When in Rome..... Well, where to start? Probably at the beginning.
The Roman Odyssey started around May 2016 with a chance conversation with a work colleague Liz about ‘How about the Rome Marathon next year’. This was in part inspired by Rich Hensman’s epic run in 2015, but also the disappointment of breaking my collarbone the week before London, when I was in probably the best shape of my life. So this chance conversation lead to an almost immediate dash onto google and before you could say nemo dat quod non habet (one cannot give what was does not have) I had booked myself into the event, and two tickets via EasyJet: there was literally no backing out now. Which was a shame, as only after I had booked did I realise that the Rome event had moved its date back, and was now only 2 weeks before London 2016, for which I had a deferred place – doh!
In the meantime ‘for a laugh’ I also entered the inaugural Bristol-Bath marathon at the end of October just to keep things ticking over. This event went fairly well, owing in part to having an injury free training period, but largely to the company and occasional words of encouragement from Tony – The CoachTM – Freer. My time of 3:57 was only 10 mins off my PB, and was worth closer to 3:50 on a flatter course, and with my motivation high I kept my miles high as well. 147 miles in November, 132 in December, then best of all 173 in January, a personal best – including some pleasing 17 miles efforts. The best part was how easy the running was, I was already effectively running at week 11 of a 16 week training plan and had plenty of improvement to come.
Over these months I had started to experience some foot pains, but just put this down to age and previously good luck catching up with me, however on the 31st January disaster struck. Within a mile of the Staverton 10 mile race my right foot was on fire, but, as you do in a race, I pushed through, and despite the pain I was able to set a PB over the distance, travelling at 7:20 a mile. The problem was that at the end I was unable to walk. I’m pretty good at dealing with post-running aches but this was different and much more serious, so bad in fact that I couldn’t drive home. Luckily my fabulous wife was also running, which meant Damo, Mark Western and Darren ‘Rusty’ Richards and I weren’t stranded.
Once home I indulged in one of my favourite post-training pursuits: an ice-bath. Certain this would cure-all, as it usually does, my hopes of an instant return to running were high, well, for about 10 minutes anyway. Once the bath was done my foot was still in more pain than I’d ever experienced in that part of my body and I knew I’d need medical assistance. After much helpful prompting (some would say nagging, but of course a caring and loving husband would never accuse his wife of such scurrilous behaviour) I booked myself into Courtyard Clinic. I’ve been to see my GP for running issues in the past, but sadly have little faith in their abilities to heal me as all I’ve ever been told is ‘stop running’ or ‘ back pain? You’re tall, get used to it’. I needed results fast, so off to Courtyard I went. My experience of Courtyard was mixed. I was quickly diagnosed as having all sorts of issues with ‘lack of core strength’, ‘poor flexibility’, ‘weak glutes’ etc, and whilst this is all undoubtedly true I was never convinced this was the root of my foot problem. So whilst I went away with a fabulous array of kinky and exotic stretches, it felt like I was literally fiddling as my Rome hopes were burning away.
Although it was immediately agreed I should see a Podiatrist I faced a 2½ week wait to see him, and this was valuable time lost. When I saw the podiatrist, two things struck me (i) his lack of charisma (ii) his complete expertise with all things foot related. A few strides on a foot pad revealed that mildly collapsing arches, combined with rolling ankles meant that with every step I was landing on the outside of my foot, rather than the ball of the big toe. This was occurring in both feet, but was more pronounced in the right, the one that I still couldn’t put much weight on 3 weeks after Staverton. One week later my shoe inserts arrived and suddenly I could run again! Okay it turns out I couldn’t run, because at the same time my back went out. This is something I’ve experienced since getting crushed in a ruck aged 14, and normally 3-4 days on painkillers and anti-inflammatories gets me back on my feet. Unfortunately this wasn’t working this time. My GP upgraded me to Codeine and Naproxen but even those weren’t having much effect. As it was a chance conversation with my neighbour, the lovely Jo Robinson, led to her giving my back a quick massage, and a referral to an Osteopath in Tetbury; the amazing Alexis Knel. I really couldn’t recommend their services highly enough, and although it took a further 2 weeks I was finally back in my trainers. The problem was I’d lost 6 weeks training and now had 4 weeks until Rome. Over the previous 6 weeks I did break the turbo-trainer out of the shed in an effort to get some cardio work in. The problem is I can’t really bear to spend more than 50 minutes or so in the saddle indoors so my stamina was draining away. As my motivation sagged my food and drink consumption rose to compensate, and over this period I added about 7lb to my already substantial frame.
