Silvesterlauf: The Runner’s New Year

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New Year's Eve in Bolzano

Forget fireworks and ‘Auld Lang Syne’: when it comes to New Year’s celebrations, the best way for the running community of Europe to mark the change in the Gregorian calendar is by running a Silvesterlauf. A central part of the festive season, we headed to Bolzano in Northern Italy to check out one of the biggest players of the New Year’s Eve racing scene phenomenon, the BOclassic, where everyone from World Champions to local heroes toed the line of this very unique racing format.

It’s 7am on New Year’s Day, with the light of 2019’s first dawn just breaking over the mountain peaks that encircle Bolzano. There is a knock on next door’s room in our hotel. It’s met with a very New Zealand ‘Yo!’, which is replied to with a very East African, ‘Zane, we run now, you come?’ There is a brief clatter of doors opening and broken conversation in the corridor as Zane Robertson joins his temporarily displaced training group that includes the Ethiopian duo of Tamirat Tola and Muktar Edris, who head out to run in the fresh winter air. They are not running off hangovers from the excesses of New Year’s celebrations, but easing their sore muscles into a faster state of recovery after the previous day’s hard 10km race around the city. As silence falls again on the hotel, we wait a few minutes before getting up too, because we’ve got a run planned with the Brits and Irish from the New Balance Manchester squad, who, like many others in this hotel, skipped the festivities to focus on performance.

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The phenomenon of Silvesterlaufs, or running on Saint Silvester (whose Saints Day is New Year’s Eve), is a tradition that is as large in European running as marathons or half marathon races. As the name suggests (‘lauf’ being German for run), they have grown from the DACH countries of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, seeing them now held all over mainland Europe. From the big money races in cities such as Madrid, Trier, and Bolzano to your local race of club elites, they’re one way to ring in the end of one year and the beginning of the next–quite literally in the case of Zurich’s late starting gun.

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It’s odd how the schedule of athletics is so very different to the traditional timekeeping of the Gregorian Calendar. Athletics revolving around cross country, road racing and track racing, with three seasons that have a definitive break before, and after, cross country. This means that the traditional end of year celebrations that are deemed obligatory by social standards are somewhat out of sync with the training and racing schedules of athletes. That’s where the Silvesterlauf comes in– a way to keep runners focused on their sport during the socially enforced time of relaxation and excess. As Steve Vernon, who heads up the New Balance Manchester team says matter-of-factly: “It keeps their heads on.”

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17 hours earlier and Bolzano was enjoying the elite women’s and men’s events of their Silvesterlauf occasion. Heading up the women’s race was a dominant Netsanet Gudeta. The reigning World Half Marathon Champion and World Record Holder, she set a blistering pace from the start of the race, which saw the crowds spill out from the bars that lined the circuit to cheer her on. With laps around a predominantly cobbled 1250m circuit, there are plenty of opportunities for the locals to encourage some of the world’s best runners.

The women race over 5km, while the men take on eight laps for 10km; it’s middle distance road running in its most compact and spectator-friendly format. The athletes in their vests and split shorts draw reverential looks from the merry-makers and supporters in their array of down jackets, with a glass of their preferential poison in hand.

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Prior to the start we caught up with Italian Yemaneberhan Crippa, who was aiming to round out his break-out year in the senior ranks, which included a bronze medal at the European 10,000m Championships. He’s a familiar and overwhelmingly popular sight at the BOclassic: "It’s a really local race for me, like the Giro al Sas in Trento, and I’m hoping there’ll be a lot of people out there cheering for me so that’ll give me an extra boost.

New Year’s Eve is special so I can’t miss midnight. But as I’ve got the Campaccio International cross-country next week, I’ve got to keep focused and performing at 100%. So New Year’s Eve has basically turned into a regular day for me; I can’t go wild. I’ll sure as hell be awake at midnight."

