Our last day at leisure in Rome and we make our way to the market at Campo de’ Fiori. Fresh bright produce tempts the eye and taste buds, a fusion of colour and smells. Red tomatoes, peppers and chillies set off by courgettes, romanescu cauliflower and bunches of basil, as peaches nestle in between the mushrooms and salad leaves. We would eat like emperors here.
We stop at the nearby Caffè Sant’Eustachio, which has been serving espresso since 1938. Gary says it’s the best he’s ever tasted.
From the market we go to the national museum, which surrounds a square designed by Michelangelo. After some messing around depositing our bags and trying to juggle maps and cameras, we begin to explore the maze of the museum.
The most impressive objects are the Roman statues and figures, then the plaques and signs that would have adorned the streets of this ancient city. Memories of school day Latin come haltingly back. It would have been much more fun deciphering these stones than reading text books.
The museum also houses art and sculpture from later times. But we grow weary of treasures and history and the confusing layout and finish rather hot and tired.
A return to yesterday’s lunch spot revives us. We’re recognised and welcomed and offered the dish of the day which proves to be mussels and clams and absolutely hits the spot.
A more relaxed afternoon of wandering back through the streets before we head out for our final pizza and say an evening farewell to this wonderful, friendly city.
It’s back to the Colosseum this morning, arriving early to beat the crowds. We pause in the wide corridors and then enter the arena, beneath the Roman sunshine, imagining the roar of the crowd and the clash of swords and shields.
The shape of the arena is so familiar, it’s easy to make sense of the games, the battles, the shows played out here. The archeology has unearthed behind the scenes too. Rows and channels for ropes and pulleys that housed the special effects and surprises to thrill the audience.
We peer down on the modern day players, dressed as Romans and earning money from tourist pictures, talking on their mobile phones.
As we leave the Colosseum we spot Fabio, our Segway tour guide with a group on their bikes and say hello. We head to the Aventine hill, site of grand homes and palaces of Rome’s ancient senators and rulers. The shady trees and views make this a pleasant spot away from the buzz of the city. We visit an old house where some of the wall painting have been preserved, the rich colours still vibrant after thousands of years.
Through the gardens we emerge into the Forum, finally on ground level with the site we’ve looked over before. We take a walk along the stone paths of the Via Sacre, imagining the long crumbled temples and a street busy with stalls, people, sounds and smells.
By now we’re hot and and ready for a break out of the sun. We follow a recommendation and go in search of a nearby restaurant for lunch. La Taverna dei Fori Imperiale presents one of the warmest greetings and the best meals of our trip. Veal saltimbocca, Roman pork with truffle oil and salad. A great find.
Happy and full, we head back to the hotel for a break before venturing out for our own cooking experience. We meet Natalya originally from the Ukraine, now living in Rome, and begin a walk around the city’s Jewish quarter, home of real food and real people.
We stop at a butcher’s and a cheese shop; snack on home-made pizza and learn some more local history before making our way to the restaurant to meet Chef Fabio and follow him to his home with views high above the city.
Our lesson is more of a prep and ask questions, trying to get a word in edgeways between Rhonda and Julie, two American women who are also taking the class. But we make our first pasta and turn it into ricotta and courgette filled ravioli and pasta twists eaten with a ham and pecorino cheese sauce. We finish with a dish of ripe peaches soaked in white wine.
The evening passes quickly and we walk through darkening streets still full of life, back to our hotel to sleep of a day of magnificent food.
We’re up and out early this morning in a bid to beat the crowds to see the treasures of the Vatican museums. Foxed at first by the metro and a lack of change, we eventually approach the vast walls around the museum. 45 minutes in the queue and then the numbers inside are overwhelming.
In a gallery filled with marble busts and statues, I declare, “They have too much stuff”. It’s only the first room.
We shuffle through room after room of unimaginable treasures. Paintings and tapestries, ceilings, marble floors, ceramics, vases, sculptures and mosaics. We are drunk on opulence.
And ever forwards, forwards. Shuffling through the narrow doorways, crammed and packed and shoved. All driven on a strange kind of pilgrimage towards the treasure at the centre of the maze .
