THE ITALIAN GRAND TOUR

North to South of Italy
100 Days, 100 Marathons

THE CHALLENGE

What started off as a jolly to see Italy and bank some training miles got harder with every day, every step and with every set back, not to mention the hailstorms, the van being broken into repeatedly, the tiny factor of the pandemic, oh and of course the occasional car driving into me.

Our mission was to run north to south of Italy zigzagging the countries best bits. From the very north to the absolute south. We gave ourselves 100 days. Nikki, Poppy and I would live every day in the van. My girls (Nikki, my better half and Poppy our 1 year old Vizsla puppy) would act as my ‘on the road support’. In principle it was nice and simple – get to the most northerly point of Italy, hop out of the van (which is also our permanent home even when we’re not on a challenge), and run a marathon in a general southerly direction meeting the van (which we named Christopher after my brother who built it for us), 26.2 miles later I’d hop back in, have some food, sleep, and then hop out the next day, run south for another 26.2 miles and so on and so on. I’d repeat that every day for 100 days culminating with my final day reaching the southernmost point of Italy on Christmas Eve. That was the plan anyway. Once we’d finished we’d then turn around and drive back north to spend some time in the French Alps before beginning planning for the next adventure early in January.

Needless to say, we did just that, and we did indeed complete our challenge. Nikki drove every mile from north to south, weaving through the unruly Italian madmen drivers. Meanwhile I completed just over 2620 miles from north to south of Italy entirely on foot, never travelling south in the van whilst it was moving. We even managed to reach the southerly tip of Sicily too, which was a bonus. There were however setbacks and countless hurdles to overcome.
 
Having now finished I can proudly say I’m rather chuffed with our efforts – it made us stronger, and I learnt a lot about running and endurance which I thought I already knew. For a couple with a young but massive puppy, living in a converted van (even if it is luxurious), while I ran for 4 hours a day without the chance of a day off, all during a pandemic (safely and legally but not without its restrictions), I think we did pretty well. It was however occasionally very tough to manage the juggling act between being a partner, a puppy parent and sorting my head space out to keep getting up every day to run when frequently I didn’t have the energy to do so.
 
Nikki also faced her own battles – living together in a small space, while I became more and more tired and therefore unreasonable and demanding, did take its toll – but we got there in the end – and we both have fond memories with just a little smattering of stress and frustration thrown in for good measure. The views were beautiful, and we can say with no hesitation we saw Italy. Not just a bit, and not just the touristy bits, and actually in a fuller way than if you lived there. We covered the whole lot.

EXPECTATIONS

Our expectations were like many trips, adventures or challenges. We knew the stuff that could potentially get in our way or cause us physical or mental discomfort, and of course we glossed over the ‘maybe bad bits’, and focused on the views we’d be seeing or the sweeping drone shots we get with us standing on the roof on a mountain side somewhere. It’s very easy to forget the faff or the time that goes into even finding a nice, safe and view friendly spot to park, let alone setting up a little fold out table, and doing the obligatory tidying and sorting before we could rest for the eventual much shorter evening.

On the whole though our expectations of the Dolomites, the beautiful lakes, and the landscape of the mountainous of northern Italy were pretty close to what we’d hoped, and in many places even better. Prasger Wildsee lake, and the various stunning night stops in the Dolomites region along with the Stelvio pass and wine region days were glorious and with great weather most of the time.

My responsibility of taking Poppy on several hours of running every day, so Nikki could work (online business), was thwarted almost immediately. We love Poppy to bits, but her ability to understand cars are dangerous machines manned by potential idiots, was, and still is, something we as parents failed to teach her. This meant my idolised dream of running next to her off the lead through beautiful landscape was cut back from every day, to most days. It was then cut further from most days, to some days, to eventually deciding that trying to run with a puppy on busy roads while my legs take an extra battering from constantly counterbalancing her weight and pull was frankly crazy and dangerous for us both. Poppy was then largely Nikki’s responsibility for far too many days – something I felt terrible about and she let me know too. This was a lesson learnt – big time.
Instead of planning set routes throughout the journey we took each day as it came. This I still feel is the right approach because it gave us freedom to pick a destination each day, and even stay in the same place for multiple days. After all, north to south of Italy was only about 1000 miles as the crow flies, and so we have 1600 miles of zigzagging to pick and choose our daily destinations. (26.2 miles x 100 days = 2620 miles) Perfect. What this didn’t account for though was the elevation gains and sometimes the roads which were unsuitable for the van – i.e. tiny tunnels or badly kept tar, or no tar at all. This caused Nikki with the van to detour and arrange to find me later. If Poppy was with me, I’d then have to pick a route that was safe enough for her even on the lead, and also in the general direction we wanted to go aka South. If I was on my own and Nikki had the dog, she then had to take care of her while I was nowhere to be seen. This got a bit much from time to time. It was unfair and I knew it – but our options were limited – and so Nikki stepped up and did what I couldn’t. Thanks Nikki.
We also stumbled over ‘schoolboy errors’, which we really should have thought about. Internet connection, phone signal, and phone battery. Think for a moment of a major marathon; let’s say London. If you are spectating and arrange to meet your runner friend at particular points on the route, it is often much more difficult; be it due to the crowds, transport, or phone signal not working, or battery. This was our situation, except we were somewhere new every day that we’d never been, didn’t have a 50 year route to follow, and I was often much slower than a usual marathon – meaning my battery would occasionally die or I’d be deep in a valley without signal or use of my maps. This caused no end of hassle until we got our act together and made some back up plans on days where we thought we may have issues. Frankly it was all just a big learning curve. You can imagine the frustration and exhaustion of being lost in the rain running another marathon, and not really knowing if you’re going in the right direction or if you’ll win the battle with the sun setting before you finish. I’m glossing over these issues somewhat because there’s just so many little factors that compounded to make some days (and nights) stressful and unrelenting for all 3 of us. Thankfully Poppy has only ever known van-life and is very comfortable in our home on wheels – so let’s count our blessings there.

