The final weeks of my marathon training went really well. I managed to hit the peak of my training with a 20-mile run, and then enjoyed three weeks of tapering. The mileage gradually decreased each week, while my carbohydrate intake gradually increased. And there are no shortage of carbs here in Rome! Everything felt pretty good, with a few aches and pains here and there, but nothing serious.
Last Thursday, I headed to Palazzo dei Congressi to pick up my race number, as it was the first day of the expo, and it’s best not to wait until the last minute in order to avoid the crowds.
There’s great energy at an expo, and I was swelling with pride, thinking about showing up as a tourist two years ago to pick up my race number. But not this year. As I went down to pick up my race number, greeting the volunteer in Italian, he handed me my race packet, which was stamped with Italian flag. I was a bit confused by that. When I opened my packet and pulled out my race number, it also had an Italian flag on it! I guess the flag doesn’t signify your nationality, but rather your country of residence. I was thrilled. There it is – I’m a resident of Italy, and I get to represent my new country on Sunday.
I took it very easy the final few days, going to bed early, drinking a lot of water, and eating until I was no longer hungry (very fun). On Friday evening I watched the documentary Spirit of the Marathon, which profiles seven runners and their journey to run the 2012 Rome Marathon. I had seen this documentary in San Francisco with my running club right after I returned from running the 2013 Rome Marathon, and I figured it was worth watching again to get myself in the mood. You need to watch the movie trailer here. Seriously. It plays into the story as you continue to read. Trust me on this one.
The day before the marathon I went for a 2-mile run to check on how things were feeling. My feet had some sore spots, which was a bit concerning. I did a lot of stretching and hydrating, did a quick trip to the farmer’s market, and then went to check out the start/finish line. Despite sore feet, I felt ready. I had trained well, completed a lot of long runs, and felt confident I would achieve my goal: “You’re ready to finally break 5 hours in the marathon” I told myself. It was going to happen. I could feel it. My best time was 5:02:29, the last time I ran Rome.
I have two pre-marathon traditions, which I fulfilled on Saturday. First, I always watch Rocky. I know it’s silly, but it just works. And secondly, I call my Dad, my favorite marathoner, for advice. He always says the same thing which makes me laugh: “Start slow and finish slower. And have fun!” I prepared my bag and laid out my clothes before falling asleep.
I knew the race day forecast was rain, but it was downright miserable. After a bowl of oatmeal and some coffee, I got ready and left the apartment at 7:30am to head to the subway, and it was already raining. When I got off at the Circo Massimo stop and walked toward the Coliseum to drop off my bag, it was starting to come down even harder. The bag drop-off area was full of umbrellas and runners wearing plastic bags. I even brought one myself. Here’s a photo before I donned the trash bag.
The start of the race was an unorganized mess. They had us packed in next to the Coliseum and wouldn’t let the runners into the starting area on Via dei Fori Imperiali until the last minute. Once they opened the gates I headed for the porta potties and was relieved to find that the lines were extremely short. Within five minutes I was done and back in my starting corral, with just minutes before the gun went off and I crossed the start line.
I’ve never run a race in the rain, so this was new territory. Cold muscles and body, but also Roman streets are not designed well for wet conditions. I spent the first 5k dodging puddles and trying to keep my feet dry for as long as possible. But Italian runners are not intimidated by weather; everyone’s spirits were really high, and there was a lot of cheering and singing, which really helped. Romans are LOUD! Where do they get that kind of energy at the start of a 26.2 mile race?!
Despite the rain, I was thrilled to be running past so many familiar sights, like Circo Massimo, Pyramide, and my own neighborhood of Garbatella. My heart swelled with pride as we ran over the modern Garbatella bridge and onto Via Ostiense and down through San Paolo. My friend Duane was waiting there at Mile 6, a welcome sight. I threw off my arm warmers and asked him to hold onto them for me. I could have used them for the next hour, but knew I would eventually be too hot to wear them. We headed into Testaccio and onto the Lungotevere towards Centro Storico. I was finally starting to warm up a little bit and the rain had finally stopped. My pace and breathing were solid and I felt comfortable, although my muscles were already tight from the cold. While I was confidently running my goal pace, those tight muscles told me that the second half was not going to be pretty.
