Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tutte le strade portano a Roma

If you've ever wanted to immerse yourself in a particular city, a marathon - itself a tradition stemming from classical Greek culture - is one of the best ways to do so. Now imagine yourself at the crossroads of the ancient and modern, where structures built centuries ago stand besides or are incorporated into modern buildings. Visualize running on paths trod for many centuries and observing these relics free from the fingerprint-muddled barrier of a tourbus window. What surrounds you are not only the sights, but also the sounds, feelings, scents, emotions even, of several millenia. This is what the Rome Marathon is like.

This was my first marathon, as it was three years ago for a friend who recommended the race. With four half marathons under my belt and a handful of road races and triathlons, I felt ready to take the next step. Truth be told, I could have used about a month more of training to feel more physically prepared, not to mention more therapy on a nagging left shoulder irritation. About a month ago, I almost pulled out. My good friend and ex-colleague fell on her chin and both knees during a training run the week prior and almost didn't go through with it either. Nonetheless, we charged ahead for what proved to be a seemingly epic adventure, the beginning of which started when my hotel, 800 meters from the starting line according to Google Maps, was located on the other side of town. What good fortune to have cousins located an hour away who were able to drive me around town!

For those of you accustomed to pre-race expositions that rival major conventions, set your expectations a bit lower. The Palazzo dei Congressi was built during the Mussolini era and reflects the rationalist architecture of the time, symmetric yet severe. Once inside, forget about queuing and make way through the hordes for the bib number and then the race packet. Navigating the different booths feels a bit like a labyrinthe of yore without mythical creatures to fight off. Most of the merchandise are similar to items that can be purchased at home for a third of the price, and there is a smattering of promotional items. My cousin was a fan of the McDonald's pavillion, where you could have your face painted with the Italian trecolore and receive a noisemaker. We spent maybe fifteen minutes inside. Onto more important things, like pre-race carboloading! Between pasta, risotto, and bread, there are so many options for all diets. Most restaurants are more than happy to accommodate special requests.

The racecourse is one of the best I have encountered to date. The starting corrals are located next to the Colisseum, one of the most iconic landmarks in the world. Approximately three-fourths of the course pass by the major sighseeing attractions and distinct neighborhoods that make up modern-day Rome as well as Vatican City. Coincidentally, the city is still decked out for the recent 150th anniversary of Italy's unification. It's hard to resist taking photos while stretching or slowing down for a spell. The flat layout and mild spring weather make it ideal for runners of all levels. Besides water and Gatorade, refreshments included sugar packets, blood oranges, apples, bananas, and cookies, as well stations in between the refreshment stations handing out wet sponges. I found the port-a-potties lacking toilet paper but equipped with cranks to "flush" nasty bits down a conveyor belt. How clever of Italians to think of the aesthetics of portable toilets! (Shout out to Plamen, who I ran into in his AG gear towards the beginning of the race.)

The stretch between the 20-30km mark is quite far-flung from the main drag, the main landmarks being the Foro Italico (the Olympic stadium also built by Il Duce), the Rome Mosque, and a bridge that is still under construction, with volunteers and cops scattered throughout. Those on the slower side may feel a bit deflated from the thin crowd support on the home stretch. Sidewalks were deserted of spectators, and pedestrians and cyclists kept crossing in front of runners (me included) struggling to reach the finish. With an irritated shoulder and leg muscles I didn't even know I had screaming from kilometer 30, this made it even more difficult. However, sheer will carried me over the finish line, as well as thoughts of my mother. My maternal lineage hails from the Roman region, and thoughts of relatives long-gone on the same roads kept me going. Also, mom's health is not the best as of late, making it difficult for her to walk up the block. I was determined to finish, if only because I am able. At the end, I was almost destroyed, but not enough to collapse in a heap. Veni, vidi, vici! To celebrate my achievement, I had an medium (enormous) three-scoop cone at Gelateria Della Palma, somehow still able to stand. Delizioso!

Would I recommend this race? Conditionally. For the scenery, the spectacular cuisine, and the experience of running through two foreign countries, absolutely. If you speak Italian and/or are in a group, even better. However, converting 26.2 miles to 42.2 kilometers may throw the metrically-challenged for a loop. Those of us accustomed to races in the States are spoiled by drinks every mile (1.6km), whereas in Rome the refreshments and sponge stops alternate every 2.5km (just over a mile and a half) starting at the 5km mark (3.1 miles). For those of you who prioritize efficiency and order or are just plain impatient, this may not be for you. Most southern Europeans have a "get there when you get there" attitude. You will encounter this everywhere from the expo to the corral lineup to post-race medal engraving. Advance planning and packing is required since most stores close early and are shuttered on weekends. If I hadn't been so spent, the woman removing my timing chip with a pocket knife while still pinned to my shirt would have put me into a panic, . However, if you can go with the flow and cope with the unexpected, focusing on the excitement of the journey itself, go for it. In bocca al lupo...


h! said...

Fantastic account with a palpable sense of the pain and gain w/out resorting to hackneyed phrases. Congratulations on the amazing achievement!