Catching Up with GTWS Grand Final Champion Francesco Puppi

On October 16, Italian Francesco Puppi won the 2021 Golden Trail World Series (GTWS) Grand Final hosted by THE ONE RACE in El Hierro, Canary Islands, Spain. In the lead-up to the Grand Final race, the Golden Trail World Series included six of the world’s most competitive trail races, L’Olla de Nuria (Spain), Mont Blanc Marathon (France), Dolomyths Run (Italy), Sierre-Zinal (Switzerland), Chiemgau Trail Run (Germany), and Skyrhune (France).

In order to qualify for the grand final in the Canary Islands, runners had to compete in at least three of the six GTWS races and be ranked in the top eleven by the last race in the series. Runners scored points based on their top three placements from the six races. Only these top eleven women and men were invited to race in the final.

For the following interview, I spoke with the winner of the GTWS grand final, accomplished Italian mountain runner and 2017 World Long Distance Mountain Running champion Francesco Puppi, who shares his perspective on the race, the Golden Trail World Series and his plans for next year.

Francesco Puppi

Photo: Jordi Saragossa.

[TAYTE POLLMANN] You were selected as one of the top eleven men and women from Salomon’s Golden Trail Series to compete in the Grand Final at the ONE RACE on El Hierro, Canary Islands. Congratulations! What did you do to be selected as one of these top eleven men? Was it your goal for the year to make it to this final?

[FRANCESCO PUPPI] Hello Tayte and thanks for hosting me in this interview. The Golden Trail World Series Grand Final wasn’t the goal for this year, but it became so after the 2021 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships were postponed. As often happens in an athlete’s career, I had to restructure my goals once my focus race was cancelled. Fortunately, I had enough points accumulated at the Mont Blanc Marathon, Sierre-Zinal and the Chiemgau Trail Run to make it to the GTWS final. The Golden Trail World Series Grand Final was an unexpected addition to my 2021 race calendar. I think the series includes such iconic, competitive and well organized races worth doing for any mountain or trail runner.

[TAYTE] Take us through your victory at the final. Was this the race experience you expected?

[FRANCESCO] This was not at all the race I expected. I wasn’t really sure what to expect before the race from a technical point of view. This has been a problem that I’ve noticed in many new Golden Trail Series races. For example, at last year’s Golden Trail Championships in the Azores, I was really fit, but I wasn’t prepared for the “nonsense off-trail sections” and bushwhacking that screwed up my race plans. In this year’s final, I was sure that there would be some crazy technical sections or ridiculously steep parts and I handled these parts well. The weather conditions were really tough, super hot and the course was always under the sun.

[TAYTE] What was your favorite moment from this race?

[FRANCESCO] Running on the top of the first climb with Remì Bonnet and Stian Angermund on volcanic sand through an amazing tropical forest.

Francesco Puppi

Photo: Jordi Saragossa.

[TAYTE] Both the World Mountain Running Championships and the Salomon Golden Trail Series attract some of the world’s best trail runners every year. You have competed well in both competitions. Does it mean more to you to win one or the other? Can elite trail runners reasonably expect to compete in both?

[FRANCESCO PUPPI] It’s a hard question. Both competitions are meaningful for different reasons. While I didn’t properly win a World Mountain Running Championship and never actually experienced how it feels to cross the finish line in first place. I have won a Golden Trail Series final. What is important for me, besides the result, is to pour all of myself into the race. From this point of view my second place behind Jim Walmsley at the 2019 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Patagonia was especially rewarding. I consider that the best achievement of my career.

Winning a world championship medal doesn’t change the life of an athlete. A world championship should be by far the most important event for a sport, from a technical standpoint, but so far it hasn’t been like that in trail running. I wish there was some kind of collaboration between the private circuits, like the Golden Trail Series, and institutional events like the World Championships or the Mountain Running World Cup. Elite trail runners should and can expect to compete well in both, but too often one goes against the other so athletes are forced to make a choice, which results in a loss of opportunities and level of the competition.

[TAYTE] The Golden Trail Series “aims to promote professional trail runners as the world-class athletes that they are, to showcase and protect the awe-inspiring natural environments where we play and compete, and to acknowledge the amazing, passionate fans as an essential ingredient in the sport.” Do you feel the Golden Trail Series lives up to its mission?

