Words and photos by Andy Cochrane
At its core—if you strip away the fancy shoes, Strava splits, race trophies, frozen fingers, and copious sugary snacks—trail running is about freedom. It’s one of the few pursuits that isn’t defined by what you have, but rather by what you don’t. A pair of shoes, shorts, and shirt—plus my dog Bea nipping at my heels—is more than enough on most days.
But even that is selling it short. Trail running is less than material simplicity. It’s the absence of anything prescriptive—rules, formalities, calendars, clocks, conventions or expectations. It’s white space. It’s your brain roaming free while your legs shuffle forward. If you run long enough—in a single outing or in a lifetime—you’ll realize that the dirt, rocks, and mud on the trail in front of you don’t matter, either.
And like any true enthusiast, I can’t get enough.
I plan my work days around when I’m going to run, optimize weekends for trail miles, and often dream about my next epic mountain shuffle. So when I started ideating vacations for the spring, one naturally rose to the top: running hut to hut in the Dolomites. In one of the largest alpine trail networks in the world, I would certainly get my blood racing.
After a few days looking at maps and reading trip reports, I realized I needed help planning this adventure. I had never been to Italy before and often find it easier to just talk to a real, living human. I reached out to a local guiding company, Dolomite Mountains, for beta on trails, weather, refugios, gear, and so forth. That short call opened Pandora’s box. With their help, I compiled a 100-plus mile route across four major valleys, criss-crossing historic landmarks, multiple national parks, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and more than a dozen mountaintop refugios.
Much of the route was spent on the main “Alta Vias,” or High Routes in Italian. These trails are well used and well cared for, despite traversing rugged and steep terrain. Most of them were built by soldiers in World War I, as the Italians were trying to fortify positions from the Austrian army that threatened to move in from the north. Since then, they’ve been converted to recreational use for hiking and running, with some for biking as well.
Our final route was designed more for diversity than anything else. We wanted to see as much as we could in a short period of time. Over the week we passed through a handful of unique ecological zones, small valley towns, popular pilgrimages and a few remote mountain paths that are used more by goats than humans. Unlike many trails in the States, the Italian Alps aren’t a homogenous, single flavor. Rolling over a pass often feels like entering an entirely new world. After miles of solitude, you’ll be surprised to find a large flock of sheep, or a tram that runs to the top of the ridge, or a bustling refugio serving beer, espresso and pasta.
Our goals on the trip were straightforward: no work, no laptops, and to be present. Throw in a lot of trails and that’s the recipe for a perfect vacation. For a week we followed the same daily ritual. Get up early, eat fresh yogurt and fruit as the sun rises and then head out. We paid for a shuttle service to transport our bags between refugios so that we could travel light. During the day we only carried a running pack, snacks and a credit card for the inevitable stops along the way. At least once each day we deviated from our planned course to scramble up a peak or explore a curious valley, and ultimately—somewhat thanks to modern technology—would find our way to the end, in time for an après beer, shower and dinner.
Despite my unapologetic love of trail running, looking back I’m surprised to admit that our dinners were the best part of the trip. Many nights we didn’t have cell service or Wi-Fi, allowing us to spend hours at dinner—laughing about the day’s twists and turns, filling our stomachs with gnocchi, local wine, fresh salads and delicious desserts. The food in the Dolomites—even at these remote mountain refugios—is something to behold, both fresh and flavorful. We feasted every night, doing our best to recover for another long day in the mountains.
Without the chaos and distractions of normal life, a week’s worth of time with my three companions felt like a year’s worth of connection—maybe more. When you’re not absorbed in the buzz of errant texts and newly arrived emails, conversations flow faster and become more meaningful. Instead of small talk, we found ourselves engrossed in conversations about relationships, family and big life decisions, flowing between the four of us, much as we flowed down the trail.
Tapped into each other, a thousand-meter climb that normally would be a sluggish hour of sweat and heavy breathing was flipped into a conversation about humility, breakups and when to move on, and the time flew by. One particularly rainy and cold day, our fourth on the trip, was a reason to banter about risks we’d taken and regrets we had, as opposed to the loss of feeling in our hands. And on the high moments—the ridgeline euphoria—we yelled with joy, then took the time to reflect on how lucky we were to be in the Dolomites and share gratitude for the journey we took to get there.
Flying home, I realized a lot of this trip was about freedom. It expanded my appreciation for trail running in ways I didn’t expect. While most of the time I run alone, taking little with me and using the miles as a way to journey into my head, the Dolomites proved that freedom isn’t the only takeaway—community is also a big part of what makes running special. For anyone looking to follow our footsteps, I would recommend one thing: Spend most of your time picking the right group, because that’s what matters most.