The Rome Diaries - All roads lead to Maratona
Since uni days I had been a runner, off and on. Usually more off than on. I would train for a race, do passably ok at it, and then reward myself by not running anymore for a while. I would subsequently lose all my fitness and have to start again from scratch for the next race. This had been going on for years. But in 2015 something was different.
I had started running again in May, back from a nasty bout of runner’s knee, and I was due to run the Great Newham 10k and a couple of work based 5k events in the build up to the Ealing Half Marathon in September. Having a penchant for California in the fall, Mr Duff and I had managed to miss EHM in previous years. But this year we were signed up to run, and I was really looking forward to it - because I knew it was the beginning of my journey towards Rome.
I had been to Rome as part of a study tour for my degree, and had wanted to go back ever since. But for some reason every time there was a long weekend or a week away to plan, Rome was suggested and then got bumped for somewhere else. This had happened several times, so I came up with a cunning plan. One thing that usually guarantees we go to a place is if Mike wants to run a marathon there. Well, Rome has a marathon. I knew this because over my years as a more-off-than-on runner I had occasionally toyed with the idea of running it, pretty much on the basis that if I was ever going to put myself through the full 26.2, I might as well do it somewhere pretty to take my mind off the pain.
Admittedly, finding a really masochistic excuse for a weekend away wasn’t the only reason I had for considering running Rome. Mike was always a much more serious runner than me. I’d witnessed a few rounds of his marathon training by this point, and it’s a fact that the process isn’t always easy when you’re the one watching from the sidelines. You can’t fully understand what they’re putting themselves through, or why they’re so tired, or why you have to have brown rice for dinner AGAIN. And on the day, whilst you’re incredibly proud of them, you’re also hugely jealous of what they have achieved and the look of sheer elation on their face.
So I casually looked up some training plans. I had already run six half marathons, so I knew I could run for 13.1 miles. Most of the training plans I looked at only had a handful of training runs above 13 miles. That seemed ok. I wasn’t looking for a sub 4 time or anything crazy like that. Just to get round respectably and not show myself up. How hard could it be?
So that was it. For absolutely no sensible reason at all, I had talked myself into entering the 2016 Maratona di Roma.
I’d bloody done it now.
Flying With The Eagles
The next stage of the journey was an unexpected joy. A few weeks before EHM Mike and I decided to join our local running club, the Ealing Eagles. This was partly because I wanted to make sure I kept going after EHM on 27th September and build up a firm base before starting my marathon training. However the main reason was to make some new friends in the local area and start getting a bit more involved in the community. I never could have imagined how much being part of the club would come to mean to me and how big a part of my life it would become in so short a time. Between EHM and the end of the year I was running more than I ever had, and thoroughly enjoying doing so, with the most amazing bunch of people. I ran loads more races, increasing my medal haul no end. I tried cross country and loved it. I became a regular at parkrun and wondered why the hell I had been signed up for years without ever going to one before. I started volunteering to help with the club beginners group. I had incredible new friends who refused to let me sit on any tiny bit of extra potential they could see in me, pushing me to new PB’s in the half marathon, 5k and 10k distances. I had 5 different pairs of running shoes for different types of runs. And nothing makes you feel more part of a team than having ‘Go Eagles’ screamed at you every time you race in the club vest (or randomly on the street when you run past a fellow Eagle, for that matter – yes Wei Hei I’m looking at you!). So now I had another reason to actually go through with this crazy plan of running a marathon in Rome. I had myself to answer to, but I also had my club to make proud.
Having said that, 26.2 miles is a really, really long way. What if I couldn’t do this? What if my runner’s knee came back half way through training and I had to admit defeat and forfeit the race? So I decided I would run Rome, but I would keep it to myself. Mark Yabsley had agreed to be my coach and was the only person outside our immediate household who knew I was training for a marathon. From the outset he seemed to enjoy the deviousness involved in keeping it below the radar (you can draw your own conclusions as to what that says about him). The cover story was that since Mike was running London I had decided to follow a similar plan so that I could join him at the organised 17 and 20 milers later in the spring, just to see how I did. No pressure. I’m still not sure how many people who were told this believed it – I mean it’s totally normal to train to run consecutive 20 milers for no reason whatsoever, right?
