Thursday: The 2020 season is under way and I am up early to catch a flight. I certainly had a bad night sleep, the alarm particularly cruel at 3.45am. I’m off to Milan in Italy to realise a five year dream by competing in the Nissan Trofeo Night Marathon at Monza. Yes, the place by the racetrack. I’ve wanted to do this event since 2015 but for some reason or another, I couldn’t get a playing partner or have been let down. Rainer Henseler answered my call to play but a week before, a doctor had advised him not to travel. After a nervous couple of hours, the organiser Alberto had arranged everything so I can still take part. Now, I find myself in the airport looking at the departures board. My flight is the only one delayed.
Once in the air, it’s less than two hours to one of Europe’s fashion capitals, which provided a stunning view of the Alps on the way in. From the airport, it’s a thirty plus miles journey to Monza by bus and a three miles taxi ride to the Sportpark. As well as the minigolf, there is football, tennis, table tennis and a chance to be a big kid again with radio-controlled cars. I resist the urge and head into the minigolf. My first impression is that I have the same feelings as when I first saw the course in Prishtina. It is simply outstanding. I am greeted by Alberto, who is delighted that I’ve made it. I recognise a number of old friends, with the Belgian contingent coming over to give me a hug. I start playing with a huge smile on my face, it’s far bigger than the pictures do justice for and warmer than I imagined it would be.
Over the next three hours, quite a few players come over to chat and offer advice how to play the course. I’ll need it. The last time I attempted concrete, I had minimal coaching in Vizela for the Nations Cup in 2016. I fell in love with the surface, I was desperate to learn how to play it properly. On MOS, you can be in the generally be in the right area and it will good enough. On concrete, I was about to discover that a good line would only get you so far. Once you had the ball choice sorted, the pace was paramount. I’m not used to, with my minigolf history, just tickling the shot off the tee. That is what I will be focusing on in the next few days.
The course provided food for the evening, with a selection of alcohol, lasagne and tiramisu. I’m now running on fumes and adrenaline. Alberto is keen to get me a lift back to the hotel when I leave and I’m grateful to Maciej and Mike from Poland for their kind offer. With the next few hours of practice, I meet my playing partner, Luigi, a local who plays a few times a week. Neither of us are fluent in each other’s language so we will have to converse either via a translator or body and hand gestures. Luigi is a good teacher, despite the hurdles, and I do pick up some hints. The time hits 10pm and I do start to feel it. Maciej drives us back to the hotel and gives me the guided tour of Monza, passing the palace and the place where King Umberto I was murdered. After checking in, I should go to bed but to many minigolfers were in the lobby drinking. I couldn’t resist for one.
Friday: I sleep through relatively well, for me anyway. Breakfast is a who’s who of international minigolf. I load up on breaded snacks and cheese. Once again, Maciej gives me a lift, along with the Russians. Even at 10am, the course is absolutely mobbed for practice. There will be a lot of watching others putt today and taking my chances to learn. The beauty of being a comparative novice is the string of advice I’m getting. This is one of the reasons I love this sport. You can train with world champions and get coached by them too. As lunch approached, I consider purchasing a ball for the sixth hole as I don’t have one good enough. Even though there are a couple of thousand available to buy, one is picked out for me in seconds. “This one will work, absolutely.” That kind of knowledge. Bellissima.
In the evening, there is a meal organised at a local restaurant for all players. I decide to walk back the three miles to the hotel through the back streets of Monza. The weather has been spectacularly grand since I’d arrived and even though it was off the tourist trail, I found it relaxed. I noticed that there were hardly any dogs around and no cats. In Britain, it seems as if every house has one or the other. Italy, nothing. I relax for a few hours before the meal back in my room, checking out the television. I find Sky Sports Italia. I can understand that, at least.
The meal is certainly worth the trip alone. Around seventy minigolfers pack the Villa Reale Ristorante and rather embarrassingly, I have to Google the menu to find out what is going to be edible. I work out one is Thai Chicken, that’ll do. What I’ve picked up from my fellow competitors is how well they converse in English, mainly, as well as a couple of other languages and how seemingly straight forward it is to switch between them. On my table alone are Russians, Poles, Latvians and a Moldovan. I’m the only native English speaker in the building and as much as I appreciate that I can talk with almost everyone, I feel slightly embarrassed that I can only read a Greek menu and know a number of French swear words. After the meal, Alberto offers to take a few people into Milan. I politely decline. “I’m a senior now, I’m feeling it,” I say. “Wow,” replies Maciej. “I thought you were my age.” One beer at the hotel with some of the Scandinavians and I’m done. Big day tomorrow. Big day.
Saturday: I’m nervous today. I think it’s suddenly dawned on me just what I’m doing. Not the event itself but the night part. My start time is 1.25am. In the morning. Oh. I feel it is going to be important that as I am doing the night shift as to what time I get back to sleep in the afternoon. Once again Maciej gives me a lift and very kindly says he will drop me back too. This man is an everyday hero. I say 2pm will be about right. Some of the more local players turn up adding to the pack. “Our tournament has never had people turn up as early as they have done,” says Alberto. “They started coming on Tuesday.” I am discovering what a big deal the Nissan Trofeo Night Marathon is, seventeen different countries taking part.
