All Roads Lead to Rome: the Rome Marathon, March 17, 2013

My first foray back into racing – after dealing with a broken arm and the required rehab period – was an exciting one. Although we had to cancel our trip to Israel for the Jerusalem Marathon because of my surgery, the Rome Marathon was still on our calendar. Since the date for Rome was several weeks after my surgery, it seemed eminently doable. We opted to go with Run Italy Tours, a Denver-based travel company that works with Jeff Galloway, the run-walk guru. Run Italy arranges running trips to Rome, Florence, and Athens. The cost was reasonable and included airport transfers, the hotel stay, most meals, several tours, and a chance to meet and talk in depth with Jeff and his wife Barbara. Although I am not a run-walk devotee, preferring to walk my races (except for the occasional run downhill), I did enjoy the chance to discuss races with Jeff and Barbara and listen to their exciting experiences.

We left Florida on Wednesday, March 13, on a mid-morning flight to Atlanta and then boarded the Airbus 330 that would take us on the long (9+ hour) flight to Rome. Delta served us a chicken dinner, wine included, even for us in economy class, and I was able to get a few hours of sleep afterwards. Just before we arrived at Leonardo DaVinci Airport at 7 am Rome time (but 2 am Eastern!), we had a bagel and cheese sandwich for breakfast. It seemed impossible at first to get used to the time change (eating breakfast at 1 am?) but jumping ahead 5 hours turned out to be much easier than enduring the return trip home a week later.

Customs in Italy was a breeze; we were just waved on through. Nobody checked our passports and we were a bit disappointed that we didn’t get them officially stamped. My theory is that the customs agents were so overwhelmed with all the tourists and dignitaries arriving for celebrating the selection of a new Pope, they were simply inured to worrying about the average tourist from the States. Two Run Italy representatives, Paolo and his wife, met us at the airport and drove us to our hotel, the Grand Hotel del Gianicolo in Trastevere, a suburb of Rome proper.

Rome 200

At the hotel, we were enthusiastically greeted by Vaso, the Run Italy tour coordinator, an effervescent ball of fire capable of juggling details large and small with aplomb. We were also met by Jeff and Barbara who had arrived the day before. It was too early to check into our room so we stored our bags in the lobby area and then made our way to the buffet breakfast on the 4th floor. The selection of food was good: croissants, several varieties of cake and pastry, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, Italian cold cuts, cold cereal, eggs, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, rolls, jams, and beverages, including juices (peach, apple, orange, and grapefruit), coffee, and tea. This was the typical breakfast we ate every day for the 6 days of our trip. After a couple of days, I had a hankering for my usual oatmeal and a bagel but I was able to adjust.

My husband and I ate our fill on this, our first day, and then began to make our way back to the lobby to check in. At least that was our intention. Careful as I was to watch my step and not trip, I found myself flat on my face just outside the breakfast room door. There was the tiniest step that I noticed on the way in but completely forgot about on my way out. With my broken arm encased in a hard but removable splint, I managed somehow to avoid hitting my bad appendage, but both my knees were bruised. So was my ego. Fortunately, no one was around to see me fall except my husband, who had to help me up (I couldn’t maneuver very well without using my arms to assist).

The experience of dealing with a broken arm and the consequent surgery was hard enough but there were a number of other issues, most of them unexpected, that I found somewhat difficult. One was simply the necessity of remaining inactive and losing some of my hard-earned stamina during the recuperative period. I understood intellectually that it was important to be a compliant patient for the best healing outcome to take place so I was determined to rest and ice and elevate as required. I felt sure that my endurance would eventually return to its prior state. More problematic was my fear of falling again. In my career as medical librarian, I had done quite a bit of research for various clinicians who studied this very phenomenon. Older adults, especially older women, who had experienced falls resulting in broken bones would often have a residual fear of falling again. As a result, they often limited their activities to prevent future falls from happening. Well, I definitely fit into the older woman category and I could really begin to understand the worries about another accident. But NO WAY was I going to limit my walking! Still, I was obsessively concerned about injuring myself again.

My fall in the hotel was disturbing so I knew I had to be very cautious. The marathon course in Rome begins and ends at the Coliseum, an area surrounded by cobblestone streets. Other sections of the course have cobblestones as well. Various runners have reported on Marathon Guide and elsewhere that the cobblestone portions of the race were the most difficult parts to run on. This meant I had to be extremely careful when walking in those areas.

There were a number of other concerns as well. Because the cardinals of the Catholic Church were meeting to select a new Pope during the week we were in Rome, it was uncertain whether the starting time of the race would have to be delayed until evening. If this came to pass, it would mean that runners and walkers would be finishing in twilight (on cobblestones) and the time limit would be changed from 7 hours to 6. This was quite disconcerting and a bit scary. Fortunately, the new Pope was selected after just a few days and the race was held at the customary time of 9:30 am. However, the course had to be changed to accommodate additional security measures so we were not able to run through Vatican City as a result. Still, it was a relief to have the original starting time and the 7 hour time limit restored.

