Sunday, December 31, 2017

Run of 2017: Torno to Bellagio via Lake Como's Dorsale del Triangolo Lariano Trail

Like any ultrarunner, my 2017 was punctuated by some epic outings.  There was the 30-mile February training run in near-blizzard conditions.  There was the trip around the "original world" of the Alice-Toxaway loop in the Sawtooth Wilderness.  And there was my return, after a nine year absence, to the 100k distance at Gorge Waterfalls.  

Each of these holds a special place in my memory this year - and together are key parts of an arc that I hope sees me return to being a full-fledge ultrarunner after many seasons of struggling with injuries and, if I'm honest, motivation issues.

But the real adventure that stood out above the others for me this year was a run in Lake Como, Italy.

My wife and I had fallen into good luck and were invited to stay with friends in the lakeside village of Torno to help them celebrate their 50th birthdays.  And in planning for that trip, I spent some time - as most of us would do - looking into the local trails. One kept coming up over and over - the Dorsale del Triangolo Lariano trail.  It is a ridgeline trail that links the southern lake city of Como to the mid-lake town of Bellagio and bifurcates the large triangular land mass in between the two lower arms of the lake (see  map).  Lake Como is also referred to as Lario, hence the "Lariano."

While the Dorsale trail didn't connect directly with Torno, it looked like there were trails out of Torno that would connect.  So an idea was born: an 18-22 mile solo run from Torno to Bellagio.

We arrived at Lake Como on June 17, and like most new visitors, I found Lake Como to be very much like what I thought Lake Como would be.  It is a large, truly stunning lake surrounded by 3,500 foot mountains that drop directly into the water.  Villages and towns dot the shore and, more remotely, the hillsides.  And while the likes of George Clooney and Donatella Versace shuttle around in Venetian water taxis and Sikorskys rumble overhead carrying Russian oligarchs to their lakeside villas, there is a real-world sense of community and life that stands out above it all.  It simply feels like a very special place.

During an afternoon lull the next day, I laced up and headed out on a scouting mission to see if I could find the Dorsale ridge trail.  Making my way up the labyrinthine walkways of Torno to the edge of town (see video), I found the unmarked trailhead and headed up.  The trail was old - ancient even - in a way we don't really have in the States.  Rock steps made up long stretches of trail, and it climbed 3,000 feet in just under three miles, hooking up, as I'd hoped, with the Dorsale trail near the small village of Baita Carla (Strava).  From there, if the guide books were correct, all I had to do was follow the red and white "#1" Dorsale trail markers all the way to Bellagio.  Scouting job done.

The unmarked trailhead in Torno.
Stone steps much of the way up to the ridge and Dorsale trail.
The group we were staying with had planned a day trip to Bellagio for lunch and shopping on June 21.  So that seemed like the day for my run.  Though, the dawn-patrol start was likely to feel quite early following a long-scheduled night at the opera in Milan the night before (La Bohème).  (Yeah, yeah, yeah). But the juxtaposition of La Bohème and a long run to Bellagio was hard to resist, and grand memories often parallel sleep deprivation.  The solstice it was.

Pre-run warm up. Taking it all in at La Scala in Milan.

So, the morning after the opera, with Che Gelida Manina still echoing in my ears, I drank some coffee, filled my bottles, and headed out - giving myself about 5-6 hours to make it to Bellagio to meet the group by lunchtime.  

By 7:00 am, it was already warm, and weighted down with a full pack, I took a measured pace on the opening three-mile climb to the Dorsale trail.  Much of that section of hillside trail is under dense canopy, with few views to speak of, but many things to see  - small villages accessible only by foot or motorbike, Catholic shrines, and centuries-old structures. Some in good repair, some not.  

My GPS route, with my flyover below.
Flyover from my GPS data.
Opening miles up to the Dorsale trail at Baita Carla.

At Baita Carla, I turned north on the Dorsale, which, true to its name, largely follows the dorsal fin ridgeline of the mountains.  When the main trail traverses the ridge, there was often a "cresta" spin-off that directly followed the ridge.  I took one "cresta" section, which was technical, narrow, and slow-going - and decided I'd better stay on the main route if I were going to make it to Bellagio in any reasonable amount of time.

While the main trail isn't technical, it does climb and descend a decent amount, and with an inversion that morning, it was feeling hot and exposed. My three liters of water was starting to look insufficient. So around mile 10, I started to ration. And after three more exposed miles with a light tailwind, I started to wilt.

Occasional cobbled sections.
Open ridge views that felt hot, with an inversion and light tailwind.
With the popularity of certain sections of the Dorsale trail - and it being near tourist high season - I was hoping to come across a refugio (mountain hut) or two where I could refill bottles and maybe even grab an espresso and snack.  No such luck, however.  While I passed one shuttered refugio directly on the Dorsale, others were a few kilometers off the route, and I couldn't spare the time (or distance or energy) for the round trips.

