On March 19th 2023 I completed my 3rd Rome marathon, but kind of by accident.

Here’s the story…..

I may have mentioned this in some of my earlier posts, but when I initially signed up for the Rome marathon back in August of 2022, even though I had done this race twice before, I really didn’t know if I could do it again. I wasn’t sure if I could complete the entire 42km distance within the course cut-off time limit of 6.5 hours. The last time I did this race was 14 years ago and the time limit was 7.5 hours, which I barely made. Given my worsening lung function I had real doubts, but I signed up anyway thinking I might be able to get my body in good enough shape to somehow pull it off. After months of training though it was becoming more and more evident that this wasn’t going to happen. Even if you’re superman there’s only so much you can do physically when you have a lung capacity that’s only 25% of normal. I was pretty confident I could do the distance, but not within the strict time limit. Because it takes many months of planning for a trip like this, I wanted to make sure I had other options in place in the event that I was not able to proceed with the full marathon.

So what I decided to do was to keep the mindset that I was training for a full marathon, regardless of time limits, and then reassess things a few days before the race. If at that time it looked unlikely that I would be able to finish the full marathon, I would sign up for the “Run for Rome” relay race that they introduced a couple years ago.

The way the relay race or “Staffetta” as they call it in Italian works, is that 4 people can sign up to form a team and then each one takes one of 4 segments of the course, each appx 11 kms. You can also sign up as an individual and the marathon people will match you to 3 others to form the team, which is what I did. Another plus to doing the Stafetta is that it’s a charity race and the proceeds from the all the registration fees ( more than 5000 of them this year), are donated to a charity of the runners choice. I chose the Alzheimer’s research charity.

A week after arriving in Italy and 2 days before the race, Im still not feeling confident about finishing within the time limit. So I made the difficult decision of ditching the marathon plan and went ahead and signed up for the relay race. I knew I could easily complete a 10 or 11k. It was a downgrade, but still a decent challenge and I was ok with my dicision. Since I had already paid for the marathon registration, even though I wasn’t going to use it, I picked up the bib and goodie bags for it at the Expo to keep as souvenirs. I actually signed up for the 5K fun run as well, but I did that only for the tech shirt and to support the city of Rome’s support for health and fitness for the general population.

So anyway, the following day on marathon eve, I received the names and contact information of the other runners who id been matched with to do the relay race. I had originally planned to do the 3rd segment (425-C), but because my breathing is better in the morning, I asked the others if I could switch to the 1st position. Everyone was fine with that. So with that I proceeded to get 3 hours of sleep and did the time honored ritual of laying out and modeling my race garb for social media.

Ok, its now 7:30 am on race morning. Im at the starting line feeling mentally charged up by the big crowds and the thunderous flyover by the famous Le Freece Tricolori, the equivalent of the Blue Angles. The gun goes off at about 8:15 and along with about 30,0000 others, I start my trek. As is usually the case, the first few minutes into a walk felt awkward to me. My legs and feet haven’t warmed up yet and still trying to adapt to the surface underneath them. My lungs are kind of in a testing-the-waters mode as well. About 15 minutes in I finally start to settle into a sustainable rhythm. I was feeling better than I did earlier and the scenery around me brought back memories of previous races on this course. Rome is so unique. I’m thinking, oh I remember that building, or a particular landmark and how it looked or changed since the last time I saw it.

So as Im going along and counting down the kilometer signs, the 13th one finally appears and in the distance I see the crowd of runners to the side of the course. This must be the transition area for where the first hand off takes place. As I approach the area I start looking around calling call out my bib number (425), but no one is stepping forward to meet me. My assigned team mate wasn’t there. The race officials were calling out my bib number as well, but she still wasn’t anywhere in sight. Mind you, I have no idea what any of my team members look like. I only met them by email just a few hours earlier. Anyway, I waited another 5 minutes. As the crowd was shrinking, still no one. I didn’t want to ruin her opportunity to complete her segment and receive her medal. I mean what if there was an accident or something bad happened on her way here? I just didn’t know what to do.

Finally, I asked one of the officials who was monitoring the course, in my not so great Italian, what I should do. After talking to someone on his walkie talkie, he told me that there was no one on the course with the bib number 425-B and that I could either stop now and collect my medal for completing my portion, or continue on to the 24km mark and make the exchange with the next team member. My breathing was ok and I didn’t want to disappoint the person waiting for me at the 2nd check point, so I decided to continue on.

