Marathon 2/7 – Europe: Italy, Pisa – December 2011

With it’s 2000 year old buildings, the best possible food for marathon carb loading and the alluring smell of coffee shops and bakeries on every corner, can you think of a better country to run a marathon than Italy?

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My first marathon in New York City was a roller coaster of anticipation, excitement and energy that reached a peak as I felt the sense of accomplishment on crossing the finish line. The whole experience had a profound effect on me, both mentally and physically and I knew there was no way it would be my last.

Two friends of mine, Jon and Martin, had attempted to run the Pisa marathon the month after I ran New York. The night before the big day the city experienced an usually large amount of snow and the race was unfortunately cancelled. Not to let snow deter them, my friends booked flights the following year to attempt the 26 mile run again. Sharing the experience of a marathon with friends would no doubt make for a memorable trip.  It  also gave me the idea to start my multi continental marathon quest. I love to travel and running was becoming an addictive passion, so I thought to myself, why not combine travelling and running and attempt a marathon on every continent.

Our plan was to fly into the bustling city of Rome, a city that I have heard so many good things about, before taking the train to Pisa where we would run through the streets of this iconic city before heading on to the artistic town of Florence where we would fly back to the UK.

Our European adventure didn’t start too smoothly however. On the morning of our planned departure date, I had not yet packed, as is typical for me. I had driven to my local town to pick up some supplies and as I returned to my house I slowed down and noticed another car in the driveway. It was my friends Jon and Joe who were meant to be coming later that afternoon to pick me up, with a grin I called out “You are a little early aren’t you?” I could see from my friends facial expression that something was amiss. “We got the wrong time” The flight is actually 3 hours earlier than I thought” Jon said.  Can you get your stuff ready and leave now?” I quickly opened the door to the house and packed my bag in record time. I usually pack light and quickly, after many years of practice, however this time definitely set a PB!

Knowing that I probably forgot something in my rush, I doubled checked I had the essentials at least: My wallet, my passport and phone. Anything else I could buy in Italy if needed. I slung my bag over my shoulder and got into the car. With a wheel spin we headed to the airport.

Europe is notoriously expensive, however when it comes to intra European travel, prices can be of extraordinary value. It is not uncommon to pay 20 or 30 pounds for a flight from London to another European country. This is often cheaper that a train journey within the UK. One caveat about the airlines is that they are good value if you are not checking a bag and follow their procedures exactly. If you aren’t careful, the airlines end up adding on extra expensive charges.

As we were in such a hurry, we did not print our boarding passes. Something as simple as a boarding pass can increase your ticket price by 50% and this is what happened. We didn’t mind however, we had made it to the airport and we weren’t going to miss our flight or let this initial setback hold us back.

As our plane rose up into the grey December sky above London, I thought to myself how Italy was going to be the ideal location to run a marathon, the perfect cuisine to fuel pre run, as well as to comfort for our post race recovery. I looked forward eagerly to trying some of traditionally, home made pasta and the wood fired pizzas. I wondered, despite running a marathon over the next few days, would I come back weighing more than before I left?

We arrived in Italy, late in the afternoon. It was already getting dark, as we navigated our way past 2000 year old, Roman stone walls. Eager to try some Italian food, we took a shortcut through a park where florists were selling the last of their days flowers. Eventually we found our hotel, where we dropped our bags off before focusing on the important matter of where were we going to have dinner.

Based on a recommendation from the hotel owner, we were directed to a small restaurant not far down the street. As we were hungry and eager to eat, and in the motherland for the best food in the world, we thought we couldn’t go wrong. Unfortunately the food wasn’t as good as we anticipated which was quite an appropirate end to our day of bad luck. Surely things could only get better from here!

It’s interesting how a new day can reset your luck and how you feel. As we hurried downstairs to ensure we didn’t miss breakfast, we were greeted by a friendly waitress, who asked what we would like to drink. As we sat down at our table, we were taken aback by the amount of wonderful Italian food on display. Freshly baked pastries, croissants, fruit and baguettes, not to mention Jams, cheeses and various kinds of meat. It was a feast fit for a group of guys running a marathon. We tucked in just as our freshly brewed Italian coffee arrived. Our luck was certainly changing!

Our time in Rome was only short, so while we were there we made the most of trying as much food as possible as well, as learning about the history and iconic archecture such as the Colosseum. Being interested in Geography and knowing that the Vatican is the smallest country in the world and unique in so many ways, despite not being Christian, I still wanted to experience it while I was in Rome.

