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Postcard - My Rome Marathon, Madness or Miracle?

Joan Ballou

Joan Ballou, rome marathon, 2005

I really thought on this early Sunday morning I was going to throw-up. Of course, I should have been used to that feeling by now, the "stress" had been with me for most of the past month or so. But this particular dawn was one of the most significant mornings of my 56-plus years on earth. I think I last remember feeling similar on the morning of my wedding some 35 years ago. (Or was it the morning of my divorce? But that's another story!)

This one begins about eight months earlier, when my ex-sister-in-law/best-friend-in-the-world Joan (destiny had given us the same name) sat in my living room over Toasted Praline coffee and homemade banana bread and proposed we train for the Rome Marathon the following March, combining it with a visit to my archeological passions of Italy. As we've often thrown crazy ideas at one another over the years (read: "Lucy & Ethel"), I joked, "Sure, why not!" (As a colon cancer survivor, along with several other health problems, I "joke" about a lot of things!)

"When do you want to start?" she asked. "Tomorrow morning", I answered. So, it was as simple as that.

Training for the Marathon

The next day we walked three miles around our local beach. The day after that we were so sore, we decided to get serious about doing this the correct way. Since Joan had followed the Leukemia Society's Team in Training program the year before thinking of doing a marathon in Ireland (but never followed through), we figured she could coach us along using her old notes. Planning the victory-vacation in Italy afterwards was my domain.

The training was perfectly scheduled for building up technique and endurance over the course of four months avoiding the pitfalls of injury and pain. Not to say we didn't have any. The first few months brought mostly foot blisters, lots of Band-Aids and a few sore muscles, but nothing we (surprisingly) couldn't handle. Yes, we were two 55 year-old ladies - about the most walking we'd ever done were the requisite shopping marathons through our local malls! We'd traveled together before, but again, strolling around Paris does not a marathon runner make! But, somehow the more we trained the more a reality this "life goal" became. You know those, that checklists many of us seniors have, titled "100 things I need to do before I die"!

The training schedule is made up of five days walking/running (in my case I'm a slow jogger), with two days rest. Each week the mileage is slightly increased until you reach the maximum of 20 miles (even though the race is 26.2 miles, I guess they figure you can do the last 6.2 on adrenaline!). The schedule then decreases for a few weeks, leaving the two weeks before the race with no significant training, save for rest, good healthy hydrating and "carbing". No problem there - not a better place in the world to carb load than Italy!

Well back to my nausea. We had arrived in Italy three days before the race to avoid any jet lag. Certainly Rome presented itself in all her glory and the sights were overwhelmingly beautiful. Nothing beats touring the Coliseum, Vatican City and St. Peter's Basilica - absolutely awe-inspiring! You can almost see the dust fly up from the chariots in the Circus Maximus. And I figured lots of wonderful gelato would make my tummy calm down.

The Day of the Marathon

But 6:30am came early on March 13 and with it that "pit" stuck in my throat. Not much talking on this morning, just the business of dressing in our running gear and making sure we have our bib numbers pinned on our chests exactly right.

Setting out for the Coliseum where the race was to begin and end, we met another participant from our hotel who shared a taxicab with us. Of course she was young and cute and in fabulous shape, and made Joan and I give each other that "what the hell are we doing here?!" look.

"Too late now, we've come this far and I've paid my damn $43 entry fee!" was all I could muster.

So there we two fools finally were, hearts pounding, standing and shaking with over 11,000 others who were to us obviously Real Athletes, wondering if we'd lost our minds.

Then, BANG!, we were off - so scared that I started running like some crazed monster was chasing me for the first couple of miles. Well, I knew that wasn't going to work for long, so by the first 5K refreshment table I somehow got a hold of myself and settled into my little jog-pace. Every 5 kilometers there are refreshment tables with mostly water and Gatorade, some with bathrooms and some with medical tents. Wet sponges are offered along the course about every 10K for those of us who sweat like 56 year-old menopausal women often do!

