Tabula rasa

A foreign country is a great place to re-draw your contours. Not to change yourself, but to project the version of yourself who’s been calling out from the inside of an outside that has been pre-judged too many times.

In the U.S., I was the unathletic cousin who slunk off to Weight Watchers meetings in my little college town and hoped I wouldn’t see anyone I knew.

In Italy, I became “l’americana.” And even though it was during the Bush years, they meant it in a good way. 

I was positioned well to become “l’americana” because I had chosen to study abroad in a city where americani were rare. From the very first run I went for around the Ferrara city walls, I was a curiosity. Women did not run often in Ferrara, and they certainly didn’t run by themselves. I saw them on bicycles now and then, always immaculately dressed in some sort of matching set, always with intentional-looking hair. I wore red running shorts, a neon orange technical tank, and one of those early Garmin watches the size of a small tablet computer, Velcro wristband and all. People gaped at me, and not subtly. I was both surprised and gratified to discover that I didn’t really care.

My first Italian running buddy was Marco, an older man who caught up to me on that first run and asked whether he could run along next to me for a little while. This I was less enthused about, but as a sort of representative of my country in a new place, I felt compelled to let my friendliness drive the bus and answer, “of course!” Marco gratefully slowed his pace to match mine and explained that towards the end of his run when he started getting tired, he liked to have a companion along for the ride. He wanted to know all about me, I was from WHERE? I was here to do WHAT? But, why here? Why Italian? What on earth could I possibly be getting out of this? When I mentioned that I was signed up for the Florence Marathon, though, things got serious. Marco had thoughts about that. Only eat fruit for breakfast, nothing too heavy. Take the first 5KM very, very slowly. Those two I understood – the rest was lost in his rapid chatter and thick Ferrarese accent. When we got to his stopping point, he said goodbye, and that he hoped he’d see me again. I thought, not likely, but sure enough, Marco became a frequent fixture on my training runs, often doing loops of the walls with varying combinations of old Ferrarese runner dudes, always inviting me to join in for a few kilometers, never without advice of some kind to offer up. “You’re getting too thin!” “Cover your shoulders, there’s fog today and you’ll get sick!” The affectionate nagging, patronizing as it sometimes was, felt to me like acceptance and recognition. One day Marco introduced me to an elegant woman riding a bike as “Sarah, l’americana,” to which the woman said, “oh, I’ve heard of you!” 

I never thought I’d literally be a famous runner, but there it was.

I’d been in Ferrara for a month or so, jogging along the city walls 5 days a week in religious adherence to my Hal Higdon training plan, when I heard mention among Marco’s posse of a “mezza maratona” – a half marathon. My ears perked up – I had only run one half-marathon in my life at that point, and as my first full approached, I had been hoping that I might find myself in the way of a tune-up race. I asked for more details, and the guys told me that it was that coming Sunday in a little town outside the city. The bus, they promised, would take me all the way there, and no, I didn’t need to sign up ahead of time. Just show up, write my name down, and get a number. Okay, I said, I’m doing this. They chuckled politely and told me to have fun with that.

I did my homework: I found the correct bus line and the stop nearest to my apartment. I planned my morning and made sure I had clean clothes. I went to the University to use the internet and I tried my very best to find something, anything: a website? A registration form? Information of literally any kind to verify that this was real? Nothing. All I had to go on were the Ferraresi, their word, and the integrity of the number 11 bus.

The latter was the first failure point, as I waited alone at the stop on Sunday morning – it turned out that I had misunderstood the schedule I’d consulted (perfect example of “shit they don’t teach you in Italian class”) and I ended up waiting for close to an hour for the correct bus to pass by. Anyone who has spent a week’s vacation in Italy is probably totally unsurprised to hear that buses are not frequent on Sundays.

So, the bus came, I got on, and I realized that I was still operating with far less than a full deck. I’d take the bus to this town, and then what? Would I know where to go? The panic mounted as I saw signs indicating we’d entered the town of Santa Maria Maddalena. What if I was supposed to get off before the last stop? What if I’d already missed it? I screwed up my courage and asked the bus driver whether he knew where the half marathon was happening, and the answer was the Italian equivalent of “…huh?” All seemed lost. But an older gentleman sitting behind the driver piped up: “I know where the half marathon is. I’ll show you.”

What I know now is that no Italian town the size of Santa Maria Maddalena leaves room for any confusion about where its events are happening. There is one piazza, in the very middle where all the roads converge, and if there’s a mezza maratona happening, it’s probably going to be happening there. I got off the bus and familiar sights reassured me. Tents! Twitchy-looking runners doing warmup exercises! I registered and pinned on my bib, and soon after, the race began.

