Here at Chasing Zest, we love to hear all about our readers’ escapades both at home and abroad. With summer upon us, we’re pretty certain that international events are going to feature quite heavily over the coming months. This is great, as it draws attention to races from a range of sports in so many different places, that you might never have heard of them before. Perhaps it will even give you some ideas for next year!
Today, we are pleased to feature the Montespertoli Half Marathon. This unique race in the Tuscan countryside offers a challenging course with beautiful views. Sandra Khalil, co-founder of Nos Nos, made the trip from Dubai recently, combining it with a family holiday. Read on for Sandra’s event report!
A Tuscan Adventure: The Montespertoli Half Marathon
It had been just 24 hours since landing in Italy that I toed the start line at the Montespertoli Half Marathon, 30 kilometers outside of Florence. I stood hopping from one foot to the other, the lone American in a sea of brightly-clad Italian runners, all chatting away in a language that sounded less like words and more like music to me. Through the sporty crowd assembled in the quaint Piazza del Popolo, I spotted a middle-aged runner take a long last drag of his cigarette before stomping it out on the cobblestones and hustling over to join us in the starting pen.
A Local Event
I discovered the Montespertoli Half Marathon by chance. With an upcoming vacation in Italy already planned, I needed to squeeze one more race in my legs in my build up to an upcoming summer marathon. A quick Google search showed that Montespertoli was my closest race option, just a 45-minute drive from where my family and I would be staying. Convenience aside, the more I learned about the race, the more I realised I had stumbled upon something special. The relatively small race kicks off at 7 pm and winds through the Tuscan wine country, cutting through sun-kissed vineyards and making its way up and down impressive off-road vistas. Touted as the kick-off event for the region’s annual wine festival, every race pack includes – you guessed it – a bottle of local wine.
As the starting gun fired, the group of just under 300 runners surged forward with gusto, making our way down the damp streets of tiny Montespertoli, one of the many towns that dot the Tuscan countryside. My heart pounded with excitement as we hit the first turn, making our way down the winding village streets. Above me, I caught a glimpse of an elderly couple peering down at the spectacle unfolding below their open window shutters.
Immersed In The Tuscan Countryside
After two kilometers, we turned off of the village streets and headed down a rolling dirt road which cut through the iconic vineyards, already bathed in early evening light. The terrain was uneven and it took all of my concentration to ensure safe footing as I hopped and dodged rocks and rolling gravel. I urged myself to look up as often as I could, being rewarded every time I did by the stunning countryside around me. I was already reveling in the cool evening temperatures, my legs leaping for joy to be out of the sweltering heat of Dubai. Although I had done nearly zero hill training over the past six months, the rolling hills were a welcome treat after the monotony of Dubai’s pancake roads.
A Cautious Descent
The gravel got gradually bigger and more uneven until we turned and hit a steep descent, the steepest of the course, which took us 200 meters downhill over the next kilometer. I tried to take advantage of the steep descent by lengthening my stride and increasing my pace, but the uneven ground proved too much for my risk tolerance. “It’s not worth it,” I kept telling myself as visions of a sprained ankle danced in my head. Runner after runner flew past me, much more accustomed than I was in navigating a downhill sprint.
Finally at the bottom, I was rewarded with six kilometers of flat asphalt, the bread and butter of my training back in Dubai. My legs felt surprisingly fresh after the grueling descent, and I tried to catch as many runners as I could to make up for my lost time on the downhill. There were a handful of spectators on the roadside shouting, “Bravo, bravo, bravo!” and I looked up with a smile when they finally shouted “Brava!,” knowing that cheer was for me, one of the few women in the pool of runners.
Every Hill Has A Reward
That smile quickly faded as I started the steepest ascent of the race, which took us 150 meters up a rocky trail over the course of one kilometer. My pace plummeted from 4:30 min/km to over 7:00 min/km, as I was forced to walk the steepest bits, hands on my knees, pushing them to turn over as fast as possible.
At the top, I was greeted by a panoramic view of the surrounding valley, the sun setting over the vineyards and over the Italian cypress trees that dotted the horizon. As exhausted as I felt, I couldn’t help but feel a euphoric sense of gratitude for this little adventure that I had gotten myself into.
With the toughest section completed, I knew I had seven kilometers of rolling downhill until the finish. I tore down the road, my legs recovering quickly from the nasty ascent. Nightfall started coming quickly now, an added nudge to pick up the pace so I wouldn’t have to finish the race in total darkness.
Back Towards Montespertoli
We wound our way back towards Montespertoli, which greeted me with its twinkling familiarity. An uphill finish was the final cheeky wink from this challenging course. I sprinted through a lively crowd of spectators, finishing in 1:40, the sixth overall female finisher. Although not a PB, I knew the real reward would come next month, when the hills in my legs would help me dig even deeper towards achieving my upcoming marathon goal.
And so I started my Italian vacation: exhausted, elated – and ready to uncork that well-deserved bottle of local wine!