Vai, Vai! Forza!!: 2014 UltraMilano-SanRemo 175-Mile Race Report

1.  Race Recap:   The Short, Short Version.

For so many reasons, Italy was the best trip of our lives.  Twelve days without the kids, getting to experience a truly incredible race (and do so with many friends), and then spending a week bumming around Italy on our own.  Just an amazing trip.

Needless to mention, I have a lot to share about our experiences out in Italy.  So, fair warning:  this post will be long.  Very long.  Ludicrous speed long.  “They’ve gone to plaid” long.   (If you have never seen the movie Spaceballs, those last two sentences will make no sense).

Thus, for those of you wanting to simply know about the race, here it goes:  (a) it was the most amazingly beautiful course I’ve ever run; (b) 175 miles is really challenging; (c) it was my best running performance to date (33:22 for 175 miles, 3rd overall, with a 100-mile split of 16:33); and (d) we would absolutely go back in a hearbeat.

Okay, for those who would like a bit more detail, here it goes.

2.  Genesis.

This was the inaugural running of the UltraMilano-SanRemo ultramarathon, but certainly not the first time anyone has ever traveled the length of the course.  For decades, the Milano-SanRemo has been one of the world’s most famous cycling races (this year, it occurred one week before our race). 

Last year, my good friend, Michele “Zoolander” Graglia, who grew up within a few miles of the finish line in SanRemo (in a small town named Taggia), decided he would attempt to become the first person to ever travel the entire Milano-SanRemo course on foot.  Living in LA, he trained like a madman for months, running up to 150 miles a week, to prepare for the grueling race.  A week before the race, he flew to Italy and . . . two days later was bedridden with bronchitis.  He was disappointingly forced to cancel the attempt.

Fast forward to the fall of 2013.  Still teeming from being robbed the chance to run the Milano-SanRemo course, Michele decided that he would try again in 2014, but this time, it would be an official race and 50 athletes would be accepted to join him in the inaugural run. 

The UltraMilano-SanRemo (UMS) was born.  Some of the very best road ultrarunners in the world signed up, including the male and female winners of the 2013 Spartathlon, the most prestigious road ultra in Europe, a 153-mile trek in Greece from Athens to Sparta that retraces the footsteps of the legendary messenger Phedippides.  Additionally, several registered runners were members of their countries’ national 24-hour teams.  To put it mildly, the field was stacked with international talent.

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(The UMS course).

The course cutoffs for UMS were stout:  runners only had 42 hours to run the 175-mile course (with intermediate cutoffs along the way).  The UMS officials also set an even higher bar:  those who finished within (the pretty much inconceivable time of) 32 hours would receive special recognition. 

I was one of the “invited” athletes to the race.  The UMS officials extended offers to a handful of athletes, whereby the race fee would be waived, and we would be set up with luxury accommodations from the Wednesday before the race until the Tuesday after the race.  It was humbling being part of that group (including, among others, the Spartathlon winners from last year, Joao Oliveira and Szilvia Lubics).  To be completely honest, I knew I was not in their league; I just figured that Michele included me in on the deal as a “thank you” for me having him on my crew at Badwater last year.  But that did not stop me from accepting the offer.

When March finally rolled around, Alex and I were beyond excited to get on the plane to Milan and start our journey.  Our parents generously agreed to watch Zoey and Witt, so we would have our first “alone” vacation since they were born.  And since we never had a honeymoon, we decided to extend our trip for a week after the race. 

3.  Pre-Race.

After a red-eye flight, Alex and I landed in Milan on Wednesday morning (March 26).  The race was not until Saturday morning, and the bed and breakfast that the race officials booked for us was in Imperia, a seaside town on the Italian Riviera about 15 miles from the finish line.  So after meeting our good South Florida friends Andrei and Claire (who would both be running the race as well on Saturday . . . AND getting married in Milan on Friday!), we drove down to our place in Imperia.

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(Arriving in Milan).

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(First meal in Italy, with Andrei and Claire.  They are not pictured, as this is MY race report, not theirs 🙂  Just kidding) 

When we arrived in Imperia mid-afternoon, we were floored by how nice our place was.  It was on a steep, winding hill overlooking Imperia, with a clear view of the town as well as the Mediterranean:

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(View from our place in Imperia.  Doesn’t suck.)

Here are a few more pics of the place:

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After relaxing for a few hours, and a very nice visit and homemade dinner at Michele’s house in Taggia with Michele and his parents, we turned in for the night. 