Day 1 of being able to run again was the Gloucester 20 – gulp, talk about back in at the deep end. In 2015 I’d run this for the first time, and other than having to slow for a few miles due to stomach cramps I’d finished the race strongly and run an excellent time. This time round I set off more cautiously, but still hit the wall around mile 16. Overall I came home in 2:54, a full 11 minutes slower than the year before, and didn’t want to take another step as I crossed the finish line. This was a clear indication of how much fitness I’d lost through a barren February. Still, I was relieved to have covered the distance, and of course I’d lowered my expectations accordingly, so all-in-all I was pretty happy with how it went. The training was now coming thick and fast, as the following Saturday I was off to the Fission 20:20 event in Berkeley. It was good to see some familiar faces such as Damo and his running wife Rach G-T (Goatman-Thomas, no longer Gin & Tonic), and although my legs were heavy from the previous Sunday in Gloucester I was pleased with how it was going. Through the run I struck up a rapport with a few people, amongst them Sarah Wright from Bristol, who had also had her marathon training plan wrecked by injuries. As we hit 15 miles Sarah pretty much hit the wall, and slipped straight to the floor. Not wanted to leave her to suffer alone I took the opportunity to rest my own legs so cajoled her along the last few miles which became run-walk, then walk-run, then walk-walk-run. Luckily the ever-enthusiastic Kate Browning had come to watch on her bike, so helped me push Sarah to the finish. Helping a fellow runner to the end of a brutal run was really satisfying, and I was grateful for the opportunity to spend the extra time on my feet as we came home around the 3:07 mark, slow for me, but good miles all the same. Shockingly, after two 20 mile runs in 6 days it was taper-time already! Although I wanted to do more long runs I knew that you cannot take back the time lost, so the following weekend ‘Team Sunday’ arranged a 13 mile run from Tesco. Arriving at 9:01 for a 9:00 start I was shocked to see they had buggered off without me! A couple of hot miles (6:45 and 7:20) helped me catch them, with the help of a similarly stranded Neil Malpass who started about a minute ahead of me. Congregating at Slimbridge roundabout I then endured a pretty tough 11 miles, though not as rough as Tara who was having glute issues for the last 3 miles and could barely walk. With 2 weeks to go until her Manchester marathon it was tough to see such a steely runner battling her own body. I genuinely didn’t think she’d make it to Manchester at that point. Tara proceeded to demonstrate why I’m not a physician though by bolting up to Manchester and running a quite astonishing 3:51 – terrific for someone who couldn’t run past 10 miles a fortnight beforehand, what an achievement! Other than a brisk 8 miler with Audrey – I only run at 7:30amTM – Harris, that was pretty much the training done. So now all roads and planes lead to Rome.
At this point I should mention what a pain in the ass entering Rome is. As with all European marathons you need a medical certificate (£25 from most GPs) and in Italy you need a ‘runcard’ (another €12) which would all be okay if only the website would let you attach the damn documents. I was lucky – after many emails I was able to send these to the organisers who duly issued me with a race number 5 days before the event. My colleague Liz was less fortunate. Liz got no response to her emails or phone calls so went to the Expo as an unregistered runner. Travelling to Rome was tiring. A 6am flight meant staying with Liz in Chippenham the night before, and getting up at 3:15am to drive to Bristol. An uneventful flight, followed by a pre-booked taxi deposited us outside our Airbnb apartment about 10:30am local time, just outside of the magnificent Vatican City walls. After a quick check-in we took a bus in the wrong direction, the Metro in the correct direction and eventually wound-up at the Expo, with Liz’s daughter Abi in tow for the weekend. Unfortunately midday, the day before the marathon turned out to be pretty much peak-time for the Expo so we spent an hour queuing to get in. I got my race kit within 2 minutes, Liz spent another hour in a very unstructured queue trying to get a race number by waving her runcard and medical certificate around. Luckily Liz has sharp elbows so was able to avoid being crushed in the melee. Sadly a quick look around the Runners World forums confirms that the inability to attach medical certificates to the event’s website has been an issue affecting overseas runners since at least 2012 – come on Rome organisers, get your act together. I spoke to 5-6 other British runners throughout the event who all had the same issues.
The extreme queueing (2 hours in total) had sapped our enthusiasm for Expo, so we sped around and headed back to do a little bit of food shopping (we’d missed lunch) and then off for a pasta-based tea before an early night. Sleep did not come easily despite having gotten up at 3:15am that day. Put bluntly, I was bricking it about the run. These weren’t the standard pre-race nerves, I was genuinely dreading it. I had already decided upon an experiment of sorts mindful of (i) my lack of quality training (ii) my weight and (iii) London being only 2 weeks away. When my alarm went off at 6:15am I was already awake. A silent breakfast was shared as we didn’t want to wake Abi, then realising we needed Abi to lock the door after us Liz went to wake Abi anyway at 6:45am. Consider this though – Abi is a 21 year old University student, she’s more used to arriving home from a nightclub at 6:45am, not waking up, I fear this experience may scar her for life. The Metro ride to the start near the Coliseum passed quickly enough. At each stop the train filled with more and more runners, whilst my stomach started to make increasingly ominous and unpleasant noises. Soon enough we disembarked at the Circo Maximo, the most famous chariot racing venue in ancient Rome, now a grassy park nesting quietly in the shadow of the imposing Coliseum.
