Of Mountains and Men: Marco De Gasperi
There’s no hint of exaggeration in calling Marco De Gasperi a mountain running legend. The 36-year-old from the Italian Alps was a young Skyrunning protégé at the very beginning of the sport’s existence, as well as a multiple-time World Mountain Running Champion–with six world titles to his name so far. I chatted to Marco about growing up in the Italian Alps and his love affair with the mountains that surrounded him.
iRunFar: Marco, you grew up in Bormio, in northern Italy, right? Tell me a little of the area there.
Marco De Gasperi: Bormio, the town where I was born, is a village of 4,000 inhabitants of the central Alps. Here the tradition of skiing has deep origins. Many champions in this discipline have worn the colours of Italy since the ’30s—in memorable editions of the Olympic Games and World Championships. The last champion in this discipline, from my valley, was Deborah Compagnoni, Olympic and World Champion several times in the ‘90s. In Bormio, until a few years ago, the kids had either skiing or ice skating (short track). There were few other alternatives.
iRunFar: It sounds like a cool place.
De Gasperi: Yeah, the town of Bormio is located in a sunny valley at 1,200 meters [altitude]. The climate is never too hard, even in winter, owing to the sunny exposure. The proximity to the Stelvio, Gavia, and Mortirolo passes inspire many cyclists in the summer who want to challenge these steep climbs. They’re places of heroic challenges in cycling, both vintage and current, in the Giro d’Italia—which rides along these roads annually.
iRunFar: Tell me about growing up in the mountains as a kid, what sports you liked, what games you played and what fascinated you?
De Gasperi: As many kids, I was introduced to the sports world by my parents at the age of six to attend the Nordic skiing school. Skiing I immediately liked, I didn’t miss a lesson and I could not wait to finish school to go out to ski. However the time of the first race at the end of the course was a trauma for me. Being very small compared to my peers, I finished the race last, even behind the girls. I remember I immediately felt the anxiety of defeat and held back the tears in front of my mother who had come to applaud. Inside I had that sense of shame that I can remember very well even today—although now with a smile! I continued with Nordic skiing up to 10 years—although, unfortunately, I suffered a lot in the competitions. Sometimes I had to pretend to be sick to avoid going to the races. I just could not compete against others because the physical differences were too great. It also ended up forcing me to leave the sport because coaches forced me very often when I didn’t want to go skiing.
iRunFar: What filled that void, Marco?
De Gasperi: Around 10 years [of age], through the love for the mountains that surround the area where I live, I dedicated myself more and more to mountaineering. In the early ’90s I began to climb with my father, who was one of the precursors of competitive ski touring [ski mountaineering]. In the ’60s, he and my cousin, Michele Compagnoni–who, later, went on to become a great Himalayan mountaineer with several climbs on 8,000 meter peaks like K2, Everest, and so on[–ski toured]. We used to leave walking from the town—the approach to the peaks wasn’t short—but with training we learned to be quick and walk many kilometers and still be able to complete a climb in the same day. Running was still unknown to me up until I was 12 years of age. The only thing that attracted me was the mountains and the peaks. To conquer more in the least time possible!
iRunFar: Great. Your parents were also majorly into mountain sports, were they?
De Gasperi: As I said, my father has always loved and practiced mountain sports, even during the times when the competitive spirit for specialties such as mountain running and cross-country skiing were still not widespread. My mother, however, has never practiced a lot of sports.
iRunFar: Was there a realisation for you that you had a deep love for the mountains or is something that you had from before you can reme
De Gasperi: Living in the mountains does not exactly mean you have a great love for them—if you do not learn to enjoy them regularly. Fortunately, my family has always had deep roots with the mountains. In my teens, with my grandparents, I used to spend the summer with the cows in their mountain home. I learned to take the cows to pasture, mowing the grass by hand, to milk, to make the wood for the winter, and how fun it is to hike among the trees to where the vegetation gives way to rock. This experience of the mountains and their inhabitants can only teach you the value of it. Now that work is done by my father, and I hope that tomorrow it’ll be mine, too.
iRunFar: Tell me about running, Marco. When did you start or when did you first see ‘mountain running?’ Had you any inspirational people to look up to?
