When in Rome… 
Who needs water when you have one of the world's most scenic courses to get you through a marathon? 

By Jeff Banowetz

A city of art, romance and culinary delights, Rome is immersed in the glories of an ancient empire and the beauty of the Renaissance. And yet, amid all of the history and splendor, is a modern city bursting at the seams. A walk around Rome provides a textbook tour of Western civilization, only louder. Much louder. 

You see, while Rome has somehow-almost inexplicably-managed to preserve ancient monuments for thousands of years, Italians have no problem driving around them, through them or over them (whichever's most convenient) at breakneck speeds while honking their horns as if keeping beat to a spastic metronome. 

Old World charm collides with Third World mufflers as noise pollution and smog engulf mankind's greatest achievements. Sure, the monuments are nice for tourists, but they get in the way, particularly when most of the city's streets make Chicago's alleys seem like interstate highways. 

Yet, despite its flaws, Rome's unique international appeal captures you. The urban drawbacks that cause Americans to flee to the suburbs are somehow overlooked. Rome is the girl you can't stay away from, even though you know she's trouble. 

And the Rome Marathon fits the city to perfection. 

Never would I have imagined that registering for an internationally respected marathon would be such an ordeal. But while the marketing skills of the organizers may be suspect, the race itself provides an incredible opportunity to get an up-close look at the Eternal City. At least as long as you aren't too concerned with little things like food and water along the way. 


My marathon plans developed early this year when a friend living in Rome invited me to join her in the race. Having never been to Europe, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to run the marathon and explore Italy. 

Rome is not a city known for its marathon-like Boston, London or Berlin. You don't hear about elite athletes, or even ambitious age-groupers, racing there. And as I planned my trip, I found out why: No one knows about it. 

Marathon running in Rome hasn't garnered much attention since 1960, when Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila shocked the world by winning Olympic gold in the marathon, breaking the world record by nearly eight minutes with a 2:15:16. Of course, few people remember the time or the world record. Most remember that he ran the race barefoot. 

Bikila became the first man to repeat as the Olympic marathon champion in the 1964 Tokyo games, where he took another three minutes off his world record, albeit with the aid of shoes this time around. 

But since then, marathoning in Rome has remained relatively subdued, at least by international standards. The course is fairly tough, emphasizing scenery over speed. And with the Boston Marathon only a month away, most of the top elites choose to race elsewhere in the spring. 

I found a Web site from last year's marathon, which gave me a date for the 1998 race and an e-mail address for more information. I e-mailed for an application and marveled at the wonder of technology. But, as I would soon find out, things in Italy are never quite as easy as they seem. 

After several weeks without a response, I started to worry. My friend in Rome was having no luck finding information. Runner's World's annual marathon directory listed the same date that I had found on the Internet, and an Italian phone number. Feeling a little ambitious, I gave the number a try, hoping that I wouldn't be hindered by not speaking a word of Italian. My conversation went something like this: 

Voice: Pronto. 

Me: Do you speak English? 

Voice: Indecipherable Italian. 

Me: So, you don't speak English? 

Voice: More indecipherable Italian. 

Me: Um, Does anyone there speak English? 


So much for international diplomacy. 

I tried the New York travel agent also listed in Runner's World, who wasn't very encouraging. She had heard the race was canceled. In fact, she told me to let her know if I found out anything definite. A gentleman at the Italian Tourism Office in Chicago assured me that the race would be held, although he had no date or information. He took my name and number and told me he'd call me back with the details. I never heard from him again. The Web page that got me started had now disappeared into cyberspace. 

By this point I had already purchased my airline tickets and come to terms with the fact that my trip to Italy would no longer include a marathon. But less than three weeks before my scheduled departure, my friend in Rome finally found the marathon office. The race was still on—just a week later than earlier published. 

I called the office again, this time with another friend who speaks some Italian. The person on the other end spoke enough English to at least determine the correct date and get an application faxed over to me. Of course, the deadline for entry had past, but I was quickly learning that deadline had a decidedly different meaning in Italian. 

After spending a few days in Italy, I discovered cultural differences that made my marathon saga seem rather commonplace. Italians don't live life with the same sense of urgency as Americans. Which makes it a wonderful place for a vacation, but difficult to get things done—even something as supposedly simple as registering for a marathon. 

When I arrived in Rome two days before the race, we called to find directions to the race office, where my friend and I hoped to register, despite being several weeks past the official deadline. After five phone calls without an answer, we were finally directed to a building that—to our surprise—held an actual race expo, where we registered without a hitch. 

The race was on. 

. . .

"I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble." 

-Augustus Caesar 

. . .

That may well be true, but today, Rome is a city of bricks. 

Or more specifically, cobblestones. Which, as you may guess, do not make the ideal surface for running 26 miles. (They also make Bikila's barefoot marathon victory in 1960 even more astonishing). 