It was exciting to be in Rome when Pope Francis was chosen

It was exciting to be in Rome when Pope Francis was chosen

Another variable was the weather. I had been checking weather reports for Rome before we left and the predictions were for rain, rain, and more rain. It had been raining in Rome for the previous two weeks and it seemed like it would continue for our week as well. It was cold as well; temperatures were in the 40’s at night and only reaching 55 or so during the day. In addition to the rain, it was supposed to be windy. While I was prepared for the wet and cold (I had packed an assortment of quick-dry layers to wear), I was not looking forward to slipping on wet cobblestones. I didn’t need to worry (or perhaps the worrying did indeed help). The weather turned out to be dry every day we were in Rome except for the Monday after the race. It was cold and occasionally windy but there was no rain to speak of on race day, although it did drizzle just a bit for a small portion of the race.
Vaso, our tour group leader, took care of details like distributing our bibs, tee shirts, and drop bags. We could have paid extra to visit the Expo, which was located some distance from our hotel (and from the start and finish of the race). I considered making the journey but decided to save my Euros and my time. The tee shirt was a dark blue short-sleeved cotton shirt, the bib had 2 chips attached to it, and the drop bag was a useful and re-useable backpack with the Asics logo on it.

Because our hotel was a long and circuitous walk from the city proper, we were driven to the race start on Sunday morning. Run Italy Tours set up camp in an area just past the finish line, and my husband volunteered all day to help out wherever he was needed. I made my way to the last corral and watched as more and more people filtered into the area. About 12000 racers were signed up for the marathon (and even more people, including 2 from our group, were signed up for the 5K fun run/walk). The race began around 9:30 am but I never heard a whistle or countdown. All of a sudden people began to move forward en masse and I moved along with them. Eventually we passed through the archway and starting mats and the race began in earnest.

I have to admit that most of the race was a blur. We started and ended at the Coliseum and passed by many historic monuments and ancient edifices, including the Roman Forum and Circus Maximus and a number of statues and fountains. The course wove through a jumble of neighborhood streets and along the Tiber River. The portions along the Tiber were my favorite sections since the road was wide, asphalt, and fairly uncrowded and offered many scenic views. Most of the time, however, I was intent on watching my feet and keeping an eye on the people in front of me, just to make sure I didn’t take a tumble or a wrong turn.

Aid stations were 5K apart, a little too spread out for me, although this didn’t become an issue until the last 25K of the race, when I was desperate for some sustenance. In addition to water and Gatorade, there were bananas and oranges and some stops even had cookies and pretzels. The streets were mostly closed to traffic, or if they were open, there were police and course marshals stationed to help runners cross. It was a bit disconcerting to try and dodge the numerous cyclists and pedestrians, some with shopping bags or dogs or baby carriages, who they crossed in front of me as I tried to maintain a steady pace. On the whole, however, spectators were respectful of runners and tried to give us a wide berth.
I know a pitifully small smattering of Italian – si, grazie, por favor – so I wasn’t sure exactly what people were saying to me as I passed by. ‘Bravo’, I understood, but some of the language was a mystery to me. However, since volunteers and spectators were smiling and nodding appreciatively as I passed by, I guessed that they must be shouting something akin to ‘good going, old lady’ so I smiled broadly and gave them a ‘thumbs up’ sign (which I hoped had a positive connotation here in Rome).

At about the halfway mark, I saw a familiar figure in front of me. It turned out to be Jerry Lopez, a marathon friend whom I often meet up with at various races. He has completed a lot of international marathons (this is at least his second time doing Rome) and is a wonderful fount of information about the best places and races to do, where to stay, and how to get there. Usually we start together and Jerry runs, passing me early on, and then around the 6 or 7 mile mark, I overtake him as I continue on with my monotone pace and he slows down a bit. This time it took me twice as long to catch up with him and I attribute my slowness to the cobblestone challenge.

As I continued on the course, I heard someone ask me if I had been in Grapevine last year. Grapevine? Texas? Who from the Ultra Centric in Grapevine, Texas, would know me here in Rome? Well, it turns out that Norma and Bobby Duke remembered me from that race and said ‘hi’ as they passed me. Truly it is a small world, especially among marathoners.
We really had to work to reach the finish line. Although the course is mostly flat, there are a few hills right at the end and it is necessary to wind all the way around the Coliseum, on those cobblestones again, to finally get to the 42K mark. What a relief to cross that final mat! I finished in 6:06:12, perfectly respectable for a ‘tough on the feet’ course and my first attempt after my broken arm mishap. The medal is attractive, burnished gold with runners pictured on the front, and ‘Maratona di Roma 19 finisher 2013’ on the reverse.

