Features Image 1

Published on December 22, 2017

Corfu Mountain Trail Preview

Taking place 14-15 April 2018, the Corfu Mountain Trail promises to be both a beauty and a beast. RunningMonkey’s Francois-Xavier Gaudas takes a look at what’s in store…

Picture a beach by the Mediterranean sea. It’s 30 degrees, the soothing sound of the waves and the small breeze as you enjoy the view on the nearby cliffs while drinking a cold beverage. Now imagine hearing and seeing runners go past, right behind you, heading for the mountains above the beach restaurant. Welcome to the Corfu Mountain Trail, taken directly from a postcard…

Known as the ‘Emerald Island’ because of its incredible and green nature full of olive trees, Corfu is one of the most beautiful places in the Mediterranean. The sea is crystal blue, the sun shining nearly for the entire year (at least eight out of twelve months) and its cultural heritage make it the perfect spot to spend holidays to for tourists. But it doesn’t stop there; the people are kind and welcoming and the food is amazing.

So why in Hell would you like to think about doing something else than simply relax? Why go running in the mountains? Well, the answer is in the question. Because of its unique features, Corfu is the best location possible for an amazing running experience.

image 2What’s the story?

Created seven years ago by a bunch of passionate and driven ultra runners (Jean-Paul, Vasilis, Kostas, Prokopi, Giorgos) who all met during UTMB, the event consists of 4 races + one for the younger runners:

The Quick Trail (8km – 300m of elevation gain)

The Olive Trail (20km – 1200m of elevation gain)

The Rain Trail (40km – 2200m of elevation gain)

The Night & Day (104km – 4200m of elevation gain)

image 3It is suitable for beginners as well as experienced runners and while you will be running, your family or friends can enjoy the locals’ famous hospitality and food. If you have never had real feta cheese or fresh seafood before you are going to have a shock! A quick warning though: if you start drinking rounds of Ouzo, try and leave as soon as you can because your glass will be refilled until you can’t drink any more. But enough with the treats, let’s talk about the most important thing here, the race itself.

Our little ‘taster’

After being picked up at the airport and spending a night in the 3-star Messonghi Hotel by the sea (where every participant will stay), I spend the first day with a few other journalists coming from Italy, Sweden and Italy. I already know Gaël Couturier well and am happy to meet Paolo and Fredrik, very friendly guys (try to guess who comes from where.) The four of us go for a quick run up the hills with Jean-Paul, an experienced Frenchman who has been living here for 40 years now. We meet him at Vasilis’ butchery shop down town. He is the president of the runners’ association that organises the race. In his forties, he is also a good runner (a UTMB finisher) and knows the island like the back of his hand (“There is not a single other butcher on this island who runs more than me you know.”) I take his word for it. We all hop on our different cars and head for the mountain.

image 4This session was enjoyable for everyone. We got to see how technical the course would be with all the rocks and roots and branches trying to scratch you all the time. The hills are not very steep but since it’s going up and down a lot there is no doubt that all the races are to be taken seriously in terms of training. Jean-Paul takes us to the top where you have an incredible view on the rest of Greece and even Albania on the other side of the sea. Nature is luxuriant, you can see all the small villages that you sometimes cross downhill and the quiet brings a very spiritual feeling to this spot as well. We are all amazed by the colour of the sea as Jean-Paul goes through the course of the longest race (the one we will all be running in April) pointing trees and hills in the distance. This man is an encyclopedia; he has so many stories and history facts to tell, what a pleasure to have our own personal guide and most importantly, this person as one of the organisers.

image 5After this 8km session, we head back to the hotel for a quick shower before having dinner with the other members of the organisation and Yannis, the owner of the hotel and one of the sponsors of the race. It was important to have this moment with everyone from the race, to ask how it would go and how successful the previous editions were.

Be “Corfu-l”

The next day, a bigger run is planned with a lot more runners, mostly locals but also this guy named Balázs from Hungary. After getting to know him a bit, we learn that he finished the Spartathlon… 7 times. We all go to the 104km race’s start, north of Kerkyra. We then go up in a big van as there is a long distance to cover (around 5km) and we are here to see the course, not race like madmen (maybe later.) When we stop to finally start running, we find ourselves on a portion of the race that’s high enough to have a panorama view of the sea below. Stunning really. The trail is technical, I trip very fast and even sprain my ankle 2km into the run. The bushes and thorns are numerous and a lot of tiny cuts start appearing on everyone’s arms and legs.

Going downhill, we end up on a beach, one of many on that day. After a picture break we go on, running along crystal blue lagoons on our side. Gaël trips and ends up with his legs in the air and stuck between bushes… it was not a good day for him. Further on, in Liapades, we arrive on one of the most beautiful beaches of the island; but only after going down via a ladder. It’s hard to believe we are actually on a beach, with chairs and a restaurant and people staring at us. It’s both uncanny and fun! Despite the scratches and the falls, we are all happy and end the run there after a little more than 11km.

image 6Supported by the government

The next day, we go even deeper and further up the mountains. The heat is difficult to handle even in October (“it’s the olive season” explains Jefis, one of the locals), I can only imagine in April. Our aim was to go to the highest point of the race, at 940m in Pantokratoras, and we had to go through a lot of small local places for that. After 2hours in this kind of wild ‘jungly’ terrain, we stop for lunch at a tavern and enjoy yet another incredible meal, speaking with locals and learning about olive oil, raki and Ouzo. In fact one of the trails actually leads to the village of Spartylas, known for its great Ouzo.

image 7This meal marked the end of a great few days on the trails of the race and I have to admit that it looks incredible. Difficult, yes, but definitely worth the trip to Corfu. The landscapes are insanely beautiful, the challenge is real and the locals are all deeply involved in the well-being of the event. We also met the governor with Vasilis and Jean-Paul; the first time he had agreed to meet them in seven years – so a big leap for them to be in the process of having the government’s support for this event. It attracted 650 participants in 2016, 50% of them being Greek. It appears to have the potential to keep growing while remaining authentic and enjoyable for everyone.

image 8Are you ready for the challenge?

The Night & Day trail looks brutal and a strong preparation will be necessary to see the finish line. Even on the shorter distances, the course is challenging with technical portions going downhill, steep ascents under the heat and thorns scratching your body and eventually, your mind. But those races take place in a beautiful environment with unique views on the Adriatic sea, allowing runners to cross through typical villages and very well hidden beaches. The guys behind this event love their island and know perfectly what they are doing; an essential element in their success. But this event is more than racing, it is about taking part in a great experience that you will definitely remember for years. The landscapes, the locals’ hospitality, the rich culture and history, everything makes it a place to spend more than just a weekend.

See you in a few months?

Useful information:
Event: 14-15 April 2018
80% of trails
5 ITRA points on the ultra race
Website: corfumountaintrail.com

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