Running Rome

Thou art in Rome! A thousand busy thoughts
Rush on my mind, a thousand images;
And I spring up as girt to run a race!

– Samuel Rogers, Rome.

There is one feeling that overrides all others now that I have returned from my long marathon weekend in Rome, and it is that I wish I had more time to spend in the eternal city. There isn’t a single word that can adequately describe the whole experience, but these two come pretty close: friggin’ awesome!

Everything in Rome is elegantly excessive and massively impressive: the sights were endless and phenomenal, the meals were plentiful and indulgent, the wine flowed freely and the people were friendly and generally seemed to have a lot to smile about.

I couldn’t help but get a little carried away by the grandiosity of it all, and prior to the marathon I found myself powerless against the temptations of the eternal city. Thus, I committed countless acts of marathon muppetry on the day before the race, and went to bed with feet that were tired from endless sightseeing and a stomach stuffed with Roman specialty pizza (i.e. carbs that were unfamiliar to my stomach).

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(This is what a sight-seeing marathon muppet looks like.)

In keeping with all things Roman, the Rome marathon was also an exceedingly grand affair. Despite my earlier transgressions, I’m delighted to be able to say that my own experience of running the Rome marathon was an overwhelmingly positive one.

As I have pointed out in an earlier post, my goal for Rome was to take it easy, in order to give my body a bit of a break from my recent races (as far as that’s possible while running a marathon!). It was my spring vacation, something to enjoy after a long winter. My goal for the marathon was to just enjoy the race and the amazing scenery it promised to pass. As such, I made a last-minute decision to ditch my watch, hoping that without it I’d spend more time looking at more interesting things than numbers.

At the start of the race, I lined up with thousands of other runners at the Colloseum and alongside the Roman Forum, but sadly I didn’t get a chance to enjoy these sights all that much at the time. Moments after I dropped off my bag and jacket, leaving my skin clad in nothing but shorts and a vest, the heavens opened and rained upon the horde of dismayed, and now increasingly cold, runners. In a desperate bid to stay warm, I bounced around on the spot for a little while, but soon realised that this was a pointless endeavour. All I could really do at this point was to go to that little happy place in my head and hope for the race to start soon so I could get moving and warmed up.

Thankfully, the start came soon enough, but unfortunately, it was all rather messy and confusing – so much so that I almost missed the start line entirely. Perhaps I had retreated a little too much to my happy place, but the fact remains I was only 20 yards from the start line when I recognised it for what it was. Somewhat worse was the fact that I was still surrounded by a mix of runners intended for literally all different start waves. Thus I may have started by journey around Rome feeling rather confused about where I was, but more importantly, I was incredibly happy to be moving.

Despite the huge crowd of runners, I was able to run the moment I crossed the start line. Well, let’s say I was able to plod, which suited me fine at the time, as the start of the race was in the historic centre of Rome and there was much to see.

However, I eventually got rather bored with the exceedingly slow pace, and thus I started passing people. Little did I know at the time that I’d be perfecting the art of passing people over the course of the next three hours or so. I found my own rhythm and danced around slower runners, always making sure that I didn’t get in their way as I did so. I had yet to spot a single pacer, and given that I hadn’t brought my watch, they were my only external indication of my approximate pace. It was time to start the hunt.

The route was rather boring as soon as we were out of the centre of the town, so the passing game kept me nicely entertained while the scenery was decidedly more ordinary. After about 4km I caught the first glimpse of balloons bobbling over the heads of some runners further ahead. Pacers! How very exciting! However, my heart sank when I got near enough to read the numbers that were printed in big, black letters on the merrily bouncing purple balloons: 5:00. How on earth did I get stuck so far behind the 5:00 pacer when I should have been in the 3:40 – 4:00 start wave?