Training started well. I cruised through the weeks’ long runs up to the half marathon distance. I was a bit worried about going over 13.1 miles for the first time, but by doing what Jedi Master Yoda-bsley said and slowing my long run pace right down I managed to keep plodding on. By the end of the month, I was up to 16 miles. Whilst I still felt comfortable, it had definitely started to feel like this was where the real challenge would begin. I struggled up the Horsenden foothills in the last mile of that first 16-mile training run puffing like a steam train – and why had it never occurred to me that the part of your body bearing the brunt of this sort of mileage would be your feet?! I could also feel my trick knee starting to play up and something that felt like it might be the start of shin splints, but was determined to go into month 2 of this journey without getting paranoid about every little twinge.
So, not shin splints. Halfway through February, a Saturday long run following a Valentines night on the tiles in unsuitable shoes caused a minor disaster to strike. I had pain in the outside of my right foot, which got progressively worse over the next few days until I could barely put weight on it. My rather stern but terribly helpful physio informed me I had stressed my peroneal brevia, which turns out not to be a cheap Italian car but rather a somewhat crucial but overworked tendon on the outside of my calf.
I was out of action completely for a week, before braving the Wokingham Half and managing a respectable new PB of 02:12:18, which was entirely due to the amazing support of Liz Wirdnam who point blank refused to leave me at 10 miles when everything seized up. She was having none of my ‘go on, leave me, save yourself’ melodramatics, for which I was beyond grateful. I was in quite small pieces by the time I crossed the line. But I was relieved – if all stayed well, I had only lost a week. Not the end of the world, and judging by the marathon blogs I was seeing from the Eagles’ VLM runners, being out for only a week seemed pretty lucky at this point.
Wokingham aside, February was tough. It seemed to be a month spent doing endless foam rolling - during one particularly memorable session the pain and sense of weakness was such that I ended up just lying on the living room floor in a pathetic heap, simultaneously swearing and sobbing into my yoga mat - and equally endless slow mileage. Banned from track or tempo work, I ended the month’s training by plodding my way around a tough Gade Valley 17 course, willing my calf and hips not to fall off or go twang, and glad to see the back of the last few weeks.
March got off to a bang with a couple of good days of pain free training ahead of my first ever 20 mile event, the superbly friendly and excellently well stocked goody bag-ed Thames Riverside 20. The conditions, organisation, and marshalling of this event were all brilliant, which was a good thing because had it been otherwise it would have made this 3 hour 51 minute slog a lot less bearable. I also had some great company, falling in almost immediately with a lady who it turned out was also training for Rome! As she wasn’t an Eagle, I immediately swore her to secrecy, confessed my secret, and picked her brains about what to expect. I finished the run very stiff, in a bit of pain, but reassured that the famed Roman cobbles wouldn’t be as punishing as another run on a bloody English towpath.
A week later I dropped 13 minutes off my Riverside time at the Spitfire 20, and it felt amazing. I felt like my strength was on its way back and I had surprised myself with how much I enjoyed this second go at such a ridiculously long distance, not to mention all the blokes I overtook who had gone out too fast. Maybe the marathon wasn’t completely insurmountable after all…
People were seriously starting to ask questions now. Mostly ‘why are you running 20 milers on consecutive weekends if you’re not training for a marathon’. Madam Chairwoman Allie was definitely sniffing around the truth; I was sure she was expecting me to pop up unannounced at Manchester. I started to wonder whether I should just come clean. But I headed into the taper still mired in subterfuge, determined to enjoy the cut in mileage and the extra time for physio exercises now the business end of training was behind me. A spectacular mid club run fall with three weeks to go leaving me with a grazed multi-coloured knee wasn’t part of the plan, but you can’t stick completely to schedule for these things can you?!
And so to Rome! We flew out on the Friday and headed straight to the Expo to avoid the day-before madness of the Saturday. Number duly collected, race T shirt personalised, we headed back to Colosseo station purely so I could grin widely and not quite hold in the tears at the magnificence of the ancient centre of this amazing city. There were changes (apparently the forum is only SPQR these days in exchange for 12 euro), and I was banned from gelato til Sunday afternoon, but it was still the same beautiful, vibrant place where I felt so at home all those years ago. I decided I couldn’t have chosen a better location for my first marathon.