At last we reach a small dark doorway and emerge into a vast space. Impossibly high above me, figures float in the air, draped in rich jewel colours. They reach down and take my breath away.
Giant men, women, gods and sybils confuse the dimensions and send my head reeling. Beyond human figures made real by layers of colour and paint. I am rooted to the spot and cannot look anywhere but up.
Eventually, senses stunned, I turn away and move on. The following rooms and corridors are crammed with art treasures, that now seem flat, pale and insubstantial.
Museumed out, we rest for a while and grab a mediocre slice of pizza before heading to St Peter’s Square – a huge clearing surrounded by colonnades and, at the centre, the great dome of the church itself. In the sunshine fountains sparkle and a child plays scattering pigeons.
We enter the church, which is Tardis like – even bigger on the inside. In the dimming light, immense statues ornament the elaborate ceiling. An elephantine cage of twisted black ebony surrounds the main altar.
We follow a group around behind one of the figures in an alcove and descend into the crypt. The surprisingly light and airy tomb houses the sarcophagi of former popes and kings and the relics of St Peter himself, hidden far behind the glass.
Once more out into the open, we walk foot sore, hot and weary along the river to the Castel St Angelo. Inside we wind through cool dark corridors, ascending in loops to emerge in the castle rooms, to see the armour, guns, cannons and spikes of battle. A Michelangelo angel with bronze wings overlooks the courtyard.
We enjoy more glorious views over the city from this fortified base, before making our way down down down to the bridge of angels and back to the modern world.
Through streets of luxury shops we emerge at the Spanish steps, a flutter of colour and custom in the afternoon sun as street vendors try to sell us roses. I think of two lovely people for whom this will always be a special place. But we are weary and don’t linger too long, taking the metro back to our hotel.
After a rest and refreshment we head out in search of a recommended local restaurant, Nido D’Abruzzo. Its style is basic, old school, tatty even. But the pasta is fresh, rich and delicious, like you wish your mama used to make, served by an old guy who could be your Italian grandpa. And the fish I have to follow is one of the tastiest, simplest dishes I’ve ever eaten. A real treat of a meal.
Driving into a darkening city, flashes light up the sky. A glimpse of domes.
Our room, a quiet haven on a back street, just a short walk from our first real Italian pizza. Thin crust, and a perfect blend of vegetables and cheese. And our first delicious gelato. Bubblegum strawberry, intense lemon and nutella like chocolate, creamy smooth.
We sleep soundly after our long, late journey.
Up and fuelled with a good choice of breakfast in the hotel. Then off for a walk into the city to find the venue for our Segway tour. Fabio, our guide takes the group for some Segway training, but having ridden before, we’re soon experts and at ease, whizzing around and even executing a synchronised Segway high five.
Soon we’re trusted out on the roads, dodging the manic Italian traffic as Fabio leads the way the Colosseum. Beneath blue skies, arches tower high above and we fill in the gaps to imagine this vast arena full of people and surrounded by statues, including the giant one of Nero that gives it its name.
Then it’s onto another scene of ancient sport – the Circus Maximus, home of the chariot races. Now just a large expanse of field with a rise in the middle. But underneath the warm Italian sunshine and against the backdrop of ruined villas, you can conjure up the sounds of hoofbeats.
Here Fabbio also shows us a useful tip. All around the city there are little drinking fountains that look like fire hydrants spewing out a constant stream of spring water that’s perfectly clean and safe to drink. Put a bottle underneath and fill or stop the end with your finger and shoot a jet of water into your mouth to quench your thirst.
We’ve moved away from the tourist crowds onto one of Rome’s famous seven hills, passing beautiful villas behind walled gardens. We stop at a gate for a surprising view through an archway of trees with St Peter’s dome framed in the centre. And then move into the quiet shade of an orange grove, a romantic spot that reveals a panoramic view over the city.
Back down the road and up the Palatine hill this time to get a view over the Imperial Forum, and into the past when this was a city of a million people.
Then we fast forward through the centuries as we enter a square designed by Michelangelo that now houses the National museums full of Renaissance architecture and treasures.
The tour’s soon over, but we have a covered quite some ground and have a better understanding of what’s to see and do in the city. We leave our chariots reluctantly. Travelling by Segway is a lot of fun.
