Ten Mountain Running Questions with Francesco Puppi (Italy)

“Ten Questions” is a series of interviews with top mountain running athletes from around the world. USA junior team manager Paul Kirsch contributed this edition of Ten Questions. Intro photo by Damiano Benedetto.

Francesco Puppi was the 2017 World Mountain Running Long Distance Champion and finished second in the standings for the 2018 WMRA Cup. He has an extensive background in running on all surfaces, from mountain to track to road to trail. He currently lives and trains in the Como area located in the Lombardy region of Italy. He also has a Masters Degree in Physics from the University of Milan.

PAUL: When did you get your first exposure to running and also specifically, mountain running?

FRANCESCO: I got into running at the age of six, when my cousin Martina and I decided to join a local club to take up the sport of track and field. It was really just about having fun at the beginning, we played hide and seek and did all kinds of activities during practice.

Even as a child I soon developed a passion for middle and long distance running. I was not very good at it and I was also very little compared to the other kids; infact, most of the times during races I was fighting for the very last positions. I learned to give value to hard work over talent, started to love the hours spent training, and I looked for constant improvement.

Mountain running came much later, when I was in my early twenties, as a natural consequence of my exploration of all types of terrains and running surfaces. My hashtag is #anysurfaceavailable, in a sense that I want to adapt and be competitive on any kind of race and environment.

I’ve always had a passion for mountains and, living at the footstep of the Alps, my parents used to take me hiking and trekking all the time when I was a kid. Moving fast and nimbly in the mountains is something I developed naturally, in some way. Mountain running is an expression of my way of live and a way to experience the alpine environment.

PAUL: The atmosphere around Italian mountain running is legendary, with enthusiastic fans who exhibit so much national pride at events. Can you tell us what it’s like to compete in front of such enthusiastic home crowds at venues like Premana for example?

FRANCESCO: Premana has an atmosphere unlike any other place. It’s an oasis where any mountain runner is important and feels at home. Every big international race, a WMRA World Cup race, for example, should experience an atmosphere like that. It’s important that fans can come and cheer for their favorite athletes. This is what keeps the sport alive. But that unfortunately doesn’t happen very often. We should look to emulate cycling in this aspect, even though mountain running is a much smaller sport.

One of my dreams is to grow and share the culture of mountain running, both to give opportunities to the future athletes and to contribute to its positive atmosphere. It’s a great way to live the mountain environment and to travel.

PAUL: Does your training involve mostly running or do you cross train with other sports?

FRANCESCO: I am a full-time runner; I use cross training only as a support for my main activity. This includes cycling, swimming and strength training. However, I tend to focus very much on running. I spend the summer season racing in the mountains, while during winter I love cross country. Fall and spring are mostly dedicated to running races on roads.

I love long bike rides and climbs, but I’m not allowed to ride my bike too often! In the summer I’d be out doing any kind of outdoor activity, but training and racing require good rest and careful planning, so I don’t always have time for other sports.

PAUL: What’s your most memorable running moment, whether it be in a race or a training run?

FRANCESCO: I have had several of these moments. Most of them are just brief moments of happiness experienced during training, when I’m alone. They are special because they mean something only to me, and I think they are the essence of what running is for me.

Other great moments are related to racing. Just laying on the grass after an all-out effort, or the goosebump you get when you realize you’ve made it, when it’s all over. My race at the 2018 World Mountain Running Championships in Canillo, Andorra was surely one of them. The 2017 World Mountain Running Championship races in Premana, Italy were a story of their own.

PAUL: This year will see both World Mountain Running Championships (short and long distance) take place on back-to-back days in Argentina. This is also the first time that South America has played host to a mountain running world championship. Tell us your thoughts on having the championships outside of Europe and what you think it means for the sport.

FRANCESCO: I think it’s great. It makes the sport more interesting and widens the horizons of the participating countries and the public. The example of Premana shows that hosting both long and short distance mountain running championships at the same venue is useful.

I also believe that mountain running should never be “out of context”: a race has a meaning only if it fits well in the environment where it’s held and if it has a positive outcome for the community that supports it. I hope this can happen in Argentina, too.

PAUL: What mountain running races are you focused on for the 2019 season?

FRANCESCO: My idea for 2019 is to focus on the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Argentina in November. I also plan to compete at the Trail World Championship in Portugal on June 8, then spend the rest of the summer preparing for Sierre-Zinal, which is probably my favorite mountain race ever. I will also compete in some of the WMRA World Cup Races and most of the Golden Trail Series.

PAUL: Do you have a hobby or passion that has nothing to do with running? If so, tell us about it.

FRANCESCO: I like to ride the unicycle. It’s always been a passion of mine, since I was a child, and I’ve always been attracted by balance in all forms. I like to make bread, it’s a food unlike any other.

PAUL: What do you think should be the future direction for the sport of mountain running?

FRANCESCO: I think this is the most delicate and important topic. We are in a peculiar situation where several trends, commercial interests, federations and public have a strong influence on the evolution of our sport. In my opinion, mountain running is mostly identified by a tradition, a story, rather than a well-defined course feature, length, elevation or surface. It lies in the big container of “trail running”, and that’s why it’s important to preserve the tradition and distinctive traits of mountain running. Some worldwide recognized races are and will always be what we refer to as “mountain running”. It’s not a matter of the technical characteristics of the course, but rather it’s important to understand where the sport is right now and what we want to pursue.

I think that without innovation and change, mountain running has no future. The three big worlds of mountain, sky and trail running are not separate: cross-pollination and dialogue are what make them interesting and dynamic. The most exciting races are the ones where the very best athletes clash and compete against each other. That still doesn’t happen very often, unfortunately.

Our sport needs to take a direction where real athletes and champions can be truly recognized. Right now, there’s too much confusion and it’s not always clear who these athletes are; this is mostly due to an overabundance of races, to social media trends and to the lack of an attractive international circuit where the best athletes compete against each other, a sort of Diamond League of mountain running. It also needs to be more professional; this will help increase the level of the competition and grow the interest of the public, sponsors and athletes. A sport where the best and most recognized athletes are not professionals has clearly room for improvement and is not at its highest level. We need to take another step forward.

PAUL: What are your all time top 3 songs.

FRANCESCO: It depends a lot on the mood of the moment. Right now I could say Chelsea Hotel by Leonard Cohen, Are you going with me by Pat Metheny and Sultans of swing by Dire Straits.

PAUL: Is there a race outside of Europe that is on your “bucket list” to compete at? If so, tell us about it.

FRANCESCO: I’d like to race in Nepal and in Alaska, but I don’t have a precise idea of what race it would be. Though mountain running I’ve had the chance to visit many different countries and to come in contact with other people and cultures. I have several friends across the ocean, who I’d never have met if it wasn’t for mountain running. I am also interested in American trail and mountain races; the Pikes Peak Marathon for example, is on my bucket list for 2019. I’d also like to explore races in Oregon and Arizona too.

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