I’m on Week #11 (out of 16) of my training for the Rome Marathon, and everything seems to be going well. I’m relatively healthy, despite a few blisters and sore muscles, and completed an 18-mile run on Sunday. I’m heading to Napoli today to run a half marathon tomorrow in preparation, to see if I can run marathon pace for half the distance.
Marathon training is hard, both physically and mentally. But as I’ve recently discovered, as a foreigner living in Rome, training is not the most challenging part of running a marathon in Italy.
The most challenging part?
Getting permission to run it.
In the United States, registering for a race is a rather mature, adult-like process. You go to the race website. You click a “register” button. You fill out the information. You check a box that confirms that you read the waiver, stating that you’re fit to run. You pay the entry fee. You click “submit”.
In Italy? The mindset is, “who are you to think you’re fit to run?! You need to see an expert! THEY will decide if you’re capable of running and finishing a race!”
As a result, participating in races doesn’t feel as democratized as it does in the US. The fun of running a race is seeing people of all motivations and levels working hard to overcome and achieve something challenging. In Italy, you have to belong to a club to run races, so it feels rather elitist. Not to mention fashionable. Members of clubs wear matching gear. I’ve never seen a group of people so color coordinated.
Now, in order to belong to a club, you need a certificate stating that you are medically capable of participating in these types of competitive activities – a certificato dello sport. And if you are a staniere or foreigner like myself who doesn’t belong to a club, You need to get the certificate anyway.
I contacted the medical office at work, who gave me referrals for three sports doctors who spoke English and were certified to provide these so-called certificates. The first one that I called was not actually located in Rome, but in nearby Ostia. That won’t do. The second one didn’t have appointments until mid-February, and considering that I needed the certificate to run the Napoli Half Marathon as well as the Rome Marathon, that just seemed to be too close to the race date. The third and final office could get me in for an appointment the last week of January. Perfetto.
“It’s 100 euro for the examination,” the receptionist informed me in Italian. “But you’ll need two appointments. One for the test, and the other to meet with the doctor. Bring your exercise clothes with you.”
I thought I caught a sentence in there about bringing a urine sample, but chose to ignore it. I probably misunderstood anyway.
This office is quite far from work, so I left early, took the train, transferred to the subway, changed subway lines, boarded a local train, and still managed to arrive ten minutes early, with exercise clothes in tow. I managed to respond in Italian to all of the questions the receptionist asked me and was quite proud of myself for understanding.
“Did you bring a urine sample?”
Wow, so I DID understand that on the phone! But seriously, who travels around Rome carrying a urine sample?!
“That’s okay, you can do it here. The bathroom is at the end of the hall on your right.”
Once complete, she gave me a number and I headed to the waiting room to wait to be called. Getting any kind of service in Italy always seems to start with taking a number. Can’t you just call my name? You have to call a number on the piece of paper anyway, so why waste the paper?! Strange.
Ten minutes later, I entered a room and was greeted by two women in white lab coats, one standing at a complicated-looking machine and the other behind a desk. She checked my information and asked if I had brought along a different pair of shoes. I motioned to the running shoes in my bag. Neither of them spoke English.
“Okay,” she said. “You can change.”
“Here?” I asked.
“Si,” she responded. Neither made a motion to leave the room.
I took off my shirt and proceeded to take off my skirt and tights.
“No, just the shirt. And your bra,” she said.
“And change your shoes.”
Once complete, she began applying these sticky electrodes all over my chest, motioned for me to lift up my arms, and slipped a piece of netting over my torso. She then motioned for me to get on the exercise bike that was hooked up to the machine.
This was ridiculous. I was naked from the waist up, wrapped in a net, wearing a skirt, tights and running shoes. I began to pedal.
“Maybe you should pull your skirt up a bit,” the one woman gestured.
Sure, that’s logical.
This all had the makings of a really bad lesbian porn for athletic viewers. I was convinced there was a video camera set up somewhere.
