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General Running • May 30, 2023

UTLAC Ultra: What It’s Like to Run the Italian Riviera

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What You Need To Know

The Race

UTLAC 30K (there’s also a 250K option)

The Location

Lake Como, Italy (30K starts from Bellagio and finishes in Lecco)

The Dates

May 10-14, 2023

Running Through the Clouds Above Lake Como

Have you ever said yes to something before really considering what doing it actually meant? When Believe in the Run offered me the chance to run a 30K around beautiful Lake Como in Italy aka the Italian Riviera aka vacation home to Hollywood A-listers, I didn’t even hesitate. And then I realized just how far out of my comfort zone this race would be.

The UTLAC Trail race consists of two courses: a multi-stage 250K race with over 40,000 feet of elevation gain that circles the entirety of Lake Como in Italy, and a 30K point-to-point race with 6,000 feet of elevation gain that travels from Bellagio to Lecco. (Next year, the organizers plan to include a 50K race as well: a trail runner’s dream.)

Climbing is easier with trekking poles


I flew from Denver to Milan on Thursday, landed in Italy on Friday and took the train to Lecco, where the race finishes. Lecco is a small city—population: under 50,000—on the southeastern shore of Lake Como. This area is a huge destination for endurance athletes, with trail-ridden mountains shooting up to nearly 8,500 feet from the lakeside. 

On Saturday, I did a little shakeout around the lake, heading to the finish line area for bib pickup. Despite the 250K being well underway, things were quiet; I only saw one finisher on her way in, and I was pretty impressed at how easily she was moving given the distance covered. She warned me that the final descent was muddier and rockier than expected, insights that made me a little anxious for the next day. I indulged my nerves with pasta and pizza before heading to bed early—nowhere does carb loading better than Italy. 

The race starts in Bellagio, a town known as “the Pearl of Lake Como” due to its spectacular villas and postcard-perfect views. (FWIW, George Clooney made this whole area famous to Americans, but his home is in Como, about an hour south of Bellagio.) To get there, I—along with around 300 other runners from 12 different countries—took a hour-long ferry across the lake, which was especially moody looking at 7:30 a.m., with dark rain clouds hanging over it.

Sitting on the boat and milling around at the start line, I felt a little out of place; these runners looked like serious trail runners, decked out in mostly black with a few pops of neon (I saw tons of labels for Salomon, Scarpa, Hoka, and New Balance). I had opted for the Brooks High Point Trail Collection shorts and jacket, the bright blues and pinks of which made me stand out from the crowd—but I purposely chose Italian brands for my shoes (La Sportiva Cyklon) and sunglasses (Rudy Project’s Spinshield) to psych myself up.

We didn’t get to see much of Bellagio—the start line is right at the port—although runners were taking advantage of the cute lakefront cafes for last-minute coffees, fueling, and bathroom stops. Once the start gun went off, the majority of the runners took advantage of the pavement to drop a sub-8:00 mile, which I was not ready for. I thought trail races were supposed to be less about pace?!

man running on a dirt road above Lake Como in Italy

The views are okay

The First Climb

However, I quickly realized why so many people booked it out of town: We started climbing almost immediately, navigating a narrow alley with cobblestone steps before bottlenecking in single file at a cement staircase that eventually turned into a steep single-track dirt trail through heavily wooded forest.

Not gonna lie: This stressed me out. I knew I wasn’t going to be the strongest or fastest out there, and being forced into a conga line of power-hiking runners jacked up my heart rate even more than the incline.

Eventually, the line started to spread out and I was able to calm down and settle into a more comfortable pace. In fact, I was so comfortable run/walking at the 5K point that I missed a trail marker after we left a field of wildflowers and jogged by a few small homes situated on a gravelly path.

In retrospect, I’m pretty sure a local resident tried to warn me I was going the wrong way, but I couldn’t understand his Italian and merely waved and said “Grazia!” in return; fortunately, a pair of runners behind me flagged me down and got me back on course. Minus this mishap, the course was very well-marked, with bright blue UTLAC ribbons pointing runners through the woods.