The half-marathon appeared to my delight a little past the 3 hour mark. The crowd had thinned nicely and I was ecstatic knowing I would probably finish at around 6 hours. Ok, I thought, I can actually calm down, eat some fruit which was now being offered at the refreshment tables, drink my Gatorade at a stand-still position and generally try to relax. The clock was not important to me, I just wanted to finish in the 8-hour time limit to get my diploma and "Olympic" medal. My spirits suddenly rose when I knew I actually had a chance at doing just that. I think at that very moment, this insane goal of mine had become a reality. For the first time, I had no doubt that I would finish.

All along this experience had not only been a physical test, but a spiritual one for me as well. My training was done mostly outdoors, even on many cold winter days. Only when the weather was below freezing, snowing or pouring buckets of rain did I resort to using my mother's treadmill. I jogged at my local beach on Long Island Sound which is three miles around from gate to gate. The waves crashing, seagulls chiming, even low-tide stinking, all made my time with myself and nature ethereal. I would often loose myself in thought and prayer for hours on end, gaining much needed confidence, endurance and spiritual power.

And then God said, "That's what you think"! The BIG TEST came. Around mile 18 I had a wake-up call from my small toe on my right foot: "BIG BLISTER CAUSING EXTREME PAIN - TOENAIL FALLING OFF!" Holy cow, I thought I was done. I stopped and removed my very expensive running shoes that I had been training in for the past few months, but I kept on jogging. I had shed an inexpensive shirt many miles back because of heat, as many people along the route do, but there was no way I was going to leave my $150 shoes on the streets of Rome! Luckily I jog wearing 3 pair of socks for cushioning so at first carrying my shoes was no real problem. But after a few miles my socks started to tear and shred, as at least 50% of the race is run on cobblestones. I kept asking several bystanders I passed along the route if they could donate any extra socks, but all said no (or didn't speak English!). At one point I found a pair of gloves a runner had discarded, bent over and stuck them on the ends of my feet. At least they covered the balls of my feet where the biggest holes had occurred. But the "fingers" of the gloves of course flopped out in front of my toes as I padded along - causing one bystander to turn to his wife and exclaim, "What the HELL is that?!". I just waved and smiled and didn't care, mostly because I was numb!

At another point coming up to the last 10K or so, two police people were standing along the sidelines, a man and a woman. The female officer saw my predicament, lifted up the red police tape strung along to mark the route, saying, "Qui, qui". I knew that meant "here" in Italian, and I remember looking at her in horror. "No way, that's cheating!", I yelled and kept on going.

At mile 20 I stopped in at a medical tent just to see if there was any way I could get my toe wrapped enough to get my shoes back on. The Italian doctor was cute, but he spoke very little English. He put a bandage around my toe, but when I tried to put my shoes on, the pain was too excruciating. Determined, off I jogged, again with shoes in hand. I figured only six more miles, how hard could that be?

Plugging along I came upon two women who were running for the Canadian Diabetes Society. One dropped behind to use the bathroom, and Lori and I wound up being companions through to the end of the race. I know she was an angel sent from heaven! Just when we both needed the most encouragement, there we were for each other providing the support, pleasant conversation and inspiration we will remember forever. As I was so focused on my feet, she was on her sugar levels. She was a four-shot-a-day insulin taker, and mother of two children from Saskatchewan. Her husband was waiting for her at the finish line, and pre-typed emails were waiting on her laptop to be shot off to her two kids in Canada, ready to proclaim victory. Now that's confidence! And we, two complete strangers, shared this amazing experience of finishing the race of a lifetime, at that very important moment, just as elated for each other as for ourselves!

Behold, the finish line was just as I imagined! Crossing through the tape, an official rushing up, placing the gold medal around your neck, crowd cheering and hearty congratulations! I never imagined I would be in this spot at this instant and it was delicious!

Covered in my metallic warming blanket, I hobbled off looking around for Joan. Someone handed me a bag of refreshments and the cool water tasted divine. I shuffled down the street looking for the luggage holding area, which was no where to be seen. All I wanted were the slippers I had brought from my hotel to wear home! Then there she was, Joan manning our luggage, and great big screams and hugs ensued! An accomplishment of a lifetime, two friends firmly bonded forever.

As we limped off to find a taxi, Joan asked, "So, do you want to walk the El Camino with me next year?"

Resources

www.maratonadiroma.it: The next Rome Marathon is March 2006.


© Joan Ballou, 2005

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