This being only my second half-marathon, I didn’t want to bet too aggressively in the initial miles (Marco’s words about the first 5KM floated through my brain) so I held back, falling in just behind a talkative group of older men and women. Their conversation was hard to parse through their thick accents, but as far as I could tell it was total garden-variety chit-chat that I’d heard at so many friendly road races before. This was familiar; this was lovely. We left town and the pianura padana (the Po river valley) opened up before us. I was good. Then, the fork in the road came up. A man was holding a sign that said: NON COMPETITIVA to the right, MEZZA MARATONA straight ahead. Interesting, I thought; so if you’re “non competitiva,” which I definitively was in my own estimation, then you go to the right? Sounds like a plan! My little group turned right and I was prepared to follow them. The man with the sign looked me square in the eye, then, and said, “Vai diritto, diritto” pointing in no uncertain terms straight ahead.

So here I was. Accidentally running in what appeared to be a “competitiva” race and incidentally DFL (dead fuckin last).

Being DFL was a shock to the system, because in every American road race I’d run, it was practically an assurance that no matter how slow I ran, I would never actually be last. Yet, here I was – the next runner ahead of me on the half-marathon course was barely visible on the horizon. Not only was I DFL right now, at around mile 2, but I was likely to finish DFL. So I’d better get right with that, or else this was going to be an unpleasant morning.

I have a strong sense-memory of gut-curdling panic. Then, it started to rain. And I remember breathing in the damp air, looking around at the seemingly infinite Po river valley, and laughing out loud. This was totally insane, and yet this was. I was here. I had found the start line of this improbable little race, and in all honesty, I had no business being here. And yet I was, and it was raining, and I relaxed. What was there to lose? This might even be fun.

The nice thing about a double-loop out-and-back course on a flat river plain (said no one ever) is that you see all the competition, no matter how much slower you are than they. I watched as the lead runners blew past me going back into town, watched the entire pack that followed them. I counted maybe three women total. You know who else was having fun? Nobody. These people, I recognized immediately, were here to win something or prove something. They didn’t call the other race (a 6K, I later found out) the “non-competitiva” for nothing. That was what you did if you wanted to have fun. This, on the other hand, was serious. 

I felt like I should wipe the grin off my face, out of respect, but it would not go.

After the turnaround, I passed by the one and only aid station. The man and woman refilling water cups looked a bit confused as I stopped to have a drink of water. Where was I from, and…what the hell was I doing? An American just here to have fun – I don’t know that they had ever seen one before. “We’ll save you some water on the last loop,” they promised.

At this point, as we headed back towards Santa Maria, I noted that there was a runner in my sights and that I was gaining on him. I tried to rein myself in – it wasn’t time to push yet – but before too long I passed him. Just like that, I was no longer DFL. As I passed, he muttered out of the corner of his mouth, gruffly, reluctantly, “complimenti.” (Politely, I said, “grazie.”) I don’t think the dude particularly felt like saying “good job” to me at that moment – I don’t think he was thrilled about being passed by some 20-year-old whippersnapper, and a woman at that. I think it was the kind of “complimenti” that’s intended as a “fuck you,” but what I heard was, “I underestimated you, kid. Keep on getting it.” 

The thing about being underestimated is that it leaves you a lot of room to inch up the field and surprise people (and it feels really, really good to completely blindside all the doubters). I passed another handful of runners, one by one, and by the time I passed my aid station buddies on the final loop, I wasn’t even thirsty – I just sailed by and waved as they cheered, “forza l’americana!” As I re-entered Santa Maria, I heard yet more cheers of “l’americana! dai dai dai!” and I crossed the finish line maybe fifth to last, in around two hours and ten minutes, an underrated superstar. The woman who’d dubiously assigned me my mezza-maratona bib before the start was the first to congratulate me and eagerly hand me my prizes, which were a huge bag of groceries from the local grocery store and three bottles of the local wine. And, for my age-group win (unopposed), I received a lacy white push up bra. It was the largest and strangest haul I had ever brought home from a race.

The bra didn’t really fit and wasn’t my style, but my memories of that day and of all the days of running in Ferrara are some of my most precious possessions. I rarely felt more fully like myself than I did when I ran around Ferrara’s city walls. It was a self that I had created, with full control; there were no varsity relatives for anyone to compare me to, no pre-Weight-Watchers photos to tell any of my story for me. I wasn’t on a college campus chock-a-block with attractive, athletic strivers. Whatever was in my past was mine to make sense of, and meanwhile the landscape ahead seemed infinite.