There are a few races that can legitimately be termed ‘classics’ – the marathons of London, New York and Boston, for sure. The San Silvestre New Year’s eve race in Brazil, the San Blas half-marathon in Puerto Rico and San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers are others. But right up there with the best, possibly the best, is the Cinque Mulini cross-country held every March in the unassuming little town of San Vittore Olona, about 20km north of Milan.
The Cinque Mulini, which celebrated its 72nd running this year (a sequence dating back to 1933 and one that not even World War II could disrupt), is the Bislett Games of cross-country running. Like the famous Norwegian track meeting, held in a tiny, rickety Oslo stadium, it is warm, welcoming and intimate, and over the years has been graced by the very best middle- and long-distance talent. Some 23 Olympic gold medallists have made the journey out to San Vittore Olona for a quirky, some would say downright odd, race that has become as much a part of local folklore as the five watermills that gave the race its name.
I first heard of the Cinque Mulini as an athletics-mad child growing up in the North-East. In his autobiography, Brendan Foster, the one-time world 3000m record holder and Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist, describes a race he first ran in 1973, when he finished second to the American Frank Shorter.
“You go across some fields, then alongside the smelliest river you have ever known in your life, jumping over holes in the canal bank. Then you run into the mills themselves. You have to enter through someone’s backyard and into their kitchen, then up about six steps onto the mill, which is next to the kitchen because the flour used to come straight into it from the mill.
“Then you go across a bridge, where wheels are turning and water is being thrown all over the place, and you get barked at by yelping dogs, while trying to keep your feet on the slippery cobblestones. The course goes through a chicken yard… and then back (to the finish area) before heading out for the next circuit.” That’s as good a description as you’ll find for this eccentric event, but it’s probably such rustic charm that draws so many of the sport’s elite to its midst. It certainly isn’t the host town. San Vittore Olona is a relatively nondescript place of about 7,500 inhabitants, the majority of whom are involved in some capacity with the event on race day.
By day, and night, the streets are largely quiet. Even the day before the event the only visible signs that a big cross-country race is looming are one or two posters, a couple of banners strung limply across the street, and the occasional direction arrow to guide spectators and competitors to the venue.