( Typical Exchange Area for the relay runners)

( Elite Runners going by)

Maybe it was because I stopped too long and my body was getting cold, but it took me while to get up to speed again. Once I did, I had to slow back down and scan for a place to relieve myself. The only place I could really go was in front of a wall that separated the Tiber river from the course (a lot of people were doing it). A couple of porta potties finally came into view. Honestly, I would have rather pee’d in front of everyone. The porta potty I went in was disgusting, even by marathon course standards. I literally had to hold me breath while I went. Anyway, I hop back on the course and about a half an hour later I get to the next exchange point at the 22km mark. And guess what? There’s no one there.. again!!! I couldn’t believe it. This is crazy, what the hell happened to everybody?

At this point I was starting to get pissed off. Im thinking, its bad enough that I had to downgrade from the full marathon to a 10k relay segment and now Ive already done a 22k… that’s a half marathon! Im asking myself, do I pack it in now, do I have the endurance to push on? Why should I have to? At this point I felt like I wasnt part of a team anymore. I felt like I was just a random person who decided to jump into the race at the last minute to see how far they could go. The spirit of being part of an historic race was gone. Now I was just walking to get somewhere.

Finally after calming down I thought to myself, regardless of whose fault it was, what’s the point of coming this far, if I’m just gonna quit. Then Im thinking, maybe they’ll give me 2 medals if I make it to the 32.8 km exchange point? The next segment, which was my original choice, is only 7.2 km. That’s a piece of cake. Heck, that’s the distance I do at home when Im not training for any race, How hard could it be? So here we go to the 3rd exchange point.

Well that shorter section was much harder than I thought it would be, I think partially because there were a couple of hills, but also because I had been walking and jogging now for almost 5 hours. Despite all that, I managed to make it I make it from the 24 km to the 31.2 km ( 7.2 km) in just 47 minutes. But guess what? Not only was there no one there to meet me again, but the transfer point itself, which was supposed to be a big red inflatable arch, wasn’t there. They probably started dismantling it because the 6.5 hour pacing team had already passed through that point and anyone behind them would probably wouldn’t be able to finish the race within the 6.5 hour time limit.

At this point I was so disoriented and frustrated I just wanted to scream. Im trying to tell the race monitor that was at the 33km mark, that there was no exchange point at the the 32km mark. They said, you must have not seen it. I saw it, but there was nothing there I explained. Rather than argue I asked her, please, tell me where I can collect my medal. She said “We don’t have the medals here, you have to go to the next stop”. Then she stops a passing police car which was the tail car for the marathon, and starts yelling at the officers for them to give me a ride home. The two of them were yelling back and forth , it was almost comical. I told them, I dont want a ride home, I just want my medal. They told me the same thing, follow the course markers to the finish area.” You cant miss it they said.

I was besides myself. I had now gone more than 3 times the distance I should have and nobody seems to know anything. After calming down a bit and collecting my thoughts, I knew I only had 2 options, stop here in the middle of nowhere and try to find my way back to my apartment with nothing to show for my hard work, or finish the last 5 miles of this race, which btw was just a half mile from where I was staying. My legs and shoulders were hurting so bad now they were numb and I was sucking on my inhaler like a crack pipe, but there was no way I was I gonna leave the course, or Rome for that matter, without my medal. I traveled 6000 miles to get here, Im not going home empty handed. So I just did it, I put one foot in front of the other and walked as fast as I could. I told myself Steve, youre just walking home. That’s what I focused on.

Unbelievably, about a kilometer down the road I catch up with the 6:30 hour pacer group who I had been following on off since the start of the race. I started tailing them again and telling myself, if the slowest pace group can finish the race, so can I. Here’s the actual guy I was focused on.

Somewhere around the 20 miles mark into this last jaunt, I was able to increase my pace enough to actually pass up the 6.5 hour pacer team.

From there the course weaved around the Piazza Del Popolo and then made a B line straight to the Colosseum.

About 30 minutes later with spectators fenced in on both sides of the road and the finish line in sight, it hit me….I actually completed the entire marathon.

At 2:11 pm, looking like a total Zombie, I crossed the finish line and proceeded to collapse on the other side. My calve muscles then decide to start spasming and then totally lock up. Talk about painful. The medical people rushed over and helped stretch my legs out to relief the cramps. For some reason they asked me if I wanted go to the hospital? I said no, just give me my medal please.