Thursday was an off-day that Alex and I used to adjust ourselves to the time difference, and on Friday morning, we drove up to Milan to get settled for the race, to participate in a marketing photo-shoot, and — most importantly — to attend Andrei and Claire’s wedding (which was taking place at the Royal Palace of Milan, right next to the famed Duomo, and was being performed by the mayor of Milan himself). 

The photo shoot was obviously hilarious.  While Zoolander was in his element, I was a fish in Death Valley.IMG_9504

(Trying very hard not to laugh during the “serious” pose.  “Show us Blue Steel…”)

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(Well on my way toward opening the Dave Krupski School For Kids Who Don’t Read Good and Want to Learn to do Other Things Good Too.)

After the photo shoot, it was time for the wedding.  This was an AMAZING experience.  Milan has a huge piazza (town square) literally right in the center of the city.  Flooded with tourists, who come to see the Duomo (the massive church at the center), the Royal Palace, and other really cool buildings.  Because Andrei and Claire were getting married right there, and because the mayor was performing the ceremony, we were allowed to drive right up to the palace and park next to it.  We had the only two cars allowed in the entire town square.  It was absolutely surreal. 

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(Right before the ceremony, with Andrei and Claire, our other Florida friends Bruce and Brandi (Bruce was also running the race), and Michele). 

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(Andrei and I in front of the Duomo, minutes before his wedding).

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(The moment of truth…)

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(With the mayor of Milan just after the ceremony.  I still can’t get over the fact that Michele and the UMS officials arranged for the mayor of Milan to perform the ceremony.  With about four million people in its metropolitan area, Milan is the clear financial/business/social modern center of Italy.  Having the mayor marry you is the equivalent of the mayor of New York or Chicago perform your wedding.  Just a really cool honor.)

After the wedding, we got back to our hotel, and tried to get to sleep as quickly as possible.  The 5:00 am race start was quickly approaching.

4.  Firing it Up:  The UMS Start and First 50k (31 miles).

We woke up to a perfect weather race day.  There would not be a cloud in the sky all weekend, and temperatures would reach the upper 60’s during the day, and the mid 40’s at night.  No wind.  Absolutely perfect.

There was definitely a buzz at the start line, with several media outlets, all sorts of police/ambulance/offical vehicles, and a lot of eager runners and crews.  A small cafe right next to the start line opened early for us, and people finished their last minute preparations, gave interviews, etc.

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 (About 10 minutes before the race, with Andrei and Bruce).

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(Getting interviewed by an Italian media outlet minutes before the start.  He spoke no English and I don’t speak a lick of Italian.  So, naturally, we ended up debating the finer points of world politics, and came to realy respect each other’s perspectives.  Either that, or it was a simple word association game.  He would just say some word (“Badwater,” for example), and wait for me to react.  “Um, hot?”  Next was “Michele Graglia.”  “Nice guy.  We call him ‘Zoolander’ in the US.”)

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(Trying to get my game face on.)

The gun fired at 5am (I just made that up; I don’t remember if there was a gun or not), and we were off.  The first 15 miles of the race were run on a bike path to the first town we would run through (Pavia).  Two cyclists would follow the lead pack until we reached Pavia. 

My plan for the race was to run roughly 8:00/mile for the first 50 miles, then to average roughly 10:00-11:00/mile for the next 50, to reach 100 miles around 16 hours.  So for the opening miles, I started running my 8’s, and settled in a nice rhythm.  For a mile or two, Bruce ran with me.  After that, I was alone, and in the lead. 

When you are alone and in the lead of the longest race (by far) you have ever attempted in your life, and some of the world’s best runners are behind you, you (or at least I) was tempted to rethink my strategy.  But I felt good, like I wasn’t pushing at all, and that my plan was solid, so I kept at it.  By mile 7 or so, I was so far ahead of the field, I couldn’t see anyone behind me. 

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(Explaining to Alex:  “I’m just running 8’s, honestly.  I don’t know why no one else is near me.”).

By mile 10, an Austrian runner blew by me (literally; he was running about 6:00/mi when he passed me), and I ran in second place for the next 15 or so miles.  (Thank God; I had no desire to be in the lead that early). 

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(Running into Pavia:  around mile 15 or so.  Feeling great.)

By Checkpoint 1, in Montebello della Battaglia (a little past the 50k (31 mile) mark, I was in seventh place.  Several of the pre-race favorites, including Joao and Michele, had passed me.  The thing that calmed me at this point, though, was that my pace had remained constant from the beginning.  I was still right on pace with 8:00/mile (I hit the 50k mark at 4:11).  So even though others were passing me, they were not running evenly, and I was sure I would see them again up the road.