At around 11:00 we ran past St. Peter’s Basilica (a highlight) and into Prati. My first neighborhood. I arrived in June 2014 with no job and no idea how this was going to work out. But Prati put me at ease and made me feel at home, so it holds a special place in my heart – not to mention my favorite gelateria (Gelateria dei Gracchi). It was like running a part of my past and I had a good time reliving a lot of memories, reflecting on how far I had come, the ability to make my dream of living in Italy a reality. I passed the halfway point and felt strong. At this pace, I would finish in under 4 hours 50 minutes. So I had built a bit of a cushion for when things got tough in the second half.
There were water stations every 5 kilometers, and I made sure to drink a bit at each one. I had waves of nausea, but just tried to think about other things until they subsided. There were sponging stations too, but I really didn’t need them, thanks to the rain.
At the 18 mile mark, I started to look at my watch more often and look anxiously for kilometer marker signs. This was were my muscles really began to tighten and the pain became a distraction. At the 32km mark (around 20 miles), I checked my watch. My pace was still pretty good, but I was so stiff that I had difficulty running. I was able to make it to the water station at the 35km point, and then the walk breaks began. I knew I was still okay on time, but these last 7km would be the real test. I had a feeling I would be cutting it very close.
Fortunately, I had the honor of running next to Simone, a physically disabled runner who was being pushed in a chair by a group of friends. They all wore shirts that said “Simone 42,195” (the marathon distance in kilometers). Simone was the most enthusiastic runner I’ve ever seen, singing and shouting throughout the race. When we arrived at Piazza Navona at the 37km mark, I was running behind them and the whole place just erupted in cheers for Simone. An amazing moment. He was such an inspiration.
We turned onto Via del Corso and I put on some music to try and distract me from the pain. It didn’t really work, but I was grateful to reach Piazza del Popolo (km 39) in one piece. At that point, I was passing another runner when I realized, “hey, I know that man!”. He was Domenico, one of the runners in the “Spirit of the Marathon” documentary! I couldn’t help myself. This was too good to be true! I slowed down so that he could catch up and in Italian I called out, “Hey, are you Domenico from Spirit of the Marathon?” He enthusiastically replied, “Yes, it’s me!” and gave me a hug. Che fortuna! I stopped at the 40k mark for water and he waited for me. We chatted in Italian a bit in which he told me that he has run EVERY ROME MARATHON. All 21 of them. He is one of 42 senatori, the term the race organizers give to runners who have run every Rome Marathon. And he’s 75. His cousin Mimmo, a pizzaiolo, was also in the documentary. I asked about him and whether he was running today, but he wasn’t. Domenico invited me to come to the pizzeria and asked if I was on Facebook. Ah, technology.
We ran the remaining 2 kilometers together and he really helped keep my mind off of my sore back and legs. He commented on how much his knee hurt, to which I replied, “forza, amico”. Which is like saying, “you can do it, friend”. We passed the sign indicating the last kilometer when he said, “we need to hold hands when we cross the finish line!”, and I agreed. After all, I was running with a celebrity and a Rome Marathon legend – how could I not?! The course on Via Nazionale started to look rather celebratory, and once we approached Piazza Venezia and turned towards, the finish line, Domenico grabbed my hand. I started to laugh, dazed at my luck. I was about to finish the Rome Marathon with one of its greats. And finish we did, with hands clasped, arms raised, the Coliseum in full view and “Roma Roma Roma”, the official song of the AS Roma football team playing over the loudspeaker.
It was like an initiation ceremony. The music, the Coliseum, the finish line, and my new friend and Rome Marathon veteran.
“Kerry, benvenuta a Roma. Sei Romana ora.”
I was now a Roman. I shouted out the words to the song as the volunteer put the medal around my neck. It was this Roman’s time to be loud, too.
I thought of Simone and his incredible friends, whose joy and love for a person was so great that they pushed him for 42 kilometers in celebration. If only I could find them and thank them. They lifted the spirits of all of us.
Domenico and I grabbed snacks and some tea and talked for a bit. I promised him I would come and have pizza with him and Mimmo, and connect with him on Facebook. I collected my bag, retrieved my iPhone, and asked Domenico for a photo together. He was jubilant. “I can’t believe I finished my 21st Rome Marathon. And I got to finish it with a beautiful girl!” he exclaimed before we parted ways.
Just like my goal of living in Italy, I met my goal of smashing the 5-hour mark. But I’ll be honest: it felt like more of a perk than a highlight. I was too grateful and elated from running alongside Simone and finishing with Domenico, il senatore della Maratona di Roma and my new friend.
Thank you, Rome. I feel so welcome.