What: Skymarathon Rosengarten Schlern
Where: Tiers, Sudtirol, Italian Dolomites
When: Mid July
How far: 45 or 36km
Enter Here: http://www.skymarathontiers.it/
Travelling nearly 2,000km for a race may sound excessive, and it is but when the running is this good, it’s worth every effort.
For the second year running, I travelled to a small village high in the Sudtirol Dolomites to enter one of the newest and toughest fixtures in the race calendar, SkyMarathon Rosengarten Schlern.
45km, 3,600m+ of ascent over steep, rocky and technical terrain up to 2,800m altitude and in 30oC heat; on paper this sounds horrendous but in reality it is one of the most relaxed, fun and enjoyable races I have done.
Compared to some of the bigger Sky Races in the calendar, this is a low key affair with a really inclusive and approachable feel. Don’t be surprised if the race organiser buys you a beer or you see the winner helping out in the post-race oompah band. Without the hype and expensive Sky Running Series badge, this is a friendly event with a grass-roots feel that encourages camaraderie among competitors as much as balls-to-the-wall acts of competitive zeal on eye-popping descents.
The race starts early, 7:30, to avoid the worst of the afternoon heat and occasional thunderstorms that rear over the improbable spires of the Vajolet Towers, around which the race runs. A shuttle bus takes you the 4km up the road from race HQ to the start-line, from where the steep, forested slopes rise towards the rocky peaks. The atmosphere is one of friendly nerves, as much shaking of heads as of legs, as if nobody can quite believe what they are about to do.
The race begins with around 10km of uphill, interspersed with fun contours along good trails, gaining 1,100m in height. As you emerge above the tree line, the views begin to unfold below you. Snow-capped mountains, forested ridges and glittering lakes; the stuff of mountain dreams.
Distraction comes at a price though, the path demands full attention as it weaves around the steep slopes, glorious single track with a taste of the exposure to come. The route laces itself around the base of the huge limestone towers and rock faces, before crossing into the sunshine and the first meaty descent. Loose stone, rocky chutes and tight switchbacks set the tone for the day while unsuspecting walkers are sent diving for cover as day-glo runners weave their way towards the next mean climb.
The route is generously scattered with aid stations providing refreshing watermelon and flat coke among all the usual goodies. The marshals and mountain rescue guys are all incredibly supportive and helpful with the crowds at each hut you pass providing ample encouragement from the comfort of their espressos and pastries.
Several large passes divide the route, each with dizzying descents, the largest of which is marked by the rather unexpected tones of three alpenhorns blasting away and filling the col with Lord-Of-The-Rings-style acoustics.
The last 20km takes you along a high, broad ridge and plateau with much more familiar ground (by which I mean there was grass) and then a steep descent through pastures and cowbells to perhaps the worst part of the race; around a kilometre of gangway built over an impressive gorge. For some reason, this gangway consists of sleepers turned on their edge. Imagine running down a steep, dung-slicked cattle grid and you get some idea. Sections of this underfoot torture vie with patches of steep, loose, gravel-covered cobbles before eventually reaching more sane underfoot conditions of pine needles and rock as you weave across the hillside towards the finish.
A final climb through the trees to the last aid station comes as a punch to the gut but is soon out of the way for the fast last few kilometres to Tiers (and in my case, a battle with an out-of-nowhere chaser who thankfully took a wrong turn at the last minute) .
The atmosphere all the way along the route is sustained to the end with crowds lining the finish and waiting over the line, beer in hand. Everyone who crosses the finish is greeted with a hearty cheer, directed towards a table of fruit, drinks and finally a beer of their own.
The after-party proves a test of endurance as stiffening legs queue at the bar and you wave your food ticket at anyone who looks like they might be able to provide gnocchi.
Thankfully showers are provided and you’re soon feeling semi-human, sat in the sun (or shade in my case), beer in hand and belly full of proper food, enjoying the raucous announcer trying to reel off every name as they come through the finish.