On Saturday we met up with Phill and Sonja for dinner and made arrangements of where to meet the next morning. Phill had known I was running Rome for a while, since I really didn’t want to freak him out just before the race if he saw Mike and I at the start and thought we had just stalked him there like weirdos. Sonja hadn’t known until Saturday dinnertime but couldn’t have been more cool about my keeping it to myself, or more helpful with last minute tips and reducing the nerves by keeping us laughing. It was fantastic to have their company and for race weekend to be a bit more of an Eagles road trip than I’d thought it would be. Just another example of how brilliant the club is.
Race day went by in a blur. The small number of loos at the start compared to the amount of people running meant that you just about had time to get there, queue for a wee, put your bag in the trucks and get over to the pens. This helped with any race day nerves, because there just wasn’t time to think about it. The 20 minutes or so we spent in the pen before heading off were easily the most nerve wracking of the entire day. Random thoughts came out of nowhere. There were so many people, bin liners and bottles around on the floor. What if I fell? What if I couldn’t keep up? The pacers didn’t seem to be in the right place. It was really warm. This was going to take me nearly 5 hours…I would never make this!
But then, to the sound of loud dance music and an unseen announcer shouting ‘Rome is at your feet!’, we were off! The first few miles were exhilarating, trying not to slip on the cobbles, listening to the cheers of the crowd, getting swept up with large groups of locals who screamed for joy whenever we went through an underpass – we were at 10k before I knew it. At this point a lot of people started to walk, and despite revising my pace early on to adjust for the hot weather I was already leaving people behind which gave me a bit of a boost. The second 10k was much tougher. The time was still going quickly but I just couldn’t hit my stride. The sight of Mike and Sonja at 8 miles - Sonja in classic EHM green and madly waving a cowbell whilst screaming ‘Go Eagles’ at top volume - was very welcome. Then at 10.8 miles a commotion caused by locals rushing across the route distracted me, I lost my footing on the cobbles and stumbled to the ground. I was scooped up by some kind Italians and sped off out of embarrassment. Oh God, I had fallen during the marathon. And right in front of the Vatican as well! I tried to be philosophical about it. Oh well, if the Pope saw me maybe he would think I was just genuflecting. At least I hadn’t actually been in front of a Swiss Guard – although they might have been grateful for not looking like the biggest idiots in the immediate vicinity for once. I’m so used to falling when I run (or just in life generally being a clumsy bugger with virtually no depth perception) that really it wouldn’t have been me running this damn marathon if I hadn’t gone over at some point, surely? But I admit it did knock my confidence. A mile or so later I realised I definitely needed to stop and use a loo. Despite the lack of loos at the start there were an abundance of them out on the route, and I managed to find a completely queue-less one to avoid wasting too much time.
At this point I had to give myself a bit of a talking to. I hadn’t been able to keep to my planned pace, I’d needed to stop to use the loo for the first time in any race, and I’d bloody fallen over. After a stern ‘get your sh*t together’ and half a mile with no further incident I picked up a bit. I might not have been covering myself in glory here but I had no intention of letting this race defeat me.
The miles between about 16 and 20 are not well supported. It turns out those are the miles where support would have been very welcome. There was a stretch around 18 miles where we were running up a hill which was sheltered from the wind and had no trees or buildings to offer any shade which was definitely the hardest part. Lots of people around me started walking. It took every ounce of determination I had not to join them and to just keep running.
And then suddenly we were past 20 miles. For a moment I felt amazing, I was nearly there! But no, hang on, there was another 10k to go…! Thankfully those last 6 miles are where the Rome marathon comes into its own. You head back into the city and suddenly you’re ticking sights off at every turn; Piazza Navona, the Area Sacra with its stray cats, the Vittorio Emanuelle monument, Via del Corso, Piazza del Popolo. Piazza del Popolo marks 39k – just 3 and a bit to go! Cruelly just after 23 miles the route goes within sight of the finish line, but at Piazza del Popolo you really are nearly there! Somehow, from somewhere, with the final music act of the route’s choice of ‘Killing in the Name’ spurring me on (yes, I did sing along to the sweary bits. Sorry.), I flew through the Piazza Venezia towards the honour guard of Centurions waiting to welcome me over the finish line. And I could see the clock – I had made it in under 5 hours. Overwhelmed, I staggered to claim my medal, vaguely registering that it isn’t a pretty sight trying to cry when there is no water or breath left in your body. A few metres more and there were Mike, Phill and Sonja waiting for me, cheering and waving.
