Canadian ultra-runner, mental health advocate and resident of Florence, David Orr, has recently returned from an 89-day trail run across Italy, from the top of Mount Etna in Sicily to the summit of Mont Blanc in the Alps. 3,500km later and with a ‘Fastest Known Time’ record, David talks about his motivations within mental health, the Tuscan part of his journey and how easy it is to access parts of the trail from Florence.
Where did the idea to run the entire length of Italy come from?
I thought the idea of running across Italy through the mountains and going summit to summit from Mount Etna to Mont Blanc was an epic way to connect with the country, and no one had done it before. One of the most important things for me was to do it continuously, without pause, to embody the spirit of endurance. A long run is a release that shakes up your being. When you’re on foot, your entire body experiences what’s around you, more so than if you’re cycling, or using mechanized transport. You’re much closer to the soul of the land.
How did the sporting side of the run tie in with your aims as a mental health advocate?
Running has been a refuge for me. I work as a computer engineer and am generally tied to a screen, so I’ve managed my own mental health and ability to stay positive by running in big nature. When you can get out into the mountains especially, you are surrounded by something bigger than yourself. You can connect body and mind instinctually because your mind becomes quiet.
How were you able to share this idea with people along the journey? And how are you continuing that work upon your return?
The idea of the run created an immediate candor with people that I met. It was like the madness of it all created unusually honest conversations. My crew and I started asking everyone the same question on video, which was, how do you know you’re not crazy? It’s an intentionally provocative question; there’s no wrong answer. It created a lot of interesting monologues, which we recorded. An endurance event can be the starting point from which you can have a deeper conversation about what it means to be mentally okay with yourself and okay with being a bit “crazy”. I’m sponsored by the Italian company La Sportiva, which is a top international brand in the world of mountain running. They helped to provide gear for the run and I’m working with them to create a sports documentary that showcases the journey from the fire of Etna to the ice of the Mont Blanc summit, thematically aligning it with mental health.
Parts of your trail passed through Tuscany and very near to Florence. How easy is it to try some of your journey?
So easy. The trail I followed (the Sentiero Italia) is very accessible because it is comprised of hundreds of individual segments. They’re all chapters with a beginning and an end. The mountains arc north of Florence and act as a gateway to some of the most majestic parts of Tuscany, including the Casentinesi forest, the Mugello region, and the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines. I’ve been exploring the area for over 13 years and the trails are some of the most beautiful in Italy. CAI (Club Alpino Italiano) maintains a website of all the trails, but I also highly recommend a group called Va Sentiero who have created an invaluable resource that catalogs the entire Sentiero Italia.
Why should people give it a try?
Florence offers all of the Renaissance hits, but I recommend getting out of the city and immersing yourself in the mountains and their villages for a day. They have truly shaped the Florentine identity: from serving as the historic transport route between the Po Valley and the south to Dante’s travels in exile, the Gothic Line of World War II and the primary Apennine mountain chain is less than an hour away.
Whilst using the trail to raise awareness for mental health, it’s also a fundraising effort. Which charities are you supporting?
It was important to me to connect with a local group here in Florence, so I’m working with SpazioPosso, which is a group of psychologists that use sports and outdoor activities to facilitate mental health. I also work with an organization in America called Better Than The Trail, which uses trail-racing events to fund free counselling sessions for people in need.