All roads lead to Rome - proverb
My own journey to Rome began almost 12 months ago after I went for a light run while on holidays' in Vietnam. I spluttered, struggled and staggered along the path for 5km like a breakdancing snail, during which I managed to tear my right Achilles.
What had happened to my fitness? I'm supposed to be a runner? Argh!
Limping back to the hotel room cursing my aching calves, I announced to Marco that there was no way this was how I was going to enter my 40's.
That's it! I am going to train for a marathon for my 40th! I announced completely out of nowhere.
Ummm…ok… he responded cautiously.
So I went back to Timor-Leste and signed myself up for the Bali half marathon in August 2015, promising that if I completed that without collapsing at the finishing line then the marathon in Rome 2016 would be my next challenge.
And so here we are.
We arrived at Rome's Fiumincino airport on the 08th April after a 2-hour flight from Paris, and quickly alighted a train heading to central station (Roma Termini). With Henry in the backpack perched on Marco's shoulders (my trusty free Sherpa); wheeling luggage and dragging the kids yet again we were off to the apartment I had booked diligently following the blue tracking marker on the satellite map on my phone.
Kids 'sucked it up' and marched on - knowing the drill with little complaint.
We finally reached our apartment - a self-catering style Roman dwelling about 10mins walk from the Colosseum. My parents: Bob and Ann on their own trip through Europe, were meeting us in Rome (enlisted as ground support for the kids during my own marathon), and after catching up with them we headed out for a quick bite before Marco and I were to go to the Rome 2016 marathon expo and collect my race pack.
Lunch was delicious - and I was instantly in love with Italy all over again as I munched on bruschetta with buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil; followed by chicken with mushrooms and roasted potatoes with rosemary.
Italy has to be the best place on earth to 'carb load' for a marathon…
Not as much 'fan fare' as the Paris expo (about 15,000 competitors compared to Paris' 57,000 runners for the 03 April marathon) and about a half an hour train journey away we once again followed the sea of competitors to the race pack collection centre and collected my kit (complete with a packet of pasta in case I needed any extra assistance!). Once again lots of other marathons' were being advertised…including the lesser-known 'adventure seeker' marathon in Irbil, Kurdistan-North Iraq (the slogan campaign for the Kurdistan marathon was: 'Why Irbil?'). I am sure a few competitors would ask exactly that as they strap on their bulletproof marathon bibs…
Our first full day in Rome was again about reducing the impact on the marathon runner's legs…so we opted for a train ride and slow walk to the Colosseum to investigate some of the course and do a recon of the start/finish line of the race. I also spent the 24hours trying to eat a small meal every 3-4 hours and feasted on pasta, Panini's and cannoli until I literally couldn't eat anymore. It was show time!
I was up at 5am on marathon morning after a great night's sleep and after having premonitions' of being incredibly nervous on race day after such a big build up, I was delighted to find myself relaxed and just really looking forward to the run after a long taper…my legs felt like they were actually twitching and were light as air.
A big bowl of porridge, banana and yogurt for breakfast and take away espresso for me, and we left contented kids' in PJ's with cereal and Italian cartoons with my parents. Marco and I didn't need to consult a map as we just followed dozens of other's with the matching blue marathon backpacks on the cool Rome morning as everyone marched silently down towards the Colosseum where all good Gladiator's arrive for battle…
Noting a few Roman's stopping at espresso bars along the way we snapped a few pre-race photos, queued for what felt like an hour for the porta-loo (!) and I very happily bid Marco farewell gleefully jumping into the air and took my spot.
All the competitor's were given coloured wrist bands to match their starting group, and given I wasn't even 1% Kenyan or remotely close to the elite starters I happily lined up in Group D, and waited for the starting gun. In comparison to the Paris marathon, which was very serious and formal at the beginning, the Italian's really know how to party!
I couldn't help but grin as the entire Group D cheered and chanted like we were at a soccer match as the countdown in Italian from 10 to 1 commenced and 'Figaro' blasted from the loudspeakers. I turned on my 4hour 'marathon mix' on my iPod (starting with Eminem 'Lose yourself'…thanks Marco), put on my best-focussed 'RBF' (runners will know what that is) and we we're off!
Now as I have learnt, one of the biggest battles in Marathon running is not just fitness, but patience and endurance. I knew I had a minimum of 4:15 hours (my group being a conservative 5hrs at registration), ahead of me, and I had to force myself to contain my enthusiasm and springy legs and run my own race. For anyone who has ever run a fun run or a marathon will know this is easier said than done and momentum wins every time as other runners sprint past you. While you may be capable of running an awesome per-km time over a 5km distance, what training tells you is that a marathon is all about pacing yourself at an even speed that you can maintain for 42.195km.
Slow and steady…
My body was also LOVING the weather (about 16c and sunny), as training in the heat of Timor (often 34c and humid) I am normally covered in sweat and sculling water before the 5km mark. I had a Gatorade in hand and luckily had been training in Dili carrying a water bottle. A little spooked by Marco's own issues with lack of water and no salts in Paris, I wanted to be prepared. This was an excellent last minute plan as I simply topped my bottle up at every water station (5km's) and never ran out of fluids.
