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.
The course lies close to the town centre, in and around the Centro Sportivo Comunale Giovanni Malerba, named after the man who founded the race back in 1933. As that original race was run in mid-winter, Malerba had to convince his friends to clear snow-covered paths to allow runners to compete. It was only in later years the event was moved to the spring.
The timing is not the only thing that has changed. International runners were first invited to compete in 1953, and the course, originally based around the town’s five mills, now only uses the two that remain. But the fundamental character of the event hasn’t changed and the winding in and out of the mill buildings must qualify as one of the more bizarre experiences a runner will encounter. That’s certainly the way Sebastian Coe remembers it.
In 1980, when preparing in Italy for the Moscow Olympic Games, where he won the 1500m, Coe found himself, almost by default, on the road towards Milan. In wonderful shape after a good 7winter, he decided he needed a race to gauge his fitness and asked the Italian federation for a suitable road race of about five miles. When they suggested the Cinque Mulini, Coe misinterpreted ‘five mills’ for five miles and agreed to run. What he found, of course, was a cross-country race, albeit a flat one, over seven miles, but, in borrowed spikes, he nevertheless ran pretty well to place around 20th.
Coe is just one athlete from the pantheon of great milers who have mixed it with the cross-country specialists at the Cinque Mulini; Olympic champions Steve Ovett, Pekka Vasala, John Walker, Filbert Bayi and Kip Keino have all competed there. Throw into the mix distance legends like Lasse Viren, Frank Shorter, Grete Waitz, Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie, and it is easy to see why this race has become the standard by which other races are measured. Even the legendary John Akii-Bua, the Ugandan 1972 Olympic champion over 400m hurdles, has run the event. He finished last, apparently, after being in the leading group on the first lap.
Latterly, as with most distance races, the Cinque Mulini has been dominated by Africans, 2004 proving no exception as Boniface Kiprop of Uganda and Zakia Mrisho of Tanzania comfortably won the men’s and women’s international races respectively.
The Cinque Mulini Roseao gets the programme up and running at 8.00am. It is a non-competitive fun run around parts of the course, including the mill area, and local parkland, where participants can choose between 6, 15 and 21K. This is certainly not your usual mass-participation race and fun runs are the closest you’ll get to a big field with around 250-300 runners.
From there, it’s competition all the way to the main attraction, kicking off with the open men’s and women’s races, over 6K and 4K, followed by stage-group races through to senior men and women, which this year incorporated the Italian Cross-Country Championships. The standard is not overwhelming, the winning time in the men’s 6K was 19:21 with 50 people under 24 minutes and the last finisher a 65-year-old man in 33:10. Although there are very few non-Italian athletes in the races, there is a Welsh group that makes the trip each year.
At the elite level, British runners have always featured strongly, Mike Turner and Dave Bedford have won the men’s event, Bedford recalling little other than it being “a front runners’ course, particularly in the mills themselves”, and “very strange, as you continually go from light into dark, and back out again”. This year, British success came in the junior women’s event as Emily Pidgeon took the title impressively.
The Cinque Mulini is as far removed from a big-city mass-participation race as you can get. It is pure cross-country in feel with a great light-hearted twist thanks to the mills, which give the event its uniqueness. The locals are friendly and knowledgeable, and once your own race is over, the multiple-lap course is perfect for spectating and appreciating just how fast the very best cross-country runners in the world cover the ground.
One of the oldest cross-country races in the world, the Cinque Mulini is definitely one of the best, and if you’re thinking of a weekend in Milan any time and looking for a race to go and run, or even watch, make sure you make your way to San Vittore Olona. You won’t be disappointed.
Next year’s race is likely to be in mid-February rather than March, exact details along with entry information will be on www.cinquemulini.org nearer the time. There are several good hotels within walking distance of the start and Easyjet has daily flights to Milan from Stansted, and Alitalia and British Airways have several flights a day from Heathrow.