I’m just back from 2 weeks in the Italian Alps. I did a number of things while I was there; read some books, stayed in a couple of refuges, minced about, created hitherto unheard of culinary delights with nothing but a JetBoil and a spoon. But the main reason for the trip was Trofeo Kima.
Canvassing opinion of those who’d run the race before, a consensus emerged.
It is a truly special race.
On my 2 day course recce I began to understand why.
After 8 kilometres on the road, you climb through Preda Rossa, a stunning hanging valley headed by the wonderfully named Monte Disgrazia; Mount Disgrace. Past Rifugio Ponti you arrive at Bocchetta Roma, the end of the initial 2000m climb and the first of the race’s 7 passes. Lift your eyes from your feet for a second, take a glance to your left, and the full majestic sweep of the course comes into view. Contouring westward under the teetering rampart of the Swiss-Italian border, the Sentiero Roma runs through a greyscale world of granite boulders and steel chains, following a breadcrumb trail of red and white markers painted on the rocks. Hundreds of metres above the deep green of the valley’s forests, on an overcast day the painted tin roof of the Kima Bivouac is a tiny pinprick of colour, a single pixel of warmth adrift in a sea of indifference, bitter, cold and hostile.
If Cormac McCarthy ever writes about a mountain race, it will be Trofeo Kima.
And what a welcome dot of warmth it was as I staggered in, water streaming from my every Gore-clad limb. In a matter of minutes the expansive vistas had been swallowed up by a wall of cloud tumbling up from below, bringing with it torrential rain, the muted flash of lightning and a sense of soggy urgency. As a gaggle of Italians chatted away, I stood dripping by the door, trying to look pensive as I gazed out into the murk, wondering if they were talking about me.
An hour or so later I set off again for the Passo Del Cameraccio, the high point of the race. From studying the map and profile of the course, I’d anticipated a bifurcation between steep, exposed ground over the passes and runnable trail in between. I was wrong. The technicality of Kima is relentless. The consistency of the undulations is matched only by the ubiquity of the boulders. Inattention means ankle sprains; nowhere can you just switch off and run.
Each pass I crossed brought the next into view, and each time I found myself thinking How on earth do we get over that?! More than once my gaze drifted downhill, looking for a trail which skirted the foot of the ridge, meekly accepting the passes’ clear impenetrability. I never found one. The red and white pied piper led you staggering across each successive cirque, mystified until the last when a ledge would appear, a foot wide with a sagging line of chains, zig-zagging upwards and offering precipitous passage to an improbable gap in the ridge high above. On some of these sections the chains were unnecessary, used only to expedite your progress on ground where any given rock might come away in your hand. Elsewhere, they were all that stood between you and a deadly helter-skelter; with the ground below sloping downwards as you ascend, the mountain rescue probably wouldn’t bother recovering your corpse. They’d just hose you off the rocks, or wait for the next thunderstorm to wash you away.
It is a spectacular, intimidating course. But that’s not all. Come race day, as you round the final boulder above the Rifugio Ponti and come into view of the Bocchetta Roma, the second thing which makes Kima so special becomes apparent.
The local enthusiasm for the race is phenomenal.
If you spend any time in Val Masino, this is evident long before you blearily pull your tights on on the morning of the race. Every shop, restaurant and cafe in town has an A2 poster advertising the 2018 race. In some cases, these sit alongside increasingly faded posters from 2016, 2014, 2012…
On Kima Eve, I am accosted in the street by a shuffling, elderly Italian. On learning that I am running the next day, his face lights up and his geriatric frame is animated, limbs which seconds before were slow and ponderous suddenly possessed with exuberance. His tongue is up to race pace, he gestures wildly; back up the road to where Mini Kima, the kid’s race, is underway; to the head of the valley where the vast west-east panorama of the course is visible; to my legs.
Most of what he says goes right over my head. Two weeks in the valley have given me the linguistic skills to buy coffee and rye bread and to book a refuge on the phone, but little else. I think he is impressed by the children’s race(6km, ages 0 and up), that he thinks my legs are strong, and that I will win. Completing his performance, he gives a satisfied nod and shuffles off down the street. As he does so he whips his walking stick around his head one final time and bellows FORZA!
That part needs no translation.