4.  Getting Our Zoolander On (Miles 32-50).

Shortly after the first checkpoint, I caught up with Michele, and we began running together.  We would remain together for the next 50 miles.  In competitive ultrarunning, it is EXTREMELY rare to run with someone for so long during a race; inevitably, people have highs and lows at different times, have different race strategies, etc., making sticking together difficult if not impossible.  So Michele and I really enjoyed the fact that our races matched up with each other for so long.  He is one of my very good friends in this sport, and he was the reason I was out there in Italy. 

Together, we kept a strong pace, and by the time we hit the 50-mile mark near Tortona (in 7:03, a new 50-mile PR for me), we were in 5th place. 

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(Running with Michele around Mile 50).

An aside (and if you are not interested in race logistics/organization, just skip to the next section):  Since UMS ended, the main criticism that’s been raised is that the course was poorly marked and that the Road Book (providing turn-by-turn directions) was only in Italian.  Both are true.  People have asked me repeatedly how Alex and I were able to stay on track with minimal difficulties.  Here’s my answer:

First, the Road Book, while in Italian, still named every road you were supposed to be on throughout the race, and named all cities you passed through.  So, we didn’t need to know much Italian to know the name of the next town on the course in order to make sure we were on the correct road heading to that town.  (What a non-Italian speaker would miss would be the indicators in the Road Book, such as “When you come to the red barn on the left, keep going straight for another mile and look out for the sign to the next town.”). 

Second, the race website had a detailed online map that you could zoom to a very close level.  The night before the race, Alex took dozens of screenshots on her iPad of all the potentially tricky turns in the race.

Third, with the exception of the first town (Pavia), the general “idea” of the course for each countryside town we passed in the first 80 miles was that the runner would run straight through the town and the crew vehicle would circle around the town and meet the runner on the other side.  (For Pavia, I was fortunate to have a race official on a cycle lead me through the many turns in that city). 

Thus, with these things in mind, Alex always made sure to know the name of the next town, and did a fantastic job of keeping me on the course.  The only real tricky spots were making sure you got on the right road after leaving a town; once you did that, it was usually a straight shot of 15-20 miles to the next town.  And after about 80 miles or so, navigation became much easier, as once you start climbing Turchino Pass and descend down to the Mediterranean (at about 100 miles), the final 75 miles are all basically run on the same road (SS1, or “Via Aureilla”). 

So, that’s how we handled that issue.  I would encourage EVERYONE who is thinking of running this race in the future not to let the poor signage/Road Book issues deter you from coming out to this magnificant race.  The UMS officials are — to a person — very nice and dedicated people who really want to put on a first-class event (and largely succeeded in doing so).  These two issues will undoubtedly be addressed for next year’s race.  These types of issues are typical in first-year events, and even the most professional/seasoned race directors cannot escape them.  (As an example, the 8-mile trail section of last year’s inaugural Badwater: Salton Sea race was not really marked, and a few teams got lost for hours in that section of the race). 

Finally, this truly was a pioneering event in Italy.  While ultrarunning is still relatively new in the US, most people — even non-runners — have heard of the sport and probably know someone who’s run a 50 or 100-miler.  In Italy, NO ONE knows about ultrarunning.  The support of Italians during the race was phenomenal, sure (especially by cyclists, who knew exactly what we were attempting to do, and cheered for us WILDLY throughout the race).  But to expect a bunch of Italians — who have never organized, crewed, or been a part of any ultra in the past to pull it off without a hitch is being unrealistic.  I thought they did a commendable job and it will be even better next year. 

5.  Grinding (Miles 51-100).

Okay, back to THIS race.  Michele and I arrived at the 100k mark (62 miles) a few minutes under 9 hours (we hit the 100.8k Checkpoint 2 in Basaluzzo in 9:04).  This is around the time the toll of the miles and the pace started to affect both Michele and myself.  First I started feeling shitty.  Then him.  Then back to me.  By the time we reached Ovada (near the start of the only major climb of the race) around Mile 75, Michele was definitely feeling a little better than me, and that’s where we parted ways. 

For the first time all day, I decided to get off my feet for 10 minutes and hit the reset button.  It worked.  When I arrived at the small resort town of Campo Ligure (about Mile 80), I was feeling much better and ready to start the gradual climb to Turchino Pass (Mile 89), the highest peak on the course.  From there, it was a very fast 7-mile downhill to the Mediterranean Sea, and another 4 miles until Checkpoint 3 at Mile 100 (Arrenzano). 

