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written by: Davin Quinn
posted: 6/19/03

Rome Marathon 2003

In March I traveled to Italy and ran the Rome Marathon with my friend Grace.  I blame her entirely for my involvement.  She told me about her plans to run the marathon in late January, and I was all set to wish her good luck.  She asked if I wanted to join her, and I said thanks, but no thanks.  To think I could somehow adequately prepare to run twenty-six miles in the span of seven weeks would contradict every principle governing human physiology that is taught in American medical schools, and would testify to a very unhealthy hubris.  Nor had I been keeping physically active since arriving in Belfast, in observance of the writer's credo, said credo being, "Thou shalt accept love handles and double chins as a necessary sacrifice toward literary success."  Undertaking to run a marathon, something I had always considered a hallmark of sub-clinical insanity, in my condition and circumstances, would not have been just sheer folly; it would have constituted grounds for committal.

Yet there is also this unusual human foible: that when a task is insurmountable, and certain to end in abject failure, and anyone who tries to accomplish it will assuredly meet with defeat, and such a defeat in no way implies that the person was weak of will, or lazy, or uncommitted, because he was going to fail hideously anyway, then a person like me is easily convinced to attempt it.

Because, you see, to truly and adequately run a marathon requires a year of base aerobic training, and six months of marathon-specific training, and a commitment of one's weekends to three and four-hour runs, and the purchase of hundreds of dollars of proper clothing and shoes.  If I were to do all this, and then run the marathon, and somehow fail to reach the finish line, imagine the disappointment-a loss of an enormous investment of capital.  It is this risk of disappointment that I think keeps many people from doing many things.

If, however, I don't establish the base, I chop the training period to six weeks, and I refuse to purchase the proper equipment, then how could I reasonably be disappointed when the effort comes up short?  There is no disappointment when one's expectation is of assured failure.  And yet, imagine the joy, imagine the elation, that comes with reaching that finish line twenty-six miles distant, when one really has no right to reach it.  I realized, after talking to Grace, that deciding to run the marathon was easy-because of course I wasn't going to make it.

I was surprised, then, to find out that my six weeks of sporadic running and trail-jogging had actually whipped me into pretty good shape.  I could go three hours at a time without collapsing by the end of it.  With one week until the race, I felt in great shape.  I was thinking about finishing under four hours, hey, maybe trying to hit three-thirty.  Who needs six months of training?  Not me.  Who needs fancy spandex, and fancy shoes?  Try the other guy.  It was clear to me I was tapping into some heretofore hidden talent.  I was not just going to finish this race; I was going to beat it.

Oh, the humanity of it all.

The day before departing for Rome, I did one last short jog.  Just to tone up for the race in three days.  To polish off the taper.  It was a rainy day.  I thought about not going out.  But I had completed my three-hour run last weekend, and felt invincible.  What was thirty more minutes of jogging?

By the time I finished the run, my right shin was on fire.  A shooting pain went from ankle to knee with every foot impact.  It even hurt to walk.  A minor twinge, I convinced myself.  Something that would be gone when I woke up the next morning.  It had to be.  I mean, with pain like this on the big day, I would hardly be able to start the race, much less finish it.

Of course, the pain did not go away.  It got worse over the next three days.  By the morning of the marathon, I was pretty sure I was nursing a bad shin splint.  I couldn't flex my right foot without it hurting like the dickens.  And touring Rome for the past two days had not helped it much.  I was ticked.  My body had no right to do this to me.  I had been running for a measly six weeks.  Injuries are something that happen to those people who run themselves into the ground.  I had been fairly sensible in my strategy of taking it as easy as possible.  I felt fine on the last long run I did.  How could a little jog do this to me?

In my anger I made a foolish decision.  Not only was I going to start the marathon, shin splint or not.  I was going to teach my leg a lesson, a lesson it would not soon forget.  I was going to show it who's boss.  Grace didn't object, because she didn't want to run the race alone, and I can't blame her.  We lined up underneath the Roman Colosseum, with 15,000 other participants stretched out along the Fori Imperiali, and got ready to run.  I wisely tucked a package of extra-strength ibuprofen into my pocket, first downing twice the recommended dose.  Kidney failure I could live with.  Letting a shin splint get the best of me two days before the race, however, was unacceptable.

Let me just say, if you ever desire to run a marathon in a beautiful setting, try the Rome Marathon.  You begin in the center of the ancient city, near the Palatine and the Roman Forum, and wind your way along cobblestone streets, endless piazzas where modern Romans sip cappuccinos and read the paper, past Mussolini-era fascist architecture, the Trevi Fountain, through the Vatican City and the Basilica of St. Peter (five people were being beatified that Sunday we ran), past St. Paul's, along the banks of the Tiber River, past the cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, all the while basking in the unforgettable Italian sun.  You finish by the Circus Maximus and take your victory lap around the Colosseum, feeling more triumphant than your sweaty carcass looks.  All the pain you may feel is sucked away by the breathtaking history of your surroundings.

Did I say all the pain?  I meant almost all.

For the first thirteen miles, I discovered that a combination of drugs, natural endorphins, and alternating between a mincing toe-running style and a limping left-favoring gait actually kept the worst pain at bay.  Let's hear it for modern pharmaceuticals.  We felt pretty good, passing people who looked much more fit than us.  We ate juicy oranges, drank Gatorade, made small-talk, and had a grand old time.

All that enjoyment came to a grinding halt after the halfway point, where the course became hillier, and I lost my packet of ibuprofen.  Every time we stopped at an aid station, the pain came rushing back to its full strength, nay, even worse than before, and starting to run each time felt like a railroad spike was being hammered into my shin by John Henry himself.  We passed medical tents where people were lined up on cots like a battlefield morgue, with only their Asics-clad feet poking out from under the shiny thermal blankets and the ubiquitous IV bags hanging from poles.  I was determined not to be one of those.  The leg was going to learn a lesson, but good.

The second half was a long agony.  The last ten kilometers were on a vicious out-and-back, which for the non-runners out there means that as you are starting this section, you see all the people ahead of you joyously sprinting back to the finish line, while you slog further and further away from the ultimate goal, cursing under your breath with envy.  People we had passed before were now passing us.  Grace and I fantasized about the plates of pasta we would have in celebration tonight.  The aid stations were running low on refreshments by the time we reached them.  The leg was not an issue anymore-even pain gets boring after a while.  We both just wanted to finish, so we could stop.

And after enough patience, which was what it really took to finish this thing, we were rewarded with the return to the ancient city center, rounding the Colosseum toward the finish, and just squeezing in before the four and a half hour mark.  We were welcomed at the finish line with blankets and medals and Gatorade, which is truly the nectar of the gods.  We were covered in enough salt we could have made our own margaritas.  My shoulders were badly burned, because I had forgotten what sunscreen is after living in Ireland.  I went to bed that night around eight and slept like a log.  It was an unbelievable experience, because the scenery was so amazing, and the weather was perfect-warm sun, without a cloud in the sky, appreciated all the more after dozing through the Irish winter.

Addendum: the day after the race, I looked at my shin.  It had swollen to twice its normal size, was red, and hot to the touch.  I think not only was there a shin splint, but also a stress fracture thrown in there for good measure.  Ibuprofen helped me through this intense period in my life.  The lesson had been learned the hard way.  In no way do I condone this kind of self-destructive behavior as a future medical professional.  Had I mashed potatoes for brains, I would have done things a little more sensibly, and run the Dublin or London or Belfast marathon.  But the legs are now all healed up, after spending April prone.