I managed to get up on my own and walk another 50 yards to where they were giving the medals out. As the lady was putting the marathon finisher medal over my neck, the she noticed that I had a relay bib on, so she took the marathon medal off me and put the relay medal on me instead. Damn!

Oh well, fair is fair. Even if I finished the entire race, I did the relay, not the marathon. My Bib had the relay tracker, not the marathon tracker. And really, I could care less about the size of the medal. The only thing that mattered is that I did it. This old dude with no lungs completed his 11th marathon and his 3rd in Rome.

From there I left the gate, sat in front of the Colosseum until my legs would let me stand up again, and then I hobbled ANOTHER half mile to my apartment.

Boy, what a day its been. My brain was numb, I was on autopilot with a big grin on my face. I had only intended on doing 13 kms, instead I completed 42 km. Not only that, but even with the breaks waiting for my ghosted team members, I finished the course faster than I ever have. The official time was 5:55:28:20 A sub 6 marathon, I was blown away, and still am.

Now, it was time to stuff my face and put back on some of the weight I lost during the race, and call it a day. Im gonna miss you Monti district of Rome with your cobblestone streets and smells of food to die for.

Upon returning to the States I tried emailing my supposed relay team members to try to find out what the heck happened. So far only one of them has replied. This was her response…

“I started my part around 09:15h because the first part was supposed to start at 08:15h. I didn’t wait for anybody because I thought It should be a mess, so I started by myself.
Sorry we didn’t see you but it was completely impossible if we didn’t meet each other before. Also, the app to search for other runners didn’t work ok.

Maybe Im just being naïve and this is something that happens all the time, but this was my very first relay race and I wanted to make sure I was playing by the rules. If I had known it was going to be a free for all, I may not have done it. The crazy part is, had things gone as planned, I would have never completed a full marathon. One thing’s for sure, if I ever do this relay race again, I will form my own team and make sure I meet all of them in person before the race.

Despite a very unusual race, Rome is still one of my most favorite cities in the world and the marathon is unlike any other that Ive ever done. Its a course that not only fills the senses with both modern and historical scenery, but it’s one that also evokes a lot of emotion, at least for me. Maybe because my grandparent were born here. Italians who live in Italy are such a life loving people. I sure hope my health will allow me visit again. I know at least 26 miles of this city like the back of my hand now.

The aftermath:
At age 68, Im no spring chicken anymore. I stressed my body severely during this event. My lactic acid levels had to have been through the roof. I didn’t hydrate properly and wasn’t in the best shape physically for the amount of walking I did. Out of an abundance of caution I decided to cut my trip short. I returned home a week earlier than planned because I didn’t want to risk being hospitalized so far from home. Thanks to the generosity of a friend and reader of this blog, I can always resume my travel plans when when Im feeling up to it again.

Its been a week now since the race and my leg muscles are totally healed. In fact, I was back out doing my walking routine yesterday.

This morning is a different story. Out of the blue I began flaring again. I think I picked up a virus which is now in my chest. Im back on steroids, doing multiple nebs and crossing my fingers I dont end up in the hospital. Ive managed to stay out of one for almost 5 months now. I’m sure the stress of travel and of course the marathon weakened my immune system. Thankfully I’ve repeatedly tested negative for COVID, so hopefully this is just a simple cold.

Oh well, such is life with these lungs. I’m super grateful though that they behaved as well as they did while in Europe and they got me across another finish line.

Just one last thing…….What’s up with that block of perfume stores in Heathrow airport’s terminal 5? Is it just me, or are the fragrances emanating from that area a bit much? For me it was like hitting sort of force field that attacks your eyes and respiratory system. How are people even able to work in that kind of environment? It totally overwhelmed my already tight airways. I was actually contemplating not getting on board my 2nd flight for fear of going into total lung lock down over the Atlantic. Not wanting to cause a scene or appear that I was having some kind of reaction, I went to the nearest restroom and did 2 neb treatments back to back followed by an epipen injection. I eventually started breathing better, but then got really nauseated by the epinephrine. All this was happening as my flight was starting to board, but I figured as long as I was breathing ok, that if I puked on the plane I could blame it on air sickness. It was a long flight, but that’s another story.

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2 thoughts on “An unintended marathon finish .

  1. Krista says:

    I came to your blog to see how your trip went. What an amazing success you had! That is an epic journey and you did it all! So proud of you, brought tears to my eyes this morning! Kudos!

    1. Ah, Thank you so much

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