This is the nicest running story I have to tell. I almost hesitate to commit it to paper, for two opposite reasons. I'm afraid it's too nice for words... or, if words do their job, that my future stories will look pale by comparison. Forgive my misgivings: I'm only warming up and it's one of those drizzly mornings that were made for bagging everything, running included. I'm in beautiful Madrid (Spain), near the Prado Museum, heading for the Parque del Retiro where all the runners go. But my mind is across the Mediterranean Sea, in wonderful Assisi (Italy), where I ran my first marathon, in December of two years ago.
Assisi is a little Jerusalem, made up of graceful stone buildings that go together nicely with the green and the brown of thousands of olive trees. It sits on top of a steep hill in the Italian region known as Umbria, a little south of Florence, a little east of Rome. It gave birth to St. Francis, a saint among saints. I chose to run my first marathon there because: it was a holy place; I had a lot to be grateful about; it was called "the Millennium Marathon for Peace" and it's hard not to put Peace at the beginning of a clean slate; (more secularly) I had vowed to run a marathon before the year was over and Friday, December 31, was the last possible date.
It had taken eight years of hesitations, a cancer scare, a solemn promise and lots of solitary morning runs to get there. On the 31st, a wonderful day if a bit cold (about 25 degrees F just before the start), after a final visit to the super-sterilized portajohns, I lined up way behind and waited for the start, which came fashionably late. My physical shape was lousy (I was dehydrated from a stomach virus) and my psyche wasn't feeling any better. The marathon monster loomed large and I felt defenseless, unprepared. I started out very slowly, maybe as slowly as 6 minutes per kilometer, but I think the first kilometer's mark was off so I'll never know. I didn't do any warming up so that I wouldn't be led into strange temptations... I started speeding up after about a mile and settled into a pace I thought I might handle until the end, even though my stomach thought otherwise.
I love solitude and usually train by myself at impossible hours, but I never felt as lonely as in the first eight miles of my first marathon. The runners around me looked foreign to me, even though they spoke my native language. I vaguely remember a group of quiet runners just ahead of me. The merriest of the group burst out: "Hey! Thirty kilometers to go! Isn't it a bit early for silence?". I kept going, but that "thirty kilometers" (18.65 miles) with the implication of pain to come took a further toll on my morale.
Suddenly an American female runner appeared by my right side. "Appear" is the right word. She materialized from the blur of human magma, flashed a charming smile and made a comment in English about the weather. I asked her where she was from. York, Pennsylvania. It was my turn to smile. I spent eight years in the United States, five of which in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, just a few miles from York.
The ice melted quickly. She had run 30 marathons during her first millennium and planned on running many more during her second one. At the beginning I had to adjust my pace to hers just a bit. She still felt fatigued from her previous marathon, which had been only three weeks before. We started chatting incessantly. I forgot my loneliness, my negative thoughts, my pre-race anxiety, my nausea and my fear of the 29 kilometers ahead.
On our way to Spello, a beautiful Medieval town up on a hill. Karen - that was her name - and I chatted our respective lives away the way only total strangers can sometimes do. Most of the things she told me came back in bits and pieces in the few days after the race. And I remember thinking that I hoped she forgot some of the things I told her because they were rather... unfiltered and spoken in stream-of-consciousness fashion.
Well past the half-marathon point we passed a bunch of runners who were beginning to pay their toll. Karen smiled and told me that passing scores of runners would be sure to boost our ego. I didn't reply. My leaden legs had just warned me that my minutes in the passing lane were counted. The conversation became lopsided as I sank into a painful silence. She managed to revive me just once more when she said she hadn't detected any Eastern Pennsylvania accent in my English. I used what was left of my sense of humor to give her a rendition of a typically Pennsylvania-Dutch sentence I had heard a million times during my College days. She had a good laugh.
Around the 19th mile I started thinking she might be an angel who had taken charge of me just so I wouldn't drop out. Around the 20th mile, I'm ashamed to say, I even said something to that effect. Just as my body was hitting the Wall my mind was going beyond the threshold of confusion. I had wanted to run the marathon at all costs and now I was paying the price. I summoned all my energy, my resolve, even my male ego to keep up with Karen's pace from then on, to no avail. She just waved and told me that she'd see me at the end.
I'll spare you the details of that final six-mile jog-walk. Most marathoners have experienced it at least once and know it's not pretty. Some call it the Deathmarch. I think of it more in terms of a disorderly retreat after a lost battle. It's hard to explain to people who never ran a marathon how a game can turn so serious that you can actually feel like a Confederate soldier limping your way back South from Gettysburg!
But I'm still proud to say I made it to the end after a final 2.5 mile climb where I sometimes had the urge to put my hands down and walk on all fours. It was freezing cold, with a strong wind to boot. My wife and daughters gave me a hero's welcome and I gave them a stupefied glare. It's all in a picture where they're still young and I'm already a hundred years old. Then I looked around for Karen, but she was nowhere in sight.
Back home in northern Italy I tried to figure out a way to track her down. I didn't even have a last name to go by and the official rankings were slow in coming, due to the Christmas holidays. So I put down a few facts that might help me find her. York... marathoning husband... name of a race she had run... I put two and two together, searched the Web, found a last name but no address, went back to square one, looked for male runners from York who had run the same races, found a probable husband and a street address, wrote a snailmail letter to her c/o her probable husband. It was a shot in the dark, but a week later I got a bewildered e-mail response. We've been friends ever since.
Giorgio Pogliano’s morning coffee doesn’t come in a cup, but he can still find it everywhere. Running each morning is his daily “coffee” – it gives him the surge of energy, something good to reflect upon during the day, and a reason to look forward to tomorrow. Just like the different types of coffee found around the world, Giorgio finds different surroundings as he runs.