Thanks to Nike Trail, we travel through the stories and thoughts of the two most representative runners of Italian trail running

Some athletes are able to change the perception of their sport, pushing it towards the future and unexplored dimensions. Francesco Puppi and Cesare Maestri are doing exactly that on Italian soil, showing us how the meanings of trail running, its potential sporting and professional ramifications, and its innate connection with the natural element all coincide. They are runners, trendsetters (more or less willingly), activists and, above all, friends. They are thinking men, capable of sharing unique experiences and thoughts that always bring them back to an all-encompassing passion. They are pioneering Nike athletes, and we were lucky to meet them at the presentation of the innovative Ultrafly Trails. Their voices speak of humility, parallel growth and an intense focus on nature and its elements.

What were the earliest experiences and landmarks that made you fall in love with running? And how has your sport identity evolved over time?

Francesco Puppi: “I started running very early, at 6 years old. It accompanied me throughout my childhood and adolescence, split between cross-country, track and classic athletics; these are things that I still feel very much related to. I’ve always been keen on athletics, watching meets, the Olympics, and World Championships, and reading as much as possible. As a boy, I identified with Paul Tergat, who I had the fortune to run with during an event in Brescia. I was fascinated by his unique history and the fact that he was an underdog, constantly overshadowed by Gebreselassie. I got into endurance really early, though that also created some problems for me. For my first half marathon, for example, I had to run in Switzerland because I was too young for Italian regulations. Despite all that, my passion has always been very strong. Once I finished university, I started to understand where trail and mountain running might lead me professionally. To this day, I still consider myself a huge running nerd. Of course, there’s more responsibility as I’m doing it professionally and being paid to run…. But the joy of training is still there. I think I could be an athlete without competing, but not without training: it’s part of my lifestyle, my form of freedom, which also spills into the artistic-creative side of me.”

Cesare Maestri: “Unlike Francesco, I started running late, around the age of 17. Before that. I did cross-country skiing in Trentino. Marco Borsari discovered me during school cross-country races. He was a significant person for my career, and just like that I found myself doing training sessions with Crippa. I fell in love instantly with the atmosphere and the running environment, and I knew mountain running would be my thing. It was more natural for me to run in the woods and on trails; it was a matter of background and habit… Stefano Baldini and Kílian Journet certainly inspired me. I still remember meeting Baldini in my town: after seeing him win in Athens on TV I thought he was a legend. Unapproachable. Jornet, on the other hand, gave me a chance to dream. At the time, trail running was an almost invisible niche; Journet helped me and many others to learn about the sport and its unique features. During my early years, I felt like I needed to do certain kinds of training to convince myself that I could go hard, and I ended up getting injured. Now I’ve learned to listen to myself, to be less afraid of what is around me or waiting for me, and my running has evolved naturally.”

Cesare Maestri
Francesco Puppi

Speaking of key figures in developing a sports movement, your contribution to opening up trail running to an ever-widening Italian audience is undeniable. What does it mean for you to be sources of inspiration for local runners?

Francesco Puppi: “I think every athlete has their own inclination; they don’t need to have a mission to ‘evangelize’ sports. As runners, we can have an impact on a variety of levels: in terms of competition, where Cesare and I have made our mark in terms of victories and types of races, coming out of the local and national side of trail running; the professional one, where we were among the first to make a living out of this sport in Italy. Thanks to Nike, we showed that athletes could take alternative paths; and finally, the concept of popularizing, which I care a lot about and where I’ve always felt comfortable. Talking about experiences, studying the dynamics of my sport, the people who shape it, and understanding its future is something I have always enjoyed. In this respect, I feel like I’ve made a contribution through my blog and podcast and by my association that brings together professional athletes in this environment (Pro Trail Runners Association).”

Cesare Maestri: “On a social level and in terms of trendsetting, I’m not as constant as Francesco is. I don’t always feel like sharing what I think or feel.  I try to tell people what I do as an athlete, explaining my training and feelings, motivating my race choices and showing my approach. Over the years, we have been able to convey the concept that an athlete should, first and foremost, feel good about themselves and find their own physical and mental balance. At the same time, we’ve dispelled lots of myths, like showing that trail runners can be competitive on the road as well, and vice versa. Just imagine Italy a decade ago: track runners had a closed mindset, and the same was true for those in trail running. We’ve proven that these two worlds can coexist; that you can be a complete, multi-purpose runner…”

What have been the most important steps so far, in your career and how did they fit into your friendship?

