Sunday brought past and present together in an emotional bundle of pride, love, and once-in-a-lifetime experience. Since learning of the Corsa Degli Zingari, my father researched and prepared, both physically and emotionally, for the race. But how do you really prepare for a barefoot race down a mountain living in Florida? I won’t go into the details of his physical training, but he worked on toughening up his feet and becoming more fit.
Since arriving in Pacentro, the location of the race, a mountain topped with a boulder painted the colors of the Italian flag and two fabric flags posted on each side, loomed in the background. To reach the base of the mountain, you zigzag down through the town to its lowest point and then walk winding paths speckled with rocks and lined with briars. From the vantage point of the town or our B&B, the foothill/mountain doesn’t appear too steep or large, but when you’re standing at the base, it’s size is undeniable.
Together, dad, Janice, Jim (Janice’s son) and I planned as much as possible about how to handle the event. It was decided that Janice and Jim would stay at the base of the town where the footpath meets the road. They would try to capture photos and videos from there, while I descended into the valley with my father to interpret and to try and stay down there to take photos from the valley.
Around 5pm, we followed a group of teenage boys down into the valley where registration was supposed to take place. Just the walk down could take the breath out of you. Of course, the nerves don’t help. At the base of the mountain is a creek with rocks and boulders to step across leading to the “path” up. When we arrived, there was no registration, just a police car and an ambulance, a great welcome. As we waited, more and more teenagers joined us. Most were boys, but a few brought their girlfriends. A few others brought their fathers. I was the only lady accompanying her father.
There seemed to be no order or plan. Eventually, a girl showed up with a clipboard and the uniforms. Then, a table appeared. The group surrounded the table, pushing and crowding it. We followed a larger boy with a mohawk. My father successfully registered and was given a pair of cotton blue shorts and a white t-shirt with the number four on the back. The men were expected to walk into the woods and change. They had to give their clothes to someone else to carry up.
We stood mostly in silence while the others regarded us with curiosity. There were two or three other guys who were a little older, but predominantly, the runners were 14 to 19 years old. I found a father of one of the boys who was Irish and spoke English. We talked while the participants posed for group photos.
After what seemed like an hour of waiting, the runners were told to start climbing. I hugged and kissed my father unaware of how this whole adventure would go. I tried not to worry or think about it too much. I watched him cross the boulder and start his ascent. Almost immediately, the runners disappeared into the woods. An official started yelling for the crowd to disperse and go.
I had to find a place to stop and take photos. I followed the crowd and found a group of teens perched on a small shelf overlooking the path. Looking around, I could see the thousands of spectators lining the running path up to the town, all along the roads, on all the balconies and anywhere else a view could be found.
Eventually, tiny white dots appeared at the top around the painted boulder. I kept finding myself holding my breath. I think my hands were shaking a little too. I watched the dots gather and stand around for about 15 minutes until the church bells sounded, signaling the start of the race. The dots dropped from the top and disappeared back into the woods. There was a small part of the trail that acts like a window about halfway down the mountain. Shockingly, almost immediately I saw dots dropping down that part of the trail. It doesn’t seem possible to move that fast without just plummeting. Before I knew it, the first few runners were passing by me. Only a minute or two had passed since the start.
I kept an eye on the piece of the trail I could see, snapping pictures of almost all of the anonymous dots. I had no way of guessing or knowing which was my father. After a couple more minutes, I spotted his bright green bandana. He was already down and running up toward the town. Everyone I stood with yelled, “Va! Va!”. I yelled, “Go!” hoping he’d hear the English and know it was me. I watched him pass and start the climb up. After they reach the top, the runners must continue through the crowd and into the church up the street.
After a few more runners passed, I found out that I could follow, but I had to be careful not to block the way of any racer. I made it to the street before the last runner was in. The crowd surged toward the church. When I made it, the police wouldn’t let me through to the church. I spotted a man we had met. He vouched for me, and they allowed me through the barrier to the church. I’m taller than most of the people in Pacentro and could see over the others’ heads into the church. There my father was. He looked fine and was smiling. He caught sight of me and raised his hand. My heart released.
More waiting. Then, the top four winners are paraded out on the shoulders of their friends and the rest of the racers follow. They parade through the town. Afterward, they joined the winner in his home where they eat a little and drink a little wine.
The entire town of Pacentro erupts into a festival party. Everyone is talking, eating, drinking and shopping. A stage was erected and a live band played. Over the course of the evening, the runners are treated like town heroes or local celebrities. Everyone was on a high from the day’s events. It was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, let alone my father.
All of the runners were recognized on stage starting with the last to finish and ending with the winner. Dad was the 22nd out of about 34. They also recognized him and presented him with a trophy for being the eldest in the race.