And this was where the passing game began in earnest. I first passed the huge blob of runners clinging to the purple 5:00 balloons, and picked up the trail leading me to the 4:45 pacers. Then I chased down the 4:30 pacers. By the time I had caught up with the 4:15 pacers, we were nearing the 17th kilometre of the race and were crossing the Tiber for the second time. I kept my eyes open as I knew what lay in wait on the other side of the bridge: the Vatican.

This part of the route was an amazing highlight for me, despite the fact that I arrived at the Vatican just in time for the next big rain shower. Everyone knows the sight of St. Peters Basilica, but to run up to, past, and around it as part of a marathon was absolutely epic. The crowd support was wonderful on this part of the course as well, and it was lovely to see so many nuns and priests lining the road and cheering for the runners too!

I don’t know if it was the hype of running though the Vatican, but once I had left it behind and found myself running, once again, along the banks of the Tiber I experienced my first and only minor low point of the race. My body was feeling good, but my head hit the inevitable moment in any endurance race when it finally realises what I’ve gotten us into and reminds me that the distance I am running is really rather far. I find it highly entertaining.

In that moment I thought of something Emelie Forsberg said in an interview, about what she does when the going gets tough during a race. She said that she slows down until she enjoys it again, and then she finds that the pace naturally comes back to her. While I didn’t slow down as such (I didn’t need to because my body was feeling fine), I agree with Emelie on the point about enjoying the run. Running is a hobby, one that makes me happy and is healthy. What’s the point, then, in struggling with it? I made it a point to spend the next two kilometres smiling; at first it was a forced smile, but it soon turned into a delirious one. I smiled at everyone unfortunate enough to catch my eye, waved at the spectators, focussed on high-fiving the crowd supporters, giving thumbs up and winks at other runners and generally just bouncing along the tunes I was listening to.

The strategy worked well for me, as I was flying again with a genuine smile on my face by the time I reached the half-way point of the marathon. In fact, I felt so strong and happy that I decided to pass the 4:15 pacers as well and go look for the 4:00 pacers. Part of my plan was to run this marathon in over four hours, so I had set myself the explicit rule of not passing the next group of pacers. I was just getting a little bored again and felt good and comfortable enough to push the pace a little.

The next 10km or so of the course were rather common again, so my hunt and passing game kept me entertained once again. There was nothing unpleasant about it, but equally, there were no awesome landmarks or anything particularly Roman about it.

If I was flying in the 20 kilometre section of the marathon, I was positively soaring by the time I reached the 30 kilometre marker. Perhaps it’s due to my usual high mileage running, or the recent addition of serious speed work to my training, or the fact that my head is in ultramarathon mode. Perhaps it was just sheer good luck on the day, but somehow I actually felt better and stronger the further I got into the race. As with any marathon, at this point a lot of runners were visibly starting to struggle (and heaven knows I’ve been there too!), but not today! I had found the 4:00 pacers, and couldn’t help but notice that the four runners with pink 4:00 balloons tied to their backs were quite spread out. I told myself that as long as I don’t pass the first of these runners, I’d be running within my own rules.

After around 35 kilometres, the route took us back into the historic centre of Rome, and this is when things progressed from epic to legendary. The crowds were utterly amazing and the route kept on carrying us from one awesome sight to the next. I can’t count the number of times a stranger in the crowd shouted my name in support (it was printed on the bib number) and there were also countless moments when the sights drew an audible “oh, wow!” from my lips.

The moment we reached the 40km maker my resolve to run this marathon easy crumbled to oblivion. I had so much left in the tank and so little of the route left to blow it on, that I just had to let rip. I flew past the last 4:00 pacer and chucked everything I had left at the finish line. The final kilometre of the race was no doubt my fastest and was also the only one that was genuine hard work.

Just when I crossed the finish line, the heavens opened up yet again, which I wasn’t all that unhappy about, as I was busy stumbling towards the medals all while enjoying/suffering my usual euphoric/exhausted post-marathon blubber and if nothing else, rain is good at hiding the tears.