Up on the course, the passes and the refuges are teeming with people. 1500-2000m above town, they have gone to no small effort to come up here and shout themselves hoarse at everyone that runs by. And I mean everyone. First to last, the crowds at Trofeo Kima will make you feel like a rockstar. Some had printouts of the startsheet which they would consult as you approached in order to cheer you on by name.
If you could put Allez Alessandro! into a gel I’d buy them by the crate.
(Balance that with the cries of AllezAllezDaiDai! Those felt equally personal. What did I ever do to you?!? Though it does explain why I had THIS in my head for most of the day.)
More so even than the technical ground on the high passes, the crowds at the refuges became the highlight of my race. As soon as you were within earshot the clapping, yelling and cowbells would start. In the last 50 metres everyone would join in, a wall of clamour and din welcoming you to the aid station, putting some zip in your legs for the final few steps.
As I said, it’s like this for everyone, but if you milk it a bit, you get special treatment. I ran into every refuge waving my arms in the air, cupping my hands around my ears, yelling and screaming right back at the baying hoards; they went from loud and enthusiastic to Totally. Fucking. Mental. They loved it as much as I did.
Desperately trying to shovel half a banana down my throat, a mass of screaming Italians an arm’s length away, cheering me on, I was grinning so hard I could hardly eat. Coke dribbled from the corners of my mouth and down the front of my shirt. Less glamorous perhaps, but I imagine I felt just like Slash, playing Welcome to the Jungle with his foot on the monitors at Madison Square Garden.
After hammering down the final quad busting, ear popping 1,500m descent you run through San Martino. People lean over the balconies of their houses, lower the windows of their cars, rise from their chairs on the terraces of the cafes; FORZA FORZA! It’s well over an hour since the leaders came through but their fervour is undimmed. You’ve nearly finished Kima.
You are the fucking man!
The narrow streets echo with the din of wooden spoons on saucepans as the children of Val Masino become your own personal cheer squad. Those without hands full of kitchenware line up by the side of the road, palms outstretched to meet the palms of the runners, unconcerned that they are damp with sweat and sticky with the residue of carelessly gobbled energy gels. Out of food, the last couple of miles of my run were fuelled entirely by high 5s.*
Pushing hard to stay ahead of the runner who mysteriously, inconsiderately, appeared behind me as we hurtled down the infernal tarmac, each laboured footfall was another assault on my weary legs. The mid afternoon sun is stiffling. Everything aches. Will this be the step that sends me into cramp and leaves me twitching in the ditch?
It hurts, it’s awful, but I’m having the time of my life. I had no idea it was possible to be in so much pain and to have so much fun at the same time. Exhausted, exhilarated, euphoric.
Only in the last 200 hundred metres with the finish in sight and my pursuer distanced for good do I relax. A narrow fenced off strip across the bridge over the river leads you right into the finish chute, up the blue carpet, under no less than 7 inflatable arches and through a narrow tunnel of outstretched hands.
To understand this passion for the race it helps to know a little of its background. Established in 1995, Trofeo Kima is organised in memory of, and named after, Pierangelo ‘Kima’ Marchetti, a local mountain guide who died during a rescue in 1994. To the people who live in the valley, the race is a memorial to one of their own. It’s no surprise that they feel a sense of ownership and pride.
The course looms large over the valley; lean far enough out of the window of just about any house in San Martino or Filorera and you can clearly see up into the succession of neatly partitioned corries which make up the course. With a decent pair of binoculars, many residents could follow the race from the comfort of their own front room.
Val Masino doesn’t go mad for Trofeo Kima because it is a SkyRunningTM WorldTM
SeriesTM race, or because a bunch of famous people show up. They don’t give a shit if you’re a sponsored athlete with a million Instagram followers or a punter fighting the cut-offs, they will encourage and congratulate you just the same.
During our post-race dinner in the back room pizza place twenty long, painful metres up the road from our AirBnB, a man on the other side of the room recognised LittleDave. Shouting over the general restaurant hubbub, he told him that he’d seen him at Preda Rossa that morning and shouted his congratulations. Dave reached Preda Rossa in something like 190th place. The crowds were still there, still serious enough about the business of cheering people on that they remembered individual faces 12 hours later. His position in the field was immaterial; as far as this guy was concerned, Dave’s efforts were worth every bit as much as Kilian’s.
*Holy shit, is that where High5 gels got their name? I feel like an idiot.