After a few minutes, the machine would beep, and one of the women would take my blood pressure and read it to the other one monitoring the machine, now full of seismic scribbles. My goal was to keep the rpms between 70-75, and the longer I rode, the more the resistance increased. This went on for about 11 minutes, and I had worked up quite a sweat. The netting was starting to become uncomfortable, as were the tights.
“Are we almost finished?” I panted.
“Okay, you can slow down now.”
They continued to monitor and take my blood pressure until my heartbeat returned to normal.
“So, am I good?” I asked.
“Yes. Very strong,” they assured me.
I climbed off of the bike and the blood pressure woman removed the net with one rip, passed me a wad of paper towels, and as I put on a shirt they informed me that they would give the results to the doctor, who would go over them with me tomorrow.
I left, figuring the most humiliating part was over.
When I returned the next day, I had a 50-minute wait before entering a room and was greeted by Dr. Sergio Lupo, who began asking me a bunch of questions in Italian.
“Scusi, para inglese?” I asked.
“Oh no, sorry,” he replied.
“It’s okay. We’ll manage.” I said with a smile.
Half of the questions were about my relatives and their health problems. I understood half of them and answered “no” to all of them. The rest were about me and seemed completely irrelevant to my ability to run 26.2 miles.
“Okay, take off your shirt.”
Here we go again.
“And your pants.”
Well, at least I wasn’t wearing tights today.
Test #1 involved exhaling into a tube as hard as I could for seven times. I’m not sure why it was necessary to stand in my bra and underwear for this.
Then Dr. Lupo told me something that I didn’t understand. He pointed to my bra. “What do you call this in English?” he asked.
“Bra,” I replied.
“Take it off. Oh, like wonderbra!” he laughed, as if he had just invented the best joke in the world.
He stuck more electrodes on my chest (wasn’t once enough?!) and had me lie down, at which point he stuck these clamp-like things on my legs and arms. I had a vision of the door opening and nurse wheeling in an Italian Frankenstein so that they could transfer my brain to his. Yesterday’s porn was becoming today’s horror movie.
Once he registered my heart rate, he escorted me over to a step. “Okay, up down, up down. Three minutes. Okay?”
So there I was, stepping up and down on a step, in my underwear, working up a sweat. The step just happened to be positioned directly under a heating vent for extra effect. The worst part was not my saggy underwear, but the fact that this was actually kind of hard. Dr. Lupo snapped his fingers like a metronome, encouraging me to pick up the pace. Just when I wasn’t sure I could keep going, he had me lie back down, put all of the clamps and electrodes back on, and checked my active heart rate.
“Okay, basta.” Finished.
As I dressed, he presented me with my heard-earned, humiliation-inducing sports certificate. I double-checked with him that this was for running marathons, and motioned to the unique forms that the Napoli and Rome Marathons had requested I complete.
“No, no, you don’t need those. This is the certificate.”
On Thursday, the Napoli race committee emailed to inform me that my certificate was wrong. I need a certificate not for sports activities, but for competitive sports activities – attività agonistica. The receptionist told me that I was more than welcome to come back to the office and talk to the doctor so that we could get this resolved. So yes, another afternoon out of work, on trains and subways, to see Dr. Lupo to deal with this damn certificate. While traveling to the office, I checked my Napoli half marathon registration status online, only to find that I had been upgraded from a red “x” to a green checkmark, indicating that my registration was complete. Yet one of their staff emailed me twice that day, informing me that the certificate was not acceptable. Nothing like mixed messages. But this is Italy, after all.
Dr. Lupo was not pleased to see me and barked a bunch of info at how it wasn’t my fault, but that these race organizers don’t understand how anything works, that the certificate is for marathons, etc. I pointed to the unique race forms again and suggested that we fill them out, but he refused. “That’s not how it works,” he insisted. He muttured a few other comments and typed away at his computer, saying, “We will resolve this.” He presented me with a new certificate.
I emailed the certificate to the race committee. And it should come as no surprise that they have yet to respond.
Will they let me run? Or will I be sitting on the sidelines eating pizza Napoletana? Tune in to next week’s blog post to read the exciting outcome.
Andiamo a Napoli!