Trail Runners or Pilgrims?

The act of trail running is often likened to a journey. Even more so with ultra distances, with ‘the journey’  being as much about the inner exploration of ‘self’ as it is about the physicality of being able to cover the miles.

This concept can in some cases comfortably sit beside pilgrims’ journeys, whereby a person travels with a purpose – often religious, to reach a particular destination.

Just a single journeyyet many a similarity enters the picture both for the pilgrim and for the trail runner: the meticulous preparation of optimal clothing, the right choice of shoes and accessories, the huge amount of time spent studying the route, evaluating elevation, check points, and types of terrain to be encountered.

The logistics of reaching the start, the planning of where to stop off along the route and sorting out rest periods. Telling, involving and eventual communication with family and friends, deciding if and how to document the ‘journey’. Signing up to the race… or contacting the main association responsible for the ‘pilgrim’s route’.

The 'scallop' today symbol of the Camino de Santiago has a long history - and serves a function close at heart to many a Trail runner too
The ‘scallop’ – today symbol of the Camino de Santiago has a long history – and serves a function close at heart to many a Trail runner too

How will we fuel? Thinking, planning and preparing hydration and nutrition. What to bring with us and what to take on board along the way, taking into account all safety precautions and any current personal medical issues. Keeping alert for route markings and remaining on the trail.

All this and the challenge hasn’t even begun!

Then once it has… the affinities keep on coming… in many aspects. The physical sphere – with one’s own level of fitness and inevitable fluctuating condition for the duration of the course. Various niggles, aches and pains, which can influence us negatively.

Then there’s the mental side. Are those negative thoughts rearing their ugly heads, and influencing us?
And how about the here and now – the plain realities of the route? The climate and weather conditions, quality of the trails, and unforeseen technical difficulties. Is our kit holding up? Do we feel comfortable? The list can go on…

Resting along route

How we deal with all this is one issue that will depend on a multitude of factors, such as, experience, resilience, motivation, and of course character. And that’s to name just a few! How we process and act on these difficulties and unforeseen complications will also influence the experience.

The end of the journey, be it trail race or pilgrimage, also has it’s similarities, and we’re not just talking about sore feet. The trail runner crosses the finish line and is symbolically awarded – in many occasions – with a medal, or an article that commemorates the race. The Pilgrim, receives a Testimonium or an official stamp, in his pilgrims credential. Both material artifacts to remember or symbolize a journey of greater significance.

The inner reward being individual and highly personal for both trail runner and Pilgrim.

So how about combining the two?

The Abbots Way Ultra Trail is an Ultra that takes place on an Italian Pilgrim’s route.


The Abbots Way 2017 filmed by Michele Pini for www.ilmichelozzo.it

Known as the ‘Via degli Abati’, this ancient route in northern Italy is considered to be a mountain variant of the Via Francigena (that goes from Canterbury to Rome). The Via degli Abati – Abbots Way – is said to date back over 1400 years, when Irish Saint Columbanus, settled in Bobbio – Piacenza in 614 AD, establishing the Abbey of Saint Colombanus.The route officially starts in Pavia in Lombardy passing through Broni before reaching Bobbio. The ‘Abbots Way’ then continues to Bardi, Borgo Val di Taro until it reaches Pontremoli and then rejoins the Via Francigena and continues to Rome.

This Ultra-Trail, takes place in April.
Starting in Bobbio (PC), Emilia-Romagna – Italy, Distance / elevation gain: 125km / 5500m D

For more details on The Pilgrim’s routeLa Via degli Abati in English
The Abbots Way Ultra Trail website https://theabbotsway.wordpress.com


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.