Amy and I wake up simultaneously at 3:50 am. It's hard to understand how it happened, but neither blames the other for waking up first. So it must be true. We turn on the light and there's something final in that. No more sleep.
It's my fifth marathon, but most of all it is Amy's first. Just eight months ago it would have been inconceivable. She thought marathoning was pure masochism, smoked five cigarettes a day and didn't train at all. Then one night in late February she asked me if I would run with her for a couple of miles. In March she joined a running clinic. In May she ran her first 10k race. In July she entered a marathon program but claimed she would never actually run the marathon. In September she ran a half. And today (October 28) she's running a marathon. Just like that.
We eat a frugal breakfast of bread and jam, take showers, and try to stay out of each other's way. It's a moment of doubt for both. I'm very undertrained, after a summer entirely devoted to triathlon. Amy, instead, followed her program without missing a single training session. But it's a totally unconventional program, all based on quality training and no long runs. Her longest training run - ever - was the half marathon she ran in September. Can she double the distance?
Around 6:00 we go downstairs and get together with a few running friends. Giancarlo Zaghi, who's here just for training as he claims (and who'll end up running a 2:52). Marchino Munerol, who has only run one marathon so far (in 3:15). Corrado Losi, from Turin, sidelined by an injury. And Paolo Pagliotto, my running and triathlon buddy. Amy asks a few nervous questions and we all try to help, keeping our own nervousness at bay. Actually the atmosphere relaxes so much that we nearly miss the last bus to Stra, where the race starts.
In Stra our group quickly falls apart. Amy and I lose sight of each other upon turning in our bags and that's that. All attempts at finding each other again in a crowd of several thousand are in vain. I feel a pang of regret at this.
I have a number in the 2500's, so I line up not too far from the start. I follow my pre-race routine of quietly reading the paper while nearly everybody else warms up or frets. It's a good routine: it gets my mind off the race, which is what I need. There's a TV chopper overhead and suddenly the thought crosses my mind of how easy a target we all are. I hope the Italian Air Force thought of something just in case.
I don't hear the gunshot, but I can feel the crowd shiver. We're off. It's practically just a walk for the first minute or so, but then I'm actually running. People pass me left and right and I don't pass anyone. I still manage to run the first mile or so a bit too fast. Then I settle into a pace that's just a bit slower than eight minutes per mile. I'm running well, but I'm afraid I'll hit the wall today.
We're running along the river Brenta, with some beautiful Venetian villas in the background. The weather is good, the course is dead flat and the crowd is supportive. Who could ask for more?
First 10k in 51 minutes. No problem. Half-marathon in 1:48. I'm fine. Seventeen miles. At this point, according to a friend of mine, a marathoner should answer the following question: "Do I still have about half of my energy with me?". This seems far-fetched. After all, the marathon is not made of 34 miles, thank God. Yet I find this method peculiarly accurate. And the answer, today, is "No". I'm almost sure I'll hit the wall, then.
Nineteen miles, and I'm slowing down. I wonder why on earth I ever encouraged my wife to do this crazy thing. Twenty-one miles, on the 3-mile bridge leading into Venezia (Italy). My friend Paolo is walking backwards, clearly waiting for me. Suddenly I have no desire to run anymore. I know I can force myself to do it, push my pace to the very end, miss the scenery all together and close the race in a dignified 3:45. I choose to enjoy it instead: I walk with Paolo.
We walk and we talk in a stream of silent runners. "What are we doing here?". "I don't know". "Neither do I". Laconic. Existential.
"But from the bridges on we run again, right?"
And then we do quite a bit of laughing, at each other and ourselves. Meanwhile, a few miles back, Amy has the impression that the 4:30 pacers she's been keeping ahead of for most of the race are speeding up. She's wrong, of course. She's getting into that portion of a marathon during which the pace remains the same but the effort increases. She will tell me after the race that she used a few mental tricks in order to keep going. One trick is to keep focused on the simple action of putting one foot in front of the other. That works in a shorter race, but in a marathon it gets old. Another devilish trick of hers is to draw energy from bystanders. "Those people who are clapping are having their sidewalks littered by our sponges and bottles but they are clapping anyway. They care about this, and they aren't even running it". "That young woman with a head scarf has recently had chemotherapy. And she's cheering me on. How could I think of my tiredness?"
Paolo and I walk for a full three miles, until the bridges start. There are thirteen bridges between mile 24 and the end of the race. We made a mutual pledge not to walk a single step from mile 24 on. The scenery is incredible. Venice like we've never seen it before and we'll never see again. It's not easy to run after taking a three-mile walking break, but we manage. We're faster than the people who are running with us now, and so we do a lot of passing up and down the narrow bridges. My left ankle hurts and my right knee seems ready to give up. But I manage to propel myself forward across the long bridge all made of barges across the Grand Canal. It runs from Chiesa della Salute to Saint Mark's Square, and it's built just for the marathon. After the race they'll disassemble it in a hurry.
We finish the race together in four hours and ten minutes, which is bad for me and lousy for Paolo. But we had fun and that's what counts.
After claiming my bag I do some creative rule-bending and manage to crawl back to the finish line, where my friend Julia Jones is greeting all finishers. She is in charge of the pace-makers, here in Venice, and she's also the organizer of all the training programs Amy has followed. She predicted that Amy would finish in four hours and thirty minutes. And, sure enough, Amy shows up at 4:29.23 (4:26 chip time), just ahead of the pace-makers she succeeded to beat after all. She even manages a final dash, still strong on her legs and with an expression on her face that reminds me of our youngest daughter when she's up to no good. Uncertain between laughter and tears I keep a straight face and give her a warrior's welcome. I'm extremely proud of her.
Now we're on the ferry-boat, on our way back to the mainland. We enjoy the view of Saint Mark's Square in the afternoon mist and ride in perfect silence, perfectly happy. There will be plenty of time to talk in the next few days, when our daughters will roll their eyes in despair at our marathon tales and, most of all, at our complicity.
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.