U&R Superstars: Frances rocks the Venice Marathon

Up & Running SuperstarsUp & Running Alumni member Frances is an English pâtissier/writer living in Paris. In addition to French she also speaks Italian, so she signed up for Coach Julia’s famous My First Marathon programme for the Venice Marathon.

Frances has kindly shared her race report for the blog. It’s a wonderful read, so make yourself a cuppa and prepare to vicariously run 26.2 miles!

Huge thanks to Sara Lando for the  photos (watch out for an interview with Sara on her own marvellous marathon soon!).

Coach Julia & Frances

Sara and Ale picked me up from Venice airport with the cutest sign: “WonderFrances” and a curly-topped girl mid-run.

They whisked me off for pizza immediately while we talked all things running, trails, shoes. And they took care of me impeccably all weekend with plenty of carbohydrates and calm.

On Saturday we visited the marathon expo, amidst the bustle of which I finally became nervous. So many serious people! But Julia was just about to give her talk, interviewing an Italian and a Kenyan (?) Top Runner and talking us through a bird’s eye view of the course.

The most important advice she gave: you will think “Today is My Day” and you will want to go fast. It isn’t, and you mustn’t. Because the first 25km are along the Brenta river, smooth and fluid. And if you go all out, the Ponte della Liberta, the long causeway from the mainland to the island will kill you. So. Then I got a hug and a T-shirt and most importantly, 500g wholewheat spaghetti in my goody bag.

Venice Marathon route map
Venice Marathon route map

A quick rhubarb aperitif exclusive to Bassano (pretty sure that is not in the training plan but it didn’t hurt) some of Sara’s mother’s pumpkin pasta (so delicious) and early to bed (in a beautiful room full of books and a cardboard reindeer). A long night’s sleep, including an extra hour for the clocks changing. (The night before I dreamed of killer bees, this time I slept peculiarly well.) Porridge made with water, cinnamon, salt and an egg stirred in at the last minute, topped with honey and banana made for the most bland but filling breakfast. Not talking much by this point, but the ‘minions’ (as Sara called herself and Ale) were generally reassuring. Though the physical challenge was a total unknown, having run only 25km, I had seen them (and Anne in Australia) breeze through the mental challenge which helped enormously.

The start was at Villa Pisani in Stra, a magnificent property. “Don’t pee on the walls!” the officials repeated. But of course everyone did. The My First Marathon runners were allowed to share a tent with the official pacers, who were all greasing up with bodyglide and awkwardly pinning on balloons only to discover that they couldn’t get a shirt on afterwards to keep warm. I wore an old T-shirt with the Scottish flag, felt closer to UAR. The other newbies looked as jittery as I did; eventually I introduced myself and found some of the forum-goers, who were cheery and lovable. Everyone joked “First one to the finish buys the first round of spritzes!” I lined up with Davide by the pink balloons for 4:15. He told me that he had lost half his body-weight to get where he is today, by running and finally eating properly. Daria, one of our pacers told us that she had recently run a 24 hour race in Padova – doing 168km. Quick maths: 4 marathons. In a row. Now I understood Julia really had a crack team. She looked askance at my shoes. I wished I had peed one more time, that I could go against the walls too.

Frances at the wall

We waited in the quiet, nervous energy bouncing around and set off to the thump of 16 000 feet. I kept an eye on the pink balloons but soon lost sight of Davide. The pacers were running at exactly 5:55, gently and easily. I knew we were supposed to be doing 6min/km but it turned out that we used the extra 20s for a short walking break at the water stations. We patter along by the river, breathing smooth. It felt nice to start slow, unlike the panic that normally takes me over.

2km: “Mangiamo i kilometri” (let’s eat/we are eating those kilometres!) the pacers called out. “4:15, ‘ip ‘ip ‘urrah!” The group that had coalesced around the pink balloons echoed it weakly and concentrated on running. The pacers were really fantastic, strict but full of fun. It was nice to surrender the responsibility to them and just look at my watch (Honor’s wach) to check the 6 minute splits I had set, breaking up the distance into manageable chunks.

5km: Need to pee, portaloo busy. Grimace. Carry on. Plenty of little towns with the main street lined with people, grannies leaning out the windows. The pacers thanked the crowds, clapped them and we got a bigger cheer. There was a drum band dressed up in Renaissance gear.

“Ce l’abbiamo in tasca!” (It’s in the bag.) Someone makes a joke about the warm-up being over, now we will run 4:15 min/km.

10km: I go just a little faster to find a loo. It’s freeeeee. Thank mother of god. (After which my stomach is fine the whole way, miracle.) Grab water, take a gel and re-join the pink balloons. There is a man with change in his pocket, clinking loudly. Another wearing a rubber-ring with a sea monster on it – the only fancy dress I saw all day. The Italians ALL seemed to know each other, “Federico! Ma che fai qui!”

12km: “That didn’t feel like 12 – let’s go back and do them again!”

The kilometres slip by in a daze. It is grey and humid, the clouds low over the river. Breathing still comfortable. I almost feel half-asleep, the way I do on morning runs. I decide my spirit animal for today will be a snake, or to be more accurate Mike from Breaking Bad, his eyes always half-closed yet watchful. Yes, he is a cold-blooded assassin BUT he is wise and doesn’t waste energy worrying. Keep running.

21km: “There’s no such thing as a half, only the whole! C’mon, the Kenyans will have finished by now!” Ha.

A little after two hours and I really feel OK, my head is empty and my feet are still light. I stick close to the pacers’ elbows and try not to get hit by the balloons. They start calling me “caprina” (little goat) for my ridiculous shoes and say that I would never survive a trail ultra with them. Which is fine with me. The bloke has done five marathons this year, including Paris, but he liked Berlin better. This was supposed to be my first and last marathon, to have it over and done with, but this sparks something in me. I don’t hate it. I’m not cursing myself or Julia or feeling the usual fear.