After a very efficient bag drop I now entered the race before the race. Would I make it to the front of the portaloo queue before the race began? One hour later I made it to the race start with literally seconds to spare. I’ll spare you the full description of this hour but suffice to say it was highly ironic to be in the heart of the civilisation that brought mass sewerage systems into the world, only to be confronted with 19 portaloos for 16,000 runners. Although it transpired there were more loos nearer the start, the 60 minute wait applied wherever you took up your starting position.
It was of course the weekend of the Grand National, and by setting off 16lbs heavier than when I’d set my PB, and fully 10lbs heavier than for Bristol-Bath it felt like I’d gotten into the spirit of things by applying my own handicap. Having formulated a plan to run steady around 9:30 per mile (5:45 per km), fully a minute slower than my usual target pace, I was hopeful of being able to run even, or negative splits. And for a good portion of the race this was the case. Being in Europe meant all of the timings and markers were in Kms, and you can see below for the first 30km (18.6 mile) my pace was very steady, if just below target. At this speed I was running well within myself which meant I was able to take in some of the sights.
The first half of the race was amazing. As ever with large events the first few miles are pure joy as you are jogging far below your threshold speeds. This is tempered somewhat by having to navigate walkers who start too far up the race and are in fact a menace to anyone having the temerity to want to run! Anyhow spirits were high, and the weather was set fair. After a quick loop of the Circo Maximo we headed south and after 8 km crossed the Tiber for the first time and headed north, initially through a foul smelling and obviously downmarket district, then back across the river for an extended run along the Tiber. The sights and sounds were great, with ancient monuments interspersed with amazing renaissance architecture. A few brass bands added to the ambience, and whilst crowds were usually thin there was more than enough stimulation from the scenery to occupy one’s thoughts. All the while I was holding back my pace in the hope that ‘slow and steady would win the race’. Intrigued somewhat by the startling progress that Margaret – The MachineTM – Johnson had made under the tutelage of Tony – The CoachTM – Freer I was determined to stick to the slow and steady strategy as an even tempo is key to good running. I was however mindful of an earlier conversation I’d had with Kevin – Gwent League JediTM – Jackson about whether the benefits of a slower start would be outweighed by the cumulative effects of additional time spent on your feet, and thus make an even pace or negative splits unattainable. Or out more simply, would running more slowly make me run slower overall!?! Well the answer started to reveal itself after about 30km. Having been buoyed by the sights of the Vatican knowing that the route had finally turned south again I was now really starting to cook about 3 hours in. Going through the 20 mile point in about 3:08 I was hoping that the 15 mins or so I’d sacrificed up to that point could be made up in the final 6 miles by keeping an even pace …. fat chance! As the temperate rose my energy levels fell.
By the 35km point I was down to walk 100m run 900m. By 40km it was walk 200m run 300m. Increasing I was weaving around trying to find shade as the temperature readings on the Pharmacy buildings started to hit 22, though I know this is measured in the shade, in the direct sunshine it was much hotter. The last hour was, as ever, a bitter internal battle to keep moving. This was mentally crippling as I’d hoped the slow and steady strategy would land me home in 4:15 feeling fresh. To be 10km out feeling spent was an unwelcome as it was unpleasant, but still, valuable lessons were being learnt. Literally staggering into the final mile it was a relief to hear a Canadian voice call out ‘Yo, Dursley boy, hi, I’m from Cheltenham’. I then had a bit of company for 5 minutes with a lovely guy living in ‘the Nam’ doing his first marathon. We kept each other going for most of the final mile, but I had to let his go at the end as I needed a short walk before rousing myself enough to run / shuffle across the finish line.
The finish of course came all the usual emotions – relief, joy, sickness, exhaustion and almost, but not, quite tears. I was literally spent, and finishing in 4:25 also shattered at just how hard it had been to run a time that should have felt like a jog. As mentioned earlier valuable lessons were being absorbed. After collecting my bag, and taking a snooze on a space blanket next to Liz’s bag lorry I was hugely relieved to see her walking towards the lorry. Liz was beaming and had had a fantastic run. Whilst not setting a PB she had run close to her best on a warm day, and more importantly had really enjoyed it. I was thrilled for her as she’s had a couple of bad runs last year in the Bristol Half and the Bristol-Bath marathon. Conversation quickly turned to which marathon she wants to run next, after she’s done the Race to the Stones. For me, it was all ‘Steve Redgrave … shoot me etc etc’ – as I type this, London will definitely be my last big one. Having entered 15 ballots (direct entry and club ballots) before getting a spot, and busting my collarbone the week before the 2015 race it’s a serious case of unfinished business! With lessons learned from Rome I’m determined to run better in London, and should benefit from (i) a quick diet to shift some excess weight (ii) running my normal pace and (iii) hopefully cooler conditions. In summary I had a fantastic trip. I’ve been there before but, Rome is a truly staggeringly beautiful city. Whatever your views on politics and religion the Vatican is astonishing, and of course the weather and food are amazing. Would I recommend the Rome marathon? Yes, without skipping a heartbeat. It’s easy to get a place (though harder to get a race entry confirmed), the course is flat and as Rich Hensman proved last year can be quite fast with the right preparation and strategy. I’ll update you all on London – it’ll be more concise I promise ….