6th September 2023 | Words by Matt Jones and Hillary Gerardi
The setting for one of the world’s most revered mountain races is less than two hours from Milan Bergamo airport. It takes place amongst the peaks and valleys of Val Masino in Lombardy, nestled in the heart of the Italian Alps. It’s an elite race in every sense. Notoriously severe, difficult and demanding, it has a restricted field of just 300 participants. It’s also only held biannually – meaning that runners only get the chance to tackle it once every two years, if they make the cut at all.
Trofeo Kima – the Kima Trophy, as it is known – was first held in 1995. The trophy is dedicated to Pierangelo Marchetti, a renowned mountain guide of Valtellina. Nicknamed ‘Kima’, he tragically died in 1994 during a rescue mission. The highly technical course is a fitting epitaph to his memory. It is 52 km (32 miles) long in total, with a massive 4,200m (13,780ft) of vertical climb. The route crosses seven mountain passes, as well as moraine, snowfields and a series of exposed crests and ridges. At several key points, ropes are fixed for the athletes’ safety.
The jaw-dropping mountain setting and challenging route inevitably attracts many of the world’s top mountain runners. Catalan skyrunner and ultramarathoner Kilian Jornet, four times winner here, has called it “the most spectacular race in the world.”
Another runner who knows it better than most is Hillary Gerardi. Two-time women’s champion in 2018 and 2022, she loves Kima with a passion. “Anyone who knows Kima, reveres it,” she says. Last year, in pursuit of the course record, she penned a ‘love letter’ to the race, which perfectly encapsulates its allure.
I think it was Célia who first told me about you in 2016. She gave me my intro to all things skyrunning; she talks quickly and often on the assumption that I know exactly what she is talking about. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if it was my tenuous grip on the French language or my limited knowledge of the world of running, but I’d find myself nodding and smiling, not fully following. But Kima was a word that stuck out because it came up again and again. It was mentioned with reverence in her voice and in the same breath as the names of famous runners even I had heard of. She hadn’t been yet, but Kima, now that was the real deal.
In 2018, when Brad and I drove into Val Masino from the low, flat basin, almost zipping past the little sign pointing up the hill, we wound our little van up switchbacks that seemed to lead nowhere. I wanted to get eyes on the mountains and craned my neck until we hit one last hairpin turn and the steep walls of the valley started to open just wide enough for houses and a narrow street where a banner hung announcing “Trofeo Kima.”
My heart stuttered and I made us stop to take a photo. It felt like I had entered the arena. Imposing cliffs all around us, the competitors assembled, and I felt like I barely knew what I was doing. But I ached to get out there to see what the hype was all about, and to see if I could make it around the course. If I had dared to dream of winning, I’d have said it would be a dream come true. But instead, I just felt overwhelmed and lucky to have been able to hang on for dear life until the finish. I was physically and emotionally empty from a rollercoaster of a race, while somehow feeling so totally full my heart could bust open. It was the only race that year that Brad had been able to come to, and he said it was the only race he could see himself doing. He saw what I saw: a course of rocks that spoke our language, chains that rewarded you for climbing, of towering spires and majestic amphitheaters that had the heart of an Alpine community.
I went back to Val Masino time and time again, almost as a pilgrimage, until 2022 when I was finally pretty sure you’d be back, too. Kima, you served as a beacon: for months, you gave me motivation for my workouts. You encouraged me to go out in the mountains, in the real mountains and off the trail, seeking out the terrain with big granite blocks to leap across and to haul myself up and over. In a dry, heatwave summer, while my home mountains were crumbling beneath a scorching sun, the stadium where you reside gave me hope for enduring beauty in post-glacial landscapes.
Still, in August, while winding up the road that I’d come to know well, I felt all the insecurities return. All of the preparation I could do I had already done, and the only thing left to do was execute, but wasn’t it better to rest on my laurels as the former champ and let someone else become the regina? In 2018, you’d helped me come into my own as a runner, but I was scared to let you down, scared that people would see that our connection was more fleeting than it had appeared. But I also knew I owed it to you to try and that in return, you’d force me to live, at least from your start line to your finish, entirely in the present.
The fluttering of my heart and sweating palms contrasting to the bite of cold morning air
The pop of the starting gun and the rhythmic footfall of hundreds of runners
A cacophony of clapping and voices echoing “Brava! Brava! Dai! Allé allé!”
The loud in and out of breaths trying to find a rhythm
The rushing of water from snowmelt, making its way down the hillside
The crunching of gravel beneath each deliberate step
The clinking of chains and grunting with each overhand haul
A radio crackling; rescue teams call from one col to another with a progress report
The thunk of a falling rock and a shout of “Sasso!”
The voices echoing out from a distance–an improbable spectator far from any trailhead
The grinding of sand on granite; grinding over rocks on the moraine
The whistle of wind over a notch in the rocks
The desperate search for the next blaze in a sea of granite blocks
A quick suck of air as a foot misses its mark
The deafening thump of a pounding heart. Gulping breaths and screaming muscles
A silent dialogue in my head of opposing opinions–no I can’t; yes you can
A riot inside contrasted with the silence of the hills
Voices becoming audible
The clang of pot lids, wielded by San Marino’s retirees
The echo of the announcer, words indistinguishable but telling you it's time to drain the reserve tank
Kima, I can no longer say I’m inexperienced. I can no longer even claim that I’m “not really a runner,” but I can say that it has taken me a long time to identify as such. And in some ways, I’m still deciding about what kind of runner I want to be. But I know one thing for sure. When those questions and doubts come around, I can point to you and know that I’m home. Kima, you’ve let me feel like me in a way that most running never has. You’ve helped me identify the runner I aspire to be. A runner that inhabits the world between the earth and the sky, scales the slopes, pushes so hard they feel the taste of blood in their mouth, and skips across jumbles of blocks all while feeling awe at having the privilege to follow the footsteps of those that first drew the line across jaw dropping landscapes.
A runner that dares to run the risk of failure but will give it all that she’s got for a chance to add her name to the legacy.
Hillary Gerardi is a French-American skier, Alpine climber, ultramarathoner and mountain runner, based in Chamonix. She won the 2022 and 2018 Trofeo Kima Skyrunner Races, the 2021 Marathon du Mont-Blanc and the 2018 Tromso Skyrace, Glencoe Skyline and Monte Rosa Skymarathon races. She also holds the women’s record for the Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route Ski Traverse.