Having run without a watch, I had only a vague idea of my finish time. At the finish line, the gun time was still under 4 hours, which genuinely surprised me. Once the results were published, I was dumbfounded to learn that I had just run an “easy” marathon in 3:48 minutes.

Despite deliberately aiming to finish this race in over four hours, I categorically can’t consider this a fail. The most amazing part of it was to finish it feeling so strong. It’s a feeling I genuinely wish upon everyone and hope that all you other runners out there get to experience!

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(post marathon selfie: soaked in a mixture of sweat, rain, tears and spilled energy drinks, but still all smiles)

Some (hopefully) helpful tips for those who want to run the Rome Marathon:

With over 19,000 registered runners, it most certainly was a big city marathon with all the fun and games this entails. The expo was unsurprisingly busy, but had some great exhibits and was extremely well organised. One thing that I liked was that they handed out the numbers and race packs at the start, meaning that you didn’t have to be squeezed past the alleys of trade stands by a slow moving gooey mass of crowd if you didn’t feel like it.

The race itself prides itself with following a great route that passes countless historic sites and landmarks and is meant to impress. I found that this was true in parts – especially the start, the middle section (which passes though the Vatican) and the finish (which takes the course back into the historic centre of Rome) were incredibly impressive. However, in between this there were long sections where the route is also rather ordinary, so don’t bank on the sights to carry you around the course! Having said that, the crowd support was really lovely all the way around, but again, particularly awesome in the historic parts of town.

The course itself is overall flat and generally follows the course of the river. There are a few inclines, but nothing that ever made me feel as though I’m working to get up (or down) a hill. Many runners had warned me beforehand that much of the route is run on cobble stones, which is certainly the case. I’d say that roughly a quarter of it was run on cobbles, but this didn’t bother me in the slightest. I don’t know if that’s because I do a lot of training on uneven surfaces, or down to the fact that my marathon shoes are well cushioned and have pretty good grip for a road shoe, but I just bounced over the cobbles without a care in the world.

With the sheer number of runners, the start of the race was naturally rather crowded. However, it was also incredibly disorganised. Although runners were supposed to be starting in different areas, these were not marked at all. There were starting tunnels, but they all funnelled back into the same area. There were no announcements, no fireworks, no balloons – nothing that told me that the race had started apart from the fact that the crowd eventually began to shift towards the start line. As far as I could tell, there were no starting waves – just a mass start with everyone rolling towards the start line. In fact, I almost missed the start entirely. All of a sudden there was this big arch ahead of me and I figured this must be it.

This mass start had repercussions all the way through the race. Although it was possible to run straight away, it was very crowded and the going was slow. Similarly, the aid stations (which were set up every 5km of the course and were excellent in principle), simply couldn’t keep up with the volume of runners coming through them all at the same time. It was simply impossible for the poor volunteers to keep up with the demand and the runners had to stop and wait for a drink to be poured for them.

The start and finish area is one and the same, and despite the messy start, the finish was really well organised. I immediately got my lovely medal and a space blanket, as well as a drinks and food to refuel. The bag drop system also worked really well, in the form of lorries parked along the start area. A final word of warning, perhaps, is that although there were toilets in the start/finish area, as well as along the route, these were nowhere near enough to cater for the volume of runners, so the queues were the longest I’ve ever seen at a race and all the toilet paper had disappeared long before the start area was even full of runners.

The bottom line is that this is a big city race, which brings many, many runners together to run together in an amazing city. The organisation was overall really good and I’d definitely take part in this event again. Despite the very flat course, I’d say that this is not a PB course – it’s simply too crowded and the fact that it’s not possible to run through the aid stations if you want a drink will slow you down significantly. However, for a running tourist who wants to take part in what must be one of the world’s grandest marathons, this race has an awful lot to offer. Given that I wasn’t at all bothered with finishing in a particular time, I can genuinely say that loved every moment of it!