[FRANCESCO] Yes, I think it’s going in the right direction. Communication is a key focus of the Golden Trail Series organization. They are taking the sport to a new level and are inspiring many world class athletes as well as recreational runners to get out on the trails, compete and have fun. There is some attention towards the environmental issue, though more could and needs to be done. I think the Golden Trail Series has been the most interesting project in trail and mountain running in the last ten years, so it definitely deserves some kudos.

Francesco Puppi

Photo: Jordi Saragossa.

[TAYTE] What is one thing about the Golden Trail Series you would like to see change in the coming years?

[FRANCESCO] I would like to see more elite runners from different countries compete in the series. I wish there were enough opportunities to make the Golden Trail Series a truly professional event so that athletes wouldn’t need to choose to race or not depending on reasons beyond the sport. I wish more investors and sponsors supported the Golden Trail Series because I feel that it is where there’s a large potential for the growth of our sport.

[TAYTE] How do you feel about the six races chosen in the series this year? Would you like to see different events chosen for next year?

[FRANCESCO] So far, the six races that have been chosen are among the most renowned, iconic and world class competitions in trail and mountain running. I think the series should maintain a balance between such events, like Zegama, Pikes Peak Marathon and Sierre-Zinal, and new events like we’ve seen this year, such as Olla de Nuria, Skyrhune and Chiemgau Trail Run. The aim is to build a more global and inclusive circuit. There’ll be stages in different continents and the calendar will be chosen in order to limit the intercontinental travels of athletes for environmental reasons.

[TAYTE] You have some experience racing here in the United States (10th place at the 2019 Pikes Peak Marathon). For our American audience, what is something different about the European races on the Golden Trail Series that an American runner might not expect?

[FRANCESCO] American runners are usually not so used to steep and technical trails like we commonly have in the Alps or the Pyrenees. By contrast, American runners often have a really good track or road running background which many Europeans lack. I feel like there’s more sports culture in the United States compared to most European countries. People actually understand and appreciate the competition, they give value to the sport, they give athletes opportunities. Here in Europe, we have a long way to go with our sports culture.

Francesco Puppi

Photo: Philipp Reiter.

[TAYTE] Very few American trail runners competed in this year’s Golden Trail World Series. Would you like to see more American elites compete next year or should this final be thought of as a competition among Europe’s best trail runners?

[FRANCESCO] There should be way more American trail runners in the series, and it’s a real pity not to see more Americans this year. Though there’s only been one stage in the US in the history of the Golden Trail World Series (Pikes Peak Marathon), it’s also true that the events with more tradition and higher level of competition are in Europe. The plan is to bring more Golden Trail World Series stages over to North America, and I hope this will attract more American trail runners.

It’s also true that with the travel support that athletes can get from sponsors it’s becoming easier to travel overseas and take part in the series. I see it as an investment in one’s athletic career. So far, not very many athletes have been willing to do so. This has to do with the professionalization of the sport, which is another chapter and a key topic that fortunately is already being addressed by the Golden Trail Series itself.

[TAYTE] What’s next for your racing/training plans?

[FRANCESCO] My 2021 season is finally over! I felt like I couldn’t move one more step after I crossed the finish line in El Hierro. I’ve done so many things this year, from winter cross country, to my spring marathon (2 hours 16 minutes and 18 seconds) to the whole summer of training and racing in the mountains. It’s definitely been a tough year, but every experience was worth it. My plans for 2022 will depend on the confirmation of the World Mountain and Trail Running Championship in Thailand. If they take place in February, this will be my first goal of the year. If not, I’ll probably give another shot at a road marathon.

US Team member Andy Wacker with Francesco Puppi. Photo: Richard Bolt.

[TAYTE] Will we see you competing in the Golden Trail Series and aiming to be the “overall series champion” (athlete with the most accumulated points in the Golden Trail World Series after the Final) next year?

[FRANCESCO] I will definitely take part in the 2022 Golden Trail Series, but I will not aim at winning the general ranking. I feel it’s more important to try to do well in the final or win one race in the series. My dream race remains to win Sierre-Zinal. My main goal is always to do everything I can to show up extremely fit and continue the process of growth through my athletic career.

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