Monday, May 15, 2017

Race Report: Firenze Marathon

At the end of October, I finished the Marine Corps Marathon, my 21st lifetime marathon.  The day after the race, I could barely walk - not just the normal soreness associated with muscles immediately after running 26.2 miles - I could barely bend my left knee.  My knee began to bother me the day before the race while walking around the expo, yet still managed to run the race the next day.  I was definitely paying for it - the week following the race was very tough just getting around and doing my daily activities.

The following weekend was the NYC Marathon, which I wasn't running, but I did sign up for the 5K on Saturday, the day before the race.  I ended up walking the entire 3.1 miles alongside fellow injured Front Runner Richard and his friend Kenji, and then stood on my feet for a few hours afterward volunteering to give out race bibs in the final hours of the marathon expo at the Javits Center.  On Marathon Sunday, I stood out on the south end of Marcus Garvey Park for what seemed like 5 hours, cheering runners on as they made their way past the 22 mile mark. I had another marathon scheduled the following weekend, this time in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and made the tough decision to not do the race, as my knee was still in rough condition two weeks after Marine Corps.  I was also slated to sing the national anthem at the start, so it was a double bummer to not make it to do that either.  And to add insult to injury, stubborn me had not yet consulted with a physical therapist to tend to my bum knee until almost two weeks later.

Of course, the PT wasn't so keen on the fact that I was running such large distances so regularly, but I worked hard to ensure my knee began to get on the mend.  After less than a week of PT, the pain in my left knee (which had been diagnosed as quadriceps tendinitis) had practically gone away.  As a test, I had a 4 miler in Central Park to see how well my legs could hold up.  I took it very easy, with plenty of walk breaks, and did the race in about 47:30.

Why get back on the roads so fast?  Well, Thanksgiving weekend was coming up, and for the second year in a row, I had planned an international vacation with a race in mind.  I decided upon the Firenze Marathon in Florence, Italy back in September, and booked flights, accommodations, and registered for the race, even submitting my health certification by a doctor; in order to participate in a marathon in Italy, participants must submit a medical certificate issued in Italy or one issued abroad, but in accordance with the rules on health protection in competitive sports.

I left for Europe on Wednesday night after work, boarding an Air France flight that took me to Florence via Paris, and I landed on a rainy Thursday morning at the Peretola airport, just northwest of the city of Florence. I joined the large group of other passengers taking the public bus into the city, which would drop us off at the massive Santa Maria Novella train station, which was less than a ten minute walk from my Airbnb.  I settled in to my room in the apartment, which was on the fifth floor of a five floor walk up, changed clothes and then went on my way to discover the old city, where I hadn't been since 2001.

I went straight to the Piazza del Duomo and grabbed a late lunch (as it was already around 2pm) before stopping off to the small four floor Gucci Museum located at the fourteenth-century Palazzo della Mercanzia in Florence’s Piazza Signoria.  I also stopped at the Casa di Dante, a three floor museum showcasing the life of the Divine Comedy poet Dante Alighieri at the site of his birthplace. On display in the museum is the Dante "death mask," a plaster cast made of Dante's face following his death in order to create marble sculpture or portraits of his face.  It was made more recently famous in Dan Brown's book (and now movie) "Inferno," though that death mask is located in the Palazzo Vecchio (yes, there was more than one made).  In between the museums, the goal of the day was to just wander and get lost in the old city, one of my favorite pastimes in discovering a compact destination.  AND of course, to drink all the wine I possibly could.  On that first day, I got to try three kinds of Tuscan red wine... Chianti, Morellino di Scansano, and Bondi Monferrato. The morellino was so far my favorite.
The Duomo is always there, peeking through the narrow Firenze streets
Clean lines at the Uffizi, and the Vasari Passage at the top of the bulding
The Arno River at night... what a sight!
Thanksgiving dinner!
 I ended my first night with a great dinner at Trattoria Nerone, a restaurant I found east of the train station. Since it was Thanksgiving Day back in the US, I decided that I should properly celebrate the holiday myself, even if I was on the other side of the world. When in a foreign country over an American holiday, one must improvise. It became my "Giorno del Ringraziamento" (literally, Italian for Thanksgiving Day!) So instead of stuffing, cranberry sauce, and the like, I had a "tris di minestre" of ribollita, pappa al pomodoro, and zuppa di farro; instead of turkey and mashed potatoes, I had stuffed rabbit and roasted potatoes; and instead of pumpkin pie, I had tiramisu! I went home as full as I would be any other Thanksgiving Day, and to my first sleep in Italy!

