Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Basta Problemi

As Sean and I stood at the start line of the 2007 Milan marathon, I knew that the preparations were not auspicious. I had a cold, my first of the year, which left me short of air. My legs were still a bit ponderous from Berlin, nine weeks earlier. In between I'd heard that my cholesterol levels had increased significantly over the past few years. Training had been short, sweet and slow. I was wearing contact lenses, only a few days old, and I'd not run a marathon in them before. I had intended to bring my usual shoes and my new ones, but had forgotten my usual ones, so I only had my new ones, not only new but a brand new model (Saucony Paramounts), and I hadn't run more than eight miles in them. And I'd just lived one of the most stressful weeks of my life. I hadn't slept properly in longer than I could remember (literally: it does terrible things to my memory). I stood there, tired, sore, technically-challenged and emotionally beaten to a pulp.

But this was a revenge match. Milan had thrashed us three years earlier in 04 (see Veni, vidi, serpsi), when I ran it injured (tear in calf) and Sean ran it hung over, neither of use having put on our shoes over the preceding six weeks. Today we were seeking revenge -- by enjoying a good run. As the name of the sex shop 200 metres from the finish proclaimed, "basta problemi".

At least I had remembered one pair of shoes. We were on the bus from the Stansted airport car park to the terminal, with Sean showing me how minimalist a packer he is and how much space there was in his bag, when he realised that this was in part because all of his running kit was still in the car. Once that was fixed we made it to the terminal and suffered the best that British airport procedures have to offer. The upside was that we saw Giulio and Giacomo, two fellow-runners from the Cambridge and Coleridge Athletics club. The three of us (G, G and Me; Sean is from Long Eaton) constituted in fact the team that had come third in the Great East Run, despite our advancing years. Giulio alas had taken an injury ten days earlier, so was coming along to watch. Giacomo's a whippet and was going to do great things.

Why was I doing this, so soon after Berlin? For pleasure, of course. And because I'm not one to pass by a bargain. I received an email from the race organisers stating that entry was a mere five euros to all runners who had run in former Milan marathons. I checked the cost of the flights: two pence for a return flight, plus tax (rather a lot more than the flight itself, of course). So I signed us up. Only later did I realise that I had speed-read the Italian, and the discount was meant only for those who had run all former Milan marathons. So a double-bargain, in a sense. All that was left was for us to book into a hotel -- the Hotel Milton Milano, no less (in real life I'm writing a book about the C17th poet) -- and we were ready.

The expo, where we picked up our race numbers, was near the Duomo: you see it here, with the upper two-thirds cleaned, the bottom third still under boards. It was Italian-style chaos: expos are all about queues, and Italians have a love-hate relationship with queues. As soon as we made it within the tent it was a free for all. After the chaos we started talking to a lean-looking man at the Saucony stall. For some reason Sean asked him what his PB was -- more about PBs later -- and he said that the marathon was not his distance. He ran shorter distances. "My name is Genny di Napoli," he said, "I was twice world champion at 3000 metres." We shook his hand. Sean asked for his autograph. He agreed and signed his autograph, then wrote down his times. We thought it was a bit pompous at first. Then, over lunch we read them.
1500: 3'32"78
Mile: 3'51"
2000 m: 4'55"00
3000 m: 7'39"
He was twice world champion at 3000 metres.
Bloody hell. Three k in 7:39??? Sean saw him at the finish, but he wouldn't say his time, and I can't find him in the official results.

Otherwise it was a perfectly normal expo. Except that there was a very comely woman standing on a podium wearing skimpy knickers and bra, being painted as if she were wearing a running kit. I just didn't get that. I didn't get it at all.

We ate some good food (at Peck, the wonderful delicatessen and restaurant in the city centre), we ate some less good food. I didn't sleep. I lay awake in a broad white bed. We hung out with Sean's brother Karl, and his girlfriend Nora. We ate more. My eyelids turned into styrofoam. Shellfish. The night before, we checked out the start and finish, near the castle. Sean and I practised on the podium (see photo). Just in case.

On the Sunday morning itself we met over breakfast. The hotel breakfast was great, provided you persuaded the waiter to make you a cappucino, instead of accepting the diffidently labeled "american coffee" at the buffet table. I'd had a long breakfast there on the Saturday: from about 7:00 to about 10:00, when Sean woke up. I read my novel, sitting facing a nordic-looking woman who was also reading. We did that read-look up-smile-read thing. Then at one point I looked up and she had her finger in her nose. What's more, she was looking at me with terror. I could see what she was about to do, she knew what she was about to do, she knew that she was going to be unable to stop herself, and, worse, she knew that I was going to see it, and that there was nothing she could do to prevent this, and this spawned terror in her eyes ... she removed her finger from her nostril and slipped it into her mouth ...

Anyway, back to Sunday. Breakfasted, we left the hotel. What was playing on the stereo? Bronski Beat, singing "(Tell me) Why?". We got into a taxi. What was playing on the stereo? Frank Sinatra, "My Way". It was a cool and misty morning.

