Trail races with ample cut-off times

by Maria E. Bellini

This article originally appeared in Ultrarunning World 12

Time, time, time: “I shall be too late!”

Depending on our level of mental clarity, chilometres, metres and minutes may all turn out to become the toxic ingredients of a thick soup of despair, slowly simmering away in our mind.

Some of us may know the feeling well. Others may have escaped the call of time. But for those of us who’ve fled the shadow of the grim reaper / or should we say: the grim sweeper, the conundrum of facing the clock can cause anguish and mental mayhem.

The White ‘ultra’ Rabbit may experience many a consequence when faced with the dreaded cut-off times, blind panic, or perhaps just an enveloping sense of gloom, or even that of decidedly making a point of not looking at his watch, and just scuttering on relentlessly, hoping for the best.

Or perhaps our furry friend may be part of the colony that employs mental athletics, performing numerical cartwheels, subtracting times and dividing distances as a means to somersault across those mathematical obstacles.

Signs of Trouble

Last year I found myself wearing the White Rabbit suit during an autumn 50km race. Having made the provident yet potentially ill-judged choice of noting down all cut-off times on a small, detailed copy of the course profile that I’d carefully drawn up several days earlier. Neatly cut out and waterproofed with layers of sellotape, and carried within easy reach.

The intent had been – as always – for it to be a useful tool which I could consult in time of need. Other than the profile, km’s, and altitude, I’d carefully noted down aid stations, villages, river crossings, main roads and even points of interest.

The initial rush at a trail race
The initial rush at a trail race

…And of course, the dreaded cut off times.

It was a languid, sunny October day. One of those days where the sun actually does appear to be smiling down at you. Yet there I was, on a gentle, wide mountain path in Italy’s northern Apennines, seized by panic, wondering what on earth had happened.

It was an early point in the race. Everything had been going well. Even paced, a positive mindset and a strong main goal to have a good day out on the trails and feel well.

I’d been expecting the climb. My telescopic poles secured to the back of my pack right from race start. And here we were. The bottom of the hill. Time to have a quick look at the tiny race profile tucked in my vest’s front pocket.

Something, though, wasn’t quite right.

I contemplated – first the hill. Then my Garmin. And then ‘myself’ the ‘runner’. 

So, I knew that at the top of the hill was a check point and a cut-off time. A time which was alarmingly too close to ‘now’ according to my Garmin. And then the hot, shameful, realisation, that there was no way short of a miracle that I’d be able to make it.

Conflicting thoughts. Precisely the type that you don’t want to experience ever. In any race. And none were positive.

What had gone wrong? Had I taken it too slowly? Age? Poor training? Just a bad day?
Too many questions. At the wrong time. There was no time to ‘wallow’.

I pulled my Buff over my wrist to hide the Garmin’s watch admonishing clock face. And muttering “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” I parked my brain in a cornered counting-strategy slot, and trundled onwards and upwards, swearing that the next time I’d select a race with more relaxed cut-off times.

A trail race with generous cut off times can give you more time to admire the views
A trail race with generous cut off times can give you more time to admire the views

The Gates of Hell

“Cancelli” is the term used to describe cut-off times in Italian. This literally translates to “gates” -. and gates they are indeed. Get there within the set time, and they are open (although they can be open to hell). Yet get there after the designated time and they remain politely closed. Race volunteers become human barriers between yourself and what feels like any form of human dignity – and the finish line.

In Italy the ‘gates’ become all that more significant, as race profiles usually have big, impressive numbers, meaning that unless you’re related to the Ibex, you should take into account that all but a select few, will actually be running up those hills. And us mere common mortals, will usually approach the uphills at a slower pace (walking) – and many of us use poles.

Although arbitrary, most cut off times are not randomly set at a whim. Race directors will take into account a number of things. First and foremost will be runner’s safety. Which of course will depend on a number of factors, the type of course, weather conditions, terrain, distance, staff & volunteers, past editions, and time of year – to name a few.

