It’s dusk in late June on a path blanketed with crumbled volcanic rock near the top of Europe’s tallest active volcano, Mount Etna, as Canadian David Orr takes the last crunchy steps of a run that began at 4 o’clock that morning.
His arms and legs are covered with scratches from the overgrown trail he describes as “savage.”
The path to self-discovery can take people to unusual places, but few go as far as Orr, who was on Day 1 of an almost three-month, 3,500-kilometre run up the length of Italy. It’s a journey he describes as mystical, from the eruptive Etna in the south to the snow-covered Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco in Italian) in the north.
“This morning I took the Canadian flag up there, took an Italian flag,” he says of Etna. “Then I basically slid down a thousand metres on a kind of lava slide. I just kind of let myself go.”
Orr, a computer engineer from Stratford, Ont., who lives in Florence, had a start-up fail earlier this year. Seeking a challenge to help give his life new meaning, he decided to deepen his understanding of his adopted country while drawing attention to the widely unknown, and in parts, neglected, Sentiero Italia (SI) or Great Italian Trail.
One of the world’s great trails
Spanning some 8,000 kilometres, the trail is one of the world’s longest, traversing 16 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage sites and numerous national parks. Inaugurated in 1995 by the Italian Alpine Club, the trail unites the Italian peninsula starting in the Alps, running down the boot atop the Apennines, then hopping to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
It is cared for by thousands of volunteers who do everything from trail maintenance, education and reforestation to running rescue stations and some 21,000 beds at 750 shelters, many of which serve hot meals.
“Along with promoting slow, sustainable tourism, SI allows those walking it to get a sense of indigenous vegetation and encounter local people along the way,” said Marco Garcea, a hiking guide in Calabria, southern Italy, who co-wrote part of the Sentiero Italia 12-volume guidebook.
WATCH | Across Italy on foot:
Featured VideoCanadian ultra-runner David Orr embarks on a three-month-long, 3,500-kilometre trek on one of the longest trails in the world: the Great Italian Trail.
In 2019, the alpine club began renovating the trail, which had fallen into disrepair in stretches, especially in the south.
“In the north, they have more famous mountains, but in southern Italy, the trails offer a greater level of discovery, greater contact with local culture,” Garcea said.
Trail ‘gone to hell’ in spots
The paths in the south, he says, once linked remote mountain settlements, with others used by inhabitants searching for firewood, collecting grapes or grazing, including some old transhumance routes for the seasonal droving of livestock.
Orr says with the exception of parks such as the majestic Pollino National Park that spans Calabria and Basilicata, the trail in southern Italy had “mostly gone to hell with Mediterranean vegetation I had to hack my way through.”
The red-and-white “SI” signs, though, were in excellent condition.
“It was almost like someone had a sadistic sense of humour,” he said of paths veering into farmers’ fields and thorny vegetation. “But whose fault is this? Not nature’s. So I had to develop a sense of humour and stop fighting it.”
For the first month or so he didn’t encounter other hikers, with the exception of one couple in the Calabrian high-altitude forests who so startled him that he asked if they were lost.
Instead, he came across larger-than-life local people, foragers and mushroom hunters with wicker baskets. They peppered him with questions and invited him into their homes. One group of picnickers, who he suspected were members of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta crime group, insisted he take a huge chunk of local cheese. (“I understood it was an offer I could not refuse,” he said, laughing.)
He developed a friendship with a wild dog who followed him for days and experienced a nocturnal communion with hundreds of fireflies, circling the path in stillness, like worshippers in pews.
Orr’s wife – Kristin Sullivan, with their two young children in tow in a camper van for several weeks – and a network of friends met him at the end of each day and organized food, lodging and other necessities. Funding for the run came from Orr himself, along with donations from supporters, with an Italian sportswear company providing gear.
“What he’s doing is amazing,” says Alberto Moldavi, who works at a refuge near Prato, Tuscany, and had his picture taken with “the mad Canadian” he’d heard was running the trail.
“He’s drawing attention to the literal backbone of Italy, the Apennine Mountain range, which needs to be protected. He’s practising and promoting the kind of tourism Italy needs.”
32-km run a ‘recovery’ day
Almost two months in, on Day 56, Orr emerged from the woods for dinner at the Tuscan refuge. He’d just completed a 65-kilometre day followed by a 32-kilometre day of “recovery.”
His hair a wild mess and his beard thick, Orr said he’d faced some agonizing challenges.
He’d hurt his quads and Achilles tendons early on, forcing him to slow down and run longer. Carrying water in isolated areas proved too onerous, so he opted for long stretches of dehydration. He estimates that five per cent of distance run was backtracking after getting lost.
But running the path, he said, allowed him to experience powerful transitional moments, like emerging from the depopulated south-central region of Molise, its wind-swept yellow-brown palette giving way to the more populated Abruzzo and the north of Italy.
“It was almost like a portal into the modern world, with people wearing fluorescent sports gear,” he said. “And on bikes!”
‘Be motherly with yourself’
Orr prefers ultra-running to marathons because the focus isn’t on time, but endurance, which helps settle his mind and block circular thinking, a hallmark of depression he’s struggled with at times.
“You’re going such long distances that you have to check in with your mind and body, to be motherly with yourself,” he said. “I also really enjoy the people who do it, who have steely minds and are optimists. You have to be, to do a 100-kilometre race.”
Almost three months after setting off, Orr faced his final challenge – making it to the top of snow-covered Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, straddling the Italian-French border.
He’d planned to take three days to run up the summit to help acclimatize to the 4800-metre height. But the refuges were booked up. So he did it in one day, running 73 kilometres through Italy’s Valle d’Aoste region, crossing into France at 2,300 metres to access the peak, then traversing a 100-metre “death ridge” with the risk of falling boulders.
“That was a monstrous day,” he said.
At 3 a.m., on the 85th day, he completed his 3,500-kilometre journey.
Now back in Florence, he says he’s proud he, with the help of his wife and others, was able to pull it off.
“I felt like I was in a long-term relationship with the trail and it demanded faithfulness to it,” he said.
He’s now looking after his children to give his wife time to focus on her career after three months of being a single parent.
The challenge that awaits him is everyday life.
“The trick is once you’ve done it to make the rest of your life an equally mythic journey. And that’s not that simple.”