De Gasperi: There’s a myth for every child, and that myth for myself, when I was 12 years old, was called Adriano Greco. Adriano Greco is the one who ‘invented’ Skyrunning together with the current President of the ISF, Marino Giacometti. Except to Marino, Adriano was also a great athlete who was able to develop this idea of racing on the mountains at the limit of the sky. In addition to running, Adriano was also the one who 100% enabled ski mountaineering to become a competitive sport. Thanks to his exploits, and also Fabio Meraldi, I fell in love with ski mountaineering in the winter and mountain running in the summer. In fact, Adriano involved me with his ‘summer passion’ because he was also the president of a small club of athletics and recruited children to introduce them to the world of mountain running.
iRunFar: So, did you start competing in mountain running races from early on, too?
De Gasperi: At 13 I did my first running race—it was a cross-country race. I finished fourth and suddenly I saw that I didn’t have to only fight for the last positions as I did in cross-country skiing! In the youth running races, there were no long distances for the kids, and I understood that the lack of speed in my legs didn’t allow me to emerge. I much preferred the slopes with gradients much higher, even to 1,000 meters and over. I was passionate about the Skyrunning races that were born in Italy in the early ’90s. Adriano gave me huge passion for those races. From an early age, he took me to follow in his participation in races at the time. They were races such as the ascent and descent of Mont Blanc from Courmayeur or Monte Rosa from Alagna. In 1993, at 16 years of age, he allowed me to participate in the race of Monte Rosa. I finished the race in 10th place. It was a fantastic experience!
After that day, however, my ‘teacher’ Adriano made me realise that it was better to improve my ability to run quickly at a young age, so he convinced me to try traditional mountain running, which in those years was certainly more fashionable, and certainly gave me the opportunity to race with athletes of my age with whom I made deep friendships that have continued over the last 20 years.
iRunFar: Cool. It must have been an exciting time being around for the dawn of Skyrunning?
De Gasperi: Yeah. As I mentioned before, I had the great fortune to have been one of the first athletes who practiced Skyrunning since the time it was born. Back then there were only three races in the whole year, all in Italy. I’m talking about 1990 until 1993. Then in 1994, came my first experience with the vertical kilometre–1,000 meters uphill from Cervinia to the Croce Carrel on the slopes of the Matterhorn. The first part of the route is the same as the one Kilian [Jornet] took for his record ascent. It’s great to have lived those years and be able to talk about them, even if certain competitions will never be able to exist again because of the danger, on some courses, from the glacier—as in the case of Mont Blanc, although fortunately it never had any fatal accidents. After those early Skyrunning years, I left those kind of competitions for shorter mountain running races until 2003, when I returned for a ‘bet’ on a tough race, though not a very long race, on Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia.
iRunFar: What are your memories from your first-ever Skyrunning race?
De Gasperi: That was the race from Alagna (1,200 meters) to the summit of Monte Rosa (4,650 meters) and back. It was my absolute first Skyrunning competition. It was an experience full of adrenaline. I could only participate through a written permission from my father on a sheet because I was only 16. I took 5:36 to complete the 30k with 7,000 meters [of elevation change] and of altitude and with more than half of the route on the glacier. I was 10th place overall and it fulfilled me so much. I still keep the shirt I was given upon finishing.
iRunFar: Fantastic Marco. You went from Skyrunning to more traditional mountain running. Tell me about your journey to the top of the World Mountain Running Association World Championships and of some of your sternest memories.
De Gasperi: The first worldwide WMRA competition which I attended was in Scotland, in Edinburgh, in 1995. I was a junior in that first year and it was a race with on a route with ascent and descent. I finished that race in seventh place but with three Italians in front of me. It’s a sign that the Italian tradition in this specialty has always been very strong. The course on the hills that surround the capital of Scotland, in a very impressive theatre, was also where a world cross-country championship was held a few seasons ago, although on a lower part of the course. I remember the amount of spectators was not very large and was almost exclusively composed of ‘insiders’—although I cannot hide the fact that with regard to that, things have not changed even after 20 years! The award ceremony was a simple hand-out of some trophies and medals outside a typical Scottish castle without a podium and with only the national teams present. My first national team call-up, however, was such an exciting experience which I keep as one of my nicest memories, so much so that even a world title hasn’t been able to give me the same feeling.
The year after that, I improved my uphill considerably and at the 1996 WMRA championships in Telfes, Austria. I won my first world champs, as a junior. A year passed and in 1997 I won the world champs in the senior category in Mala Svatonovice in the Czech Republic, where I finished in front of my teammate David Milesi, a 2:10 marathon runner. That year I trained a lot to improve my downhill. My most beautiful victory, however, was the last in 2007, at Ovronnaz in Switzerland, where I was coming back from a bad injury and a one year forced break from running. On that occasion I arrived first after a long battle with two Eritrean runners.
iRunFar: Great. Are you still a full-time runner then, Marco, or have you another career in Italy?
