The Magic of the Trofeo Vanoni Mountain Running Relay
Written By: Ben Mounsey
TRAIL RUNNING: A SPORT ON THE UP!
There is no denying that over the last few years, there has been a huge increase in the popularity and growth of trail and mountain running. As more people continue to hit the trails, the future of our sport looks extremely promising. This steep surge in participation has also risen significantly within the UK and Ireland, with an increased representation of our athletes in European mountain races. These are exciting times to be a mountain runner and I’m very proud to consider myself part of this growing movement.
Now don’t get me wrong, we’re certainly not the first runners from the UK and Ireland to venture into Europe in search of new and exciting races. Early pioneers, such as Billy Burns, Martin Cox, Anne Buckley and Angela Mudge, have been doing it for years and have enjoyed a huge amount of success.
But this is different. Different because I’m not just talking about a handful of athletes, now we’re more like an army, invading Europe and entering races en masse. Inspired by the achievements of others, our ranks are swelling in size. Leading the line are the famous names of Robbie Simpson and Victoria Wilkinson, 2019 World Cup winners Andy Douglas and Sarah McCormack, Skyrunning champion, Holly Page, former European champions and medal winners Jacob Adkin, Sarah Tunstall, Emmie Collinge and Emma Moran. The list goes on. British and Irish mountain runners are flocking to the continent to compete and we’re giving our European counterparts a real run for their money. The lure? Aside from the prizes, the chance to run in truly amazing places, compete against some of the best athletes in the world and most importantly, enjoy new and exciting experiences. There are literally hundreds of races out there and thousands of trails and mountains just waiting to be explored.
Take the Trofeo Vanoni relay, in Northern Italy, as one such example. In 2006, only one woman and one men’s team from the UK and Ireland entered the race. Yet in 2019, a staggering total of ten women and nine men’s teams competed. It’s a huge contrast, but it’s also easy to see why this particular race has become so popular.
Pictured above: The start of the Trofeo Vanoni Relay 2019. Photo Credit: Roberto Ganassa
Held annually in the town of Morbegno, the Trofeo Vanoni relay is one of my favourite events of the year. One of the things that makes this race so special, is that Morbegno is twinned with Llanberis, in North Wales. This partnership between the two countries is particularly strong and has been for many years – they are both connected and bound by a love of mountain running. Each year, the Italians send a strong representative team to compete in the Snowdon International, held annually in July. In response, the Snowdon race sends a team of athletes to compete at Trofeo Vanoni every October, which usually consists of the best-placed athletes in the Snowdon race from the UK and Ireland.
It’s a tradition that has been upheld for decades, a celebration of unity between the two towns. I find it incredibly refreshing to see this kind of friendship, with shared values and respect between two very different cultures, still existing and continuing to thrive in today’s modern society. It’s such a shame that things like this don’t happen more often in the world.
THE RACE AND THE RECORDS
The Trofeo Vanoni relay consists of three individual legs over the same 4 mile circuit. The route runs along the historic town centre and the ancient paths that lead to the tiny village of Arzo. Unfortunately, the women compete in a stand-alone race, on a slightly shorter 3 mile course, much to their disappointment. Perhaps in the future it might also be possible for women to compete in a relay style event – I certainly hope so.
To run a fast time * at Trofeo Vanoni, you have to be a complete runner, fast on the flat, super-strong on the climb and a demon descender – confident on every type of terrain and willing to push yourself harder than ever before. There is no respite, no time to take your foot off the gas and certainly no time to enjoy the views. It’s an eyeballs out and full-gas race from start to finish. Formula 1 pace is the only way to take your place on the podium. The fastest team record at Trofeo Vanoni is 1hr28’55”, set by the famous Italian ‘Forestale’ team, in 2007. A staggering achievement, but when you learn that Marco Rinaldi, Emanuele Manzi and the great Marco De Gasperi were in the team, it’s easy to understand why. I have to say, it will take an unbelievably talented trio of athletes to ever break this long-standing record.
