A Dwarf Among Giants

There are certain cities that are synonymous with top-flight road racing: Berlin, Boston and London to name a few. Holding its head high among these giants is a dwarf: the small, historic city of Trento, in Northern Italy’s mountainous province of Trentino.

At its core Trento is an enchanting, picture-perfect town with cobbled lanes, an historic centers and affluent villas. And aside from the high proportion of elite Italian athletes registered as residents, it hardly strikes you as an athletic powerhouse. So how has this idyllic town muscled in with the giants in the world of middle-distance running? Well, there’s a lot to be said for sporting heritage, and Trento arguably has it, going back to 1907 when the first Giro al Sas was held, a time when the modern incarnation of track and field was in its infancy.

The inaugural race, known then as the ‘Giro di Trento’, was created to honour the patron saint of the city, San Vigilio. The first edition went down in the record books predominantly for the amount of cheating and route-cutting, but the controversy made it an instant hit with the public. The modern version started there, and despite intermissions for two World Wars, the race has run unbroken since 1945.

This year marked the 70th edition of this deggedly popular event, and race organiser Gianni Demadonna maintains realistic aspirations of the standard of runners that the crowds want to see: “We need athletes who have medals at the World Champs or Olympic Games and new athletes who can be Champions in the future. We always would like to invite the best athletes in the world of running but always we have to consider that some athletes (like Bekele, Mo Farah or Dibaba in women race) are not possible for our budget and honestly for very few 10km road races in the World. When Bekele won Giro di Trento (Giro al Sas) he was a 19 year old athlete already World Junior CC Champion and Silver at the WCCC 4km race.”

Demadonna’s assertion to recruit the world’s best rang true as the sun began to set over an autumnal Trento, and runners began to be called to the start line and introduced to an expectant crowd: Tamirat Tola, Muktar Edris, Geoffrey Mutai and Edwin Soi. With ten one kilometre laps ahead of them, everyone was primed to see some drama unfold on this Saturday evening. Demadonna is frank: “The athletes first come because they receive an appearance fee and secondly because they enjoy the atmosphere of the races with a lot of spectators assisting at the races.”

Citing Trento as the dwarf amongst the greats is a portentous statement but its link with running stretches further than just this race, as it is also a hotbed of Italian track talent. The Ethiopian-born Crippa brothers were adopted by an Italian couple as kids, and now proudly call Trento home, and train hard on the city’s iconic yellow and blue track. They are testament to Trento’s inherent love for road running, and these two young talents are treated like stars at the Giro al Sas, almost outshining the headline acts, willingly taking the time to chat with their home fans.

Trento has cemented itself as a middle distance running hub, a place Italy’s top talent gravitates towards so as to train and race with and against the best. It is a quiet and reserved hotbed of talent, where ‘work’ gets done; but during the Giro al Sas, Trento’s passion for running bubbles enthusiastically to the surface, with the local kids — and future talent — hanging over the barriers of the race screaming home their heros, having naturally raced themselves earlier in the afternoon.

As the laps tick down and the race comes to its climax, it is clear to see that this was no easy race. Attacks and accelerations are encouraged by the enthusiasm of the crowd, and as a result, the field is ripped to shreds, leaving the final battle for victory to a sprint finish between Tola and surprise winner, Uganda’s Abdallah Mande. As Mande throws his arms into the air, Tola’s pained face says it all: how important this little race really is. The clock confirms it: 28:47 for an admittedly slow circuit. The pace took its toll on local favourite Crippa, who was dropped during the sixth lap when Mande, Tola and Edris pushed the pace.

A historic race that takes cues from cycling by focusing on entertainment, the Giro al Sas has repeatedly confirmed its place among the top races in the world. Yes, it is overshadowed by the Diamond League and more widely covered road races, and its position on the calendar appears to reiterate this. Yet this smaller event certainly punches well above its weight, with a history that makes it a race those lucky enough to take part in want to win, a sentiment echoed in the faces of those who come in behind the victor.

By Emmie C & Phil G.

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