De Gasperi: My job is to be a professional athlete, though now I don’t consider myself a professional 100%. At 36 years old, compared to a few years ago, I train a lot less. With a family the day is full of commitments to which you shouldn’t flinch and you have to handle everything in the best way. My time is not so exclusively dedicated to running and to live my days in the mountains. The Italian government has given me a job as a forest ranger, although up until then I’ll be an athlete. My job will be to only concentrate on racing and running. It’s the job I always dreamed since when I was a child, living in daily contact with nature and also having the good fortune to live in a national park where the activity of the ranger has a meaning that’s more important than elsewhere. Sometimes, even when I’m not involved in this work, I follow a few colleagues and friends, who are rangers in the mountains during the monitoring of the activities of the animals. It’s really interesting… even if my colleagues do not walk very fast! I hope to stay in this world once I’ve abandoned the competitive activity because it allows me to remain in contact with the world that I love.
iRunFar: Sounds great. You’ve concentrated on marathon distance and under in your career up to this point but have spoken of running ultras at some point. Can you tell me a little about your plans?
De Gasperi: Often during interviews, they ask me when I will try ultra distances in mountain running. Although I should never say never, I think it’s quite impossible. Or maybe we should rephrase the question specifying what you mean by the ultra distance. I could, in fact, consider the possibility of running 80k (50-mile) races in the future. I do not think I have the right mindset to try longer distances. I look with interest and respect at athletes who once exclusively ran ‘short’ distances up to the marathon such as Max King, Sage Canaday, and Luis Alberto Hernando. They’re not suffering from the change of mentality too much. However, sometimes it’s harder for them competing at the shorter distances than in the past. Perhaps with the right planning I could aspire to some ultra, but distances as high as UTMB are not in my DNA.
iRunFar: You are sponsored by SCOTT, a company that has become much more involved with trail and mountain running the past few years. How did you became involved with them?
De Gasperi: I can say that the opportunity to meet up with an old friend who worked for this great company as a commercial agent has been fundamental. Mario Poletti, who is a Skyrunner from the recent past that has managed to win more races in Italy than anyone. It was during a trip that he spoke of the desire of SCOTT to develop a product for outdoor running that would be able to compete with the main trail running brands of the world. At first I didn’t give it any importance, but then I was contacted by the company that imported this brand to Italy. And, after a conversation I realised they were serious. The great thing was that they wanted to do something important by using my name. I understood from that moment that someone realised that I existed, even if the last world championship I’d won had been three years earlier! I accepted with enthusiasm and the collaboration was a great time of growth for myself – I began to understand something about marketing and how to focus my knowledge to understand how to develop a trustworthy product. Even at times when I was injured, they were still very supportive and for that I can only thank them. These days, for example, I’ll be busy for a weekend at an event sponsored by SCOTT in Austria where there will be a workshop dedicated to dealers with interviews with us athletes. Recently the inclusion of some important athletes like Sage Canaday, Joe Gray, and also young up-and-comers such as Xavier Chevrier and Luke Cagnati, for example, have given more incentives to continue on this path. [Editor’s Note: As of this publishing, Sage Canaday has announced he’s running for Hoka One One in 2014.]
iRunFar: Cool. To finish, Marco, Skyrunning has seen a worldwide boom in the last few years. As someone who has seen it develop since the very early days, what do you think the benefits of this will be for the sport?
De Gasperi: It’s perfectly true. I’m glad that the Federation of Skyrunning had the right intuition to be able to involve some companies in this project, which happened because of a successful series of factors. On the one hand, the desire for some of the large, outdoor brands to develop more products—shoes and clothing—for the increasing interest in this discipline among runners. That diversified and expanded what was on offer to potential users. On the other hand, you had the explosion of the ‘phenomenon’ that is Kilian. That gave an impetus to this incredible movement with its unique way of understanding and living the mountains. His sponsors understood right away that this character could catalyse the masses and they built lots of great stories around him.
Now, with the separation in the Skyrunner World Series into several circuits, with the addition of the Ultra Series, participation in the events and the visibility of the sport is growing. But I think that it will always be a sports phenomenon within certain borders, that means it will never become an Olympic sport. I think that is right. In this way, there will be no big problems of doping, for example, which I think is not in the mindset and values of those who practice this sport in the mountains—at least among the top athletes. Let’s say that Skyrunning can aspire to become more and more popular, but by keeping its feet planted on the ground by not distorting its technical characteristics of the routes for the benefit of television–that sometimes changes everything–and also by maintaining the natural charm of the mountains.