One rather unexpected aspect of the race was the lack of food and water at the finish; there was absolutely nothing to eat or drink, and by this time I could have used some yogurt or chocolate milk or a banana. Fortunately my husband met me at the finish line and we walked to the Run Italy outpost where we waited just a short while for Paolo to come with the car and take us back to the hotel. It was great to have a shower and nap, followed later in the evening by a delicious multi-course meal hosted by Vaso and Jeff and Barbara. This dinner after the race was especially noteworthy; wine and conversation flowed easily, a guitar player sang songs, and runners were presented with laurel wreaths and beautiful handmade ceramic plates. Even Darcy received a plate and wreath for his volunteer help.We were already glowing with the accomplishment of finishing the race but the dinner helped us to really relax and bask in a race well-done.

It was an exciting time to be in Rome. The selection of a new Pope, even for non-Catholics, was a major historical event and in Italy there was a pronounced celebratory atmosphere that permeated our visit. The American Consulate was located near our hotel and one night while we ate pizza and antipasto in a local restaurant we found the entire the area surrounded by police and security. It turns out that Vice President Biden was present in Rome to represent the US and was having dinner in another restaurant nearby.

Run Italy Tours had provided us with 3 days worth of guided tours. On our first tour we visited several historical sites of Rome proper, including the Coliseum and the Roman Forum. Our second tour took place on Saturday and brought us to Vatican City. Although we could not visit the Sistine Chapel, we were allowed to enter St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. This was thoroughly enjoyable; I especially appreciated viewing Michelangelo’s Pietà. Sunday was race day and the following Monday was a free day to rest and relax. Our third tour was on Tuesday; on this day we traveled by motor coach to the Roman countryside where we visited Tivoli, Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa), and Villa d’Este. This was Italy as I had always imagined it – beautiful gardens, elaborate fountains, scenic hillside towns, and bustling marketplaces.

On the whole, the tours provided worthwhile opportunities to see Rome with a minimum of trouble. Just about everything was taken care of for us – tickets, taxes, meals. I have only one major complaint and that involves our tour guide. She was possibly the worst tour guide I have ever had. What was the problem? She never EVER stopped talking. She jumped from one topic to the next, interspersing her comments with completely extraneous and sometimes ridiculous remarks. Instead of giving the facts and perhaps a story or two, she just went on and on and on – and on. Unfortunately she was our guide on all of the tours.

In marked contrast was the tour we took of the Jewish Museum in the Ghetto area across the Tiber from our hotel. Since the Monday after the race was our free day to do as we wished, we slept late, had a leisurely breakfast, and then planned to walk across the Tiber to the Trevi Fountain and work our way back to our hotel via the Pantheon and the Ghetto. Unfortunately, the day turned out to be extremely windy and cold and very wet. I had brought an umbrella but the strong wind kept turning it inside out. We were soaked just crossing the river, so we decided to enter the Jewish Museum, take a tour of the Great Synagogue, and walk back home to dry off. This tour was absorbing; the guide was a young woman, articulate and informative, and I learned quite a bit. One of the most intriguing pieces of information concerned the history of Roman Jews. It is commonly believed that after the Diaspora, only two groups of Jews existed, Ashkenazi (from Eastern Europe) and Sephardic (Jews who spread to Spain). However, there is a third group, Roman Jews, who never left Rome after the fall of the Temple, although for many decades they were confined to the area of Rome known as the ‘ghetto.’ It was a rewarding morning, topped off by an obligatory visit to a gelato shop where, despite the freezing weather, we indulged in two scoops of the best gelato available.

Overall, food in Rome was wonderful. One of the best things about Run Italy Tours revolved around the meals provided. While I found the breakfasts just so-so, the 3 meals in the hotel, pizza from a local restaurant, and our lunch on the trip to the Roman countryside, were all above-average to excellent.

By Tuesday evening, both Darcy and I were anxious to return home. We had seen many of the historical sites, conquered the marathon, and eaten our fill. We were tired and looking forward to getting back to our usual routine. Paolo drove us and another of our tour group to the airport early Wednesday morning. We checked our bags at the Delta counter and headed for Customs (where we did get the official to stamp our passports) and then made our way to Security, where my splint seemed to confuse everybody. I removed it, put it in its own little bin to go through the x-ray detector, then I walked through, and an agent placed the wand over the stitches on my arm (titanium is not supposed to set off alarms but I think the agent checked just to be sure). We spent an hour or so in the Alitalia Sky Club having coffee and croissants for breakfast and then found our gate for boarding. As I proceeded up the jetway, I was stopped by another official (the Italian equivalent of our TSA people) and had to remove my splint and be checked once again. My coat and my carry-on were also inspected. This was a first for me, since I usually look pretty harmless (well, heck, I AM harmless) but also kind of exciting.

After that, it was just a long, very LONG, flight back to Atlanta, over 10 ½ hours, and I was really exhausted when we finally disembarked. We had several hours until we could actually board our flight back to Florida and it was a relief to arrive back home. I am still catching up with jetlag and fatigue from the race, but it was definitely a very worthwhile and enjoyable trip.