Athletics: Race 10km in a wine cellar? They'll drink to that

Hundreds of runners competed in a six mile race in the world’s largest wine cellar that stretches 124 miles underground.
Participants run in the Milestii Mici Wine Run 2019 race, at a distance of 10km in the world's largest wine cellars in Milestii Mici, Moldova, on Jan 20, 2019.
Participants run in the Milestii Mici Wine Run 2019 race, at a distance of 10km in the world's largest wine cellars in Milestii Mici, Moldova, on Jan 20, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

MILESTII MICI, MOLDOVA (REUTERS) - Hundreds of runners competed in a 10km race in the world's largest wine cellar on Sunday (Jan 20), navigating by the light of headlamps as they hurtled through dark limestone caves that stretch some 200km underground near the capital of Moldova.

Dancers, musicians and singers wearing folk costumes performed in the darkness of the caves, cheering on the participants in the Milestii Mici Wine Run, who included tourists from the United States, Canada and Europe as well as locals.

The state-owned Milestii Mici winery entered the Guinness World Records in 2005 for storing the largest number of bottles of wine in the world. It now holds around two million.

Part of the race took place on slippery paths outside in the snow, but most of it was below ground, with runners galloping past giant oak barrels of wine. After crossing the finish line, they were greeted - with a glass of wine, of course.

"It's unlike any race I've ever done, a once in a lifetime experience. Running through a wine cellar is unlike anything else and there were just people cheering everywhere. They were so excited, so incredibly happy to have us here, you never get that in a 10km (race)," said Amy MacDonald from Canada.

She noted that while fun, it was also tricky.

"When you're going up a hill full of ice, it's a bit slippery, and sometimes, when inside, the footing was a bit uneven and you just had a really hard time, you had to focus with your headlamp on each place you were putting your foot."

The huge, centuries-old limestone quarry has been used to store wine for decades. To keep the runners from getting lost, they were issued with maps showing its underground "streets"named after different wine varieties.

Moldova, a nation of 3.5 million people wedged between Romania and Ukraine, is one of the few wine-making areas of the former Soviet Union. Its wines and brandies remain popular in fellow former Soviet states but are less well known elsewhere.

The wine sector employs more than a 10th of Moldova's workforce, although as of 2017 it accounted for just 2.8 per cent of economic output of the country, one of the poorest in Europe. Moldova hopes to find markets in the West for its wine, and bringing in tourists to see the giant cellar could help.

But organisers of the race say the main purpose is just to have a good time.

"The goal is not to show some unreal speed result. People come here to have fun," said Dmitry Voloshin, president of the Sporter sports organisation which set up the race. "Instead of drinking wine at a table, why not run and then drink a glass of wine?"