I took a group cooking class in Florence when I was traveling around Italy in March of 2013. The class consisted of a mother-daughter duo, a chef from Long Island, and myself. We were all discussing the places in Italy we visited (or in my case, about to visit), and they were all raving about Pompeii. The chef commented, “It was absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately you have to go through Napoli. That place is such a shithole that it’s not worth stopping.”
At that moment, this so-called “chef” lost my respect. Oh, and by the way, he couldn’t roll pasta dough to save his life.
Any person who tells you that Napoli is not worth a visit either has is either a non-foodie, a vanilla tourist, a total moron, or all of the above. Don’t listen to descriptions of dirt, traffic, crime, and Mafia. Napoli is fantastica. Skipping Napoli on a trip to Italy is like coming to San Francisco and bypassing the Mission District. There’s culture, beauty, history, fantastic people, and yes, there is food. Oh, the food. Home of the pizza margherita and some of the best seafood in the country.
In searching for a race to run during marathon training, I was only too happy to sign up for La Mezza Maratona di Napoli (the Napoli Half Marathon) and an excuse to visit the city yet a third time. With all of the drama over obtaining a proper medical certificate, I still wasn’t convinced that everything would work out and that I’d get to run. But regardless of the outcome, I was going to Napoli, and therefore I was guaranteed at least a great meal or two.
I arrived late Saturday morning and hit two of my favorite spots. The first is Attanasio, a bakery near the train station well known for its sfogliatelle, a flaky ricotta-filled pastry. I took a number and paid for my pre-lunch snack. The queue was long, but well worth it. These little babies are filled with rich ricotta and orange peel, sprinkled with powdered sugar.
The second stop was for a pizza margherita and thus my third trip to da Michele, what some consider the best pizzeria in Napoli. I shared a table with three women from Bologna, who ate all of the pizza except the crust, which they claimed was burned. Of course it’s burned – it’s from a wood-fired oven! The crunchy, burned parts of the crust, combined with the sweet tomato sauce and smooth mozzarella are why this is one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten. Remember: the simplest things are the best things. Not to mention that a pizza this size comes for the bargain price of 4,50 euro (around $5). Perfection on a plate.
I then decided to walk the long walk to the hotel and pick up my race number along the way. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the pick-up spot, my bag was getting pretty heavy, and 2 hours of walking had made me a sweaty mess. By the time I arrived at the hotel, I was tired of dodging scooters and frustrated by the chaotic streets and poor race coordination. I dropped my bag and napped for a half-hour. That did the trick. My second attempt proved successful, as I found the street and saw a crowd milling around outside of a Toyota store. Really? The bib pick-up is at a car dealership?! Yes it was. One table to pick up the race number, another table to pick up the shirt.
I provided my name and was rewarded with a race number. Done. Just like that. No questions about a medical certificate or the “Run Card” that is yet another silly, costly requirement for runners like myself that don’t belong to an Italian club. I left with a race number and shirt and a sense of triumph for successfully navigating another ridiculously bureaucratic part of Italian life.
By the way, this was the race expo: three outside tents. Where was the exposition hall full of race prep supplies, presentations by running experts, and free PowerBar samples? In other words, what kind of a “race” did I sign up for?!
My reward for acquiring my race packet was a passeggiata around the Chiaia district, a macchiato at Caffe Gambrinus (delicious), and views of Mount Vesuvius at sunset.
As it was Valentine’s Day, lots of couples were out for a stroll as well. Being single, I had some hesitation about coming solo to Napoli on the most romantic day of the year. I dreaded the thought of sitting alone at dinner, receiving concerning looks from other patrons and restaurant staff as they thought, “Che pecatto. What a shame that woman is alone.”
Instead, I found the evening rather enjoyable. Lit-up hearts were strung across streets. I watched bike messengers deliver flowers. Balloons decorated restaurant entryways. I had dinner at a trattoria with friendly staff who didn’t seem to care that I was alone. I carbo-loaded with an octopus salad, a light spaghetti al pomodoro and grilled calamari, returned to the hotel and fell asleep watching “When Harry Met Sally”, dubbed in Italian.
As usual, I slept poorly. I always do the night before a race. I had practically walked a half marathon the day before so I made sure to stretch before leaving the hotel around 6:30am. I walked about five minutes to the shuttle pick-up spot. Rain was in the forecast and there was a light drizzle. I wore my long-sleeved New York City Marathon shirt from 2007 in the hopes that it would help me engage in conversation with other runners, and it did. I quickly became friends with Laura and Luigina, who were from Northern Italy and were running the full marathon in preparation for Rome next month. Luigina ran New York the same year I did.
When the shuttle bus arrived (late, of course), a swarm of runners pushed and shoved to board. Fortunately four more buses pulled up shortly afterwards, and Laura kept me entertained with stories of her travels to the United States despite her limited English.
The start of the race is in the town of Pozzuoli, the birthplace of Sofia Loren. The wind had started to pick up and as we stepped off the bus, I looked around for the portable toilets.
Are you serious?
“Andiamo,” Laura suggested, as we made our way to a cafe to use the bathroom.
What a scene. The place was packed with loud runners, all decked out in a colorful sea of fashionable gear. Most were drinking coffee, and the rest of us took our place in line. While the bathroom had toilet paper, a word of advice: when running a race in Italy, put tissues in your race bag. You just might need them. Don’t expect porta-potties!
Then the rain hit. A blowing, cold rain, but fortunately not a downpour. We dropped off our bags and took some shelter near the starting line. I had a head wrap to protect my ears from the cold, along with arm warmers, but I was shivering in my shorts.
