Francesco Puppi has been one of the more successful mountain runners of recent years, racing to gold at the 2017 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships, silver at the event last year and winning bronze in 2015 when he made his Italian national team debut. That global podium finish came just one season after Puppi tried the sport for the first time. With a strong ability to accelerate on ascents, he was "a natural".
But the 28-year-old, who came to mountain racing from athletics, is comfortable on many surfaces.
He's run a sub-30 road 10km, under 1:05 for the half marathon and 2:24:12 for the full marathon, and is a regular and competitive fixture in Italy's most important cross country races. But it’s the mountains, especially those near his home near Italy's Lake Como district, where he feels most at home.
"My story is really much like that of any kid that gets into running at a young age," Puppi says.
"I was six years old when my parents signed me up at the local track and field club. I joined because my older cousin Martina was enjoying it and I thought I might give it a try. It was pretty much all about having fun and playing around, running as fast as I could."
He said his fire for the sport was kindled as he watched the 1999 World Athletics Championships, thrilled by the exploits of Haile Gebrselassie, Hicham El Guerrouj, Michael Johnson, Cathy Freeman and Maurice Greene who were his early heroes.
He first took a liking to the hurdles but soon developed a passion for distance running.
"I was not particularly good at it - I never won a race at a young age - but its magnetic attraction was telling me that this was my road to follow."
Paul Tergat was another strong early inspiration.
"I liked his stride and his style of running, from the track to the marathon. One day I got to see him training in Iseo, in northern Italy, where his training camp was based. A few months later I even got a chance to speak to him over the phone! My dream was to follow his footsteps and to become a marathoner."
Stefano Baldini, the 2004 Olympic marathon champion was another.
"I started reading about training and athletic preparation after his achievement," he says. "I looked for magazines and books to learn about professional runners and read their training logs."
But there were others, much closer to home.
"I remember there was a group of older guys who used to train at the same track where I went to practice, doing workouts I thought I’d never be able to do. It was just cool to watch them and to look up to them, wondering if in a few years I might reach them."
That may be where his versatility is rooted.
"I think a great performance in mountain running comes from running fast on any surface. A mountain runner must be able to perform well on the flat, from the roads to cross country. Several of my teammates have pretty fast PRs on 10k or half marathon. That doesn’t mean they are not specialised in mountain running, but that they are able to produce quality performance on any surface."
Puppi spends more time training on a track than in the mountains, both in the winter and during the mountain running season. He also uses a 5km flat road loop that helps him prepare for virtually any race, from the half marathon to classic mountain running.
He earned a degree in physics from the University of Milan, which also impacts how he approaches his love for running.
"I think my scientific background has an influence on the way I approach sport and life in general," he says.
"Physics seeks an explanation to natural phenomena and is based on a few, simple yet very powerful ideas. To uncover the meaning behind the nature of things is its goal, and that’s what made me love it and why I decided to study it at university.
"Running, though, is different for me, it has a more artistic expression and sometimes escapes the explanation of reason. I see it as a part of my personality and a moment of creative energy. Of course, I try to have a rational and scientific approach to training and racing, but the romanticism and feelings that running gives me cannot always be explained in these terms. It’s the genius and the harmony of a primordial form of locomotion, of the most spontaneous action a man can do that are just beautiful."
Puppi and Jim Walmsley engaged in a fierce duel over the 41.5km course at the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships last year, with the latter eventually taking the victory by just over a minute. Despite the defeat, Puppi regards it as a monumental experience.
"I think the rivalry that some competitions feature really is the spice of our sport. What’s the point of competing then? I always try to find a story and a meaning behind each target race. It’s important for me to live it in a very personal and emotional way. That’s why I was at my happiest running with Jim. My motivation to compete at the World Championships in Patagonia grew when I learned that he would be there. We created something inspiring and enthralling for at least three hours, I believe. His talent stood out and I was the best I could possibly be in that particular day."
Looking ahead, what does he want now most of all?
"I’d love to have more time for training and racing. There’s nothing else I could ask for right now. I think the biggest margin of improvement would come if I had more time to rest properly and train with enough time, instead of having to squeeze a workout between work hours or a recovery run during lunch break."
Kirsty Reade for World Athletics