So, I was very happy to come across a full-scale cafe at Colma di Sormano around mile 13 (flyover at 1:00).  It's set at the top of a mountain pass road that connects the eastern side of the lake with the western side and is also a storied climb of the Giro di Lombardia pro cycling race (video, see 10:00).

With my five words of Italian, I was able to buy two bottles of water and a coke.  I felt buoyed, now comfortably set on water and calories for the rest of the run.

Happy for the water and coke. Ecstatic to see the storied Colma di Sormano in person - and by happenstance.
Summit marker.
From the Colma di Sormano, the trail undulates the next six or seven miles, reaching a high point of around 4,600 feet near Terra Biotta.  Throughout this section, the Dorsale comes out of the trees and there are beautiful views of the eastern leg of the lake, looking much more distant than I'd realized.

From that highpoint, the trail gradually descends off the ridge, through an abandoned mountain bike park and small settlements, with municipal life slowly taking hold.  It was on a mile-long road section here where I lost the trail for the only time - taking a wayward out-and-back to a beautiful hillside chapel (flyover at 1:25).  The last part of the trail turned to all singletrack, winding through small farms and villages before it terminated on a road about two miles above Bellagio.

Red and white #1 signs mark the Dorsale trail.

Nearing the high point.
Looking down on the eastern leg of the lake, beginning the long, gradual descent to Bellagio.

On the road, I passed more houses and a hospital and a helipad.  Fish were set to dry in the sun at one home.  When I was within a mile of Bellagio and the tourist traffic had started to pick up, I called my wife to check in.  The trip had taken nearly six hours, and I had hoped I hadn't missed the group completely.  I was relieved that I had not.

They had arrived just five minutes before, and my wife was walking through the Gardens of Villa Melzi, which was just a quarter mile down the road from where I was calling.  I jogged a few more minutes up to the gates of the gardens, stopped my watch, and cooled down alongside her and among the manicured lawns and Japanese maples. We then had pizza in the square, did a bit of shopping, and hopped on the boat back to Torno.

All told, it was close to 24 miles with around 6,600 feet of vert (stats below and here) - and capped off a 24 hour period I doubt that I deserve - but know that I fully appreciate and won't easily forget. 

Fish drying in the sun.
Cooling down at the Gardens of Villa Melzi.
With my wife on the boat ride back to Torno.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Seeing the "original world" on the Alice - Toxaway Loop in the Sawtooth Wildernress

"I wanted to see the original world."  Those words passed through my ear buds while I was listening to the New Yorker Radio Hour podcast around mile five of my 19 mile outing this Saturday around the Alice-Toxaway Loop in the Sawtooth Wilderness of Idaho. Though the writer, Jon Lee Anderson, used those words to describe what drove him to visit isolated and largely unchanged-by-time tribes in South America in his younger days, they nevertheless seemed to explain at least part of the reason I was at that moment climbing a rocky trail, out of breath yet moving forward with determination, and all the while trying to take in, enjoy, and be a small part of my striking surroundings.

As I've written about before on Run Junkie,  the Alice -Toxaway loop is one of my special runs.  I try to do it once every year, and whenever I fit it in it feels - as some of my friends tire of hearing me say - a bit like Christmas morning.  I know I'm in for a special day filled with jaw-dropping views, stout trails, and a good amount of miles that always feels longer than the Garmin says, no matter how fit I am.

And even on a Labor Day weekend when parking at the trailhead spills into a third auxiliary lot - and you come across groups of hikers and backpackers every few minutes - the landscape is always elemental, always a part of the "original world" Anderson was talking about.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Breakfast of Lupine & Hill Repeats

If it's Thursday morning, it's time for speedwork.  This week, the usual suspects settled on hill repeats and took to the dirt road that climbs up the backside of Colorado Gulch here in Hailey, Idaho.  Instead of the usual sprint up/jog down repeats, we did 30 seconds on and 60 off, continuing steadily up the climb all the while trying to enjoy the lupine-carpeted hillsides along the way.  (With varied success).

We did 12 repeats altogether, eventually cresting into the sun on the very steep and rough final section on the Gulch's north ridge - and gathering nearly 1,000 feet of vert by the end.  

Pretty nice way to start the day.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Rumination: Early-Evening-Into-Twilight Miles

Tonight in Quigley Canyon.
Often the hardest time to get out for a run for me is the very end of the day.  After finishing work, after shuttling kids, after shopping, and after making dinner - and sometimes even cleaning up.  It's strange that it can be so hard, because this time of year, as the days extend toward the equinox, those early-evening-into-twilight miles can be the most rewarding of all. The normally busy trails are quiet, the spring winds have calmed to a breeze, and the light is soft.  It almost always feels perfect on some level.  And that is what I need to learn.

RJ Review: Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 3.0

If you run long - really long - and in varied conditions, it'd be hard to go wrong with the Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 3.0.  It's light; it's comfortable; and with its 16L capacity and 12+ pockets, it can carry everything you need (and then some) for an all-day training run over five mountain passes - and likely back again.

