Racing up Europe's highest volcano in the Etna Supermarathon

Tue Jun 18, 2013 12:28pm EDT
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By Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - It's a hot, sunny day in June on the beautiful Mediterranean island of Sicily, but the problem is that I'm not on the beach, I'm running up a volcano.

An even bigger problem is that I've been going for two hours, but I'm only half way to the top and I'm tired.

This is Mount Etna, at 3,330 meters (10,926 feet) the highest volcano in mainland Europe and one of the most active in the world, and on Saturday I was one of 160 starters gathered on the beach for the "Etna Supermarathon."

The 43 km (27 miles) race is just a tad over the official marathon distance of 42.2 km. But much more significant is that it rises 3,000 meters from sea level, which the organizers say makes it the race with the biggest altitude change in the world.

It may be less grueling than renowned "ultramarathons" like the six-day, 251 km Marathon des Sables in the Sahara desert, or the 246 km Greek "Spartathlon" from Athens to Sparta, but with the road getting steeper and the sun beating down it is feeling more than tough enough for me.

A twice winner of the Spartathlon was among the starters on Saturday, destined to finish in fourth place.

I have been running since I was a teenager, mostly road races from 5 km to marathons, but at 52 my aching limbs and waning performances have whispered to me for a while to hang up the racing flats in favor of more gentle jogs in the park.

But wouldn't it be nice to finish with something memorable and a bit "different," I thought.   Continued...

Mount Etna spews volcanic ash during an eruption on the southern Italian island of Sicily March 4, 2012. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello/FILE PHOTO