by Maria E. Bellini
Badia Prataglia – Italy 2017
Trail Sacred Forests, Trail Running World Championships
The course was fast. Too fast. A surreal silence deadened the sound of hundreds of rapid footsteps beating down on the dry forest path. Skinny chinks of fierce sunlight filtered through the tall trees briefly illuminating runners before they disappeared into the protective shade of watchful trees.
It happened in a lightning flash. A sudden false step and an intense pain shot through his left ankle. Panagiotis Ionannidis winced. It took several meters to assess the damage. It wasn’t good. A partially rolled ankle. Panos understood in an instant. The race was now over for him. But determined nonetheless, he grimaced and surged ahead. After all, he was running for his home country, Greece.
Thessaloniki – Greece 1999
A Life Changing Move
When teacher and semi-professional Greek athlete, Panagiotis Ionannidis, received news that he was to be transferred from the cosmopolitan city of Thessaloniki to the mountainous island of Evia in central Greece, to start work in a new school, he was at his wits end.
Having spent his teens and early twenties successfully competing in major athletics events, at just 25, “Panos” was used to a heavy training schedule with daily track workouts. So he was daunted to discover that the nearest athletics stadium would be miles away from his future home.
From upbeat Thessaloniki, with it’s active running community, to the laid back, runner-less island of Evia, Panos soon realised that if he wanted to continue competing at national level, he’d have to revolutionize his training sessions.
That’s how he hit the trails. He began to explore the wild countryside and soon discovered it was like running in a whole new world. For training pals he now had tall, wise, strong trees to guide him, steep hills to fortify already strong limbs, cooling streams to soothe tired legs, and all with the quiet chatter of the animal kingdom to colour his runs.
Alone in the forests, Panos embraced his surroundings and without even realizing it, he evolved into a trail runner.
This was the person that some 18 years later, was pounding the trails in The 2017, World Trail Running Championships in Badia Prataglia, Italy, representing Greece, along with teammate Pantelis Kampaxis. But things hadn’t gone according to plan. Pain was shooting through his leg, he nonetheless surged forward.
When you run for your country, quitting, is not an option.
How It All Began
IOANNIDIS PANAGIOTIS was born in 1974 in the busy city of Thessaloniki, Greece. He spent his teen years and early twenties dividing his time between competitive athletics and studies where he majored in sports and history.
Italy on Trail: Panos – tell us a bit about your youth…
Panos: I started running when I was 15 and have been running ever since.
Whilst in junior category (15-16) I started running 1km races and later 3km, 5km, 10km and also cross-country.
In 1993 I came 1st in the 20km Greek national youth championship. In 1994 I came 2nd in the 10 km Greek national championship in (20-23).
In 1995 and 1996 I became member of the Greek national team in cross-country running. In 1995 I also ran my first marathon (finishing 4th in the Greek championship) and in 1996 I finished 3rd in the Greek Marathon Championships. That was when I did my P.B. of 2h 23’11’’. The following years I concentrated mainly on the marathon distance and was ranked 6th in Greece. During those years I had the experience of participating in many international marathons.
However all that changed when in 1999, Panos was transferred to Evia and got into Trail-Running.
Italy on Trail: Panos – what was it like to have been a ‘trail runner’ in the early 2000’s in Greece.
Panos: As I was becoming more and more adapted to trail running I started searching for Trail races… but there were almost no mountain races in Greece back then. So my first trail running race was actually in Italy, in the area of Trento (Monte Bondone). It was one of the first W.M.R.A. [World Mountain Running Association] European mountain running championships. 13km of uphill running. I’d persuaded the Greek national athletic federation to submit my entry to the race organizers.
The Experience Was Impressive
When I came back to Greece I started speaking about trail running and writing articles and promoting trail running which was almost an unknown field in Greece. Eventually the Greek trail running community came to be and mountain races started appearing throughout the country. The most attractive and popular one was Olympus Marathon. Today trail running is extremely popular and there are numerous races all over the country – more than one every week!
In the same year (2002) I attempted my first ultra (100km road). This was a turn in my athletic career. I started to run less marathons and turned towards the trails and ultras. Progressively I realised that what I really loved was ultra trail-running.
My first ultra trail race was the Swiss Alpine Marathon (SAM) in Davos, Switzerland (78km which I finished in ~7h 20min.).
