By Matthias Williams and Emily Wither
MILESTIIMICI, Moldova (Reuters) – Hundreds of runners competed in a 10 km (6 mile) race in the world’s largest wine cellar on Sunday, navigating by the light of headlamps as they hurtled through dark limestone caves that stretch some 200 km underground near the capital of Moldova.
Dancers, musicians and singers wearing folk costumes performed in the darkness of the caves, cheering on the runners, 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 2 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,” said Amy MacDonald from Canada.
“I know I’m from Canada but still 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 EU member Romania and Ukraine, is one of the few winemaking areas of the ex-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 tenth of Moldova’s workforce, although as of 2017 it accounted for just 2.8 percent 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?”
(Additional reporting by Alexander Tanas, Dorin Scobioala and Peter Graff)