Rain hits the windshield as the van stops at the edge of the town of Sesto, Italy. We huddled without enthusiasm. It’s early September in Südtirol, just south of the Austrian border. Under the drooling eaves of a cafe, we don our rain gear. Nadine, the shuttle driver for a local tour company, who has the rosy cheeks of an Austrian but accelerates like an Italian, smiles sympathetically. She carries our luggage to tonight’s accommodation. “Would anyone like to take a walk?” she asks.
No takers. We are five friends, all from Washington State, and we have been training for six months or more to run the trails of the Dolomites, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Nobody wants to take the easy way out. Not yet.
When Nadine leaves, I turn to the others. I am a lifelong runner, a longtime resident of Italy, a threadbare Italian speaker, and the self-proclaimed leader of our group.
I am proud of all of you I say. “You could have spent the day drinking hot coffee and reading your book in a warm hotel. But you didn’t, a decision you will imminently regret.”
And then we go.
The first steps begin modestly, in a wide and smooth stretch. it’s a ruse Soon the path slopes towards the sky. Rain trickles down. The path turns into a stream. Mist blankets the meadows, pastures, and peaks around Val Pusteria, the kind of sights we’ve waited a year to see.
Patience, I tell myself as a thin trickle of icy water trickles down my spine and onto my shorts. Keep running I think. It always gets better.
Find the perfect route
Trail running, a sport that takes participants off paved roads, often into the hills and mountains, has become wildly popular. The number of Americans who say they have participated in trail running triplicate between 2007 and 2021, according to the outdoor foundation, an arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group for the recreation industry. With the boom, more companies are now offering trail running vacations in the United States and abroad.
An Italian mountain range with stunning limestone pinnacles, great food, and an extensive network of trails, the Dolomites have become a top destination. Runners now tackle several of the Alta Vías (“high roads”) of the Dolomites that have traditionally been hiking trails. Many of these multi-day treks offer enough vertical challenge to leave even the stoutest-legged Heidi reeling on her dough each night.
But they also offer dim light falling through larch forests, cold beer served with a warm smile in high-mountain refuges called rifugios that are more akin to hotels, and a lullaby of cowbells each night as you lie down in one of the those cabins. Not that you have much trouble falling asleep after a long day of running.
All seasoned trail runners, my friends and I discovered options: Alta Vía 1, the classic hiking route, is the most walkable. The AV1 also tends to spend more time at lower forest elevations and can be crowded. The AV2 is beautiful, but with many climbs steep enough to force runners to walk and run less than we would like. Which to choose?
Igor Tavellaone of the owners of holimites, a longtime local team that organizes trail running trips and other excursions in the region, offered an enticing itinerary that his company had dreamed up a few years ago. While most of the Alta Vía routes run north-south, this one cuts through the grain and runs east-west. Each day for six days, runners soar above the tree line, frequently reaching 8,000 feet, and traverse landscapes of soft, green pastures punctuated by towering thumbs of rock. At night, the runners stay in rifugios, or they descend to the bottom of the valley, where a comfortable inn awaits them. Along the way, the route joins segments of other Altas Vías. The route was more manageable than AV2, Tavella said.
And, he added, you probably won’t see any other runners all week.
“Sold,” I replied.
A refuge in the clouds
As we hiked up on the sodden first morning, the climb reminded me of the paradox of trail running in the mountains of Europe: there is a lot of walking involved, even for very fit runners. The trails can be brutally steep, up and down. And so you run when you can. And you walk when you must.
On our first climb, we deployed our running poles, a secret to surviving inclines like these. When the trail turns vertical, your arms can take a significant load off your legs, thanks to these ultralight folding poles. The morning soundtrack became the ticking of the tops of the poles against the rock and the splashes of rain on the jackets, as we ascended to the soup.
Soon the rain stopped and the clouds lifted a bit. Like a mirage, a pale building with bright red shutters appeared on a high saddle. It was him Rifugio Antonio Locatelli. We picked up the pace.
the hut it is one of the best reasons to run in the Dolomites. Dozens of rifugios dot the high country, usually in postcard settings like this one at the foot of the Tre Cime di Laveredo, three towering fingers of stone. Being able to step out of the rain into a clean, well-lit place and enjoy a bowl of hot barley soup or an espresso is a small saving grace.
Later that afternoon, a long descent brought us to the door of a simple and comfortable hotel at the end of an alpine lake. Our luggage waited at reception, courtesy of Nadine. A service provided by Holimites meant our bags would find us every night. This gave us the freedom to run each day while carrying backpacks containing little more than water, a jacket and snacks, and to have plenty of changes of clothing.
When the skies cleared again the next afternoon, the next night’s refuge was still five miles and a mountain away. There was nothing to do but put our raincoat back on, clench our jaws, and walk through it. However, when the going gets tough in the Dolomites, these mountains find a way to distract themselves. We pass a moss-covered gun emplacement fringed with ledges carved into the rock faces by soldiers during World War I.
Overnight the sky cleared of clouds. The weather turned glorious. We left our luggage by the door, stuffed ourselves with cappuccino, muesli and fresh bread with Particle, Südtirol’s superior answer to prosciutto, and headed into the blue morning under the great peak of Croda Rossa.
Edelweiss and good eating
Each day our route required about 10 to 16 miles of travel. While Holimites doesn’t specify fitness requirements for its tours, one truism remains: the fitter you are, the more fun you’ll have. You should be very comfortable running several miles a day, for a week, on rough, mountainous trails.
Each day we ran maybe half the miles to the next destination. At first this bothered me; I wanted to be able to run more. It took a few days to recalibrate and remember that the runner who comes to Europe simply to run has made a mistake. The savvy runner comes to these mountains for it all: the warmth of the cabins, the glimpses of edelweiss blooming along the trail, the sights of pale stones rising from aprons of green grass, the sweaty pleasure of toiling to reach the heights. meadows. beyond the orbit of day hikers.
And always, also, the rifugios and his food. On the third afternoon, as we reached the top of a high pass along Alta Vía 1, an icy wind convinced us to stop at a cabin. The list of daily specials out front reads like something we would have found in Paris: pumpkin gnocchi with smoked ricotta for about 9 euros, or $9.75. Stewed pork cheeks with potatoes, for about €14. A few days later, during our longest day of racing, we stopped at rifugios three times for beers and radlers, beer sodas, and lemon sodas. Could we have tried running more on those afternoons? Sure. But this was the pleasure of running in the Dolomites. And anyway, we were pretty full.
Every night we went to bed a little earlier. And every morning, we would come down for breakfast a little later. While we did see hikers, we didn’t see any other runners until day 5, and even then only maybe four or five.
On the last morning, we woke up in a rifugio above the famous Val Gardena ski resort and took stock of our collective health. After five days on the trail, everyone was feeling a bit sore (and one or two of us were very sore). But when I brought up the idea of taking a gondola to the bottom of the valley, no one bit. The finish line was almost in sight.
Arriving in the village of Santa Cristina Gherdëina, we paused for a last coffee and a Nutella croissant, then weaved our way through the luxury shops before a final hard climb up Alpe di Siusi, a high green plateau dotted with cowherds. ‘ Chalets in picturesque decrepitude.
There the forest path became almost as wide as a street. German tourists crowded the terrace of the restaurant where we stopped for lunch. Our time for lonely afternoons among the marmots was clearly over. A slight melancholy descended. But she had a hard time putting down roots. The day was lemony and warm, and we dined with a view of green fields lapping at the huge mass of Sassolungo, and its companion peak, Sasso Piatto, leaning toward it like a wrecked ship.
After lunch, on this golden day, the others were content to leave their spinach spaetzle and their lunchtime beers. But the road ahead wound through green pastures; it was irresistible. I mumbled to my friends an apology that wasn’t sincere. So I ran off.
If you go
The Dolomites are located in the northeast of Italy, near the border with Austria. We flew to Venice Marco Polo airport, then took the express curtain transportation to a drop-off point near the town of Badia (about a three-hour drive) for about €48.
We booked our self-guided tour through holimites, a company for more than 20 years based in Badia that offers several running itineraries, as well as other activities, in the Dolomites. Holimites is owned by locals and was very professional and helpful in arranging other logistics for us as well as answering questions.
Guided seven-day trail running trips in the Dolomites start at €1,650 this year, which includes a local escort for the ride, accommodation, most meals and cabin-to-cabin luggage transfer.
Self-guided itineraries start at €1,050 and include accommodation with breakfast and dinner, maps, detailed information on each day’s route, and a briefing with a local trail expert before departure. It is also possible to add luggage transfer for a self-guided tour (we did).
The guided version of our seven-day itinerary, the Dolomites Trail Running: Journey from East to West, which includes a warm-up day, starts at €1,950.
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