And I was apprehensive.
I’ll get lost.
I’ll come in last.
I’ll bet there won’t be any water stations. I should have brought my own water.
What if I can’t finish? Will I know enough Italian to make it back to the hotel?
Then I looked around. The starting line was taking shape. People were jumping up and down to stay warm. One runner had a plastic bag covering his head. The announcer was enthusiastically shouting a bunch of stuff I couldn’t understand.
Then I started to laugh. This was awesome. People in bathrobes leaned out of apartment doors and windows, waving and taking pictures. Laura, Luigina and I wished each other luck and promised to have dinner together in Rome next month before the race. My GPS watch managed to find a signal just as the crowd began to move, and seconds later I was running over the starting line.
My goal for the race was to treat it like a practice run for the Rome Marathon. And for Rome, my goal is to run a sub- 5 hour race, which would be a first. So for the Napoli Half, I planned to average an 11 minute-mile pace, which would have me finishing at a bit over 2 hours, 24 minutes.
As usual, I started out too fast, but I was nervous about being so slow that the pack would disappear ahead and leave me stranded, increasing my chances of getting lost. The course maps were placed on the website just three days ago, and they are a poor series of Google satellite images. However, I memorized the kilometer points that contained turns. To my relief, I saw that the course and all of the turns were etched on the street in chalk. That helped me relax a bit.
The first seven kilometers consisted of two laps around Lake Lucrino and through the main street of Pozzuoli. Then the course turned onlo a straight road right next to the bay. At that point, the pack had thinned considerably, but I could still see a handful of runners in front of me. The view was breathtaking, and I found myself smiling at my fortune of getting to run in this incredibly beautiful place.
And talk about comedy.
There were water stations every three miles, consisting of volunteers holding out plastic bottles. What a waste! I grabbed a bottle at each station, took three or four sips, then tossed it to the side of the road, where it smashed into the other full bottles, sending water flying everywhere. There were also sponging stations, which I didn’t use (it wasn’t hot enough). But I enjoyed seeing the various colors of cute sponges discarded all over the road, resembling my nephew’s legos.
I also had the pleasure of being drafted by another runner. For NINE MILES. At first I thought, “why is this dude following so close behind me, and why doesn’t he pass?!” Then I thought, “is he drafting me?” It didn’t seem possible. After all, who drafts someone running an 11-minute mile?! There surely can’t be any benefit from drafting someone who is running that slowly!
So I tested him. I moved diagonally from one side of the road to the other. He followed. At one point I slowed down almost to a stop, and he did as well, asking me, “are you okay?” His English was rather poor, but enough for me to learn that he was from China. We exchanged a few words before I got back on pace, and he got back to following on my tail. Unreal.
Finally at Mile 9, I decided enough is enough (I know, I’m rather tolerant!). I turned around, looked at him and said, “please, go in front of me.”
He said, “oh no, that’s okay.”
“No,” I told him. “You cannot follow me like this. It’s not okay. You need to run ahead, please.”
He explained that his knee was not in great shape, a total confession to drafting. I told him I was sorry, but he needed to run ahead. We exchanged a few friendly words, wished each other luck, and he moved on. I was proud of how I handled the situation, and didn’t envy him; he was running the full marathon on a bad knee. In other words, a painful not-so-smart choice.
I fumbled a turn-around, but corrected it within seconds and was back on track, now running with marathoners who were at their Mile 16, while I was at about Mile 10 of the Half. It was at this point that I realized something: I had taken no walk breaks, not even for water. I always find myself taking walk breaks at several points during a race, but this was uncharted territory for me. I had also been running a bit faster than 11-minute mile pace. This was exciting!
The route turned onto a main street that seemed to go on for miles and was an extremely slight incline. It felt like it went on forever. I took a last water stop at around Mile 11 and plodded along, reminding myself that what comes up…….
….and then I saw the tunnel at Mile 12, a long downhill. Awesome! My watch lost its GPS signal as I ran down through the tunnel for several minutes. As I came back into daylight, a volunteer yelled out “sinistra!”, indicating an upcoming left turn. Then a roundabout and onto the Lungomare that runs right along the water. My legs were so tight and sore from too much walking the day before.
But walking was the last thing on my mind. The finisher’s chute was in view, and I slowly but steadily sped up, checking my watch in disbelief, glancing at the clock as I crossed the line.
A personal best by 3 1/2 minutes. Average pace: 10:45. And more than on track to run a sub 5-hour marathon next month in Rome.
A hot shower, followed by a delicious cappuccino. Then onto da Dora, where I devoured a three-plate appetizer and a bowl of seafood linguine. The fried calamari were the best I’ve ever had, the wait staff extremely friendly and talkative. The waiter worked for five months in Antarctica, where he told me he entertained himself by memorizing the US state capitals, thanks to a map hanging on the restaurant wall. We would quiz each other when he brought out each course.
“Washington,” he stated.
“Uh, aspetta. Olympia,” I replied.
“Brava,” he said, surprised.
“Maine,” I stated.
“Augusta,” he answered immediately.
The hotel ordered me a cab, and in Italian the driver and I discussed my weekend in Napoli and my impressions of the city. I told him how I didn’t understand why the Bolognese women preferred a pizzeria where they could select their own toppings, when they could have a light, flavorful pizza margherita from da Michele.
“The simplest things are the best things,” I explained. “That’s why I like Napoli.”
“Ah, you are Neapolitan,” he replied. “When you come back, here’s my card. You and your husband and I will go eat pizza. I enjoy being with people who like to eat good food.”