The next day, I headed to the northeast part of the city, and took the public bus to Campo di Marte train station, which was walking distance to the Firenze Marathon Wellness building next to the Stadio Ridolfi, where I was to pick up my race bib for the marathon I was running on Sunday morning! I also got a photo in front of the course, which if you can tell is quite complicated; I compare it to a child's scribble on a map of the city.  After retrieving those items, I dropped them back off at my airbnb before deciding to find the bus station to embark on one of the many day trips that can be had in Tuscany.  An hour and twenty minutes later, I was in the beautiful medieval city of Siena.
Siena was a lot of fun, and much of it can be explored in a single day.  In addition to the grand Piazza del Campo, the other main destination is the exquisite Duomo di Siena (Siena Cathedral) and the ornate Libreria Piccolomini located inside.  It contained some of the most impeccably colored and detailed art and architecture I've seen in a single space - and no doubt was the main reason I wanted to make it to Siena. A special ticket gets you access to the cathedral, as well as the Museo dell'Opera, the Baptistery, and the Facciatone - a spectacular 360┬║ view of Siena and its surrounding landscape. I took a bus back to Florence later that evening and had a delicious dinner at another restaurant not far from the train station which I highly recommend - Osteria dall'Oste - which has a dinner special on bistecca fiorentina.

The city of Siena from the top of the Facciatone
The incredible interior of the Libreria Piccolomini - an absolute must see in Siena!
The interior of the Duomo di Siena
The Duomo di Siena, its bell tower, and the Baptistery

The facade of the Siena Cathedral
Me with Siena's Piazza del Campo in the background
Contemplating David...
The next morning, I did more exploring in the city, spending a good portion of the morning at the Galleria dell'Accademia (also seeing Michelangelo's massive David, which has been at the Accademia since 1873), the Ponte Vecchio, and later walking along the Oltrarno side of the river up to the beautiful Piazzale Michelangelo at sunset for an unrivaled view of the city from atop a hill.  I ended the day at a bar, watching the Michigan-Ohio State game, which ended poorly for my beloved Wolverines, in my mind on account of very poor calls by the referees.  I retired early for the night, because... oh yeah, I had a marathon to run the next morning.  And it would be my first marathon since my injury.

Firenze from the Piazzale Michelangelo
Awaiting the start...
The race started on Sunday morning at 8:30am, and there was a start map that was distributed to runners, detailing how to get to the corrals based on one of six colors that was on our race bib, which denoted approximate pace. The largest group would be those in the final corral, running a marathon in over 4:30, which was the group I was in.  We were directed to enter our corral along the Via dei Calzaiuoli by taking the Via Vacchereccia into the Piazza della Signoria.  The start mat would be crossed on the north end of the Piazza del Duomo, located between the Baptistery and the Campanile, approximately 1/4 mile away.