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37 thoughts on “Running Rome

  1. Trails and Ultras says:

    Great write up, Julia! And well done on an amazing time for a race that you were meant to be taking easy! It’s raised an interesting point though about starting slow. I often think I’ve started slow but in reality its just a comfortable pace, this race you’ve just done shows that you can start really really slow and still pull in a pretty good time, and finish strong. Its given me a bit to think about re race strategy.

    • Thank you Becky! I am thinking the same as you by the way. I think the incredibly strong finish had a lot to do with the fact that I started so stupidly slow. I wish now that I did have my km splits for the race, but I’m sure I got consistently faster when I went along. My time didn’t suffer much as a result, but it was honestly the best I’ve ever felt running that distance – both mentally and physically.

  2. Angie says:

    Sounds like a great race despite the start-line disorganization. The views must have been spectacular! Even better that you felt great the entire way and had lots of energy to spare – perhaps the Roman pizza helped?

    • Thank you! 😀 I hadn’t thought of the possibility that the Roman pizza may have been rocket fuel in disguise. I think that’s a good enough reason to return to Rome for more experimentation, don’t you? 😀

  3. darv1986 says:

    Excellent race synopsis! Really enjoyed reading that. And I’m glad it was a success. You’ve whetted my appetite for adding Rome to my list of I-want-to-run-there races. What’s the next running assignment for you?

    • I’m sure you’d love it! It’s a fantastic race to just enjoy, just don’t aim for a PB. The sights were really mind-blowing at times. My next target is the Cateran Trail ultra of 55 miles (happy days!). I’ve got a few half marathons on the way there, but they are really just for a laugh. You’ve got the RnR Madrid half coming up soon, don’t you? That’s one I can’t wait to do!

      • darv1986 says:

        No, I have the Asics half in Madrid. (The RnR is later in the month.) Then I need to find the next race, which will probably be in England. So you’ll be in ultra training mode now? Enjoy 🙂

      • Well right now I’m in recovery mode. 😉 I need my body to forgive me the punishment of the last two weeks before I begin to inflict the preparation for the ultra-madness upon it. Having said that, I can’t wait to spend long hours on the trails this summer. 😀 I’ve entered most of the main half-marathons here in Scotland this year, so if you fancy a Caledonian race, I might well see you there. 😉

  4. Jason says:

    great time and great recap – sounds like an amazing race (although I still think I’d trip on the cobblestones)

    • Thank you 😀 You’re such a speed demon, I would love to know what an “easy” marathon time would be for you. 😉 The cobbles were actually very flat. I think people struggled most with the impact, and perhaps slipping on them when it rained so much. Personally, I had no problems with them at all, so I’m sure you could conquer Rome too!

  5. Great write up of what sounds like a fantastic experience. I’ve also been thinking about my marathon plan and starting slower so I can finish strong – I think there’s something in that!

    • I can only recommend it! It was an eye-opening experience for me to be honest. I wasn’t bothered about my finish time, and the circumstances forced me to start slow. But finishing so strong was such a hype, I wish I could finish ever race that way. It’s definitely something I’m going to work on more in future. I’ll keep everything crossed for you for Paris of course, and will gladly pass my good-vibes-marathon-baton on to you 😀

  6. Wild Juggler says:

    Way to go, and what an amazing experience! I hope to do the Rome Marathon some day, what an epic experience this must be. The city is like one giant museum, and there’s few things I love as much as ancient ruins, and pasta. And so many of its great landmarks were built for racing or other sports; if there’s such a thing as ghosts, maybe those ancient Romans are running the marathon too! It’s the ultimate history buff’s marathon.

    Congratulations again, you did really well, I’m very impressed. And thanks for all the helpful information, I’ll keep this post handy if I ever do this race.

    With all that energy you have, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you juggled through your next marathon. Cheers!