* Sub-30 minutes is a time generally considered to be worthy of making the ‘all-time’ greatest list for this event.
Pictured above: Record breakers! The Forestale team, 2007 – (L to R) Emanuele Manzi, Marco De Gasperi and Marco Rinaldi.
Ireland’s Sarah McCormack, is the current women’s race record holder, setting a time of 21’ 7” in 2020, beating the former record set by GB’s Emmie Collinge from 2015 by 7 seconds. Both women are only a handful of elite women to ever run under 22 minutes.
The men’s individual leg record is held by Italian superstar, Alex Baldaccini, in a jaw-dropping time of 28’21” in 2012. He has dominated this race as an athlete for many years, posting three of the four fastest ever times, all well under 30 minutes. My best ever time is 30’21” in 2015, which pales in comparison. How anyone is able to run 2 minutes faster on that course is beyond my imagination, my lungs are still burning six years later.
Pictured above: King of Trofeo Vanoni, Alex Baldacinni, leading the climb, 2019. Photo Credit: Maurizio Torri.
Throughout Trofeo Vanoni history, only three men from the UK and Ireland have ever managed to run sub-30 minutes on this course. It’s probably no surprise to learn that GB’s Kenny Stuart, arguably our greatest ever fell runner, has the fastest time of these three athletes. He completed the course in 29’15”, in 1985, currently the 11th fastest ever time in 62 years of this famous relay. It’s worth mentioning that Kenny also has the 14th fastest time, clocking 29’21”, in 1984. Joining Kenny on the all-time greatest list are John Lenihan (Ireland), 29’35” in 1986 and Mark Kinch (GB), 29’41” in 1997. Both outstanding achievements and quite rightly earning their place in the history books. Although he didn’t break 30 minutes, Kendal’s Craig Roberts is the only other athlete from our home nations to win the fastest leg at Trofeo Vanoni, recording a time of 32’17”, in 1999. Craig assures me that the times this particular year were slower than usual due to torrential rain and extremely slippery conditions. Even so, his name will be forever etched on the list of past winners.
Aside from the overall finishing times, there are also two other greatest ‘all-time’ lists, one for the fastest climb and the other for the fastest descent. This helps to make Trofeo Vanoni one of the most exciting and unique events on the mountain running calendar, because these challenges have incorporated two extra races within the main race. Unsurprisingly, the overall course record holder, Alex Baldacinni, has the fastest time for the climb, clocking 19’30”, in 2012. Only 45 men have posted times below 21 minutes for the climb, since split-time records were first recorded in 2005. Robbie Simpson, Andi Jones and Zak Hanna are the only three athletes from the UK and Ireland to have done this, clocking 20’09” in 2017, 20’32” in 2006 and 20’49” in 2019 respectively.
When it comes to the descent, English fell running legend Ian Holmes is the reigning king of the downhill. He has the overall descent record of 8’37” in 2007. Since 2005, only 29 men have dipped under the magical 9 minutes. Perhaps my biggest claim to fame is that I am the only other athlete from the UK and Ireland to make this prestigious list, 8’56” in 2015, 20th place on the all-time list.
Pictured above: Team inov-8 at Trofeo Vanoni 2018 – the legend Ian Holmes passing me the baton at the end of leg 1. Photo Credit: Roberto Ganassa.
Alongside these notable performances, our home countries have actually enjoyed far more success in the women’s race. In fact we’ve celebrated seven different individual winners since 1984. Diane Ellerton (GB) was our first female victor in 1985, with a time of 24’08”, briefly holding the record for a year. Then along came GB’s Carol Haigh (now Greenwood) in 1986, setting an outstanding record of 21’48”, which lasted for 31 years, until it was finally broken by the talented Czech athlete, Anna Pichrtova in 2007, then Emmie Collinge in 2015 and more recently Ireland’s Sarah McCormack in 2020. Other winners from the UK and Ireland include Susan Dilnot (GB), 23’32” in 1988, Tricia Calder (Scotland), 23’54”, in 1990, Anne Buckley (GB), 24’18” in 1991 and Carol Haigh (again!), 23’21” in 1993.