Crossing the actual startline... the"Partenza"

Passing the Piazza San Marco
It was a beautiful morning, only 57°, so perfect strolling weather, but perchance a teeny bit warm for the race.  I began to think about how I would manage my hydration over the course of this race, my first race back from injury.  Like most European races, hydration stations would be every 5K, so I definitely needed to play it safe with my exertion.  Also, like the Berlin Marathon, this race featured the unique addition of sweetened tea at aid stations.  Because my gut did not enjoy the tea so abruptly after a GU, I decided to manage it better by incorporating the tea in my hydration as an electrolyte replenisher.  I'd have to space it out so that the GU and the tea would not be interacting with each other - the plan was to do GU at 20k and 30k, and the hot tea at 25k and 35k. Soon, we gingerly crossed the start mats, cobblestones and all, as we proceeded northward from the Piazza del Duomo to the Piazza San Marco, where we'd pass the 15th century convent (now an art museum) and 16th century church.  After a couple turns, we continued northward to the large boulevard, the Viale Giacomo Matteotti, part of the Viali di Circonvallazione, a series of six-lane boulevards that follow the outline of the ancient walls of historic Florence. We passed the Piazza della Liberta, then along the Viale Spartan Lavagnini, following the boulevard westward until it became the Viale Filippo Strozzi.  Along this Viale, we passed the Fortezza da Basso, an old fort inserted into the 14th century walls of the city, now home to numerous conferences, concerts and national and international exhibitions.  Along the Viale Fratelli Rosselli also passed one of Florence's oldest surviving gates, the Porta al Prato, which dates back to 1285. This was the year in which the sixth circle of walls began.

Along Viale Fratelli Rosselli, with the Porta al Prato in the distance
Running into the Parco delle Cascine
We turned onto Via del Ponte all Mosse, and then Via Giovanni Paisiello, running through a largely residential area, before turning onto the Viale delle Cascine for a short out-and-back (and to the first water station at the 5k mark), then making our way into the Parco delle Cascine, a historical long and narrow park on the north bank of the Arno River.  Building of the park began in 1563 under the de'Medici family, and was particularly well cared for over the years.  Until the 19th century, the park remained usually closed to the public, acquiring a recreative function in the urban system, which has been conserved until today. Running through the park was an absolute joy - it was quite scenic, with lots of trees providing us with some nice shade under the morning sun.

Runners with the Ponte
all'Indiano behind them
We ended up doing a complete loop of its perimeter, running along the Viale dell'Aeronautica on the south bank of the Mugnone River (which flows into the Arno) looping around the Piazzale dell'Indiano at the park's westernmost edge.  From there, we had a nice view of the first earth-anchored cable-stayed bridge in the world, the Ponte all'Indiano, built between 1972 and 1978.  We continued along the north bank of the Arno on the Viale George Washington/Viale dei Lecci to a turnaround point at the Vialetto del Narciso, and the followed the Viale della Catena's lengthy hedge-bounded and asphalt paved road zigzagging through a shorter loop cutting across the Viale del Pegaso back to the Viale dell'Aeronautica. We passed the Piazzale delle Cascine for the fourth time, running along Viale degli Olmi and past the Visarno Hippodrome/horse race track before exiting its northeastern edge at the 9 mile mark along Via del Fosso Macinante.

The Porta Romana
We then took the Viale Fratelli Rosselli south, crossing the Ponte alla Vittoria over the Arno River for the first of four times. Turning left from the Piazza Taddeo Gaddi, we then followed the Via Della Fonderia/Lungarno di Santa Rosa/Lungarno Soderini eastward for about half a mile along the south bank of the river, until we reached the Ponte alla Carraia.  At that bridge, we actually turned right onto the Via dei Serragli (away from the bridge) and proceeded southward further into Oltrarno.  The Oltrarno perhaps displays the true character of Florence and in general is slightly quieter, greener and more relaxed than the other districts of Florence. It still boasts today many lovely antique shops and artisans’ studios (particularly furniture and leather-workers).  We travelled down this road for about 3/4 of a mile before running through the Porta Romana, the southernmost gate in the 13th-century walls of the Oltrarno. Just past the gate, we made a very sharp left turn, and ran along the Via Romana back toward the Arno River, passing along the way the privately owned Giardino Corsi and eventually up to the Piazza de' Pitti in front of the Palazzo Pitti, once the most prestigious residence of the de'Medici family.  We continued toward the Arno along the Via de' Guicciardini, making a right turn onto the Via de' Bardi before reaching the iconic Ponte Vecchio.  Along the way was the 20K aid station, and I took my first GU.

