  down the promenade and then turn right.  I had seen the finish on the Friday. Turn right, I'm there, I'm nearly there... The path stops and it's onto the beach.  The beach? Really? Sand at this stage?!  I ran to the water but saw no obvious finish line, I looked right and there it was. The best part of a km along the beach to finish.  A cruel, but perhaps fitting end to a race. I turned again the go under the arch. Mario greeted me, two thumbs up and some Italian blurts with "Ben" in the mix a few times.

I'd done it. I'd done it.

A week ago I was hobbling,  unable to run a km and there I was, having just crossed the line of the longest run of my life.

The Nove Colli Run is a qualifying race for Badwater135.  I can now see why.  It was an exceptional test.  A test I passed - but one that made me ask and answer questions I have not had to consider before.

A few thanks are needed. Laura M and Brad S, simply put - I would not have been able to get to the start line without you.  To Brad (James) and Nick, my dependable and rock-solid support crew, along with Paul and Rich as well.  And to Rach, the unofficial crew leader and support champion - thank you; I know you will be wincing at this but everyone that knows you knows what I mean when I say you are the best friend and support anyone could have.

Children can be testing at times, rewarding at others. Delilah calling me 180km into the race because she needed the PIN for her bank card was a test, but she soon turned that round and was acting like a mini race director at the end.  Basil watching the tracker "Daddy has turbo jets on for the finish" and Allegra, well I think she just whizzing around smiling and bringing happiness.  I know these races are, in part, selfish and so I must acknowledge the "acceptance" (not permission!) from Laura and my family. I know you don't wholly understand my insatiable desire to undergo these personal challenges, but I appreciate you accepting they give me great purpose and reflect part of my soul and identity.  And so – thank-you, for accepting how these things bring me much personal fulfilment, and help me grow,

People ask me what I eat or drink, what I wear and how do I do it.  For that it's all very simple:

I drink Tailwind all the way around, litres and litres of the stuff.  Gels – not for me at all
My kit was provided by Kate at Crewroom, a nod back to my rowing days and a kindred spirit in taking on big challenges.  They make amazing kit (rowing and running). I raced 200km with no chafe at all.  If you know you know, that's pretty incredible.
And how do I do it? Just like you, put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Stop saying "can I take the next step?” …… just take it.

Ben and Mario at the finish of the Nove Colli