THE MAGIC OF MORBEGNO
For me, this race is special in many ways. It’s a truly unique event, both amazing to race as an athlete and extremely exciting to watch as a spectator. There are a number of key locations from which the action can be seen. It’s possible to watch the runners at various points on both the climb and descent, despite it being a circular route, and the lead usually changes several times during the race. It’s also the biggest annual athletic event in Morbegno, the whole town becomes completely immersed in the action. The local athletic club, CSI Morbegno, hosts the event and they do an amazing job in accommodating all of the teams, making sure everyone involved feels extremely welcome. The race organiser Cristina Speziale, deserves a special mention for her efforts, always working tirelessly before, during and after the event.
Pictured above: Female Record Holder Sarah Mccormack – The Snowdon Team, at Trofeo Vanoni 2019 Photo Credit: Angelo Testa
When race day finally arrives, the atmosphere is absolutely electric. Hundreds of people gather in the streets to spectate and cheer for their favourite athletes and teams. Imagine busy sections of a Tour De France climb and you’re somewhere close. As a competitor, you cannot ignore the waves of excitement and huge surges of adrenaline coursing through your body. It’s an amazing feeling and what I really love most about Trofeo Vanoni. The crowd roaring your name, urging you to go faster and the deafening screams of “Dai, dai, dai!!!”** ringing loudly in your ears.
The race route has a real mix of everything, including a huge variation in terrain, from tarmac, to mud, grass, tracks, cobbles and rocks. It’s full of twists and turns, steep climbs, sharp and technical descents, fast running, big jumps and plenty of challenge, all of which leaves you feeling like you’ve just completed an assault course by the finish. The organisers have certainly managed to pack a lot of excitement into such a short race. One of the hardest decisions is actually deciding what kind of footwear to wear! Some people prefer to compete in road shoes, others wear trail shoes and some even choose fell shoes for increased grip. In my opinion, it depends entirely on the weather and October in Northern Italy can be very unpredictable. I usually travel with three pairs of racing shoes just to be on the safe side.
** This basically translates as “go, go, go!!!” In English, not “die, die, die!!!”, as I originally first thought and certainly nothing to do with negative feelings towards brits in relation to Brexit.
Pictured Above: Ben Mounsey tackling the descent! Trofeo Vanoni 2019. Photo Credit: Maurizio Torri
Aside from race records and most importantly, Trofeo Vanoni is a race that brings people together; athletes of all ages, disciplines, abilities and nationalities. You don’t have to be an Alex Baldaccini or a Sarah McCormack to take part. It’s a celebration of mountain running, one of the last big events on the mountain running calendar – a chance to run as part of a team, experience the wonderful Italian culture, make new friends and race against some of the finest athletes in the world. Anyone can compete and everyone can enjoy the spectacle, as both an athlete and/or a spectator. It represents everything that is good about the sport and in my opinion it’s the perfect advertisement for mountain running.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Only one team from the UK or Ireland has ever won this prestigious trophy – the Snowdon race team consisting of Ian Holmes, Lloyd Taggart and Will Levett, in 2005. A few others have come close, but will we ever celebrate another winning team?
Pictured above: Rule Brittania! The Snowdon Race Team, 2005 – (L to R) Lloyd Taggart, Will Levett and the great Ian Holmes. Photo Credit: Zee Holmes.
Pre-COVID, one positive to take from the 2019 race is that we had more teams from the UK and Ireland entered than ever before, and if our participation in European mountain races continues to rise, then who knows? It will be a huge task to overcome the sheer strength and dominance of the Italian and French teams. Perhaps a Scottish dream team combining the superpowers of Simpson, Adkin and Douglas could finally give the Italians a run for their money? Let’s wait and see what this year’s edition of Trofeo Vanoni will bring.
One thing is for certain, I can guarantee there will be plenty of entries from the UK and Ireland.
Visit the website www.trofeovanoni.it for all other information, including results and entry details.
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