Running along the south bank of the Arno, Oltrarno side
Oltrarno running

More of the Arno River
We ran along the southern bank of the Arno for roughly a mile, passing another notable bridge crossing, the Ponte alle Grazie (one of several Florentine bridges that were reconstructed after being destroyed during World War II) and passing the weir in the middle of the river, before turning left onto the Ponte San Niccol├▓, for our second Arno river crossing.  Back on the north side of the river, we run through the Centro Storico, reaching the halfway point along the Lungarno della Zecca Vecchia, heading west.  We ran up to the Ponte alle Grazie, but then turned right, heading northward and into the center of the city along the Via del Benci.  Along the way, we passed the Piazza di Santa Croce, before turning right onto the Via Ghibellina, and running along the city streets before heading right back down to the Arno along the Viale della Giovine Italia, heading eastward.  At this point in time, we were 14.5 miles in, and I felt like we were zigzagging our way throughout the city, really feeling like that scribble on the map.  We continued eastward along the north bank of the Arno, where it was much less touristy. 

Beautiful treelined Viale Malta
Not long before we made a left turn onto the Via della Casaccia, we hit the 25K aid station, and I took a swig of the hot tea for the first time.  It was OK.  We headed up one block up to the Via Aretina, where we went westward again, before finding ourselves along the Via Manelli, running parallel to the suburban railway tracks that lead to Florence's Campo di Marte railway station.  It was a good long one mile stretch before we found our way to the roadway that could take us over the tracks to the other side.  We then took the Via del Pratellino and Via del Campo d'Arrigo parallel down the other way, coming near where the stadium where we picked up our bibs in the days prior.  We reached the Viale Malta, a beautiful treelined boulevard right after the 18 mile mark, and right at about noon, so the sun was at its highest point of the day.  It was beautiful running down this block, and I felt a little renewed vigor in finishing the race with still 8 miles left to go.

Running around the track
We then found ourselves in an area made up of some of Florence's major sports complexes.  We turned left onto Viale Manfredo Fanti, passing the city's natatorium, the Piscina Costolina; as well as the Nelson Mandela Forum, an indoor arena once home to Italian basketball club Pool Firenze Basket before being relegated to the minor leagues, but now the home venue of women's volleyball club, Il Bisonte Firenze. We got to the 30k mark as well, and I took my second GU of the day.  So far so good, the tea and GU weren't interacting poorly like they were in Berlin. We turned left onto Viale Pasquale Paoli, which seemed to be the main road that bisected the sports complex, running toward Firenze's famous Stadio Artemio Franci, home of football club ACF Fiorentina.  We ran around the outside of the stadium, then crossed the street, running into the smaller track stadium, the Stadio Luigi Ridolfi, right next door to where we had packet pickup.  We ran a lap of the track before emerging outside onto the semicircular Viale Manfredo Fanti, running clockwise nearly all the way around to the Viale Enrico Cialdini.  We turned left there one block, before heading southwestward onto the Viale Edmondo de Amicis, which featured our one little bit of a hill on this rather flat race - a hump, essentially, on the road to go over the railroad tracks.  What goes up must come down, so the downhill provided me with a little oomph to run faster down the road to Via Fra' Giovanni Angelico.  By then, we were 21.5 miles into the race with less than five miles to go.  We hit the 35k mark soon enough, and I took tea again.

Let's play dodge the tourist.
We ran westward along the Via Fra' Giovanni Angelico, heading right into the heart of the Centro Storico at nearly 1pm, which meant... tourist overload.  Not only that, but the course wound us through some very cobblestone-y streets.  We wound our way past the Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti and the Sant'Ambrogio Market, already bustling with people. We dodged tourists along the Via Pietra Piana and Via dell'Oriuolo beelining straight to the Piazza del Duomo, but alas - we would only pass by the church, as a barricade showed runners coming around the other side.  With now 3.5 miles to go, we wound our way around several blocks northward along Via Ricasoli to the Piazza San Marco (where we passed early on) and then southward along Via Camillo Cavour, dodging tourists crossing the street to such sights as the Galleria dell'Accademia without a care that a marathon was going on - I wonder how it was about an hour earlier as the faster runners were coming by in larger packs?

