It’s not just about what you see, it’s about how you see it. Starting in the grounds of the magnificent Villa Pisani, the Venice Marathon route passes some of the most elegant leisure palaces of the Venetian nobility along the Brenta River, including the aptly named Villa Malcontenta (discontent), and finishes with 14 tortuous bridges leading to St Mark’s Square and a view over the lagoon. Runners get an accelerated tour of Venice’s highlights – the Grand Canal (and a specially built pontoon bridge to cross it constructed the night before and dismantled the night after the race) the Zattere, a promenade alongside the lagoon, and Basilica San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale. Despite being a marathon it might just been one of the best ways to experience Venice, and certainly the most memorable. I caught up with fellow Scottish expat Hannah Holmes who loved the experience so much she ran the entire route with a broad grin on her face!
After several months training Hannah tackled probably the most beautiful marathon route that exists: ending in historical Venice is certainly not a bad incentive for finishing. She talked to me about the joy of running through villages lined with supporters (and the odd gondolier in Venice), the struggle of the infinite bridge into Venice, and the classic Italian disorganisation including having no barriers beside the canals in Venice… be careful overtaking! Hannah tells me about what in her words was her most relaxing arrival into Venice (the train is very tedious from where we live…):
Why did you decide to run the Venice Marathon?
By April I knew that I would be based in Italy for the next school year and I think I wanted to make the most of my time here. I had run a half marathon in my home-town just before I left for Italy and continued running regularly so the marathon seemed like a logical (I don’t think that word really applies!) progression. Plus, the glamour of finishing in Venice was too much of a temptation!
Did you have any information or advice beforehand?
We had a “marathon party” the night before the race involving a presentation with route information and an all you can eat pasta buffet. I have never seen such enthusiasm for oriecchette with broccoli! Everyone was taking their carb-loading very seriously and the poor waiters were mobbed every time they had to cart out another tray. It was quite heartening to see the table of the obviously elite Kenyan runners joining in and piling mounds of pasta on their plate.
The presentation was one of those brilliant times when Italians act exactly as advertised. The president of the athletics club stood up and talked without breath for several minutes before his American counterpart would interject a one sentence translation for us stranieri. This continued over the course of many slides – the Kenyans were sent to bed halfway through. At one point the American lady actually started translating vital points back into Italian! I’m glad I went though because the advice to aim for the aid station halfway along the endless bridge of doom into Venice proved to be incredibly useful.
Can you describe the atmosphere as you were running?
The local people really make the Venice marathon an amazing experience. You run through lots of small towns with people lining the streets shouting support. It was my first experience of a marathon and you really do feel like a superstar. There were bands playing rock music, and “I’m a Believer” in San Giuliano park (Mestre) was a particular highlight. On your bib it shows your name and nationality so people could personalise their shouts of support! The runner’s high had obviously addled my brain and along the way I got a lot of bemused shouts of “ancora sorridendo” (still smiling). However hearing Scottish cries of “On yerself” in the final kilometres was definitely the boost I needed.
How did you feel arriving in to Venice?
Before arriving into Venice, you have to cross the aforementioned 5km bridge of doom where you run in a straight line looking at Venice but feeling like you are never getting closer. It actually felt quite apocalyptic running, or more accurately hobbling, along this closed off road bridge with nobody talking and people dropping like flies to walk or stretch at the sides. Once you are over this bridge you don’t immediately reach the Venice of everyone’s imagination but go through a bit of an industrial area. It’s quite bizarre when you finally reach central Venice and run past tourists just sitting at the cafes by the lagoon.
Where there any ‘Italian’ mishaps or disorganisation?
There was some interesting Italian organisation going on before I even got to the race. The bus driver sent by my tour operator to pick up all the runners and deliver them to Stra was getting very agitated by the fact that at every hotel there was a different number of runners to what he had on his list. Then at the start point it wasn’t clear where everything was and it was just by wandering round that I realised the tent that everyone had piled into was actually centrally heated!
What was the best and worst part for you?
I enjoyed the whole experience – it’s hard to pick a best part but being cheered on by crowds around Piazza San Marco was pretty special. The worst part was definitely the start. It was freezing. My teeth were chattering despite being cloaked in my bin-bag and wearing socks on my arms. Not knowing exactly where to deposit my bag and where the starting corrals were also meant that I didn’t know if I had enough time for a very necessary second port-a-loo visit which made the first 5km a little more uncomfortable than they might have been.
What was the best view along the route?
The flat landscape can get a little monotonous – especially if you already live in Veneto – but the views over the lagoon when I arrived in Venice were definitely a highlight. However for me realising where the shops were in Mestre was another memorable moment.
Would you recommend it and why?
I would definitely recommend the experience. In terms of marathon running, it’s a mainly flat course – apart from a couple of inclines and the bridges in Venice – which makes life easier. It’s not too big in terms of numbers so I never felt impeded by other runners apart from a few corners in Venice where overtaking would mean being dangerously close to the water! You also have the support of the locals all along the course. It’s probably also the least stressful way to see Venice – I would say I had a much better experience getting to the centre than my poor friends who had to fight their way through Venice’s never ending masses of tourists!