Our feet take us to another famous sight – the Trevi fountain. Amidst the lunchtime hubbub we hear before we see it. Then it explodes from the side of a building. White marble pours out in the shape of Neptune and sea horses. The crowds pose for pictures and throw their coins.
We retreat to a nearby cafe for lunch – Parma ham and sweet melon, bitter rocket and rich tomatoes. Cool and sharp to revive our parched mouths.
Re-invigorated we head to the Pantheon, the Roman temple of all the gods and a triumph of architectural design. The vast high dome would be impressive to engineer now, let alone thousands of years ago. Sadly the old gods have been driven out by Christian gaudiness, gold and marble. I wonder how they feel about it?
Sightseeing done, we drift into a lazier paced afternoon, strolling into Piazza Navona. Another fountain around which street artists ply their trade in still lifes and caricatures. We stop and listen to a band of old guys playing mellow jazz style, double bass, guitar and a guy who plays the saxaphone as naturally as breathing. We stop for delicious gelato on the way back to the hotel.
I’ve done this the last couple of years after the Great North Run and I feel like it’s a nice tradition to continue. So, first of all a big thank you to all of you who supported my fundraising for Sands. My online donation page is full of generous donations including some from people I’ve never met. With so many people doing so many things for good causes, I really do appreciate that you just can’t keep on supporting every one, so thank you.
No lesser thanks to all those who have supported me through comments on my blog here, or through online discussions on Fetch Everyone, twitter and facebook. Throughout this year, I’ve really come to believe that I could achieve my goal of a sub 2 hour half marathon at the Great North Run, partly because I understand more about the best way for me to train, but more importantly because people who I respect and admire have believed in it too.
I could not believe how many people I knew at the finish and every single one asked ‘Did you get your sub 2?’ I guess I have gone on about it a bit, but it meant a lot to know that among your own amazing races you still remembered mine.
If I were to try and list everyone who has offered me a kindess, advice, support or even just a smile it would be a long list and I’d be bound to miss someone out. So please accept a blanket thank you.
But I do have to say special thank yous to Al, Lesley, Mark Willett and Jeff. Al/Scotty’s been gently nudging my mental attitude into a good place ever since he first commented on my first Great North Run blog post and is always a joy to run with. Lesley is my tri idol and someone I love to spend time with. I feel very lucky to have met them both.
Mark Willett may be surprised to see himself in that list, but little comments and well dones on my many running status updates coming from a runner who is himself hitting a fine run of form, really added to my confidence. The same goes for Jeff who always has time for me, and who it was a joy to see at the 9 mile point after a tough section of the race. Of course I should give an award to his dad, or Mystic Fred as I now think of him, who predicted my race time perfectly, despite me thinking it was over optimistic.
I want to say thank you to my Asic Gel Nimbus trainers. A mere 258 miles in, I’m sure we still have many more to look forward to. But you are my trusty travellers who’ve felt right from the very first run. You’ve never caused me a blister or a lost toenail.
And to all the volunteers, marshalls and support crew who help put on this amazing race. Every year I forget how many of you there are. But you’re brilliant. Especially the lady at the end near the elite tent who came over and gave my hand a squeeze as I got a bit teary and overwhelmed at what I’d just done.
And Tanni Grey-Thompson. The first year I grabbed a water bottle from you was a fluke. This year we had a date and there you were again. Only one of the UK’s best athletes giving up her time and making memorable moments for many runners.
A massive thank you of course goes to Gary, support crew extraordinaire. Who needs the elite’s minibus when you can be transported in style to the start? Who needs marathon photos, when he captures every grimace with 800m to go and the smiles and medals at the finish? Who need post-race nutrition drinks when he buys you fish and chips?
My running and training year seems ineluctably attached to this event and so September has become my time for looking back and looking forward. I could never have imagined when I first stepped onto the beach for a training session with Ian just how far that journey would take me.
Team Inspire had a great day at the Great North Run with three PBs smashed and Tony the Fridge getting lots of coverage and support for mad fundraising run carrying a 40k fridge.