Back to bed around 2.30pm right through until 7pm. I still have six hours or so before I start. The nerves are kicking in. I honestly have no idea how to prepare for playing in the very early hours, so I have a shower and grab some food. Just after 8pm, I decide to go sight seeing at night. A blanket of fog has descended over the Lombardy region, so that idea has been ruled out and I go to the course instead. My first big mistake of the week was not finding out when end of practice was. For those who are interested, it was two hours before I arrived in the evening and I had three hours to kill. Caffeine was my friend. The course was open to the public right up until the start of the tournament. It was a real family affair and not often you see children up that late.
Sunday: Is it Sunday? I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. The early competitors have started to arrive and the public are slowly thinning away. The first group out is one of the banner threeballs, Martin Stoeckle, Peter Eriksson and Marko Nuotio. As they start, there is no announcement, just handed the scorecard and away you go. A group of curious onlookers follow them round, politely applauding every good shot. The speed of play is quite European and I will have to be patient and maintain composure. My group is delightful. Susy Schappi, whose partner is her husband, Rene, and Silvia Bandera, whose partner is her dad, Vittorio. I know that I have to play a minimum of four rounds, which should take us to around 7am, when the sun comes up.
Susy and Silvia both greet me with a smile and a high five, although I’m more of a fist bumper. I’m now pretty much on my own, so I really have to rely on my notes and memory. Before too long, I’ve made the second and third. Easy game, this concrete. Then, my kryptonite. If I have a problem putting, it’s aiming at small gaps. The three lanes in question, four, fifteen and sixteen, had bothered me all week and my first scored round showed I wasn’t going to be troubling the big guns. I maxed out at the fourth. I remained calm and was reassured by my playing partners. Elsewhere, aces are flowing in so if I can find a way to get through the issues, I’ll be alright. I finished strong with two aces and had dragged myself back under par with a 35. All things being considered, I’m pleased. “I’m not last,” I beemed. Silvia and Susy have steady openers.
Thankfully, the gap between rounds is about 15-20 minutes so any tiredness so far is overcome by the need to keep active. Round two is better as at least I get through the problem holes successfully first time. Seven, the hammer cage is now given me nightmares. I quite clearly haven’t got the ball for it with all the perpetual motion so once it misses, I’m left with some big putts in concrete terms. Nevertheless, I go lower again with a 32. Although I’m convinced that beginning a tournament in the middle of the night will ever catch on, I feel that my game is quite sharp.
The third round is my turn to go first so ideally, I like to set a pace I can go at. I soon find there is a backlog around the seventh and a lot of waiting ensues. Some of it is unnecessary with the player one in the group in front, who displays levels of being unprepared for my shot like some of the slowest on the British tour or the American Civil War general, John Sedgwick. Rather than let it rile me as it could do, I take a few breaths and tick off the holes, stringing together clumps of aces. I try not to be aware of my score and cliché myself through with ‘one shot at a time’ and ‘the most important putt is the next one.’ As I hear the clang of a Karl Lakos 2018 Starball on metal, I let out a shriek. There’s a 28. I achieved what I hoped I could. A number of people watching congratulate me on my achievement. Silvia and Susy, as they had been throughout, were full of smiles.
As the fourth round starts, it’s around 6.15am. Vittorio and Rene are now subbed in. For the first time, the struggle of not being in bed at this hour is very real. By the time I’d reached the seventh and hit back to back drops, I’m constantly looking at the clock. I know my race, my marathon, is probably run. Thankfully, Luigi has arrived and with body language and Italian, pushes me on. Luigi’s timing is impeccable, as I hit my best run and finish making seven of the last ten for a 30. I can barely stand and have become quite incoherent. I tell Luigi through a translator that he can play the rest and that I tried my best. He gives me a hug and a smile. From then on, the next hour is a blur as I say goodbye to as many as I can before walking back to the hotel. The fresh air gives me a lift but now, I just want my bed.
Two and a half hours is nowhere near enough to get by on in your mid forties but I have to get to airport. I get a taxi for the bus station to find I’ll have to wait just under three hours. I knew I had seen the train station when I arrived on Thursday so decide to chance it. Having eventually got a ticket for Bergamo, I set down on my platform around two minutes before about eight hundred drunk and aggressive Como FC fans pulled into Monza station. The carriage was rocking sideways. The police ordered that only one door should be opened but a few yards in front of me, the thugs were ripping the doors off the hinges. I grab my belongings and try not to make eye contact. In my years, I’ve never been this petrified. The police start to herd them along the platform and I cross my fingers that my train isn’t delayed that much.
To some relief, the rest of my journey is trouble free and I have a chance to watch the live stream back at the course. The enormity of these days has filled me with joy and memories. I’ve learned a lot about myself in this time. I’ve done duration events before in other sports like darts and walking but not at the elite level. I would certainly come back at the snap of my fingers. I am so grateful to everyone. Alberto, Cristina, Luigi, everyone who took the time to help me through. Most importantly, I want to thank Rainer Henseler. I am upset for Rainer that he couldn’t be here and one day, we’ll do this. If it wasn’t for Rainer wanting to go in the first place, I would never have had the chance to tick off one of the items on my minigolf bucket list.
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