Running in Rome requires gladiator toughness

The author takes a Roman Holiday and almost pays for it dearly  Credit: Hulton Getty/Allsport
ROME — Everyone knows it's dangerous to drive in Rome. The term "traffic patterns" is an oxymoron here. But there are times when running on the sidewalk isn't safe either. In this city there's a strong belief in the afterlife, but I've got a few things yet to do before I cash in my chips.

In any event, I've survived running in the Eternal City — so far. I'm in the middle of a month long stay in Rome. Just because I'm on vacation, though, doesn't mean that running takes a holiday. Dues must be paid, so I've been exploring the parks, streets and riverbanks of this great city.

Running in Rome is a bit more unusual than it sounds. Italians are not the most physically vigorous of people. They do a lot of walking, but mostly in the form of a ritualized evening passagiata.

Thousands of pedestrians put on their finest silk ties, scarves, leather skirts and pants and stroll along the main thoroughfares and through the various squares. There is no American equivalent; teenagers cruising the mall might be as close as we come.

Most of the runners here are foreigners, easily distinguishable from the native runners by their choice of apparel. There seems to be some inverse dress code here. While Italians are justifiably renowned for setting the standard in fashion, their sense of style in running apparel couldn't be more archaic.

Those who ply the roads for fitness favor gray, baggy sweat pants and cotton T-shirts. Many apparently subscribe to the "sweat oneself into shape" theory and wear complete nylon rain suits. Many kids, in fact, wear these tracksuits to school. I'm not sure if running tights are considered too revealing or just in poor taste. But I'm the only one wearing them, eliciting open-mouthed stares and the occasional rude remark as well.

I'm OK with that. Comfort and practicality figure highly in my book, and I'm not reluctant to advertise my foreigner status. But the free-for-all that passes for road rules is unsettling. A friend said he pictured me running along country roads in Tuscany, with villas and farmland for scenery. Hardly. Running in Rome, I suppose it was inevitable that at some point the traffic would claim a piece of me.

Coming out of the Doria Pamphili Park and down the Janiculum Hill, I ran facing traffic. Some would argue that was my first mistake, but I go by the theory that the devil you know is preferable to the one you can't see. The road has a series of hairpin turns, but I felt that so long as I hugged the inside curve and kept to the concave rain gutter, I would be safe. I wasn't.

A concrete wall left me no room when a motorcyclist coming uphill leaned into the angle of the turn like an Italian Evel Knievel. In an effort to avoid a collision, I flattened myself against the wall so hard that I bruised my left shoulder. But the cyclist clipped me on the arm and hip nonetheless.

I was shaken, but basically unhurt — just a couple of ugly welts on my arm and leg. The cyclist returned; fortunately, he hadn't fallen either. He had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth; I was surprised it hadn't been dislodged by the impact. I'm not exactly sure what was said, but he seemed concerned and apologized. So did I, but mostly I felt lucky that I wasn't headed to some Roman hospital. We shook hands and went on our respective ways.

Still, I don't regret one step that I've taken here. The only comparable running vistas at home are along the Potomac River and on the Mall downtown, something many of us take for granted.

Much like when I run at home, I've seen things running here that most tourists and even natives will never know. The Tiber River, while not the most beautiful of natural wonders, meanders past some of man's greatest creations, such as St. Peter's Basilica, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

I've grown intimate with Rome's great public parks, including the Borghese Gardens and the Doria Pamphili. I've run up Rome's seven hills and done laps in the Circus Maximus. Early in the morning (and in the pouring rain), I've had some of the great piazzas all to myself; I doubt many non-runners can say as much.

Despite the odd looks, I've lived in and explored Rome on my own terms. Now, if I can just survive for a couple more weeks.

Is your appetite whetted for the Eternal City? You can register online for the City of Rome Marathon on March 25 or half-marathon on March 11!

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