Personally, I’ve completed not one, but three half marathons – each faster than then last. And just this year finished three triathlons – competing in three sports, rather than just one.
Miles and miles of training. Getting fitter, leaner and learning so much about myself. Doing things I never thought I was capable of. And finding so many friends. That’s real inspiration. That’s real deep in your heart stuff. And all it took was one person to get it started.
Was there anyone who didn’t know I was going for sub 2 hours for this?
I have felt relaxed and ready this week. Hoping hoping that I hadn’t peaked too soon with a couple of spot on target training runs in recent weeks. Good luck wishes from so many people this week, including some unexpected ones. Well, when it comes to running, I wear my heart on my sleeve.
So Saturday resting, eating well, trying to keep it cool and calm. Getting in touch with my top running buddy Alastair and hatching a plan that would guarantee I got to see him before the start and pass on some very important hugs.
And Sunday morning, after a decent night’s sleep, the sudden realisation this was it. Today was the day. The usual race routine, porridge, banana, multiple toilet stops and my secret ingredient – a home made oatmeal and raisin cookie to eat on the start line. The nerves were kicking in a little now.
Met up with Alastair and his running pal Gordon with plenty of time for piccies and a relaxed meander around the start line until about 10am when we went our separate ways to our pens. A fab warm off helped burn off some of the nervous energy and get the message through to my legs that they were going to have to do some work. And a nice little chat with a Helen from Elswick got my mind on the run.
Every year I’ve stood on the start line as a runner or spectator, something’s brought a tear to my eye. I held it together for Abide with Me this time, but when the Red Arrows flew over in the missing man formation, that did it for me.
We shuffled forward slowly, still nice and relaxed, laughing at the radio commentator reading out all the charity names and just walking to the start point. As the archway approached the excitement built and my feet began to move more quickly and then with a smile and a beep of the watch I was off.
Right hand side this year for a change and quickly up and over, hearing the shouts coming up from the underpass below. Finding space, conscious of trying to keep a steady pace. Last year I ran 08:09 for the first mile and paid for it around miles 9-11. I knew I had to keep steady, be sensible, focus and relax.
I allowed myself one oggy oggy oggy, then tried to keep my energy for the task ahead. High up above as we approached the Tyne Bridge someone shouted my name and I managed a wave, but could not see who it was.
Over the bridge and here come the Red Arrows again. Another raise of the arms in tribute and this run is really underway. Run my own run. Race my own race. I always seemed to find space and fixed my feet to the side of the white line. The band is playing the Blaydon races and I smile.
Checking the watch at regular intervals and seeing some alarmingly changing pace time – anything from 08:19 to 09:29, but settling, settling into a rhythm. A couple of girls always just ahead or behind me. One in a green cap and top, the pther in a pink hat and yellow blood cancer T-shirt. I kept them in sight as potential pace makers for most of the race.
Up and over onto the Felling bypass, picking up my feet and shortening my stride even for this little incline, conserving energy for later. Breathing steady, feeling good and strong.
The heat when it came was scorching. Motorway concrete and no hope of shade. A snatched sip or two of water at three miles and I’m on target. But my mind’s asking me, do you want this? Do you really care about it that much? And for a while I’m not completely sure, but I keep on running because I cannot do anything else.
After a good couple of runs without them, I decided to ditch the gels for this race. Run it minimally, just relying on a boost from a bit of dried mango. A bite planned for 6 miles came early as feel I’m drifting. And I kick back into focus.
Spectators, landmarks, music en-route – most of it just passes me by. I am running. In my own world. My own space. Just following that white line, reeling in the miles. I know this route so well, but I cannot tell you at any point where I am.
I spot the marker for 10k and check my time 54 something, that doesn’t look silly. The challenge is still on. I’m running well now, easing out the legs and picking up a quickish mile.
A band plays ‘Brown eyed girl’ and I give them a wave. A metro goes past and toots his horn. And at 8.5 miles as I’m really starting to feel it in my legs, there is Tanni Grey Thompson at the water station again, just like last year. I grab my bottle and get a shout out. A multiple gold medal winning athlete is my water girl today. I cannot let her down.
