Three in the Mugello

Catharine Sowerby, Michelle Homden, and Margaret Lang ready for the race.

Michelle reports on the challenging, but beautiful, Mugello Trail run.

The Serpentine international network is a fantastic resource. When three of us decided that we fancied some trail running in Italy, we knew where to go for advice. Claudio Belotti is a former Serpie now resident in Florence where he runs his family’s elegant hotel (offering a generous discount to club members). He recommended the Mugello Trail: a race of around 23km, with 1,280 metres of ascent, in the hills of Tuscany.

In April this year, Catharine Sowerby, Margaret Lang and I travelled to the Mugello, a beautiful region to the north of Florence. The day before the race, we checked into a mixed dormitory at the Badia di Moscheta: once an abbey now an outdoor activity centre, and also race HQ. There we collected our numbers and race packs, containing the usual race fliers along with a bottle of local wine, organic biscuits and breakfast cereal made of spelt.

The listings showed that 328 runners were registered for the 23km race, of which only 91 were women. We discovered that we were the only runners from the UK, with a small number from other countries outside Italy, including Spain, Switzerland and Albania. Another race, an ultra of 60km, was taking place on the same day and the briefing for both was held the night before. It did not require much knowledge of Italian to catch the race director’s enthusiasm.

He described a route through a wooded landscape of oak, chestnut and beech, much of it on single track. We were told to respect the eco-system as we would be passing through the habitat of wolves, wild boars and golden eagles. We should also be mindful of modern history, with the route crossing areas that saw action by the Italian resistance in the Second World War. There followed a briefing in English, delivered by Claudio, of the great Serpie family.

Margaret enjoying some wine with race supporters.

Race day was sunny with a light breeze. We were woken early as the ultra run set off at 6 am, apparently from just outside our dormitory window. Our race left at 9 am, and the climb began immediately. The first four kilometres took us along paths through woods. The route then picked up a track that ran along a ridge bringing us to Monte Acuto, 1,094 metres above sea-level, with a glorious view over the Rovigo Valley.

Around this point, I heard a familiar cry of ‘Come on Serpentine’. It was Claudio, who was part of the fantastic marshalling team. As ever, shouts of encouragement were greatly appreciated. Never mind that the Italian cry of ‘dai’, literally ‘give’ or ‘come on’, sounds to anglophone ears like ‘die’. Near the halfway point came one of the highlights: the race passed behind a waterfall. While most of us managed to stay dry there, wet feet were guaranteed later with two streams to ford.

At 11.7 km, the second of three water stations also supplied food. Alongside the generous supply of oranges and bananas, there were lumps of hard, salty cheese and slices of bread and jam. After a series of undulations, the route began a steep descent, again much of it on single track. However, the climb was not over. At around 21 km, we reached the Valle dell’Inferno. To welcome us in, there was a notice-board bearing a portrait of Dante and these lines from the Divine Comedy:

In truth I found myself upon the brink
Of an abyss, the melancholy valley

(I admit to looking them up later in a translation).

There was another steep climb to take us to the end, with the occasional ultra-runner haring past bearing walking poles. Indeed, there had been times when the race seemed more climbing than running. The effect would be felt over the next few days when we visited the tourist attractions of Florence. These included the famous cathedral with Brunelleschi’s Dome, 463 steps, and the Giotto’s Campanile, 414 steps: just what our aching quads needed.

Photo credit: Margaret Lang

All three of us had achieved entire marathons in less time than it took to cover the 23km of the Mugello Trail. Margaret finished with an impressive time of 3:44, fourth in her class. She might have made the podium had she not stopped to demand that an unofficial support group share their wine and sausages with her. Catharine was not far behind with a time of 4:01, ninth in the same class, 52nd woman and 233 overall.

We stayed on at the Badia di Moscheta that night. As we were enjoying a celebration dinner in the restaurant, we were approached by a member of the race organising team. She invited us to come to their table as they were about to raise a special toast. With the copious local wine my Italian grew more fluent if, possibly, less coherent. I explained to our hosts that we were from a running club in London, although I now live in Belgium, and that we were there on Claudio’s recommendation.

I told them that we had taken part in races in several countries and, while many had beautiful landscapes, the seamless organisation and warm atmosphere of the Mugello Trail had set it apart. The next morning, as we were preparing to check out, the same member of the organising team presented us with a race banner and the shirt of the local running club, Mugello Outdoor. She asked us to display them in our club-room as a sign of friendship between the two clubs.

As for my race, I finished with a time of 4:17, 53rd in my class, 66th woman, 270 out of 328 overall. I have no doubt that, in some places, I would have been nobody, finishing nowhere. However, when I crossed the line of the Mugello Trail, I was met by the race director. His outstretched hands and smile of welcome made me feel like the most important runner since Pheidippides reached Athens. All races should end that way.

Useful links

Mugello Trail and Ultra Trail:

For more information about Hotel Silla, Claudio’s hotel in Florence, see the ‘Discounts for Members’ section of the Serpentine website, under the heading ‘Other Discounts’.

Michelle Homden discovered the joy of running at the age of 37 when she did a Serpie beginners’ course. Ten years and six marathons later, she is still enjoying it.