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Yeman Crippa

Back to the morning after and our group gathers. Olympian Ross Millington, team New Balance Manchester coach and manager Steve Vernon, as well as Irish talent Ciara Mageean and Brit Elinor Kirk join us to head out for an hour’s easy jog. Zane and his Ethiopian group return as we limber up. Zane’s haltering walk upstairs confirms that his calf is feeling the effects of the previous evening’s effort, and the morning’s 7-minute kilometres were just the panacea for the post-race muscular hangover. As we jog along the gravel tracks in the local apple orchards, Steve chats: "The BOclassic has become part of the season for us. I enjoy throwing it into the calendar because it keeps everyone’s heads on over the Christmas period so they don’t forget they’re in the middle of a season. Up next is the indoor season and the World Cross-country Championships. Personally I was asleep by eleven last night. What about you guys?" He looks with curiosity at his athletes. Ross was tucked up in bed, whilst roommates Ciara and Elinor enjoyed the chimes of midnight in their respective beds, exchanging a calm ‘Happy New Year’ before the bomb-like fireworks went off, each messaging friends and family back at home. Steve looks relieved.

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We jog on, embracing the clear fresh morning and the chat continues. Largely about Silvesterlaufs. "26:39!" Steve exclaims, "These don’t tend to be PB-setting races. The course here in Bolzano was measured in its first year and that’s it; it’s not an IAAF event so they don’t measure it every year. Since it began, they’ve added two corners through the finish zone [to better accommodate the bustling Christmas market] that certainly add an additional 20 metres per lap, so records and the like are not really key to these races. It’s about running hard in the depths of winter and keeping everyone focused.” It’s certainly true. After watching a re-run of the San Silvestre Vallecana in Madrid with the 26:39 finish, it’s clear that the jubilant stadium lends itself to a spectator-friendly version of road running. New Zealand’s Zane Robertson agrees. "It’s the same here in Bolzano, but the course isn’t as sloped in the athlete’s favour as it is there." He laughs: "As downhill as it can legally be."

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As most people’s New Year’s Eve celebrations commence, Zane sits down with us, chamomile tea in hand. Just two days earlier he’d travelled from Ethiopia to Bolzano for what has now become his traditional NYE appearance. It’s his third time here, and he shows us the wallpaper on his phone with pride. It’s a photo of him finishing third in 2014 – motivation, he explains. With most of 2018 plagued by injury, he’s clear in his mind that today’s BOclassic was the start of his comeback. "In previous years I’d do the whole New Year’s Eve celebration thing, but for me the most special thing was being able to compete again. And NYE just doesn’t feel that big."

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“I’m happy with today," he continues. "Even though it was actually the slowest I’ve run here. Times on this course are not irrelevant, but they’re very mixed. I stepped into this race today knowing what my shape was; I’ve done one speed session recently, and the rest has been moderately easy long runs with a lot of gym stuff. I did go off very hard; I couldn’t believe Tola and Muktar had given me a gap when they’d got so trapped at the start.”

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"In previous years I’d do the whole New Year’s Eve celebration thing, but for me the most special thing was being able to compete again."

Zane Robertson

“It was really motivating to come through the first lap with the crowd going nuts. It gave me the energy to go on the next lap, but by the third lap I’d started to get tired." He shrugs calmly: "My goal was to finish the race in a good way. Someone else could go out and run a race like I did and end up suffering a whole lot–blow up badly. I was able to come back from a momentary lapse."

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Our interview is interrupted as Moroccan runner Hicham Amghar excitedly stops at our table: "World Record. Did you watch it? Kiplemo, 26.39 I think."

Zane looks up shocked: "Oh, what, 10km, you say? I haven’t seen that. I’ll check now." He looks back to us and continues: "That’s another Silvesterlauf [Madrid]. But I prefer coming to Bolzano, partially because Gianni is my manager but also because it’s such a spectator event." Our conversation continues, chatting about his move back to Ethiopia, his upcoming goals–a new half PB attempt set for March– and the draw of another marathon in April [location TBC]. But we closed with a final question, would he be seeing 12 midnight this evening? "Tonight, no chance. I’m drinking chamomile already.” He looks aghast: “It’s only 8.40 pm? It feels like it’s midnight already."

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