A couple of sips and I splash my face and neck, although the sun is being washed over by grey clouds now. 8-9 has been a tough mile, but I can pick this up. I spot Fred and Eric at the 9 mile marker (the only one I see all race), but at this time I cannot remember their names, so I shout ‘Jeff’ because I know he must be nearby. And then I see him and he shouts ‘Looking good’.
I’m biting off bits of mango now whenever I feel like I’m slipping, dipping into the ease of the earlier miles. Now the pace is toliing, now it feels heavy. But now is where it counts. Now I know I want this.
As I go through 10 miles the rain has started, a welcome cooling and ease. I want to wash my face in its reviving drops. Instead I check my pace again. If I go through in under 1h 30, it’s still on. The watch says 01:29:xx (quite possibly a 10 mile PB) and I know I can do this.
Where has the John Reid Road gone? Where is the scene of the hard battles? I do not see it, do not acknowledge its existence. there must have been a rise here, but athough my legs feel it, my mind does not take it in. This is where I have to stay strong, I have to keep pushing. This is where it hurts.
I do not allow myself to think of the cushion I have to my target time. I know there were some sub 9 minute miles back there, but I also know there’s a 9:2x on the deficit. Do not let this go now. I want this. if I can get to the bottom of Marsden bank in under 01:50 it is mine. As I pile down the steep bank overtaking runners, the watch says 01:48 with just over a mile to go.
But what a mile. At the turn, I see a runner just behind me fall flat on his face and someone picks him up. The crowds, sheltering under umbrellas are making some noise, shouting out names. And I am in a dream state, drifting, moving but not moving towards a distant distant goal I cannot see.
My eyes lazily scan the faces for Gary. This mile goes on forever. I start to turn over the legs, stretch out and try to pick up the pace, but it is too hard now and I just need to keep going. I see 01:54 on the watch and start to panic. How far do I have to go? I spot the 1km marker and mentally think five minutes to the end, but I cannot compute if that gives me enough time or not.
If I want this I still have to push. It’s not in the bag yet. I spot a guy with a huge camera at his face and it’s Gary. And I see the blue arches of the Elite finish ahead. We’re down to minutes now, seconds. Just keep running.
I have not the strength to push on much faster. I spot the army guys and now it’s not far now. As we turn away from the elite finish, it’s elbows out, runners clashing, pick up the feet, pump the arms and raise the hands as I come in under the finish line to a clock showing 02:08:xx. It took me 10 minutes to cross the line. Have I done enough?
In my fumble to stop my watch, I switch the screen back to time and I anxiously scroll through the menus to see. ‘Please, please, please,’ I say out loud to the amusement of the runner beside me. And the magic number appears 01:57:59 (Official time clocks me at 01:57:57).
Happy, happy day! I stumble towards the barriers near the elite tent, intending to stretch and get a little teary eyed. So, so happy with that. So, so happy that so many people will be so happy for me. So, so many good runners who have had faith in me, who have encouraged me to believe that I can do this.
I wander over to The F for Fetch flag to meet some of them, including Paul and Mark who I’ve now seen at the end of the Great North Run 3 times. And there’s Dawn looking fab in her sailor suit and Rebecca who I’ve never met until today. Another who knows I’m a triathlete. And Paul and Pen recently returned from Marathon du Medoc. And fab, fab Al for more hugs and photos. And they all want to know did I do sub 2? Well yes, the smile on my face says it all.
The sun is shining as we put on our T-shirts and medals and watch the Red Arrows draw a giant heart in the sky. What more could I ask for? Well the fish and chips on the way home were mighty good too.
After a practically perfect, couldn’t have run it any better, 10 mile preparation race last weekend, it’s almost inevitable that I’ve felt a bit flat this week. While I was congratulating myself on how well I felt after the race in terms of aches and pains, Tuesday’s interval session showed it had taken it out of me.
First of all I needed my sleep, so despite an early night I couldn’t face a pre-work run and settled for a lunchtime outing instead. With the wind playing tricks on me, I knew it would be tough to keep a pace going on the roads around work, but I jogged on out and battled against the gusts that danced behind, in front and around me.