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(Rebounding and hitting my stride around Mile 80 (Campo Ligure).  Again, the views on this course do not suck.)

By the time I reached the top of Turchino Pass, I realized that if I pushed hard for the next 11 miles, I could hit Mile 100 in under 16:40, which is significant because 16:40 for 100 miles is exactly 10 minutes per mile.  I REALLY wanted to own a 100-mile PR that started with a “9” for my per-mile pace, so I shifted into high gear and ran 6:30-7:00 per mile down the hill, and then 8s until I reached Checkpoint 3 in Arenzano in 16:33.  It was stupid, sure — with 75 miles still to go — but I’m glad I pushed it, even if it probably cost me second place in the race.

By the way, the aid stations in this race were absolutely incredible.  Dozens of people cheering wildly at each one; it was a real party atmosphere.  And speaking of partying, it was now about 10:00 pm on Saturday night on the Italian Riviera.  Things were about to heat up…

6.  Barville (Miles 101-130).

This section, from Mile 100 to Checkpoint 4 (208k/130 miles) in Finale Ligure was typical ultrarunning . . . lots of highs and lots of lows.  Because I ran so hard into Mile 100, the next five miles took forever, as my body was overworked and needed to recover/reset.  Once it did, I found my groove over the next 10 or so miles, and was running 8:00/mile again.  It was a lot of fun; every couple of miles, I would come up to another small seaside town, which, inevitably, would have a handful of “hopping” clubs with literally hundreds of people waiting to get in.  The looks people were giving me were priceless.  They had NO IDEA what to make of this fool wearing a headlamp, reflective gear, and a bib number.  I made the mistake of telling one group what I was doing; their jaws just collectively dropped. 

At another bar, one girl, oblivious to everything except her phone, stepped right in front of me and as I made an evasive move, I completely tripped on something and face planted on the concrete.  I got up, took a bow, and (luckily) continued on uninjured.

At a third bar, some drunk fool asked me if I had a lighter for his cigarette.  Not knowing the Italian word for “you’ve got to be f–king kidding me,” I tried to convey that sentiment through my look of disbelief. 

Note:  The news that “smoking is bad for you” apparently has not yet reached Italy.  Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE smokes out there.  It’s unreal.  It’s like stepping back into the 80’s (which you would also say to yourself if you turned on an Italian radio station; I heard more old-school Madonna, Whitney Houston, etc. in Italy than I have in a long time).  Back in 2007, I ran the NYC Marathon, and (I swear I am not making this up) at about Mile 12, I ran past two Italians — running IN THE RACE — who were smoking.  And we were running at a 3-hr marathon pace.  Unfortunately, the only person who can vouch for this story is the guy who was running with me at the time, Lance Armstrong.  We ran together for about 5 miles, and he and I shared a smile when we saw the Italian smokers.  (He would later go on to drop me and beat me by about 15 minutes (he finished in 2:46 that year)).  So there you go.  Italians smoke during marathons; just ask Lance Armstrong.

Okay, once we got past Barville, Alex and I had our only real slip-up of the race.  Somehow, even though we were both on the correct route, we missed each other at the next meet up point, and we wound up going almost 2 hours without meeting up.  Needless to say, I slowed down considerably at that point (and it was about 4:00 in the morning now).  But she eventually found me, and we made it the last few miles into Checkpoint 4 (Finale Ligure), at almost exactly 24 hours into the race (23:59). 

We were informed that I was in 5th place.  45 miles to go.  Spirits up.  For the first time in the race, I was absolutely sure I would finish.

7.  Strong and Steady (Miles 130-147).

The stretch from Finale Ligure to Checkpoint 5 (in Laigueglia) was probably the most scenic of the entire race (and that is saying something).  This section was largely run on boardwalks, bike paths, and harbor roads overlooking amazing vistas.  The sun was rising.  Cafes in the small towns were just opening their doors, and people were slowly meandering in for their Sunday coffees, morning papers, congregate, and discuss where to sail their yachts next.

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(Even though I was about 135 miles into the race — or “one Badwater” into the race at this point — the scenery invigorated us and we felt awesome).

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(Words cannot describe how gorgeous this course was…)

IMG_9667(Heading into Alassio (near Checkpoint 5)).

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(Almost there).