Many Italian trail races might seem ridiculously short, but if you take a look at the profile, you should be prepared that a sufficient amount of elevation gain is going to slow you down. Add altitude and technical terrain to the trail cocktail, and you can see that it notches up on the potency levels and can quickly become a bomb.

To give you an idea, I’ve finished a 50k and a 23k in just about the same time. One was across the gentle, dusty tracks in Tuscany, the other on a arduous course on Piedmont’s Monviso.

But I live in Italy, I can ‘afford’ to mess up now and again. But coming from abroad, we don’t want to be spending a significant amount on travel, accommodation, race entry and various, only to find ourselves wearing that long eared furry white costume, brandishing our Garmin, and wildly chasing what may seem as an impossible ‘cancello’.

So here are three ultras with ample cut off times. Ones where you should be able to lo leave the Ultra Rabbit safely at home, grazing outside in the garden.

100miles of Istria

For the first Ultra we actually cross the Italian border and head into Croatia. We’re in the Istrian Peninsula, bathed by the Adriatic. It lies right between the Gulf of Trieste and Kvarner Bay.

Taking place in April the “100miles of Istria” offers several distances plus the 100 miler.
Part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, it has a wealth of information available to potential runners, in the form of a first-rate website with a 125 page pdf race information ‘magazine’ available for download, that covers not just the race an but the area too.

More than 23 nationalities took part in the 2017 event giving this race a real international feel. It’s quite a new race, the first edition being in 2013 with only 237 competitors, yet today has evolved into a 1000+ mega event.

The 100 miles Istria, 6.539m D+ has a generous maximum time limit of 46 hours, meaning that runners have to average 3,5km per hour to finish.
The first to cross the 2018 finish line was Paul Giblin in 21:06:53 and Italy’s Francesca Canepa in 22:49:33h
Race website: http://www.istria100.com/index.php/red/


The Abbots Way and Ultra Trail Via degli Dei

The next two races have quite a lot in common. They both take place in Tuscan and Emilia Romagna Apennines in northern Italy, both are run along historical routes, both races are point to point and claim the same distance and nearly the same elevation gain. Both have a generous max time limit of 32 hours meaning that runners have to cover 3,9km average per hour to finish.

The first is The Abbots Way, which in April 2018 saw its 11th year. 125km with 5550m D+
Many an Italian ultra runner has passed across this race course. A low-key event, down to earth, and no superlative frills, but with a staff of volunteers truly dedicated to the cause, means that this ultra has a loyal following with many athletes returning year after year.

The route is from Bobbio (in Emilia Romagna) to Pontremoli (in Tuscany), reversing race route from year to year, and follows the ancient Pilgrims route the “Via degli Abati” – the Abbots Way.

2018 saw Carlo Salvetti cross the finish line in 13:31:31h and Melissa Paganelli in 17:07:05h
Race website: https://theabbotsway.wordpress.com

The Ultra-Trail Via degli Dei is only in its second year. At 125km 5100m D+ it runs across the historical route “La Via degli Dei” – “The Path of Gods” that joins Bologna (in Emilia Romagna) to Fiesole, on the outskirts of Florence (in Tuscany).

An incredible race route with an epic start and equally epic finish. Race directors are continually working and building on experience towards creating an event which deserves to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Race website: https://www.ultratrailviadeglidei.com/home-en
2018 winners were Fabio Di Giacomo in 13:49:35h and Giulia Saggin in 18:31:59h.

The strength of each of these three races, lies in distance and not too extreme elevation. And they can all be considered ‘runnable’ in many parts.

Prepare well, take your poles, by all means make yourself a cut-out personalised race profile, and don’t leave out the landmarks, and points of interest which you’ll find along your journey.

By the way, somehow, I did manage to cast aside the furry white suit of The White Rabbit, at the 50k in October. By just by the skin of my teeth. And I admit to running part of the race course with the Grim Sweepera Gentleman indeed.


Maria E. BelliniMaria 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.