Well I did it… it was much harder than I thought it would be, but the last mile of my first Marathon was overwhelming as I ran through St Marks Square and over 8 ramped bridges alongside the Grand Canal in Venice in front of thousands of cheering spectators. The finish was very emotional, full of elation and tears. I was very apprehensive as I travelled from Venice on the free bus to the start at Stra, a small town 18 miles inland from the Italian coast. The Marathon Village had a carnival atmosphere and an international flavour with music and announcements in several languages. I met several English competitors who put me at ease, but it was pretty obvious to me that although the Venice Marathon had a charity billing, the vast majority of the competitors were serious runners, looking to make PBs on a flat open course that follows the Brenta Canal. This was confirmed when I realised that I was in the 5th and last starting corral despite predicting a time of just over 4 hrs to complete the course. Being the 30th Venice Marathon, the organisation of the event was slick, the bag collection was painless, toilet facilities plentiful and drinks easily acquired. The hour before the run went quickly, with good luck messages and following a raucous rendition of the Italian national anthem we were all poised to start. The Italians clearly like good old fashioned classical Rock as we passed the start with ACDC “highway to hell” booming from the PA. I had become accustomed to an 18 degree high in Venice with a cool wind ensuring we kept our jumpers on, but it soon became clear that inland, with no wind and the sun beating down on wide tarmac roads that it felt 5 or 6 degrees warmer than 15/16 degree real temperature. The course follows the SR11 (A class road) to Venice meandering alongside the Canal, so although 7,000 runners were unleashed in less than 10 minutes, finding space to run your own pace was never an issue. The course passed through picturesque country side with the canal ever present on the right and punctuated by ribbon towns like Dolo, Mira and Oriago. The towns were lined with cheering supporters and kids reaching out to touch your hand. Local bands boomed out classics like Motorheads “Ace of Spades”, Deep Purples “Smoke on the Water” and softer rock classics like Cyndi Laupers “time after time”. Mentally I felt good, I tried to run a steady pace and regularly took on energy foods and was carried easily by the amassed runners. Every 5km there were drinking stations and water buckets. Deceived by the sun and heat, at about the 8 mile point I was conscious I was getting hot, and for the first time in my running career I used the supplied sponge in my bib bag to douse myself with cold water from the buckets.
I hit the mid way point, feeling good and on target at around 1hr 57mins, as the countryside gave way to the Mestre urban area, part of the Venice mainland. I then ran into my first difficult spell at miles 14 to 16 as the midday heat and high humidity took its toll. My pace slowed dramatically and I stopped briefly to take on and shower myself in water. At mile 18 we passed into the San Giuliano Park where the official Marathon Village was sited, with bands playing and spectators lining the 2 mile circular route around the park paths. My family were there as I entered the park to cheer me and served to spur me on, out of the park and onto the 2.5 mile long straight Via della Libertà (Freedom) bridge, which is the only road bridge connecting the mainland to historic Venice. The steady climb brought on my second bad spell, where I succumbed to walking as my legs tired, I recall an Italian girl competitor clapping and encouraging me on and thanked her as I began running again. I pushed hard, it hurt, there were no crowds or supporters, just me alone. In the middle of the bridge an ambulance was attending to a runner who had clearly collapsed. I was conscious of a cooling wind and the Venice islands outlined ahead. I pushed on uplifted, knowing the end was in sight and suddenly I had reached the historic city. I hit my third and worst wall at 22 miles, disappointed as we passed through the ferry port and industrial areas to find no supporters. The heat of the mainland was now replaced by a cooling wind and several runners were falling by the way as cramp set in. Punctuated by short walking periods I pressed on and reached the edge of the Grand Canal. The wind was strong now. The bridges between the islands had been ramped to avoid climbing the steps. Even so the climb combined with cooling legs were contributing to onset of cramp, runners were dropping like flies, so I slowed my climbs to avoid the pain. Then at 24 miles, just when I was seriously doubting if I could finish, I saw the San Marco Campinale, a distinctive tower rising high above St Marks square. Crowds were now alongside the canal side and cheering us on. “go go John”, they shouted as if they knew me. The organisers know the power of putting your name on you bib. Spanning the Grand Canal as St Marks Square approaches is a 150m pontoon bridge, specially erected just for the Marathon. As you come off the bridge the crowds swell and become a sea as you run through St Marks Square itself. The historic buildings surrounding the square almost smile at you and suddenly you know the end is near. Between St Marks Square and the finish is just over a kilometre of barriered running lane, punctuated with 8 historic bridges, creating spectator pinch points. As you climb each ramp, crowds press to the edge, screaming encouragement, cameras and go pros pushed towards your face. I just kept going wondering whether the next will be the last before the finish, then suddenly I climb a bridge and at the summit I see the finish arch 300 yards ahead. I knew I was going to make it and could feel emotions of elation and pride suddenly welling up inside me. Embarrassingly I was shouting out loud “I ve done it”, Ive done it” and threw my arms in the air as I ran the last 200 yards, the pain suddenly suppressed. I saw the time above the arch 4 hrs 23 mins as I crossed the line. The organisers ushered me to one side and then after a few seconds of reflection at what I had achieved, I felt the emotions well again and tears run freely and I wept. After 4 months of training and lots of support I had achieved something I had dreamed about for 5 years. It was harder than I expected and a proud moment that I will always savour and never forget. Thanks to all my family for their support, to Ronald my faithful canine running mate and to my daughter who proudly posted on facebook “he only bloody did it…” my first Marathon was the Venice Marathon – chip time 4hrs 17mins and 43 seconds. John