    • I admit that carb loading was soooo easy in Rome! Perhaps that was part of why my run went so well. 🙂 I loved my stay in the city and would recommend this marathon to anyone who wants to enjoy a fantastic run in a wonderful city. It was well organised and the atmosphere was great, just as I pointed out, it is a crowded race and the crowds are not managed well enough to allow for fast running. So if and when you get to Rome, just enjoy it – and I’m sure you will! Have you joggled your way around a whole marathon before? That would be totally wicked! 😀

      • Wild Juggler says:

        Nothing beats big pasta meals. Beyond that, it’s like you’re breathing in pasta carbs while you’re running through Roma or any Italian city for that matter. I can’t wait to go there, I just hope they have a lot of vegan options. Congratulations again for how you did at the Rome Marathon.

        Since you asked: Yes I have already run 2 marathons(Yonkers Marathon and Brooklyn Marathon), juggling beanbags the entire time. It was so exhilarating, & the crowd support was amazing. I’m not sure which race will be #3 but will keep everyone posted. I wish you the best, and I can’t wait to read about your next race, you have good tips and paint amazing pictures with your words. Take care.

      • I’m still trying to get my head around the idea of juggling while running an entire marathon… twice… that’s insanely amazing! You really don’t do things the easy way, do you? 😉 Incidentally, I’m a strict vegetarian and as vegan as possible (I do occasionally struggle while eating out), but it was so easy in Rome to find good vegan food. Most places had vegan items on the menu (although they weren’t marked as such), and all the pizzarias and trattorias were more than happy to make custom meals to order (e.g. pizza without cheese or so). You’ll have no problems on that front when you visit Rome… just watch out for the cobbles while joggling the marathon! 😉

      • Wild Juggler says:

        It is always awesome meeting fellow vegetarian or vegan marathoners. It’s like a special club, almost a secret society. Well, maybe not a secret society, since we don’t have any secret handshakes, not yet anyway 😉

        I’m happy to hear it wasn’t difficult being vegan in Rome. I hope the same is true of Italia in general. Usually at Italian restaurants in the States I have few issues.

        On the subject of joggling, my accomplishments are hardly impressive, at least compared to some other jogglers. Michal Kapral holds the world record for 3 ball marathon joggling at 2:50(versus my 3:52). Others have joggled a dozen or more marathons. Perry Romanowski has joggled nearly 40 marathons, and has also joggled one 50 mile ultra-marathon, setting the world record.

        There are also 5 ball marathon jogglers(Perry Romanowski among them, but he usually joggles 3). I can only joggle 3 balls when it comes to marathons, and 4 for just a few miles, but not 5 even when standing still.

        There are also 7 ball jogglers, but this is reserved for short races since they tend to drop after just a few steps. It’s still very impressive though.

        I think you should give it a shot, there was a time when I thought it would be impossible for me, since I’m not a “natural” at this by any means(I didn’t run or play any sports in high school). Actually, until a few years ago I thought just running an entire marathon would be impossible for me.

        Take care, and happy running!

      • I think we should totally start a secret handshake! 😉 I’ll gladly keep you posted with my joggling attempts – for now, I’ll be happy if I can walk a step or two without dropping all the balls straight away! 😉

  7. Wow that sounds like the best place to do a race! I love the idea of slowing down until you enjoy it again. I’ll be sure to remember that next time.

    • Thank you for the comment! It was a great race and a wonderful atmosphere and I still haven’t really been able to stop smiling! I have found that the concept of slowing down when I struggle too much on a run until I enjoy it again has worked really well for me in training. Let’s face it, we are not elite athletes – what’s the point in running if it’s not fun? This is not to say that I don’t push myself, it’s only to say that I won’t push the speed when I’m really struggling physically on a run.

  8. piratebobcat says:

    Such an amazing experience! I’ve been to Rome and was overwhelmed by it all – it was so amazing. Glad you had a great time and race!!!