There was no reprieve on the ascent, though; after a system-shocking 1,400 feet in the first three miles, it was still a steady grind until 8.5 miles in (the first aid station—or what Europeans call a “life base”—popped up at the 10K mark, but we made short work of this one since it was liquids only). All that uphill work eventually started to pay off in views—the higher I went, the more of Lake Como appeared below. With the clouds hanging low over the pre-Alp mountains and brightly colored villas dotting the lakeside, it was a sight for sore eyes.

path up a mountain with trees overhead and on both sides

Up we go

The Second Climb

Once I reached the top of the first climb, I had the sweet relief of almost four downhill miles. Mentally, this stretch should’ve been relaxing; instead, I spent most of it dreading what I thought would be the hardest part of the course: a 2,500-foot climb over about three and a half miles.

Fortunately, we had another aid station around 18K, and this one had apple slices, bananas, nuts, and some crackers and cake (I was fully expecting American ultramarathon fare, like Oreos, Red Bull, and other junk food, but of course Europeans are healthier).

In reality, the second climb wasn’t as bad as I anticipated—not just because it was slightly less steep than I expected, but because we had to essentially climb up a mudslide. Forget running; I was muscling up the mountain using my Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles and praying that the mud-caked lugs on my shoes wouldn’t skid out from under me. The last mile and a half of this climb were my slowest miles of the race, because I literally couldn’t go any faster (which took some of the internal pressure off!).

View at lake como

Views from the finish

The Finish

In reality, the second climb wasn’t as bad as I anticipated—not just because it was slightly less steep than I expected, but because we had to essentially climb up a mudslide. Forget running; I was muscling up the mountain using my Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles and praying that the mud-caked lugs on my shoes wouldn’t skid out from under me. The last mile and a half of this climb were my slowest miles of the race, because I literally couldn’t go any faster (which took some of the internal pressure off!).

Once the worst of the mud was over, I was back to navigating dirt single-track—but the amount of rocks and roots kept me from getting into a good groove. Finally, the forest spit us out in the area of Valmadrera; from there, it was a quick descent back to the lakeside. I had run this part of the route twice in the preceding days, so as soon as my feet were back on that pavement, I hit the gas, running 5, then 6, and finally 7 minutes faster than my average pace towards the town of Lecco. 

In these last few miles, there were almost no other runners around. My last two big races were the New York City Marathon and Tokyo Marathon, so I may have gotten a little too used to the wild spectator vibes of the World Marathon Majors.

Despite my sense of accomplishment, it felt kind of anti-climactic heading into the finish chute with almost no one to cheer me in. But, in the end, I didn’t need that. I went into this race afraid I wouldn’t finish, but in those last few miles I knew I would complete it with almost two hours to spare before the cutoff. That realization was enough to keep me moving.

two women crossing a finish line at a race in Italy

Finishing the UTLAC 30K!


Post-race, runners had tickets for free beers and free pasta, and free massages were being offered as well. I took advantage of all of it, and probably would have paid big money for someone to unknot my tired leg muscles at the point. I don’t think the more experienced trail runners felt as wrecked as I did, but 6,000 feet of climbing over about 20 miles is no joke. If I had a penny for every time I exclaimed over the views, though, I could probably pay for next year’s registration.

I’ve run 13 marathons, all of them faster than this 30K (which, for the record, actually ended up being 32K). I’m not making any kind of permanent switch from the road to the trail any time soon, but it was both humbling and inspiring to remind myself that I can do hard things like this. I may not have been as prepared as I would have liked, but how lucky am I that my fitness is at a place where I can do things like this—and surprise myself by doing them well

Of course, there’s no better place to celebrate the end of an endurance event than Italy. I barely had to walk a few more steps to find gelato, pizza, and pasta to celebrate my finish. And, truly, I can’t think of a better way to experience Lake Como than from atop the mountains that make its landscape so stunning—although, I wouldn’t mind a guest appearance from Clooney next time.


Very cool wooden race medals


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Ashley Mateo
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Ashley is an award-winning journalist and editor whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, TIME, Runner’s World, Women’s Running, Men’s Journal, Health, Women’s Health, Bicycling, and more. She’s also an RRCA- and UESCA-certified running coach based in Denver. Her main goal—through writing and coaching—is to make running accessible for everyone, because no matter how fast you are, we’re all just doing this for fun.

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