While the cobblestones certainly add to the race's charm, they make actually running the race significantly harder on the knees and ankles. But once we began, the streets were the last thing on my mind. 

The race starts and ends in the shadows of the Colosseum, on one of the few streets wide enough to legitimately handle nearly 10,000 participants. The road was built by Mussolini, who enjoyed basking in Rome's former glory. He wanted to ensure that visitors to the city would make the connection between Rome's past and present empires. Of course, Mussolini's empire never stretched past Ethiopia, and now the ancient ruins are even more ruined after six decades of carbon monoxide poisoning. The Colosseum has suffered quite a bit of damage, and scaffolding hid some of the work that's now being done to keep the structure intact. 

But on marathon day, those problems were forgotten. 

It was a beautiful spring day, and the course would have made Mussolini proud. A tour guide couldn't have come up with a better itinerary, as runners took a unique path through Rome that included St. Peter's Basilica, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain. The course explored the city remarkably well, from the tiny, crowded streets of Old Rome to the Olympic sites that remain from the 1960 games. 

Most of the runners were Italian, and the overwhelming majority of them were men. Women comprised less than 10 percent of the field. I was a little surprised that the race drew so many participants, given my difficulty in registering and the numerous elements of Roman culture that are antithetical to amateur sports, particularly the ubiquitous presence of smokers. Italians smoke everywhere, even in the few places where it's forbidden. The only restaurant with a "no smoking" section is McDonald's, whose menu could probably do at least as much damage to an athlete as second-hand smoke. 

Another obvious cultural difference is that Italians don't drink water. Or at least the plain, ordinary tap water that we thrive on in the United States. Italians prefer carbonated water, if they drink it at all. You must be insistent to get a waiter to bring you anything but water with the bubbles. 

It's also very difficult to exercise in Rome. The streets are too small and crowded, and there are very few parks designed for runners. But despite these obstacles, a strong running community thrives. Most runners belong to clubs, many of which made banners or special T-shirts for the race. 

While most marathons offer an adrenaline boost at the start, I began the race in absolute awe of the city. Behind me was the Colosseum, where countless gladiators had lost their lives in sports contests of a different era. In front of me was the Roman Forum, from which the empire was ruled. That sense of amazement lasted the entire race as we snaked our way through the city. Every few miles seemed to bring another surprise, another must-see site or hidden spectacle. 

But while it's easy to forget, you still have to run a marathon, which means putting your body through 26 miles of pounding. Or more accurately, 42.25 kilometers, since there were no mile markers along the course. 

I had assumed both would be marked, so I wasn't prepared for the mental math of converting kilometers to miles. For some reason, multiplying by .62 becomes exceedingly difficult after running a couple of hours. Without the miles markers, I gave up on trying to figure out my pace. Instead I just ran comfortably and tried to enjoy myself. 

I encountered an even bigger setback at about mile three, when we came to the first water station. My friend, a Chicagoan who has been living in Rome for about six months, pointed out before the start that we may have to endure seltzer water at the aid stations. I shrugged her off, believing that water is a universal beverage. All athletes would naturally prefer the uncorrupted refreshment of pure water. 

And at that first aid station, I discovered yet another example of my American ignorance. That station, and all that followed, offered nothing but seltzer water. Nasty, hardly drinkable and extremely carbonated seltzer water. But with 23 miles ahead of me, I had no choice. I stopped, forced down a cup or two and burped. 

That would be the pattern for each rest station: stop, drink, burp. Repeat as necessary. 

No Gatorade, no fruit, no packets of sports gels. Just the seltzer water and little boxes of sugar cubes at each aid station. I was getting the full treatment of what it was like to be an Italian runner. 

At about mile 15, organizers added more food to the aid stations: potato chips. Not any specially designed chip for athletes, but off-the-shelf greasy chips, still in their aluminum foil bag. So as I finished the final few miles of the race, and my body started craving bananas, I was left with the choice of sugar cubes or potato chips. Well, when in Rome…I swallowed two cubes and a handful of chips, washing them down with the seltzer water. It certainly wasn't pleasant, but at least I got some needed calories. 

Since I still had not figured out how many kilometers are in a marathon (I knew it was something more than 40), seeing the Colosseum in the distance was a welcome site. The last six miles, like any marathon, were difficult, and I just wanted to finish and start enjoying Rome. 

I looped around the Colosseum and made my way to the finish line, my journey finally complete. The marathon introduced me to the city, and I spent the rest of the week getting to know it better. I took the time to explore at the sites I ran past, and enjoyed amazing Italian food. And through a stroke of good luck, I even managed to shake hands with the Pope as he cruised around Vatican City in the Popemobile. 

But as I crossed that finish line on a perfect sunny day, with my legs screaming and my stomach aching for food, I took comfort in one simple thought: 

At least I was wearing shoes.
                        The Pantheon is just one of the tourist sites along the Rome Marathon course