8.  Bringing it Home (Miles 148-175).

I reached Checkpoint 5 (the last one) in 27:41.  I was feeling good when I got into town, and I was feeling even better when I left town, after learning that I was in 4th place, with 3rd place only a few minutes ahead of me.  Michele was two hours ahead in first place, so I knew that with only a marathon to go (basically), I could not catch him.  But 3rd place was another story.

The final section featured two climbs, a stroll through my host city (Imperia), and then a final stretch on a bike path along the Mediterranean into SanRemo.  I caught the third-place runner, an Italian, going up the first climb.  The race had arranged for the local running club to accompany each runner up this climb, which was awesome, because I had no one to run with since Michele and I parted ways 75 miles ago.  And as an added bonus, my escort runners spoke English.  So those few miles went very quickly.  Now, all I needed to do was hang on.

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(Running through “my” town of Imperia . . . getting close now!)

With about 10 miles to go, I started feeling incredibly tired, due (obviously) to the distance already covered, as well as the fact it was getting legitimately hot outside.  By the time I hit the bike path, an Italian Red Cross member on a Vespa became my official chaperone for the final 7 miles.  He would not let me get more than 20 feet away.

Unfortunately for him, my stomach was not agreeing with me at all at this point.  Not sure of the Italian phrase for “Dude, give me some space unless you want to see me throw up,” I put my hand out in a stop sign motion, but the dude kept riding right through it.  Okay buddy, you asked for it.

With that out of the way, I started feeling much better.  Alex even hopped out of the crew vehicle and paced me for much of the last stretch.  She then drove to the finish line and met me with about a quarter mile to go.  Running in together was awesome . . . until, with about 100 yards to go, she tripped on something and did her own faceplant (although there was no drunk Italian bar girl in her way).  She got right up, though, and WE finished the race, in third place, in 33:22.

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(This was a REALLY cool feeling…)

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(Team Zwitty representing in Italy!) 🙂

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(The inaugural UMS podium finishers.)

9.  The Next Day.

After the race, I was SHOCKED by how good I felt.  After Badwater last year, I basically went into a coma for 20 hours.  Here, I was incredibly sore and tired, sure, but I was functional.  Alex and I hung around the finish line for a while, then drove back to our place in Imperia.  After a nice long sleep, we went to the awards ceremony the next day, and then took a sweet trip down to Monaco (less than 30 miles from the finish line), and then had an amazing dinner with Michele and a dozen of the close friends he grew up with at a very good and authentic pizzeria in Imperia.  It was the perfect ending to an amazing race!

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(At the awards ceremony with Michele).

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(That same afternoon, in Monaco (Monte Carlo) with Alex).

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(I was either going to wear my velvet blazer or a Speedo to visit the Prince’s Palace.  I’m glad I chose the former and not the latter…)

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(There are worse ways to recover…)

10.  The Next Week.

After the race and post-race festivities were over, Alex and I drove the rental car back to the start line in Milan, and hopped on a high-speed train to Rome, where we spent two nights, and then on to Florence, where we spent another two nights.  I’ve now been back in the United States for about 24 hours, but my heart is definitely still in Italy.  Best trip of our lives!  Here are a few pics from the “honeymoon” phase of the trip:

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(View from our hotel balcony in Rome).

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(At the AS Roma/Parma football match on Wednesday night.  Sorry U.S. pro sports, you’ve got nothing on the atmosphere in the stadium of major European soccer leagues.  Not even close…)

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(Alex and I on our 6-mile run in Florence — to the Pizzale Michelangeo — that our hotel conceirge thought was not physically possible to complete…) 🙂

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(View from the Piazzale Michelangelo)

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(Our hotel in Florence; probably the best hotel I’ve ever stayed at in my life.)

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(On the hotel terrace on our last day in Italy.  What a trip!).

I would like to thank Andrei and Claire for letting us be a part of their amazing wedding.  I want to thank Michele and the entire UMS staff for welcoming us to Italy, putting us up, and giving us the best race I’ve ever run.  And to our parents, who watched Zoey and Witt while we were gone and took such good care of them, thank you so much.

Finally, to Alex.  This race — like every other race — would literally not have even been remotely possible without you.  Even if it were possible, I would never want to run without you being by my side.  You are my everything.  I still cannot believe you chose to spend your life with me, but I know how lucky I am for it. 

Okay, hope you guys enjoyed reading about our adventure; we sure enjoyed living it!  See you all “out there” 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Vai, Vai! Forza!!: 2014 UltraMilano-SanRemo 175-Mile Race Report

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. How amazing it was for both of you.Congratulations ! How many people actually participate in this run ?

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