Francesco Puppi: “I could mention so many moments, starting with that first Swiss half-marathon when I was 13. From the outside, people often imagine that certain victories or rankings can diametrically change the course of a career…. This is not the case for me. Instead, I think I have experienced a series of small, gradual changes. For me, like for Caesar, the trail road has been different from those of other contemporary athletes who’ve had a lot more opportunities. Over the years, we’ve racked up victories that have helped make us who we are today, but I can’t say there have been watershed events. The 2019 World Championships in Patagonia is worth mentioning; Caesar and I won silver in different specialties, which allowed us to connect with Nike. Our friendship was born well before that event but definitely grew in Patagonia. We found ourselves sharing a parallel experience and were on a similar wavelength. The 2021 Golden Trail World Series comes to mind also, or this year’s UTMB, where I got on the podium in the 50km. That being said, I don’t really put much stock in individual feats that get a lot of coverage in the press and on the web. I’d like to think that, more than that, Caesar and I have shown consistency throughout our careers.”

Cesare Maestri: “I agree. Everything tends to be progressive and linear. A key year was definitely 2015, when I was recovering from a major injury that stopped me for 7 months. The following year I won a call-up to the national team and found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with the Dematteis twins in various races. Before that season I thought they were untouchable. It definitely raised my awareness. The World Championship in Patagonia was one of the most exciting moments of my life, and it was especially nice to share that achievement with Francesco. Our friendship actually dates back to 2013, when we sprinted against each other during the Scalata della Maddalena, a 7km uphill asphalt race. I always get great satisfaction from running unique or iconic races like Campaccio and Cinque Mulini, even if they’re not really connected to trail or mountain running. And I still feel a strong attachment to the Italian jersey: representing Italy on a big stage with teammates-friends always stirs something inside me.”

Your relationship and individual experiences are also marked by a strong sensitivity to environmental issues. Tell us about that.

Francesco Puppi: “It is an important and complex issue, especially at a time in history when it is increasingly being waved around for attention and publicity. As athletes, we’re public figures, and we have a role to play. We have to act as examples, without forgetting that each of us has our own conscience and ecological footprint. The environment is particularly near to my heart because, thanks to sports, I constantly live in contact with nature. Moreover, part of my university studies focused on this topic. Unlike Cesare, who is professionally engaged in the renewable energy sector, I approach the environmental issue with the perspective of an athlete who practices a green sport like trail running and consequently wonders what kind of message we’re conveying as a community sometimes. Cesare and I exchange long voice messages on WhatsApp almost daily, and when see each other, we share our views on the subject. We are deeply connected to the mountains, the impact that certain activities have on its ecosystems hits us close to home: artificial snowmaking in the ski industry comes to mind. In general, it is good to see that more and more athletes and organizations are taking this issue into consideration. It feels like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Cesare Maestri: “This issue hits me personally. I became passionate about it in high school, even wrote an essay on environmental sustainability, and I studied energy engineering in college. I currently work part-time as an engineer in the design field and am focused on photovoltaics. I hope, at least in part, to make a tangible contribution, though it’s an uphill battle…. My hope is that, at the global level, we can act to find effective solutions as a group. Our sport creates sublime contact with nature, the mountains and the outdoors. This is why it is necessary to raise awareness at every event. Beyond those races we can’t miss, I always try to evaluate each event and choose those that best share my environmental values. Francesco and I share this sensitivity, and our connection with Nike allows us to develop it consistently and create positive impacts in different ways. When we share a project with the brand, the environment is first on our minds, and we set out to create something consistent with our philosophy and thinking.”

We already mentioned the relationship between you and Nike Trail. What has it been like to shape this relationship and how much has it changed your outlook? Are the new Nike Ultrafly Trails the manifesto of a brand that wants to shift attention to running in nature?

Francesco Puppi: “Nike was my first big opportunity in sports, something I was lucky to pursue with Cesare. When we first got in touch with the brand, we were similar in terms of being athletes. We started from similar beginnings, but we’ve taken slightly different paths at the level of activity and expression. Nike’s mission is clear, to help athletes express performance to the fullest, and the Nike Ultrafly Trail definitely hits that goal. Compared to the road running and classic athletics, it is really hard to produce a shoe for trail running. The variables are endless, and a single product has to serve the greatest number of athletes in the widest range of situations… I don’t think there can be a perfect trail shoe; there is the right trail shoe for certain conditions for a specific athlete. The Ultrafly Trail shoes are exciting; they’re focused mainly on competition. They were developed by elite American runners who have given the shoe a clear American imprint.”

Cesare Maestri: “When you think of Nike, you think the best of the best. But for us it was almost a leap of faith. Before the 2019 World Cup, we had decided to build this relationship, but then the pandemic stopped us in our tracks. But the Nike people have always believed in our project and, in 2022, they welcomed us into the brand. We are lucky, because this collaboration is not limited to the product. It gives us the opportunity to put forth ideas regarding the evolution of trail shoes, which isn’t something a lot of brands will let you do. The Nike Ultrafly Trail is really satisfying; I tried a similar prototype last year, which was a pleasant surprise, and now I am using this shoe in lots of races. More than that, it’s really nice that Nike has an innovative vision related to trail running, and that this vision isn’t limited to shoes. There is a lot of experimentation going on and I am seeing lots of progress…. I feel honored to be a part of this brand, and I hope the joint projects continue to evolve.”

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Text by Gianmarco Pacione