My strategy was to find the 4hr:30mins pacer and stick to him for the entire race (for those who don't know what a 'pacer' is, in every large race there are volunteers who are good enough runners to keep to a particular pace to finish. They wear a flag or in Rome's case balloons indicating the time so you can see them easily).
As I started the race so gingerly to warm my legs up and keep calm (!) I was well behind the pace I wanted for the first 10km, and spent the first hour of the race 'stalking' the purple balloon group, which was the 4hr:45mins pacers. I was so far behind - argh!
My favourite book at the moment is the runner's bible 'Born to Run' by Christopher McDougall (highly recommend to anyone interested in any kind of endurance sport) and I deliberately had re-read my favourite chapters in the days leading up to the marathon about two well known women in the Ultra marathon world Ann Trason and Jenn Shelton who I found overwhelmingly inspiring.
Completely focused I hooted and fist pumped the air (channelling the exuberant Jenn and her enthusiastic 'take no prisoners' running style) as I passed the 4hr:45mins group, and spent the next hour chasing the 4hr:30mins pace group like a lion chasing its prey. This is a really great way to kill time during a marathon and set small challenges….
Now granted, these pacers are volunteers and total legends for doing their thankless job. I was however miffed that as I caught the 4hr:30mins group the lead pacer randomly crossed casually across all the runners to 'take a wee against the wall' and clearly forgot he had 10 blue balloons flying from his neck and almost decapitated me and another 3 runners causing the lady next to me to almost land on her face.
That was it 4hr:30mins pacer (I shall name thee 'Gonzo'!) - game on!
So I flew past the 4hr:30mins pacers and managed a PB half marathon (2hr:07mins), spurred on by a bit of aggression and will to beat the Gonzo group.
I am not quite sure where the next 2 hours went, as many long distance runners will be familiar with - the race does become a blur after a while and I zipped around avoiding racers falling on the ground, medics picking up fallen racers, avoiding the wet sponging stations, and dis-guarded banana skins on the ground.
I couldn't quite work out in my haze of increasing back and feet pain why my Garmin was telling me I was clocking up kilometres well before the official marker came up each km (which is really defeating!), but of course I realised later that I wasn't running in a straight line like the course. All the darting and moving around crowds and to the fuelling stations were adding metres to every kilometre I was running.
As we came closer to the finishing line back at the Colosseum I was completely empowered and excited that my legs still had energy and continued to hoot and chant to myself (still beating Gonzo) as I passed landmarks such as St Peter's square which is enough to make you trip over your own feet in amazement.
There were a few hills in the last 10km and while no 'Horta's Hill' agony of Dili, by the 35km marker this is enough to bring even the toughest of men to tears (which I also witnessed). The last 5km were simply pure hard slog where I simply had no choice but to slow down a little. I fought with desperation to keep my head down, focus on my form and simply make it to the end.
The final turn around the 40km mark and I could see the end, and my legs and momentum willed me to a 6min final km and a massive leap and fist pump and scream over the finish line surrounded by other exuberant collapsing and crying finishers.
I collected my medal and wearily made it over to the landscape of hundreds of runners in silver thermal blankets and lay on the ground. Many other runners were doing the same thing and we all nodded at each other, unable to speak but all in the same hurt locker. Immediately every single muscle seized up and I sat staring blankly at the ground in front of me wondering how on earth I was going to ever get up again. I had organised to rendezvous with Marco at a location outside the gated runners secure zone 500metres away…and instantly burst into tears trying to work out how I was going to get there.
After running 44km in the end (thanks to my zigzagging, so my 'official' time was 4:40 but Garmin says well under 4:30 for 42.195km), it took me about half an hour to hobble (there really is no other word for it) while sipping a good litre of water and sports drink over to the café we were meeting at. And where was Marco? Nowhere to be found! It took almost another hour to meet up with him - he had been patiently waiting for me to run past the 40km mark so he could cheer me on but thanks to Gonzo I had run past before he arrived.
Convincing me to 'keep walking you will feel better' we continued our shuffle to try and get back to the hotel. Overcome with endorphins I told Marco I absolutely was up for a 'quick drink 'and we located a highly overpriced bar directly next to the Colosseum where I bravely ordered an Italian Prosecco in the sunshine.
Now, this blog is intended to be factual so to burst the bubble that I am superwoman I need to confess that after said glass of prosecco and alighting a train I was overcome with a head spin and clamminess and the entire glass of prosecco ended up on the cobble stone streets near the hotel, with me pleading to Marco as I was lying on the ground against a wall that he needed to 'go on with out me - I will be fine right here on the ground for the next few hours!!!'
Ok so I managed to get up eventually, but lets just say the next 24-hours were roughly the same and I am not quite sure how its possible to feel absolutely awesome but absolutely terrible at the same time. Its day 2 post-marathon as I write this, and I finally had a good nights sleep last night, can now keep a full meal down (and glass of wine), and am feeling more like myself again. But a 'recovery run' is still a few days away.
We are train-bound to Siena now and I am looking forward to a week of eating my way through Tuscany with the family and planning my next challenge.
Thank you Rome, you were well worth the 1000+kms of training and all the tears. Bellisimo!