Dusk falls in late June on a trail covered in crumbling volcanic rock near the summit of Europe’s highest active volcano, Mount Etna, as Canadian David Orr takes the final crunching steps of a race that began at 4 o’clock in the morning. that morning.
His arms and legs are covered in scratches caused by the overgrown trail he describes as “wild.”
The path to self-discovery can take people to unusual places, but few go as far as Orr, who was on the first day of a nearly three-month, 3,500-kilometer race across Italy. It’s a journey he describes as mystical, from the Etna volcano in the south to the snow-capped Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco in Italian) in the north.
“This morning I took the Canadian flag and the Italian flag there,” he says of Etna. “Then I basically slid a thousand meters down some kind of lava slide. I just went with the flow.”
Orr, a computer engineer from Stratford, Ont., who lives in Florence, had an initial failure earlier this year. Seeking a challenge to help give new meaning to his life, he decided to deepen his understanding of his adopted country while drawing attention to the widely unknown and in some parts neglected Sentiero Italia (SI) or Great Italian Trail.
One of the great trails in the world.
Spanning some 8,000 kilometres, the trail is one of the longest in the world and passes through 16 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Sites and numerous national parks. Inaugurated in 1995 by the Italian Alpine Club, the trail links the Italian peninsula starting in the Alps, descending along the top of the Apennines and then jumping to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
It is run by thousands of volunteers who do everything from trail maintenance, education and reforestation to running rescue stations and some 21,000 beds in 750 shelters, many of which serve hot meals.
“In addition to promoting slow and sustainable tourism, SI allows those who hike it to get a sense of the native vegetation and meet local people along the way,” said Marco Garcea, a hiking guide in Calabria, southern Italy, who co-wrote part of the 12-volume Sentiero Italia Guide.
SEE | Through Italy on foot:
In 2019, the alpine club began renovation of the trail, which in some sections was in poor condition, especially in the south.
“In the north they have more famous mountains, but in the south of Italy the trails offer a higher level of discovery, a greater contact with the local culture,” Garcea said.
Trail ‘gone to hell’ at some points
The southern roads, he says, once linked remote mountain settlements with others used by inhabitants for firewood, grape-picking or grazing, including some ancient ones. migration Routes for seasonal cattle drives.
Orr says that, with the exception of parks like the majestic Pollino National Park that spans Calabria and Basilicata, the trail in southern Italy “had gone to hell with the Mediterranean vegetation I had to make my way through.”
The red and white “YES” signs, however, were in excellent condition.
“It was almost like someone had a sadistic sense of humor,” he said of the trails that veer into farmers’ fields and thorny vegetation. “But whose fault is it? It’s not nature. So I had to develop a sense of humor and stop fighting it.”
For about the first month he didn’t encounter any other hikers, with the exception of a couple in the high-altitude forests of Calabria who scared him so much that he asked them if they were lost.
Larger than life venues
Instead, he encountered gigantic local people, mushroom pickers and hunters with wicker baskets. They peppered him with questions and invited him to his house. A group of hikers, suspected to be members of the Calabrian criminal group ‘Ndrangheta, insisted that he take a large piece of local cheese. (“I realized it was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he said, laughing.)
He made friends with a wild dog that followed him for days and experienced a nocturnal communion with hundreds of fireflies, circling silently on the road, like worshipers on the benches.
Orr’s wife, Kristin Sullivan, with their two young children in a camper for several weeks, and a network of friends would meet with him at the end of each day and arrange food, lodging and other necessities. Funding for the race came from Orr himself, along with donations from his fans, and an Italian sportswear company provided the equipment.
“What he’s doing is amazing,” says Alberto Moldavi, who works at a shelter near Prato, Tuscany, and took a photo with “the crazy Canadian” who he had heard was running along the trail.
“He is drawing attention to the literal backbone of Italy, the Apennine mountain range, which needs to be protected. He is practicing and promoting the type of tourism that Italy needs.”
32 kilometer run on a ‘recovery’ day
Almost two months later, on the 56th, Orr emerged from the woods to dine at the Tuscan lodge. He had just completed a 40 mile day followed by a 20 mile “recovery” day.
With messy hair and a thick beard, Orr said he had faced some agonizing challenges.
He had injured his quadriceps and Achilles tendon early on, forcing him to slow down and run longer. Transporting water in isolated areas proved too burdensome, so he opted for long stretches of dehydration. He estimates that five percent of the distance traveled was backtracking after getting lost.
But walking the path, he said, allowed him to experience powerful moments of transition, such as leaving the depopulated south-central region of Molise, whose windswept yellow-brown palette gave way to the more populous Abruzzo and northern Italy.
“It was almost like a portal to the modern world, with people wearing fluorescent sportswear,” he said. “And by bicycle!”
‘Be maternal with yourself’
Orr prefers ultrarunning to marathons because the focus is not on time but on endurance, which helps calm his mind and block circular thinking, a hallmark of the depression he has struggled with at times.
“You’re traveling such long distances that you have to control your mind and your body, be maternal with yourself,” she said. “I also really enjoy the people who do it, who have minds of steel and are optimistic. You have to be optimistic to run a 100 kilometer race.”
Almost three months after leaving, Orr faced his latest challenge: reaching the summit of snow-covered Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, straddling the Italian-French border.
He had planned to take three days to run to the summit and help acclimatize to the 15,000-foot elevation. But the shelters were full. This he did in one day, running 73 kilometers through the Aosta Valley region of Italy, crossing into France at 2,300 meters to reach the summit and then crossing a 100-meter “ridge of death” with the risk of being rocks fell.
“That was a monster day,” he said.
At 3 a.m. on the 85th, he completed his 3,500-kilometer journey.
Now back in Florence, he says he is proud to have been able to achieve it with the help of his wife and others.
“I felt like I was in a long-term relationship with the trail and demanding fidelity to it,” he said.
He is now taking care of his children to give his wife time to focus on her career after three months of being a single mother.
The challenge that awaits you is everyday life.
“The trick is, once you’ve done it, to make the rest of your life an equally mythical journey. And that’s not so simple.”