Passing the Duomo three times
Four if you count the start.
Running along the Lungarno
toward Ponte Vecchio
The route wound us right past the Duomo again (and even the start line!) as we came down the Via del Proconsolo on the Duomo's eastern edge, taking it southward back toward the Arno.  Past the Piazza di San Firenze, the road became the Via dei Leoni, and then we ran along the heavily barricaded (and increasingly difficult to run on) Lungarno, as we made our way onto the Ponte Vecchio.  Goodness, we're actually crossing the famed bridge?  With less than two miles left to go, I plodded along, back on the Oltrarno side, hugging the road as we headed westward along the Borgo San Jacopo, then followed the Lungarno Guicciardini to our last bridge crossing, the Ponte alla Carraia.

But then, what, we're turning left?  Whatever it takes to get the miles in.  We run for 1/4 mile along the Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci, before turning a block and then taking the Via Montebello back in the easterly direction.  Finally, we're headed toward the finish.  With my legs getting increasingly tired, we round the Piazza Ognissanti, reaching the 40K aid station, and then follow the Borgo Ognissanti to the Piazza Carlo Goldoni.  I take whatever they have in sight - it's late in the race, and it's HOT.  We then take the Via della Vigna Nuova in the direction of the Duomo, but nope, I'm wrong-- we've only got a half mile to go.  Instead, we take the Via de Tornabuoni southward, right back to the Arno, passing all the high end luxury stores like Prada, Fendi, Tiffany, and Balenciaga... and feeling like a hot mess.  And I'm still dodging tourists.  Granted, it's like 1:30pm already, everyone's out and about.  We've got another stretch of the Lungarno to run, then we head up the Via Por Santa Maria up to the Piazza della Signoria, and then it's only another 1/4 mile to go.  I struggle up the Via dei Calzaiuoli, and make the left turn just as the Duomo fully reappears, and there's the damn finish line.  Wow, we've made so many turns in this race - probably the most turn-filled race I've ever done!


Bib and medal!
I cross the finish in 5:12:37, and I'm thrilled, considering only a few weeks ago I could barely walk. I find an English speaking tourist to take my headstand photo, as I groggily ask them to frame it so you could see all of the facade of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral.  As I lazily walk back to my apartment, I feel content... I finished another marathon!  It was a tough one under the conditions I had been in, and the weather, and the course... oh geez, the course.  After all those turns, I think back at the cobblestones and uneven stone... it was probably a good 4-5 miles of the race terrain!  I trod up the five floors to my apartment, and decide... time to nap.  And so I do.

Inside the Palazzo Vecchio
I wake up several hours later, feeling refreshed and knowing I still had one thing to do.  I had really wanted to go see the Palazzo Vecchio on this trip, considered the main symbol of civil power for the city of Florence.  In particular, I wanted to see the Salone dei Cinquecento, an impressive chamber with 59' tall ceilings meant to be a seat of the Consiglio Maggiore, displaying beautiful wall frescoes, golden decoration, and paneled ceilings.  Thankfully, I got to see this place before it closed for the evening - thankfully it was open late!  I had a great dinner at a restaurant recommended to me by my friend Marlo, and I went to bed content, knowing I really filled up this Thanksgiving vacation to my heart's content - exploring Tuscany like I knew I should!

The next morning, I prepped my bags, and had a quick breakfast before heading out the door to take the bus to the airport.  I flew from Florence to Amsterdam, and then took a transatlantic flight home from beautiful Schiphol Airport (good GOD that airport's huge - it took me thirty minutes to walk from my Florence gate to my JFK gate, and that didn't count passport control!)  I came back to JFK happy about what I had accomplished, and ready to face the last month of 2016 strong!

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