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We spent our days weaving through the magical streets of Rome. On every corner there seemed to be a coffee shop where regulars would order an espresso and chat to the waitress. It seemed quite apt that ‘when in Rome we should do what the Romans do!’ We must of had at least 8 espresso each day. I could imagine myself living in Rome, navigating the city on a scooter or bike, cycling to the markets each day,buying fresh produce and living their romantic way of life.

After Jon, Joe and I had spent a few days exploring the highlights of Rome, it was time to take the train to Pisa where we would meet with Martin, another friend who would run the marathon with us.

Our train didn’t arrive into Piassa until after 11pm and by the time we reached the hotel it was past midnight. As we had not eaten, we were all very hungry and thought that we might be out of luck, as the restaurants were likely to be closed.

The hotel employee working the night shift, assured us that his favourite restaurant would be open, despite the town looking like it was closed for the night. As we got our key we agreed, that we didn’t have anything to lose in checking, even if we were not convinced the restaurant would be open.  As we walked out of the door we saw Martin approaching from a taxi that he had taken from the airport. After we greeted each other we walked together down the foggy, cobblestone road to the address that we were given.

As we slowly opened the big wooden door of the restaurant, there didn’t seem to be any obvious signs that it was open. It felt like we were opening the door to someone’s house. We soon saw a bustling scene at the back of the restaurant. People were sharing large pizzas and big bottles of red wine, chatting, laughing and having a jovial time. In Italy people don’t eat their meals quickly, for the sake of eating, it’s a social occasion, going on for many hours. We didn’t need to worry that we wouldn’t be served as by the time we finished a few hours later, people were still arriving.

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The Marathon

The night before the marathon we had a huge dinner of pizza, pasta and a glass or two of red wine. The quality of the food in Italy, was like nothing I had tasted anywhere in the world. So much passion and care seemed to go into making every meal ( with the exception of the very first meal  we had in Rome). The tomatoes seemed sweeter, the sauce had more flavor and the red wine seemed to have more body. It was like going from watching a black and white TV, to watching in High Definition colour.

As we arrived back at the hotel it was too early to go to bed so we decided to play poker with all the coins that we had collected over the past few days in Italy. As we finished with the final hand of the night, I ended with a run which I thought was an apt considering I would be doing a lot of running the following day. With my big pile of Euro coins, we retreated to our beds.

As the alarm clock woke me from my dream world, I slowly realised what this meant….in a few hours I would be standing in the cold about to run 26.2 miles through the streets of Pisa. I started to question myself, had I done enough training, what if I can’t finish, all those self doubts you have when running a race. I brushed these negative thoughts aside, I had done it before and now I had the support of my friends, I could do anything.

Despite Joe not running the marathon, he kindly came downstairs to to see us off and wish us well. Often when you run a marathon, you need to wake up so early that hotels have not started their breakfast service, but as we came downstairs we were greeted by the smell of freshly baked bread and a spread of wonderful italian culinary delights that would keep us fuelled for the run ahead.

There were a number of other people at breakfast who were also running the marathon, we gave each other knowing nods, like it was some kind of secret handshake for a club.

As we finished our third serving of breakfast, we shook hands with Joe and bade him farewell, he was sensibly going back to bed, we had planned to see him towards the end of the route and then meet him at the finish line.

As we made our way to the center of Pisa, a light drizzle of rain created dew drops in our hair. The early morning fog illuminated the street lights giving this iconic Italian city a Christmassy feel.

Surprisingly we didn’t see many other people walking to the start of the race. As we arrived at  the town square where the race would start, the crowd slowly started to grow. The race officials inflated a huge banner which went across the road by the starting line. I thought to myself, compared to the New York Marathon, the organization was quite relaxed, but despite this laissez faire approach everything was ready with a fair amount of time to spare.

Normally at races there is a bag service, which allows you to have items such as your jacket, keys and other things, transported to the finish line.  However in Pisa there didn’t appear to be such a service which caused a slight problem. We had to think fast,  as we didn’t have enough time to go back to the hotel, so we found a hiding place in one of the bushes where we stashed our jackets, before entering the starting area that was slowly multiplying in size like an organism in a petri petri dish.

The start of run was much quicker and abrupt than the New York marathon. One second I remember chatting to my friends and the next thing I know we heard a bang and we were off, no national anthems or speeches from the Mayor. My friends and I wished each other luck and off we went.

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We weaved through the narrow streets of Pisa, like a river following the line of least resistance. The scene, was how I imagine the running of the bulls in Spain would be like.