The ground that you cover in this race is technical and airy in places, with cables protecting one particular section of slabby descent. Prospective runners will want to feel comfortable on steep descents and with some exposure but the atmosphere of the event makes it feel like there is never any pressure to run anything you are uncomfortable with and the liberal scattering of mountain guides and rescue teams makes every runner feel a little more secure. So while it may not be the gentlest introduction to the world of sky running, it is a great option for any confident runner looking for a challenge. There is also a 36km version which cuts off down an amazing 16km descent, dropping nearly 1,800m back to Tiers.
Most of the race is spent above 2000m, at that kind of altitude catching your breath can feel like hard work so its better if you can get out a good few days before the race and spend a bit of time hiking up high and getting acclimatised (and used to the heat). Plus its a good excuse to go out for longer. I did it on a 4 day trip this year but suffered more than last year when I'd had a week to acclimatise.
The kit list makes British race equivalents look like Scott Of The Antarctic’s wishlist with just two mandatory pieces: windshirt and cup. That’s it. Now obviously its up to personal preference what you would take on a race of this sort. It is well supplied with aid stations every 5-10km so you don’t need lots of food or drink but you will probably want a bit extra. I wore the Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra Vest which had more than enough capacity. I would also recommend wearing a hat, plenty of sunblock and a comfortable pair of shoes, I went for the Salomon Sense Mantra 2 (the S-Lab Sense Ultra would be a great alternative too).
Having run both this, the first official edition of the race and last year’s test run, I began to feel part of the pack. Familiar faces in the line-up were ready to pat me on the back at the finish and everybody seemed pleased to share this incredible race with runners from other countries. With a Swiss taking first and an American second, its easy to imagine this race becoming a global affair; especially when it offers racing and atmosphere of such high quality.
How to get there: There are a number of airports you can fly to; Verona, Treviso, Venice, Munich or Innsbruck. From here it's easiest to catch a train to Bolzano/Bolsen (you will see lots of dual language usage in Sudtirol. So even though you are in Italy, a smattering of German is very useful). From Bolzano, it is a short bus journey higher into the mountains to Tiers. Obviously you can do all this yourself by hiring a car, it's around 1hr 45min drive from Verona airport.
Where to stay: There are numerous guesthouses and hotels in and around Tiers and surrounding villages, all within close range of the race start. Unfortunately there is no camping nearby but if you are travelling in a camper, there are several parking areas that will likely accommodate you for a couple of nights. Its not a particularly cheap area, so expect to pay €70+ per-night for a hotel with breakfast, add another €10 if you want half-board.
Where to eat: Apart from after the race, when your number gets you a meal, you’ll want some form of sustenance. All the hotels have restaurants and bars, all of which seem nice. We found ourselves in the Pizzeria attached to the Gasthof Rose on more than one evening, drawn by generous portions starting from around €6.
Other practicalities: There are two mini-markets in Tiers which are well stocked with essentials; there is also a good-sized and comprehensive outdoor shop with running and climbing kit for sale.
What else to do: When I raced last year, it was midway through a climbing trip in the area. The Dolomites are renowned for their dramatic rock climbs and via ferratas. This time we spent a couple of days following the race ticking some excellent via ferrata routes close to Tiers. If travelling with a car, the options are endless but we managed to do plenty using buses and a few long walk-ins, especially as public transport is free with a ticket from your hotel. Ask around about hiring kit if you don’t have your own, there is a Guides Office in the village that will sort you out.
Other than that and if the legs will stand it, get out and enjoy the trails; the running and walking out there is phenomenal. All the shops sell local maps with routes marked on and ask around for recommendations. If you don’t fancy running any more, catch a bus to Cortina or Canazei for more taste of Dolomite life.
Great coffee, beer and food abounds in the region so mooching around, making up for the inevitable calorie deficit after the race, is definitely a good option. There is also a great brewery in Bolzano, well worth a visit (when its open) https://tinyurl.com/yayvrqck.
There is also a Reinhold Messner Museum nearby https://tinyurl.com/yaylzjtt which is apparently well worth a look, though I still haven’t recovered from finding out he has his own range of shampoo!
Note: The photos in this article weren't actually taken on the race (I didn't carry a camera) but were taken on days spent exploring the area around the race route.