    • Thank you so much! I loved every moment of the race. Did you run the marathon as well while you were there? If not, you should – although be warned, in the final stretch of the race the sights were so overwhelmingly awesome that I had to fight back the tears once or twice while still running! 😉 There are moments when you turn from a quiet little street into some square or plaza and the views that suddenly open up are quite literally breathtaking…!

      • piratebobcat says:

        No, I was just there on a vacation. It was awe inspiring, I can’t imagine running it, because you’d see so much of it in a short time. I bet it was emotional!!!

  9. TartanJogger says:

    Wowee; what an amazing run, and fantastic time! Looks like The Eternal City agrees with you 😉 congratulations!

    • Thank you! 😀 I think that it’s quite possible that the stars aligned for me on Sunday morning over Rome. When are you off to Madrid for the half? It must be soon now, isn’t it?

  10. Ha, I wish it were difficult for me to stay over the 4 hour finish time! Running through the Vatican? I can’t even imagine, that’s just too epic. It sounds like you were able to race well and thoroughly enjoy the experience. I’m hoping to run this race next year, so I really appreciated the detailed review. Now I know to prepare for cobble stones…and a flat course: great!

    Great job ending so strong, that’s when most people (like me 🙂 ) are falling apart!

    Congratulations!

    • Thank you, Jamie! 😀 I had a fantastic experience and was also quite surprised by my “easy” time. 😉 I think sometimes it really helps to take the pressure of – I run better when I just relax and not think or worry about the time. In many ways that’s logical I think. If I don’t force myself into a certain pace that may seem needed or logical, I’m much more likely to just run in my comfort zone, which means I can go further for longer. I’m sure that if you are going for the experience, you’ll love this race as much as I do. 😀

      • Yes, you have to relax some because if you tense up it’s going to be so much harder. I think you can still push yourself physically, but keeping your mind relaxed and calm will help you get to the end much more comfortably. I’m definitely going for the experience, it will be my first time to Europe AND my first time traveling outside of the US!

  11. Super recap Julia! Sounds like a great race. Both the race itself and the way you ran it. I may not necessarily call myself a Garmin addict, but I’ll freely admit that I wouldn’t run a marathon without mine unless I really had to. Certainly not through choice! Congrats again on a great time and a great race.

    • Thank you Bernie! I’m usually quite fond of my sportswatch too, but this time I was adamant that I would take it easy! The marathon doesn’t fit in with my racing plans at all this year, so I just wanted to run and enjoy it. Without a watch, I just ran by feeling alone and spent much more time enjoying the scenery! It was really liberating actually! When I actually race (for a certain time), I couldn’t function without my watch either. Perhaps you could give it a go sometime – over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at just enjoying some races, and focussing my energies on the ones I target for a specific time.

  12. Go Girl! You just rocked this race, right? Had other thoughts in mind last well and did not do much blog reading…BUT yesterday morning before the race, I did. And your race report was so enthusiastic and inspiring I was and felt really glad for you under the Danish sun. Even thought of you and what was your great and improved technique to run/pass people 🙂 This was handy to have this thought in my head during the first km where there was lots of zigzags…. Seems like I enjoyed fully and great to read about the course. Have Rome on my list (long list..) of marathons to run.
    Hope you are resting a bit now. Cruising at this tempo is just WoW! Great run!

    • Thank you Kari! 😀 I certainly had a lot of fun. I think sometimes it’s a good idea to just take it easy in races and enjoy the ride without pushing it. We can’t always aim for a PB, so why not just aim to have a lot of fun here and there? Besides, as you have pointed out, there’s something really awesome about realising that even an very comfortable race can still be reasonably fast. It’s a huge confidence boost.

  13. Lily says:

    This is really great, I’m so happy for you! I now want to visit Rome and run a marathon immediately!

  14. louise says:

    Hi, I publish a magazine called Marathon Running on the Apple and Android Newsstands and I am looking for a race review of the Rome Marathon to publish in our October issue. Could you email me at louise@marathonguru.com.au and I will reply with more information. Thanks heaps

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