After only a minute of running with Jon and Martin, we managed to lose each other in the narrow streets. I looked back, but it was useless and dangerous to try and find them again. I knew we each had to run our own race anyway, and with 0.2 miles completed I started the remaining 26 miles on my own.

As I turned a corner, we started to follow the river down through the town. Locals on their way to the morning market, were stopping to cheer us on and show their support.

As we crossed over the river, and went back around, clouds of steam bellowed out of our mouth as our hot exhalations met the cold Italian air.

As we started to get into a groove, we took the road out of the city and the scenery became more commercial. We ran over, canals and out towards the sea. At each of the fuelling stops not only was there water and drinks, but there was also a mix of Italian pastries which was a welcome inclusion. I decided to and eat, one of each of the pastries during the 26 miles.

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As we were in continental Europe, the distance of the race was measured in Kilometers instead of miles. This didn’t occur to me until we were 5 kilometers in. I initially thought I was going very fast, which mentally affected me when I realised it was because of the metric system of measurement.

10km in and we were ushered down a trail, past ditches and marshes that drained the local farmers fields. Compared to the New York Marathon, things felt a little lonely, there were less runners and no one lining the route to provide support at this point.

We ran past fields, forests and an army barracks, before coming off the trial and entering a residential neighbourhood. After the lonely first half of the marathon, I needed something to give me a push for the second half. As I was running through this neighborhood, I heard something in the distance which was a welcome distraction to my tired feet. A young guy had placed his speakers on the balcony of his house and was playing rock music to the runners that were passing his street. I am not sure what his neighbours thought of him, but it was exactly what I needed to give me a boost of energy as I entered the second half of the race.

After hitting the dreaded wall, where your body runs out of energy in the New York, I made sure to stop at each of the refuelling stops to ensure that I had enough energy to get through this physical and mental barrier.

Maybe it was that I was a year older or maybe it was the crowd that kept me going when I wanted to slow down in New York, whatever it was my, time was considerably slower than my previous attempt. I knew that I wasn’t going to beat my time of 3 hours and 58 minutes, so instead of looking at my watch obsessively,  I decided to  run more mindfully and enjoy the experience.

At around mile 15 I started the long straight section of the course, along the seafront. In the summer this would be a wonderful day trip outside of Pisa, but today, on this cold Winter’s day, it was grey and the wind blew relentlessly making each step so much harder.

Despite the interesting scenery, I was glad when we turned the corner and headed back towards the city. I could just make out the leaning tower in the distance and that was my northern star that was guiding me towards my early Christmas present.

Maybe it was all the Italian pastries that I had consumed during the race, that were preventing me from hitting the wall,  I had passed mile 21 and mile 22 without hitting it and I was hopeful that it wouldn’t come to haunt me during the last few miles. I could see the city slowly getting closer and closer and I started fantasizing about the wonderful food I would treat myself to, after I finished the run.

As I entered the outskirts of the city, I wondered if my friends had already finished and if they would be waiting for me at the finish line.

The final mile of the run, weaved through the narrow streets, going past old buildings and churches. As I turned the corner of the square, I came face to face with the leaning tower of pisa, as I ran down the road towards the finish line, trying to overtake the person in front of me. As I started this final stretch of the race, I heard my name being called, and I could see Jon, Martin and Joe, who had already finished, with their medals around their neck standing next to one of the barriers. With a final burst of energy, I crossed the line to receive a congratulatory hug from Joe. It was an amazing feeling to celebrate the climax of this experience with friends, it made the experience all the better.

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As I laid down in the grass, in the shadow of the tower, I felt a great sense of accomplishment and relief at having completed my second marathon despite a time that was 30 minutes slower than my last. My final time was 4 hours and 27 minutes.

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We shook hands, and congratulated each other. I was my very own leaning tower of Pisa as I slowly tried to get up and walk back to the hotel.

After a well needed nap we showered and all agreed that we were in need of the best Italian meal we could find. As we enjoyed the restaurant from our first night in Pisa, we decided to go to the same place, where we were greeted with open arms and numerous bottles of wine. My meal of spaghetti bolognese and a large wood fire pizza that I had fantasised about during my run was placed in front of me, and I tucked in like someone who hadn’t eaten in days. I think I may have consumed more calories that evening than I burned running the marathon.

After finishing our meal we went to a bar had a few drinks before singing karaoke with the locals. As I walked back to our hotel, I thought to myself how much better an experience is when you have people to share it with. Not only do you have more fun, but the memories are something that bond your friendship together long after the event takes place.

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