NORTH SOUTH DIVIDE

If you’ve seen beautiful travel blogs and brochures describing Italy as an idyllic, classically Italian cultural stereotype of sun, great food, and colourful lake side resorts – then think again. These places of course exist and in fact we were fortunate enough to experience many, if not all of them… But, and it’s a big but, the bits in between these picture postcard places are far from any kind of postcard and it’s my belief that the Italian government have somewhat dropped the ball on many aspects of regional distribution of funds.
Anywhere we went north of Rome ranged from lovely-ish to totally stunning. Anywhere south of Rome however ranged from at best neglected to at worst a colossal mess.
As I ran up and over the famous Stelvio pass it’s hard not to see the beauty. Unimaginably tall and perfectly straight trees covered in fluffy snow with a clean snaking line of black tar sweeping through the hills disappearing high into the mountain ahead. It was a brilliant introduction to the incredible mountainous reaches of the Italian Alps. Similarly, was the Dolomites, and various northern lakes. The cities were largely pretty crap and dirty, but on the whole the north was well kept and ready at any moment for tourists hunting for the wonders of the outdoors. Once we were south of Rome, I would say 90% of our night stops were in places we felt unsafe. It feels very much like the government has just taken all the money from the south and dumped it in the north. I’ve seen my fair share of rich/poor divides – the likes of Turkmenistan as an example – but here in a country that I thought I understood – I soon learnt that the south appears to have been deprioritised or simply forgotten by the authorities. It’s actually pretty shocking. Every day I’d step out of the van and Nikki would wish me a safe run. Not because of the traffic or without purpose, but specifically directed to the feeling of lawlessness.
Having travelled to every worn torn country, I’m aware of the feeling of unease and therefore was taken aback by just how unsafe some of the small coastal towns and villages felt. Run down shop frontages, burnt out cars and trucks, young kids resembling street kids in developing countries and visibly poor families struggling to get by. It was honestly shocking, sad and made me want to write to the government and stamp my feet. In fact, I did just that. My thoughts were – how could a country so close to home, and with a tourist industry and economy not dissimilar to the UK or other central European nations have such a stark contrast of rich and poor. I appreciate the obvious geographical challenges the south faces v’s the north plus the dreaded ‘m word’ aka Mafia – but come on Italian Government – it’s ludicrous. I can probably do more to help and understand – but in the moment it was a case of getting through without issues. I turned around and changed my route upwards of 20 times because I felt unsafe in certain areas -this was something I rarely did when I ran in known war zones. Maybe I was just taken by surprise- who knows. Enough about ranting of my shock of the Italians development issues and let’s talk about the ups and downs of living in a tin box on wheels while trying to run 2620 miles.

VAN LIFE LIVING - THE UPS AND DOWNS

Living in a van is unconventional and it goes without saying it’s not socially acceptable to announce that you live in a van.  ‘I live in a van’ is something I say in most interviews and am proud of it, but there are of course certain accurate or inaccurate preconceived ideas about living a nomadic life. The words Gypsy or trailer trash come to mind. Campervan goers and Caravan owners get a pass somehow but that’s ok. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to know that I think living in a van is one of the most exciting, and levelling experiences you can do as an educated privileged westerner. Why anyone would swap warm cosy walls with TV, a washing machine, showers, hot running water, space and separate rooms, could be seen as mad – but what is easy to forget is that there’s many up sides too. Principally the cutting back on everything and realising life is still pretty cool, happy and if anything even more rewarding. If you live in a house and brush your teeth every morning, I would assume you rarely think about the water being heated, or even coming out of the tap in the first place. By doing so you’ve already got out of your warm bed in a centrally heated walled home and transitioned sleepily to another room.
For van life, for us anyway, there’s no separate rooms or smart under floor heating, and water is something we fill up from petrol stations or people gardens (with permission). We heat our water with the sun using our solar panels, and we pump our water from our tiny tank up into the tap using power from the solar too. To wash our face we are sparing with water, we consider how much we have left in the tank, we heat it in advance, we share it, and we recycle it. This may seem like stepping backwards, and in many ways it is, BUT IT IS SO POWERFUL to be reminded of what we have had so easily for so long and what we take for granted. Couple this example of water and heating with space, the number of items of clothing you need, the gadgets you can do without and much more and you realise van life isn’t about living minimally or simply, it’s just living with what you need.
The bonus which I’m sure is the elephant in the room – is that unlike a normal home we can move ours anywhere in the world (more or less) We can even go to sleep if we are stationary in a traffic jam. That, in my tired state is bliss. The whole van life thing is of course also much cheaper. Traditional homes tend to require hundreds of thousands of pounds to buy or build. For us our home was bought and built for far less and let’s face it – it’s pretty cool to have a different view, a different neighbour and a different morning walk with the dog every day.