Looking Back 30 Years – Dave Dunham’s Challenge Stellina

Story and photos by Dave Dunham. Dave is the 1993 World Mountain Running Championship sliver medalist, winner of multiple iconic American mountain running races and has been on several world championship teams in ultra and mountain running. He works for the US Treasury Department and lives with his wife Cathy in Bradford, MA.

I heard about the Challenge Stellina mountain running race when I went to my first Mountain Running World Championships nearly 30 years ago. The 1992 World Trophy event was hosted in Valle D’ Susa (Italy) and people were talking about other big mountain races. Even then in the early years of the event it was well known and respected as a great race. It was known for how tough the course was but was also recognized for its uniqueness. The race brought together countries that fought (on both sides) in World War II. This gave the countries an opportunity to display their national pride and to show that through sport we can gather peacefully.

Descendants of the Italian partisans at the 1999 Challenge Stellina. Photo: Richard Bolt.

The Challenge Stellina is held in Susa which is a bustling alpine town in the northwest of Italy near the border of France. Susa has some interesting things to see including the Roman Amphitheater and the Arch of Augustus (Arco di Agusto) which serves as the starting point of the race. Athletes are hosted at the Hotel Napoleon and fed in the large dining area at the hotel. I fondly recall the coffee machine and the many trips I made back to that beloved contraption. This is also where I tried some of my extremely limited Italian by saying “non frizzante” or “senza gaz” when asked how I wanted my water (no bubbles please!).

This race is different from (most) American mountain races in many ways. First and foremost, the race commemorates the battle of the Grange Sevine where the partisans, led by their commander Giulio Bolaffi, defeated the Nazis. Alberto Bolaffi directed the race to honor his father and his fellow partisans. In the early 1990’s the United States did not have funding for mountain running and the kindness of Mr. Bolaffi helped get the USA team over to Europe by paying for our flights and housing us for a few day. Typically, the team would go to Susa to race and then travel via bus and train to wherever the World Championships were being held.

Dave following the race leader in 1994. Photo: Dave Dunham.

Unlike most races in the states there was also a fair amount of money to be won. My first time racing the Challenge Stellina (1993) I finished in second place and claimed to be an “Italian Millionaire” since I’d won 1.5 million Lira. I spent my entire winnings on travel through Europe that summer. The USA team went from Susa to Zermatt where we competed in the Matterhorn Lauf. I put in over 100 miles that week on some incredible trails in the shadow of the Matterhorn. I kept my mileage over 100 the following week leading into the Worlds in Gap, France where I was fortunate enough to take home a silver medal. The trip probably wouldn’t have happened without the generosity of Mr. Bolaffi. The race also hosts a parade of nations as part of the festivities on the day before the race. After a grand opening ceremony, the participants are lined up with a flag bearer and marched through the town. It really is unlike anything at a mountain race in the USA with the citizens coming out to view the spectacle. It certainly made me feel special to be part of it.

Challenge Stellina

Dave running with the leader in 1994. Photo: Dave Dunham.

The first time I ran Stellina I had no idea what to expect as I hadn’t time to preview the course. I found it to be unlike any race I’d done up until that point despite having done many trail and mountain races prior to that. The race featured a little bit of everything with fast road running and narrow alleys with cobblestones in the first mile. That was followed by three miles of climbing at an average grade of 11% a mix of roads, dirt paths, and rocky trail with some rock steps. I remember a lot of that being exposed and hot. The little villages on the mountain slopes were interesting and I followed the leader as he scooped some water out of a trough in one of the tiny town squares.

Although all of the climbing was tough I found the downhill near the halfway point to be very difficult as that was not my forte (in those days the course was about 1km longer and most of that was a downhill section that has been removed). The toughest of the tough climbing started after that with a half-mile at 27% grade on a grassy slope and after a short break (still climbing but not as steep) we hit the final brutal ½ mile at 25% grade and then popped out onto a dirt road that is either flat or downhill for the final 1.5 miles. I saw one of the Italian coaches as we reached the road and asked him “quanti chilometri”? I was not pleased when he told me “tre”. I did end up holding onto second place despite running out of gas on that section.

Challenge Stellina

Dave on the upper slopes of the course in 1994. Photo: Dave Dunham.

After the race everyone gathers for the awards ceremony and the celebration of the partisan’s victory. Speeches are made, glasses are raised and a feast is devoured. It certainly makes for a long day. I’m not sure what the logistics are like now but back in the day getting down the mountain was always a tricky prospect. Inevitably we’d either chat up someone until we secured a ride or start walking the road with thumbs extended. We never had to walk far before getting a lift and I always brought USA pins to hand out as ‘thank you’ gifts.

My approach to this race was very similar to my approach to mountain racing in general. I was never one for specific “mountain” training, my primary focus was to get into the best shape I could and put in as many miles as possible. Generally, I’d look at mountain race in terms of “time on feet” and train for that. As such the Challenge Stellina at 1:20 – 1:30 of running would mean preparing as if I were going to run a road race of 25km or more. A good example of that type of training I did would be August of 1994 when I put in weeks of 97, 101, 113, 106, and 94. The 113 was the week of Susa where I took third place (2 seconds out of second in 1:22:48) and the 94 was the week of the World Championships where I finished a somewhat disappointing 15th.

I’d like to wish Team USA the best of luck competing at the Challenge Stellina this coming August 28th and hope they have as much fun competing and enjoying the great hospitality of Susa as I did!

[PRO TIP: Click the following links to view the Challenge Stellina course map and course profile. To see the course on Strava click here.]

Finish of the 1999 Challenge Stellina. Photo: Richard Bolt.

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