After a long discussion of what to wear - Sean and I could bore for Britain on this - we opted to leave the baselayer, and wear vest and gloves. Sean was uncertain, but I was adamant, and I was right. Then we both peed about 15 times as we walked to the start. Then we surreptitiously peed in our empty bottles (hidden by the rubbish bags you wear until just before the start, to stop the cold). We peed copiously. We both stopped to pee in the race. That hasn't happened me in years. Could it have been the cappucino?

Now, as I said, this was a revenge match. We were going to get our own back on Milan. But there was a sub-plot. I ran 2:54:36 in Berlin, effortlessly crushing Sean's PB of 2:56:something. And Sean is very competitive. Very competitive, and he's actually a much better runner than me (he's much more determined, in his own way; he pushes himself harder, and runs more easily). And his pride was hurt. So while I was out there to beat Milan, Sean was out there to beat me, retrospectively. And the conditions were perfect. Cool. No wind. A pancake-flat course. Off went the start gun.

I took it easy. I put one foot in front of the other (I'm getting good at doing that). There's no scenery worth looking at in Milan -- though the loop around the Duomo was great -- so I emptied my mind and took it easy. The splits were fine, when I bothered to pay any attention to them.

More than ever before, I felt the rewards and comforts of support. Giulio called out to me from three different spots on the course, and Karl and Nora too. I felt the glow of the universe in its connected sort of way. Milan 04 was being exorcised. I went through the half in just under 1:29, which felt pleasantly pedestrian. Funny, that wasn't that much slower than Berlin. The only sad moment of the race was passing Giacomo a little after half way: he'd badly injured his hip and was walking by the side of the road. My heart went out to him. He's a great runner, and has had a string of bad luck.

After about 30 k I lost my zen. I allowed to enter into my mind all the stresses of the previous few days. My pace went up from about 4:12 a kilometre to an even 4:00. Even before that, however, I was amazed at the way I was passing people (on average more than one every hundred metres after the first 10k, the stats say). These were people who were until recently in front of me, ergo they must have been good runners. But they went out too fast. A few elite women limping by the side of the road, dozens of men with cramp, dozens and dozens of those who were simply slowing. One person passed me. It was as if they had not respected the distance.

I hit the final kilometre, as far as I could tell from my hazy memory of the preceding evening. There were a few too many cobbles for my liking. I passed Basta Problemi. I kept on running. At this point I was cramping, but fleet of foot -- the finish video shows a middle-aged man pumping his arms and cruising effortlessly under the arch. The clock said a little over 2:56. My chip time was 2:55:58. I came 229th. Now where did that come from?

What would have happened if I had made an effort? I was only 82 seconds behind my Berlin PB. Could I have broken it? One answer to that question is: undoubtedly. But that would be to miss the point. This was not about times, but about running. I wasn't in the right place for a hard run. My legs would have been fine, but I was not emotionally prepared. One has to save these things for when they matter. It would not have been the right thing to do. I ran a sensible race, and happened to end up with a silly time. Silly in a good way. Unanticipated. There's a lesson I learned here, though. Skip to the next paragraph if you're not a runner. I said at the end of Berlin that I didn't think I could necessarily go any faster. But after running sub-2:56 without focussing on time, without the mental preparation necessary to pass through the darkness, I now know that I have it within me to beat that Berlin time. I may not do it immediately, but it can happen. Taking it easy can make you mentally stronger.

I met Sean. He wasn't saying anything, but he was clearly confident that he'd broken my PB. Eventually the computer confirmed: 2:54:33. Three seconds. Fair enough. Congratulations to Sean: I'm proud of him. That's him with the smile, in the picture, over lunch doing our gay marathoning couple routine in our finish shirts.

The finish area was hysterical. The first race 700 numbers were assigned according to predicted time. And bags were put into half a dozen storage bays according to number. i.e. everyone predicted under 3 hours had their bags in the same place. It was chaos. a hundred sweaty, lean and chilled men climbed over each other to collect their bags with tracksuits and washing stuff. Why not spread their bags out? Numbers, numbers!

The massage tent was better. There were five massage tables. Yes five, for a race of 5-6,000. I hear that there was another ten with perhaps another five tables. Nonetheless I was dealt with almost immediately, and received a copiously-oiled leg massage from four twenty-year old Italian girls. There were no cameras. Then the showers. The shower rooms were equally small, but they were crammed with lean, naked, tanned bodies, few of them showing any inhibitions with respect to sight or touch, all squeezing under the heads to get wet and lather up. It was Dante-esque. I hardly know how to explain it to my American friends. I've been in the showers after rugby matches before, but there was something much more ... naked about this.

We all met up. Then lunch. Bizarrely we couldn't find a nice restaurant that was open, so we found ourselves lunching at the same faintly dire restaurant that we ate at when we arrived in 04. We ate pasta. We had defeated Milan, but we ended in the same place we started. We found our bags in the soaring arches of the central station. They don't build ceilings so pointlessly high these days. Then the motorway, then more Italian-style queues at the airport, then the flight home. I read Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on the plane, and thought about the joys of being part of the universe, and the pain that we sometimes have to go through to get there.


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