I've been running in the PB 3.0 (MSRP $169.95) since last summer and recently raced with it at the Gorge Waterfalls 100k.  During that time, I was able to test it over hundreds of miles - on dry and hot high-desert jeep trails, pine-needle carpeted Pacific Northwest singletrack, and snow-covered Rocky Mountain roads.  And apart from a few quibbles, the PB 3.0 has performed exceptionally well, doing exactly what a good running pack should - carrying your essential items in as comfortable and seamless a way as possible.

Apart from a few quibbles, the PB 3.0 has performed exceptionally well, doing exactly what a good running pack should - carrying your essential items in as comfortable and seamless a way as possible.

The PB 3.0 is a beast at carrying water. Its reservoir pouch can hold up to a 3L bladder, and, it has room for two bottles (soft or hard) on the chest - one in a holster, and the other in a bottle-compatible "burrito" pocket (more on that later).  This puts total capacity at over 4L, which even on the hottest days can carry you more than a few miles before you need to find a creek and break out the Steripen.

Having tested and raced in a number of running packs over the years, I've almost always been frustrated with their pockets.  Those failings usually fall into three general categories: 1) lack of pockets, 2) lack of a variety of types and sizes of pockets, and 3) poorly located pockets.  And while I can grouse a bit about the difficulty of accessing one or two pockets of the PB 3.0, the vest really suffers from none of the shortcomings I've experienced with other vests.

The PB 3.0 has small pockets up on the clavicle that are perfect for your electrolyte caps, a large "burrito" pocket on the left chest that can hold 2,500 calories or a 22 ounce water bottle, and waist pockets that are great for a camera, phone, sandwich, or collapsable cup.  And there are multiple large pockets on the rear - one zippered and one with bungees - that can hold cold-weather clothes (even a puffy) for when the weather takes a turn. And, of course, there's more than one snug-fit iPhone-compatible pocket for when you just can't leave Terry Gross or your Instagram followers behind. With 12+ pockets in all, you're much more likely to forget which pocket you put your PB & J in than to wish you had more room for your essentials.

Poles/Ice Axe
Depending how far afield you're going, or what season or sport you're training for, the PB 3.0 has dual ice axe and trekking pole loops.  Good or bad, you'll no longer have the ultrarunner excuse of heading into treacherous conditions unprepared for self-arrest because of your pack wasn't fully-featured.

Comfort and Fit
When not packed with 3 liters of water and 3,000 calories of food, the vest is surprisingly lightweight (13.3 ounces).  And even when weighted down with the essentials, it is well-balanced and comfortable. The PB 3.0 comes in three sizes - and getting the correct size seems important.  While the vest is certainly adjustable, allowing for tweaks to fit, it is not a one-size-fits-all vest.


  • Comfortable
  • Lightweight
  • 16L volume
  • 4L+ water capacity
  • Minimal bounce when fully packed
  • Large number and variety of pockets
  • Trekking pole/Ice axe loops
  • Included soft bottle


  • Cost (MSRP $169.95)
  • Sold without bladder
  • Selected poorly placed pockets

Overall Run Junkie Impression
Being a bit of a pack rat on both training runs and races, I love the capacity of the PB 3.0.  It allows me to pack for all the nutritional and environmental eventualities my-worst-case-scenario brain conjures up, and to do so in a manner that doesn't feel freighted or awkward.  While the PB 3.0 is not for the half-bottle & one-gel set, for runners going really long with little support, or who will be racing in wide-ranging conditions, it is a vest worth considering.

The author and PB 3.0 in action in the closing miles of the 2017 Gorge Waterfalls 100k. (Photo: Glenn Tachiyama)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

"Holy sh##! They're sprinting!" - My Return to Speedwork

Enjoying the cool down after the shock of Colorado Gulch hill repeats.

With five weeks behind me since my slow-but-generally-positive-finish at Gorge Waterfalls 100k, I'm starting to re-build the volume and address some of the weak areas the early season has highlighted. The two most pressing both have to do with speed - or lack thereof: descending pace and flatland pace.

Never a fantastic descender, I nevertheless used to be able to tap out some pretty effortless downhill miles at a decent pace.  But that sensation has really been lacking lately. At both the White River 50 last summer and Gorge this spring, I was never able to enjoy the descents.  They felt more like a chore than anything else, which is a sad thing to write, let alone experience.  Not surprisingly, when you can't relax on the downhills of a race, even in the early-going, it can make things feel like much more of a grind than they really should.

How did this happen?  I think it's likely a combination of factors.  I'm getting older, of course. But I think that's largely an easy excuse.  The bigger issue, I think, is simply a lack of speedwork.  With spotty, at best, trips to the track for at least 5 seasons now, I've just lost the speed that makes it possible to bomb the downhills in training that can make for great cruise-control descents in races.

So, today, I officially started working on re-awakening those fast twitch fibers, meeting up for hill intervals with a new-to-me group of Thursday morning stalwarts.

Off the line for the first repeat, all I could think was: "Holy sh**! They're sprinting!"

You have to start somewhere.