From the supporting locals: “Bravissime!” (Fantastic, girls!) “What about the men hey?” the pacer shouts back, “no fair!”

Almost exactly 6min/km, again just looking at one kilometre at a time, one rest stop at a time (every 5km), one gel (every 10km). We pass 25km and the furthest I have ever run. We have left the river and have gone through Malcontenta (literally, GrumpyTown) and even gone through a train station. Apparently last year the weather was so awful, wind and rain, that some runners just gave up and took the train in. At some point we pass an ambulance with a group of miserable battle-wounded, wrapped in shiny blankets. My legs are a little stiff, but they are still going.

“Abbiamo energia da vendere! 4:15!” (We’ve got energy to spare.) Whenever I respond with something non-committal like “Speriamo! Vediamo alla fine?” they are positive and firm. Not we will see, we WILL.

30km: we reach the park in Mestre and run over a wobbly suspension bridge. Sea legs. I run along the grass verges to spare my feet that are starting to feel sore. At the rest station we crest a small hill and under the blow-up arch is the silhouette of Venice, the domes shrouded in mist. The sun is just coming out and I want to nudge everyone and say LOOK SO PRETTY. But the pink balloons seemed to have dropped back. After 30km Julia said I could go a little faster, and I feel like setting off in the peace and quiet. Around 30km I am supposed to hit a wall, and clearly plenty of people are doing so right now. I go up the incline to the causeway where we can see the silver water and the trains streaming past alongside. The crowd has thinned out, everyone in their own little worlds. It’s beautiful, oddly quiet without the pacers’ encouragement. Venice is still far away in the fog. Sometimes I wave at the train drivers. Once I have to try not to cry, as I am so excited to write to my Granny (she used to lift me up to wave at trains) to tell her about this surreal experience, forget for a moment that I can’t.

35km: still on the causeway. Still no wall – it just feels like I’m going slightly uphill, the effort increases to continue the same pace. Now the water feels like manna from heaven. The caramel gel is much-needed. The small of my back starts hurting, apparently my hamstrings trying to push off some of the work onto the rest of my body. I hope I’m not broken. When we turn down into the city itself, alongside the enormous cruise ships, it is a relief as I realise all of a sudden that there are only a handful of kilometres to go and that I will finish. My timing is good, but I don’t really care anymore. My brain is on stand-by which is total bliss. Just once I stop, allowing myself ten seconds to walk but suddenly,

“Evvai! Ti seguo da dieci kilometri, andiamo!”

There is a lady in magenta I last remember seeing around 25km. She has been following me and is not letting me slow down. Another girl in pink comes up on my left and asks about my shoes. We go over the first bridge all together with a burst of misguided enthusiasm. Because there are THIRTEEN more bridges, all with ramps. On the downhill I throw up my arms and grin – on our own special bridge for crossing the Grand Canal with its magnificent palazzi – and on the uphill I swear out loud. Mother Capital F. We are by the water with a fantastic view of the cemetery, I think, with its great dome.

“Don’t let the girl overtake you!” yell a couple paddling in circles, at a man walking beside me. I catch a glimpse of pink balloons coming up behind me and speed up a little.

Triumphant Frances

40kms: We turn into St Mark’s square thick with cheering crowds. It’s like being a superstar. I give all the little kids high fives, some of them read my name on the bib! “Go Frances! Francesca! Allez, Francaise!” Total elation. And then total despair as we go back to MORE BRIDGES. But I’m still running, I can’t quite believe it. I start scanning the crowds for familiar faces, and still don’t see them even as I come down the last bridge. I can see the finish line and honestly don’t care anymore until my people yell “FRANCES!” And good lord my legs are taking me across the cobbles at a sprint, the last 50m – over the line and straight into Julia. I get wrapped in a shiny blanket, grab a medal from the cutest child handing them out, and Julia whisks me out of the queue into the Top Runners Tent where I burst into tears.

It worked! It totally worked – the training actually paid off, the preparation, the intensity and the total unknown and all the confidence of a crowd of bright ladies behind me. I didn’t procrastinate this project – I completed 87.5% of the training runs – and that as well as the final race feels like an achievement. I get a bunch of hugs and photos and I get to meet the lovely Jennie who tries to steal my medal. (I think that is my favourite photo.) I ran for more than four hours straight, my legs are stiff as anything but I didn’t die and as I said, I didn’t ever want to kill Julia (as I often wanted to during interval training). I hope she took that the right way – it was my highest compliment.

Fellow Up & Runner Jennie with Frances
Fellow Up & Runner Jennie with Frances

We have pizza and watch the last bunch of runners come past. I hobble back over the bridges just as the 6 hour people soldier past, tiny Japanese ladies and old Italians walking as fast as they can after a long 42kms. We follow the crowds winding over bridges and canals, back through St Mark’s and over the Rialto. My cheersquad leave me at the train station with all of their love. By now I am so so sleepy, in the best way, like after a strong beer or really good sex. The night train won’t leave for another couple of hours, so I wander back to the nicest little bar for the spritz I have been promising myself as a reward. I have two, in the corner with a book. Most of the tourists have gone home, just Italians out walking their dogs. A gondolier with an empty boat speeding past. A young couple making out on the appropriately named Ponte dell’Anatomia. I sit on the steps by the station and eat roast chestnuts hot enough to blister my fingertips and feel the way Sara taught me the Venetians say when everything is perfect, “Oro.” Golden.


Mega thanks again to Frances for letting us post this fabbo report! Check out her fabulous recipes and prose at www.tangerinedrawings.com.

If you’d like Coach Julia to help you to 42K Glory, check out our 1-on-1 marathon coaching.