Italy on Trail: Tell us a bit about Team Greece and the I.A.U. (International Association of Ultrarunners) Ultra Trail Championships
I’d gained quite a bit of experience in the participation of many road and trail running events, and came to the stage where I felt that Greece should be represented at the I.A.U. annual World Ultra Trail Championships and proposed the idea to the Greek National Athletics Federation.
And Team Greece Was Born
Since then I’ve participated in many trail running events of all distances, in Greece and abroad and especially in IAU’s Ultra Trail Championships, such as: Serre-Sevalier, France (68km), Connemara, Ireland (75km), Conwey, North Wales (75km), Geres, Portugal (85km), etc.
Unfortunately, the Greek National Athletics Federation does not fully support trail running and does not organize Ultra-Trail National Championship yet (apart from short-distance mountain running trials). The result is that if a Greek runner wants to participate in a world trail running championship (like the one that took place in Badia Prataglia recently) he has to send his athletic C.V. to prove that he has enough experience and capability to correspond to such a race. After that he can be accepted but he has to uphold the travel expenses or to find a sponsorship on his own. The Greek National Athletics Federation, due to financial crisis, cannot support financially trail runners.
Personally, I don’t consider myself solely as trail runner. In fact I consider myself as a “multi runner” or perhaps, a “multi athlete” since I not only run trails but also road courses. Moreover, I do triathlon and aquathlon races and also marathon swimming. Two years ago I became one of the finishers of the famous “Toroneos’s Gulf Swim” which is consecutive 27km of ultra swimming in Chalkidiki, Greece.
Italy on Trail: 2017 – Badia Prataglia and the Sacred Forests World Trail Running Championships. A twisted ankle to contend with too. How was the experience?
In the past I had run in several trail races in Italy, but all of them were in the Alpine region. And I have to confess that I particularly love the Dolomites with the rare beauty of the landscape and the unique color of the rocks.
It was my first time visiting and running in the Apennines and, to be honest, I couldn’t imagine, before going there, that it would be so beautiful. I was impressed by the beauty of the forests with the dense towering trees and a sacred sense of primordial mystery that was immediately perceived. The race’s name: “Trail Sacred Forests” fits perfectly. The beauty of the National Park of the Casentino Forests surpassed my expectations as well as the organizational level of the event which was simply perfect. The standard of the race was remarkably high, both in terms of the organization (technical features, logistics, etc) and the participation of elite athletes.
Italy on Trail: There was tough competition!
Competition was very strong, taking into consideration the fact that the profile of the route was relatively “fast” which led to impressive finishing times.
The very positive element was that over 80% of the route moved through a dense forest, so as to protect the athletes from the sun that on the race day was very strong!
I had that small accident (twisting my left foot – not seriously) which made me run rather cautiously for the rest of the race, especially in the downhill parts which are usually my strong point!
Italy on Trail: How about your time before and after the race?
The I.A.U. (International Association of Ultrarunners) has recently joined forces with I.T.R.A. (International Trail Running Association) and they co-organize the annual Ultra Trail Running Championship – always fantastic events not only from a sporting point of view but also for the cultural and social dimension.
Hundreds of runners from all around the world gather in the same place where they meet each other, socialize and interact not only during the race but also before, in the hotel, technical meeting, opening ceremony, etc. and after the race, during the closing ceremony with a usual party, which, in the case of Badia Prataglia, was the most exiting I have ever remembered in similar international competitions. Especially the firework show which ended the celebration was amazing.
The local organizing committee, the authorities and the residents of Badia Prataglia deserve many congratulations for the warm welcome, the hospitality and the great atmosphere they created for the foreign athletic delegations.
You can see our article on the color that surrounded the event Here – in Italy on Trail Contributor Nicholas Zinzi’s “A Morning in Badia Prataglia!”
Evia – 1999
But all this was still a long way off for the young Panos, who was setting out on his own journey, discovering not only the trails, but life, adulthood and travels to international races, all through the love of running…
Maria Elisabetta Bellini is Italyontrail.com’s founder, born in the U.K, she came to running whilst living in Italy, where she still lives and trains. Never ceasing to marvel at what’s at the summit of a hill, or around the bend along the trail, she loves using trail running as a means to explore nature, contemplation and Italy.