I had completed the 2016 Maratona di Roma in 4:55. Phill had clocked an incredible time of 3:26. All that training, tiredness and endless foam rolling had been worth it. Tired, happy, with sore feet, we headed off for a Team Eagles lunch. And yes, it did involve a bowl of gelato the size of my head.
I have to give the biggest thanks to the amazing Mark Yabsley, who not only coached me brilliantly and dug some potential out of me that I didn’t really think was there, but kept my dirty little Italian secret the whole time. Hours listening to my whittering over lots of cups of tea, almost constant support on messenger, only ever the best of advice, and just one threat to get the Riot Act out; I honestly don’t know how this awesome chap has time to do everything he packs into his busy days but I am very grateful that he managed to find time to coach me. I couldn’t have done it without him. Thank you Mark!
A few people have asked me about the process of running Rome, since few Eagles or indeed Brits seem to try it when compared to choices like Paris or Amsterdam. Here is my practical advice about the Rome marathon.
· It is a pain in the arse to apply to. You have to register to the online portal either with an affiliated membership number or something called a Runcard which costs a few quid and guarantees you a load random emails in Italian for the rest of the year. Just use your EA number, it’s easier! I didn’t have one when I first applied and it was a bit of a faff. You also need to get a medical note saying you are fit to participate, a la Paris. And expect to wait a while for them to tell you you’re in. The Italians are not to be rushed.
· Don’t fly with Alitalia. Nightmare.
· The Expo is a good size, easy to navigate once you’re in, and you get a great race pack consisting of a very fetching, well sized race T shirt and a good quality backpack. It is in a horrible industrial suburb of Rome called EUR, which fortunately is really easy to get to (and away from!) on Linea B from the main centre. Also if you like Roman History there is a museum there worth a look for its reproductions of hard to see elsewhere statues and an amazing, massive scale model map of the ancient city – Museo della Civiita Romana.
· There is a 4k fun run which includes a jaunt around the Circus Maximus, starting just after the marathon sets off. Not a bad plan for a running partner and/or kids while they wait for you to get back!
· It’s a decent sized pack – 13,000 people this year. So if you haven’t done a big marathon before it’s a nice size to start off with, not as scary as London!
· There are not many loos at the start, but there are loos at every water station (every 5k-ish) and every sponge station (every 7k-ish). Water stations are well stocked with water, energy drinks, gels, fruit etc. Sponge stations were a bit of a weird concept for me but easy enough to navigate.
· People seem very panicky about the ‘cobbles’. Remember these are not British cobbles. Mark tells me they are more properly referred to as ‘sets’ and are in fact completely flat on the top. Yes, if its wet you need to watch your footing, but honestly most of Rome’s pavements are made of tufa or marble so slippery floors are par for the course if it rains. In reality only 7k total of the route is cobbled, the rest is tarmac. Just be careful at the water and sponging stations!
· It was warm. Should have been 14 degrees, was more like 20. Bear that in mind after winter training.
· Baggage on the day is excellently well organised. I think it took me about 30 seconds to get my bag back. All done in number order from trucks.
· There is a decent amount of music on the route, but the area between 16 and 20 miles is quiet in terms of support. You get nice views of the Tiber to make up for it though.
· The medal is different every year and this year’s was a classy affair in Roman soldier colours. Very good bling.
· Speaking of soldiers, you get welcomed home over the line by an honour guard of Centurians from the Gruppo Storia Romanum re-enactment group!
· You run past the Vatican, the Spanish Steps, and the Piazza Navona. You start and finish between the forums in the shadow of the Colosseum. You’re in Rome for goodness sake, what more do you want?!