Friday, April 20, 2012

Monte Etna Adventure: A Great Run!!

Training through difficult times is really what separates the men and women in this sport from the more sensible members of our population!  When it's pouring with rain, or blowing a gale, we know we probably have to suck it up and get out there.  Sure, I'll check my running log to see if I can muster up an excuse to be a weak and worthless loser, but most of the time it reveals that I have to hit the road or live with the consequences (which are mostly just fear of being a weak and worthless loser!).

This year has brought plenty of challenges.  January second our newest family addition, Griffin, was born.  Just like the first two, it's safe to say our lives will never be the same!  Balancing the running with family life is always tough, but with two little boys (engaged in a methodical attempt to drive all adult caretakers out of their minds), and a newborn, it's even tougher.  I ran the day after Griffin was born... at 11pm.  Two miles and then 7 repeats up and down a nearby hill.

Although winter on Whidbey Island is a challenging environment to run in, keeping a consistent schedule while on detachment to Italy is even tougher.  First it was terrible jet lag (9 hours worth) leaving me feeling aweful for four days, then it was the every-other-day flight schedule, and on top of that it's the lack of trails coupled with terrible roads to run on.  The Italian drivers have good situational awareness (much better than in the U.S.), but there are typically no shoulders, and very sharp weeds hang way out into the roads.  Towns are steep and cobbled with lots of traffic, and no sidewalks, and there are stray rabid dogs waiting to chomp the leg of Lost Looking Americans. 
While pondering my running misfortune I realized that, despite the inconvenience, I can still run.  My brother spends two weeks on a tug boat every month, and he manages to run quite often.  I'm sure that the ports around New York harbor aren't exactly convenient running locales!  So I got back in it.  Round and round the base (1.5 miles), round and round the .2 mile track.  Treadmill intervals.  Treadmill progressives.  Then I had an idea... has anyone ever run from Sigonella to the top of the paved road on the south side of Mt Etna?  I decided to do it.  No maps worth taking, so I took some screen shots with my phone, packed a few gels, a few euro's, and some water, and talked my crew into meeting me at the top (in the Audi rental car).
The run started off hot, and I ran slowly to keep my body heat in check.  Immediately was a 500 foot and five mile climb to the town of Motta, then an easy descent off the north side of that town.  Somehow I took a wrong turn there and ended up off track and with a few bonus miles on my way north to the town of Belpasso.  This was more heat, wind, and several stops to check my map pictures.  Once I found Belpasso I knew I would find the road up.  I stopped for a pastry and water refill at around 13 miles right in the middle of town, and then continued the push to the north and onto the shoulders of massive Mt Etna.  The grade was steep enough to be slow running, but not so steep as to require a hike.  Ever. (I was thinking 'please just one super steep switchback so I can walk!?').  It was difficult, and the mountain proper still looked far off!  'One foot in front of the other, and I'll get there !' was what I had to tell myself in order to maintain focus.  It was definitely feeling like an ultra-distance effort.  The country side out there is just beautiful.  Lovely little farms, olive and citrus orchards, the occasional restaurant.  I was the only runner I saw all day.. needless to say I got a few strange looks!  Slowly the farmland gave way to volcanic flows from past eruptions (this is a very active volcano, and it was even erupting several days ago).  The grade never relented, but the air cooled, and eventually even became cold.  I could smell the gas from the volcano, and as I reached the snow line it was all covered in ash.  What amazed me is that there are a few homes built up here.  Several can be seen beside the road, covered up to their roofs in lava.  Other newer buildings have been built on mini summits.  Not sure I'd choose to live so close to such an active monster!
My legs were dead as I reached the top, and I was so glad to see my crew in the Audi with warm clothes, water, and most importantly a seat to sit in!  The views from the top are spectacular.  In the very far distance the city of Catania, and even the base at Sinonella were visible, a seeming impossible distance, and far below. 
Overall, this was a great training run.  The 26 miles and approximately 5000 feet of climbing don't quite do justice to the difficulty of the run, and I believe it will make me stronger as I move toward the San Diego 100 in June.  Today I'm very glad I didn't have to do this three more times though...even though I've done it, and am training to do it again,  running 100 miles is hard to imagine!