My legs, particularly my quads were stiff and heavy, but I told myself that interval pace is meant to feel hard so that race pace feels easier. I managed a couple of reps quietly pleased at my pace but really struggled on the return stretch uphill and into the wind. At one point I stopped my watch and took a longer recovery to cross a busy road and in the last rep I abandoned any thoughts of speed and just convinced myself that any kind of running counted.
I’ve dropped nearly all my cross training now to ease down for the last two weeks before race day, although I still have the option of a swim if I want it. But cautious and careful I’m fearful of getting a cold. On a packed Metro, I moved away from the coughing woman.
Thursday was my last PT session before the Great North Run and Ian had a plan to take it slow and easy. Some balance and weight exercises to give me a workout, but nothing that risked pushing me too far. Still I was almost beaten by one combination and curiously missed the usual adrenaline buzz at the end of the session. In fact, so much so, that I felt rather down and mopey by the time I got to work. A bit of a break in the ‘good eating’ plan with some biscuits and a smoothie just about brought me round, and a good nights sleep combined with a Friday day off lie in finished the job.
So rested, porridged up and out for 6 miles on Friday morning. A free run with no timetable to keep but my own. And it was okay. I did what I set out to, but it wasn’t easy. That nice, easy flow I’ve felt on a couple of long runs recently wasn’t there. But it’s all training and really there’s not much more I can do.
This time last year I was still pushing it for this race. Still trying to eke out every ounce of training. My last long run a week before race day was a 2 hour session in which I covered over 12 miles. This weekend I set out to do 9 and called it a day at 8.
I went for a sports massage on Friday afternoon and had the lovely compliment from the lady doing it that it was a treat for her to look after such fit legs. We found a couple of wrinkles which she got to work on, exactly where I would have expected them to be on my outer quads, but nothing that made me yelp or highlighted an area of concern.
Still I felt the recovering muscles on my run today and being warm and windy it was a bit of a toughie. So many runners out today. The sense of anticipation is palpable. The sign is on the Tyne bridge and the marquees are going up at the finish. Next Saturday the streets will be bereft of runners. We are all getting ready for the Great North Run.
So my last long run and trying to pick the perfect pace again proved tricky. My first mile looked a little urgent until the end, my second about right and my third picking up again. I’d made it easy on myself, an out and back route that’s familiar and largely flat. But as I turned just after 4 miles into the full force of the wind I began to grind, rather than ease the miles out.
For a mile I smiled at it, battling on, never minding that I was being slowed down. But my legs were beginning to ache too and it was feeling harder than this distance should do at this stage. I began to do deals with myself. Anything over 6 would count as a long run. I just had to push when the wind dropped and disregard the pace.
At 7 miles my quads were pulling again. I pushed on through telling myself that my run would come back to me, and for times the pace did. But the wind was too strong and as I saw 9:20s on the pace I knew I was just about done. So at 8 miles and close enough to home, I called it a day, rather than pushing on for another meaningless mile. Stopping and stretching, the aches subsided quickly. Plenty of rest and recovery planned for next week.
I still have the same muscles, heart, lungs and mental focus that carried me through that 10 mile race last week. I have the best support crew anyone could ask for. And I do have confidence in myself that I can do this. I can run the Great North Run in less than 120 minutes.
But I’ve done just about all I can now and I have to accept that beyond training well, eating well and resting well just about everything else is out of my control. I cannot take charge of the weather. I cannot control other people. I have one more run planned next week and to be honest I’ll listen and see what my body says about that one. I think I’ll still do it, but really now, the training is done.
And for once I’m not dreading the taper. I feel like I’ll appreciate the rest. Hopefully it will leave me chomping at the bit to run with fresh and rested legs on race day. We’ll see.
I know it won’t be a lonely run. There will be thousands around me. And a smaller group of precious people in my heart. Some may be running on the same roads. Others may not. But I know you’ll be there with me in my mind. And there will be times I’ll think of everyone who has shared this journey with me. But this will be my run, my race and whatever I do or don’t do is up to me.
I’ll make decisions on the day, from moment to moment on how I’m running, how I feel. And no matter how much I know I am capable of running a particular time I will not let that determine whether or not this is a good race. It will be a good race no matter what, because I am ready to enjoy an amazing day.