MAY 2017: On Friday, 28th April, Steve Scott, Kevin Bush, Dave Rogers, Chris Mallinson, Neil Walford and I (Brian Friend) flew out of Gatwick to have a run around Italy. This is basically our Sunday morning training group that also has its own little table, apres parkrun, in Hove Park, that normal runners view with curiosity and suspicion.
The UltraMilano-Sanremo is the longest road ultra in Europe, at 177 miles – it takes place on the same course as the famous Milan-San Remo professional bike race. This year was only the fourth running of the event. So how come we’re doing it?
Well, Steve has a house in Italy and mentioned that an ultramarathon passes not far from his front door. Unfortunately, as it’s so long, you have to have a crew – that is, someone to look after you as you’re going to be on the move for anything up to 48 hours. However, there is also a 5-stage relay version, so Neil volunteered the group’s services! As both races start at the same time Steve could run the whole 177 miles(!) while we run the relay and look after him at the same time. Job done!
For a couple of months, our training was geared to this event and we ironed out the details of how we could run and crew at the same time. We booked hotels and hire cars, accumulated GPS data and apps to help with navigation, sorted headtorches and reflective gear for night running, and even printed our own t-shirts – we weren’t just going to do it, we were going to do it in style!
So, the big day arrived and we landed in Milan mid-morning, picked up the cars and found our hotel. Then off to shop for everything we would need to keep us fed and watered as we ran out of the southern part of the city, down to the Ligurian Sea, hang a right and along the Italian Riviera to San Remo. In the evening, there was a race briefing and all the individual runners and relay teams were presented. We all had to pose for photos and were given a goody bag and race numbers. It went on a bit but was good fun and served as a nice little ice-breaker. Next up was a 4-course dinner… and bed.
At breakfast, we were topping up again as we were going to be needing more than a few calories over the coming hours. (To be fair, Steve hadn’t stopped eating since we landed – where does he put it all?) Kevin was doing the first leg, so he and Steve had to get off to the start to meet the Mayor of Milan and the rest of us followed in time for the off. Approximately 50 individual runners and 7 relay teams set off in warm sunshine, along a canal and out of town. The rest of us went back to the hotel to gather all our stuff and make our way to the first rendezvous point in a town called Pavia. Unfortunately, there was an issue with one of the cars and we missed the guys! Oops, not a good start. We did catch up with them a few miles down the road and topped up their bottles – phew!
They stayed together for most of the 53k first leg down to Casteggio, where Kev handed over to Chris. The relay baton was in fact a GPS tracking device which enabled the organisers to keep tabs on everyone and also allowed the whole world to see how we were progressing along the course! Chris set off after Steve and ran a great 70k leg down to Ovada, in the heat of the afternoon and into the setting sun. Steve was feeling it a bit, so Dave ran with him for 5 or 6 miles to keep him company. They were all together at approx 50 miles, where I was waiting with supplies. Steve said he was experiencing tightness in his upper body but he would still be ok to finish. (Way to go Steve, only 127 miles left!)
It was dark when I took over from Chris and set off up a mountain. I was lucky to be out of the heat of the day and away from the traffic. A feature of this race is that you actually share the road with everyday traffic, something that just doesn’t happen in the UK anymore. It’s literally an accident waiting to happen and something that you cannot get insurance for, which we didn’t find out about until it was too late! Anyway, I got to 15 miles and was still going up when an Italian guy came alongside me. With exaggerated hand gestures, I asked him when we start going down? “3 kilometres” he said. The next 3k were so steep they gave me backache, but we eventually went through the Turchino tunnel at the top and into a steep descent down the other side. I made it to the Ligurian Sea, hung a right and was stopped abruptly in my tracks by the race organiser telling me I’d finished (with only 22.5 miles on my Garmin instead of the 27 I signed up for)! Two different organisers have told me that I did run 27 miles, but GPS can’t accurately track distance over that terrain. Really?
Anyway, Neil took over from me in Voltri and set off along the Italian Riviera at about 2 in the morning. While I was in the checkpoint, I could see on the tracking that Steve was on his way up the mountain, so he was obviously coping with his problems alright. I jumped in a car with Kev and Chris and we caught up with Neil while Dave tried to get some sleep before his leg. And herein lies one of the biggest challenges of this whole race: running long distances and trying to stay awake to help others when you’re knackered. Normally, after a marathon (or longer as the guys were doing here) you have a shower, something to eat and curl up in a corner, but you didn’t have that luxury in this event. You got changed into dry clothes then straight back into the fray, to help those running.
I swapped into Dave’s car to help Neil, while Kev and Chris went back to Steve. It was blissfully quiet as Neil made his way along a deserted early-morning Riviera. All the bars and restaurants were closed and all the revellers long since tucked up. We went ahead of Neil and parked the car facing east so we could watch the sun rise over the Med – and both fell asleep! We were woken by Neil knocking on the window – Oops again. We tended to his needs a couple more times and went off to the last checkpoint in Loano, to wait for him at the end of his 54k stretch. Meanwhile, back down the course, Steve had made steady progress to the 170k mark and was being waited on by Kev and Chris.
By the time Dave took off on the final 64k of our epic journey, the sun was up… and so were the locals and so was the traffic again. Kev and Chris made it to checkpoint 4, where myself and Neil were chilling. Chris swapped into my car and we drove off after Dave, while Kev and Neil went off to look after the star of the show again. The roads and the towns were now heaving again but we managed to keep Dave stocked up in the heat (along with himself stopping for an ice cream). He eventually made it to the finish and on into the sea at San Remo, bringing the team home in 29hrs 43mins… and in 3rd place! Job Done!
Meanwhile, back down the road, Steve was keeping it going with his chief carer, Kev, fixing his feet and getting his coffee. (These two have previously worked well together, having supported each other to really good South Downs Way 100 times.) It was obviously hard going as Steve was entering his second night on the roads, but he now had Chris with him and an Italian guy from another relay team who had kindly joined in to help. It was surreal checking the tracker at the finish, to see the number 43 icon that was Steve getting closer and closer to his date with destiny. The Gods of ultra-running were gathered above San Remo, waiting patiently to welcome their latest hero, when he came into view with his little entourage – and he was moving well. He made his way down a slope onto the beach, through the finish and a few more yards to the waters’ edge to touch the sea and signify the end of his magnificent journey – in 38hrs 10mins, bagging 3rd place into the bargain! (Only 19 runners finished inside the cut-off).
I think I can confidently speak on behalf of my team mates, in saying how honoured and privileged we were to have played a small part in helping Steve to achieve his ambitious goal. The memories of our Italian job will stay with us forever.
By Brian Friend