I typically toss and turn the night before a race in nervous anticipation of the unknowns. December 20th was much different, but then so was my entire experience surrounding the Pisa Marathon. I was physically tired from a long day of tourism in Florence, which included climbing over 500 stairs in the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore to the viewing deck on top of its dome. I had reservations when purchasing the ticket to gain entry and regrets about fifteen steps into the ascent. The view was breath-taking and awe-inspiring but in the back of my mind I kept thinking that I was going to pay for the sin of 500 stairs tomorrow. December 20th was also different because I didn’t have any expectations coming into the race. This marathon would be different from my previous two experiences running the Boston Marathon (2011 & 2012). I had prepared extensively for Boston in 2011, albeit sloppy and without wisdom. And logged solid miles for Boston, 2012. In stark contrast, I signed up for Pisa on November 12, about 5 weeks ahead of time. At this stage, I had not done any significant training, and had no intention to train before the big day. The purpose of signing up was kick-starting my dream of completing marathons on each of the seven continents (My dream doesn’t necessarily include racing all of these, just completing them).
The race was scheduled for 9:00 am start, so I got to the bag drop area around 7:30 to gather my bearings and ease any anxiety going into the race. After dropping my bag, I also wanted to drop the remains of last night’s carb load, so I hit the port-a-johns. The phrase, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all didn’t apply in the case of these bathrooms: No blue water! In fact, the shock wasn’t just about the lack of colored water but also the presence of a very strange aluminum band recessed about 5 inches inside of the toilet. The aluminum band functioned as a low-tech conveyor belt, a foot pedal manually rotated the belt when pressed, making it the proverbial “gas pedal”. I was stunned for about 10 minutes, while trying to come up with rational theories for why and how this contraption came to exist, maybe italians don’t like blue water? maybe these belts are environmentally friendly, maybe this is “new technology” that hasn’t reached the states yet?
I arrived at the starting line 30 minutes ahead of time. I found a gaggle of nervous racers and a DJ! The DJ was there to pump up the crowd, playing all the latest Italian dance hall favorites I assume. The racers started dancing and clapping right along – it looked like they were having a lot of fun, but also like they were expending a lot of energy. As 9:00 approached, the DJ stopped the music and asked the crowd to quiet down. I figured they would play the Italian national anthem, but this was not the case. They had a moment of silence, which was very respectful and seemed heartfelt.
From here the countdown began and off we went, winding through the streets of Pisa making our way out-of-town. The course took us south from the center of the city, across the river and pretty much straight west to the Mediterranean Sea. Looking at the course beforehand, I had the idea that I could probably sustain a 3:30 pace on this course. The weather was perfect, 46 degrees with a slight breeze and no rain. The course had a few rolling hills and a few turns, but nothing overly concerning.
I approached the race with caution, due to my lack of training and painful reminder of my previous marathon attempt (2012 Boston), which resulted in me walking the last eight miles due to an I.T. band flare up. My definition of caution was starting off the race at a 8:30 -8:45 mile pace, if my body responded well, I could speed up otherwise try to maintain this pace.
My cautious approach went out the window after the 1st kilometer – European’s measure distance and speed in kilometers, in this case 42 km. I was loosing contact with the 3:30 pacers and couldn’t let that happen. So with caution to the wind, I starting thinking on the run – which is always dangerous. I increased my pace from 8:30 to 7:45, and felt pretty comfortable. The legs felt light and lungs were breathing easily, which made me feel at ease.
I caught up with the 3:30 group around 4 km and started to settle into the race. I felt comfortable and took a moment to gather myself and notice my surroundings. There were obvious differences than races in the States: balloons, refreshments and motivations. Pacers had helium balloons attached to their shirts with their pace printed on them. It was highly comical to watch the pacers run with multiple balloons swirling behind them, hitting the faces of other runners. I started wondering where this practice came from: where did balloon running derive? who thought this was a good idea? do the Europeans know something we don’t about balloons?
I grabbed a bottle of water a the first water station, and forgot all about the balloons. Water stations were placed every 4 or 5 miles apart on the course, each of the stations contained a variety of items, but no two were the same. In the beginning the stations consisted of full liter bottles of water or cups with two choices of colored fluids. The first I found to be basically lemon/lime Gatorade, this other was warm and tasted similar to Lipton tea. The intentionally warm drink was a curve ball for me, I’d never seen this before. Other stations had various sizes of water bottles and some were only half full, as we got further into the race stations had bananas, slices of oranges, cookies, and chocolates!
Throughout the race there were a couple of phrases that I kept hearing runners yell as encouragement to other runners, “Di!” and the other I can’t remember. “Di” was always repeated like (Di!, Di!, Di!). During the race, I figured it meant “go!” or “run!” but turns out that isn’t the case. What made the most sense to me was the shortened version of di morire, which means motor or engine. So literally I guess the runners were yelling “engine!, engine!, engine!” to each other.
The miles clicked by from 6-12, somewhere with this sequence I had again decided to push my pace to 7:15 in hopes of catching up with the 3:15 group. I was able to catch them around the half marathon marker. At this point I was elated, I felt pretty good and thought I would be able to maintain this pace. As I approached mile 14 I got a bit greedy, why not shoot for 3:10? That idea lasted all of 5 minutes, my foolish ambition had pushed me ahead of the group, as I turned the corner heading east to Pisa, I found a headwind. It was significant enough for me to slow down seeking shelter with the group.
Miles 16 – 21 seemed to crawl by, at this point I knew the last 4-5 miles would be a struggle. My legs started to get heavy and it took more effort to keep the same pace. I hung with the group until mile 24 (I think) and fell back. I was happy with my effort and knew I would finish under 3:20. After a few turns I could see the leaning tower and smiled through the sweat. I did it!