All Roads Lead to Rome

All roads lead to Rome; well that is what they say.  Having booked a surprise wedding anniversary trip for the better half last year, it was in early January with no spring marathon in the diary a genuine coincidence came about – the realisation that my planned trip to Rome happened to be the same date as the Rome Marathon!  The only question on completing pre-registration was, how do I convince the wife after whisking her to Rome that it was just that; a genuine coincidence?  


After enjoying 2 days exploring the sights, including dropping the bombshell to Sarah whilst on route to the Expo to register, it was time to head to the start line.  The atmosphere outside the Colosseum was incredible with participants from 102 countries across the world reported to be on the start line on the Via dei fori Imperiali.  The route had been changed from previous years with passing the Trevi Fountain and circumnavigating the Colosseum now excluded due to the increase in numbers.  There were reports of 100,000 runners over the day’s events with circa 19k in the Marathon and the remainder entering the 5km fun runs, which gives you an idea of the numbers on the narrow streets.


20 minutes before the off the heavens opened and torrential rain saw people taking cover under luggage lorries and tearing down banners from railings, but as the starter horn blasted the rain eased and the sun appeared through the clouds to huge cheers, even if it didn't last long.  It was hard enough to concentrate on the uneven sections but the smooth, wet cobbles made for treacherous conditions and some comedic skating on ice moments.  So much so I was beginning to wonder whether trail shoes may have been better!


Within 5km I felt the chance of gaining the dream target of 4-hours begin to slip away as being stuck towards the back of the pack meant I was dodging hoards of runners and believe it or not people walking from the off.  In fact I didn't know it then but I was to clock up just over 27 miles from all the weaving in and out in the early stages.  My average pace for the first 5km was over 1 and a half minutes per km slower than my next slowest 5km, which was the final 5km.  It was at this early stage I decided to settle down, enjoy the view and concentrate on just breaking my PB which was set at 5:09:18 in London 2012.


There were regular drinks stations positioned at 10km intervals with wet sponges offered equidistant between them. However by the first drink station it became clear you had to have a strategy just to get fluid.  Put simply it was carnage!


Drinks were being poured into plastic cups before distribution meaning there were queues at every station bringing the pack to a standstill with people pushing and shoving as paths were crossed.  It was so bad that I made a decision to miss some of the early watering points due to time being lost.  As the field spread out this did become easier and more so with the realisation that by running past the first few tables away from the scrum you could grab water or salt drinks further down the line.  It was at this point I felt it easier to make a grab for a full bottle of water from underneath one table and carry it for 10k or so to rehydrate.


The first section of the course took you around the Circus Maximus where chariot racing was held and then it veered off away from the historical centre and along the Tiber and away from the crowds and time to try and settle into the rhythm.


Now whilst the scenery was amazing I was getting annoyed with the constant pushing and shoving and began to think European runners were like their holidaying stereotypes with no consideration of queuing or sun bed ethics.  I soon learnt that if you can't beat them join them, with many hands placed on backs to move slower runners and walkers out of the way, especially those tuned in to head phones, weaving across paths and cutting corners!


This was soon forgotten as the gladiatorial roar that rose when running past the Pont de St Angelo, the bridge of angels, and turning into Via della Conciliazione towards the Vatican is something that will stay with me for a very long time indeed.  With many runners offering up prayers and high fiving nuns it was certainly a sight to behold.


The route took you out toward the Olympic stadia of the 1960 games, the first to be fully televised, and the AS Roma and Lazio shared football ground.  Passing through the halfway point I became appreciative of the km markers, which are so much better than mile markers in the UK as you can pick them off sooner and psychologically the distance reduces more quickly.  The crowds at this point became sparse and from 22km-30km was a blur.  In fact as I pleaded for the 25km marker to appear I passed the 29km marker having not noticed the earlier points.  It was at the 29km point (18 miles) that the first long incline came into play and was followed by another harsh hill at 32km (20 miles), just where you don’t want them and here I appreciated the many laps of Shenley Hill put in over winter.


Having relaxed into the run early on thinking I could remain on target for 4:15-4:30 with no chance of breaking 4-hours it helped relieve the pressure and enabled me to enjoy the event more.  With less than 12km to go I thought that it could actually be back on but needing a 10k PB after 32km it would be unbelievably tough.  I took on gel, an orange segment, closed my eyes and gritted my teeth and pushed on like never before. 


As the run re-entered the historical City there were some hair-raising moments with spectators crossing in front of runners ignoring the marshals.  With many tired runners simply not being able to move it did cause some issues and clashes.  At one point a young couple with a huge suitcase got caught in the middle of the road with no choice but to run in the direction of the marathon rather than across the flow!  The crowds at Piazza Navarro and running past the Spanish Steps were fantastic and to hear a random English voice shout my name and tell me to keep pushing sent tingles down my back and raised hairs on my arm.  I did wonder who could possibly know me in Rome and it took me a second to recall that my name was emblazoned on my race number!


With 5km to go and running though narrow cobbled streets the cheers were echoing off walls and it felt like you were about to enter an ancient arena.  However, despite encouragement from a Bristolian and a couple of Forest Green runners it was here I simply burnt out and despite trying to raise my pace I felt like my lungs were going to burst and my knees pop out.  I had given it all and the 4 hour mark was not there to be had this time and I just couldn’t hold the pace needed to make back time lost early on.  So with my head up I took in my surroundings and reminded myself how lucky I was to be running in such an amazing location.  Even as I entered the last 2km I had nothing left and could not even muster a trade mark sprint finish to carry me back to the Colosseum. 


Crossing the line was very emotional as I thought of my lost Grandparents at such an iconic place.  It took me a while to shake off missing the 4 hour mark at 4.05.57 but I remembered the start, the conditions and the distracting surroundings and realised what I had actually achieved – it was the first time I had ran 26.2 miles non-stop and in a ridiculous, never to be repeated 1hr 3 mins faster than my previous personal best!


It was also an honour to see the former F1 driver, Alex Zanardi win a record 4th Rome Marathon in the hand-bike category and reminded me of what can be achieved in real adversity.


Rome Marathon was amazing, the location and scenery probably better than London, but the course definitely a lot harder due to the inclines and wet cobbled streets.  With a nod towards previous reports I have to mention the excellent medal and goodie bag complete with 20th anniversary New Balance rucksack, NB wicking top, drinks, snacks and even a bag of spaghetti.  Oh and the best bit the sweet lemon tea on offer just past the finish line!


Some say never again, I say bring on Milton Keynes in May and ballot pending Athens in November – I will break that 4 hour barrier!  My 12 month PB target is now complete with PB's at every distance from 1 mile, Stag Race, 5km, 10km, 10 mile, Half Marathon, Marathon, 50km and 100km achieved in 10 months but that report is for later.  Now is the time to push on and go for the 100 miles in a day in the summer to really complete the set.


This leaves me to thank all at LBAC for the support, encouragement and giving me the belief targets can be achieved if you put in the work.  To see my next challenges and to help me to raise £10k for Macmillan Cancer Support, please click on the following link: