I studied abroad in Rome in spring 2015. I decided before I left that I wanted to run a race during my time in Europe. Two friends and I settled on the Lisbon Half Marathon because it sounded different and unique.
As you can probably imagine, training for a half marathon while studying and traveling around Europe isn’t the easiest balancing act. I’d take runs on the jogging path along the Tiber River toward the Vatican, Spanish Steps and the Castel Sant’Angelo. This is what most people did, especially non-natives like myself.
During one of my weekends at home in Rome, I decided to take the path the opposite direction. I wrote a travel essay about my experience because it was truly life changing for me. Here is my account:
It was a cool Sunday in late February, the sun coming and going with the Roman clouds. The wind was gusting as it whistled through the cracks of the doors and windows. Unlike most days, I mapped out my route – a new route – to know exactly how far I’d be going.
I sat on the edge of my bed and double-knotted my Nike trainers – a routine that had become second nature with my daily workouts.
I took a deep breath. I wasn’t used to feeling nervous before going on a run, but this was different. 14 miles. Four miles further than I had ever ran before.
From my apartment on Viale di Trastevere, there is a nearby trailhead that picks up the paveway that runs along the Tiber River. I had only ever ran north on this path, as far as the Ponte Regina Margherita near Piazza del Popolo, but had never gone the opposite direction. Since one can only look up at the Castel Sant’Angelo so many times before tiring of it, I decided to head south for my long run.
The first mile on the path was nothing different from what I was used to: it was flat and covered in dry mud residue from the last flooding. My muscles were not even fully warmed up when, to my surprise, the path ticked upwards and turned off to the right, back toward the city streets.
I could still see the Tiber clearly, although it was shifting further away as I continued on the path that now hugged urban roadway. The area to my left was now overrun with brush and weeds, so atypical to the elegant cityscape just a couple miles upriver. I came upon a busy intersection, and for some reason, there was no crosswalk to continue straight ahead. I was forced to wait to cross right, go straight, then cross back to the left – not an ideal route for any runner.
Much of the next few miles featured this same sort of inconvenience. The Tiber faded out of view, replaced by an onslaught of gas stations and repairs shops, patiently awaiting the many Fiat’s and SUVs that passed by. The path turned along with the streets until it eventually came upon a series of five older-looking soccer fields. There was a full-sized dirt field in the center of the complex; the few remaining patches of grass yearned for the field to return to its glory days. Concrete bleachers were built into the grass hill, below where I was, and two old, wooden benches sat atop the hill. I imagined all of the different players who had run around these grounds over the decades and longed to know the history of this worn-down stadium. I passed by the complex and I was soon away from traffic again.
I came around a bend of tall weeds and was nearly trampled by two big, longhaired, black dogs. They were playing with each other and went to chase something into the abyss of weeds. I thought they were strays, confused as to how they got onto the path, until I saw a small, white car speeding toward me up the hill on the running path.
“Hai visto due cani?” the driver asked, frantically. He realized I wasn’t Italian when he saw I was wearing neon yellow shoes, shorts, and a t-shirt in February in Rome. I understood him, of course, but he continued: “cani, cani…bark, bark!”
“Ecco!” I replied, pointing into the brushwood. He praised toward the sky and sped onward.
The next mile on the path was quite lovely. The tar was fresh on the ground and the polished landscaping made running a little more mindless. Although there were still apartment buildings stacked on top of one another, the area seemed more pleasant. Below along the river, there was a new outdoor workout center, equipped with pull-up bars, planks and running bleachers, which I imagined would be fruitful with shirtless, top-heavy twenty-somethings during the summer months. There were teenagers skateboarding on some concrete blocks nearby. The refreshing stretch ended abruptly at a freeway interchange at Mile no. 4 – where A91 crosses the Tiber and overlaps Via della Magliana on the west bank and Via del Mare and Via Ostiense on the east – and I, too, was crossing the river.
It was a quick left turn downhill after crossing the bridge, and the road split three ways without any signage for continuing. Deciding to go straight, I soon found myself on a deteriorating roadway that cut through an old junkyard; I could only see rusted cars above the tall, barbed-wire walls. I wove through the yard and was suddenly alarmed by a chorus of dogs barking – it was a dog pound, and it was a big one. I turned around before I forced myself to see what was around the next turn. I saw a cyclist come down the hill from the bridge and he turned left, so I followed.
Under the A91 bridge, there was a village of about fifteen hovels constructed of sheet metal, driftwood and tarps. A dozen dark-skinned men in a nearby junkyard looked to auction away old, dirty mattresses and sofas. Other men walked around pushing shopping carts full of trash. Five women, each holding a baby, sat on ragged couches in front of another dumping ground. Two women cooked on coal barbeques while men sifted through garbage. The shacks were packed tightly together under the overpass to protect from the rain. The few homes left out in the open had a set of tarps – black, green, silver, white – strung together above them for extra protection from the elements. I slowed my pace to take in the sights of the modern-day Hooverville, just four miles from my comfortable apartment in the vibrant Trastevere neighborhood.
The next few miles on the path were much of the same. To my right, scrap and tire yards were scattered along the riverbank. To my left, the hum of cars and tractor-trailers on Via del Mare and Via Ostiense. In the distance, I could hear another dog pound across the two highways.
The path was now a shared roadway, a few cars and motorinos zipping by from time to time. I was alone on the road for much of this portion, aside from two men boxing each other and the cyclist I had seen earlier. I passed a few farms on the riverbank, which mainly had horses, goats, cows and dogs. Many of them looked underfed. It was quiet on the trail; the only sounds were the birds chirping, my heavy breathing and the bushes and trees ruffling in the breeze. The air was dry and the wind was strong, and there was a faint smell of fire in my nostrils.
I came around a bend and saw a massive wildfire blazing in the shrubbery of a farm along the river. I had never seen a wildfire that big before, so I wasn’t sure of what to do. I looked around to see if anyone noticed the flames – especially the people in the farmhouse nearby – but nobody was moving. Then, I saw a man tending to his crops! Were wildfires normal in these parts? I had to decide if I should turn around at that point before the fire spread to the running path. “Eh, just a little longer,” I said to myself.
The houses down the road were beginning to look more decrepit. These were indeed houses, not hovels, but calling them fixer-upper’s is an understatement. In the backyard of a house underneath a power line tower, a small boy, no older than ten, was throwing up profusely. There was nobody outside with him, and nobody coming outside to check on him. “What is going on?” I said aloud. I contemplated running down the hill to help the boy, but I decided not to intervene.
I ran past the Tor di Valle Racecourse, the famous horse track now abandoned and dejectedly waiting to be demolished and replaced by a state-of-the-art AS Roma soccer stadium. The racetrack in the distance was nothing but an eroded shell of what it once was. Dozens of red-and-orange stables lie in the foreground, adjacent to the pathway, which were now just memories of champions and losers past.
Rain began to drizzle down as I reached my seven-mile turnaround point just beyond the track. The run back was more of a daze than the run out. I slowed my pace and took note of everything I had seen earlier. The hurling boy was now kicking a ball around with a friend. The wildfire was still ablaze, unattended. A driver in a blue van cursed at me for not getting out of his way on the path. I ran past a group of five teenagers on the path, three boys with pants below their waists and two pregnant girls. One of the wise guys tried running alongside me, but he fell off soon after. The village of shacks has seemingly stood still since I left it earlier: women still barbequing, men still scavenging and auctioning…and laughing. This was life in the south of Rome.
It was after 11 A.M. when I made it back to the dirt soccer field. There was a game going on between a team in old yellow kits and a team in different-shades-of-blue kits. A young man was sitting on one of the old wooden benches at the top of the hill, and I sat next to him.
“Scusi, parli inglese?” I asked.
“Un po.” He gestured with the universal sign for “a little.”
“What league is this?” I asked.
“It is a league for amateurs,” he said. “Not professional.”
“And who is playing?”
“Pian due Torri is in blue, they are home. Atletico Ostiense wearing yellow.”
He continued: “Due Torri is a school and team where children from this area can come play and learn. The players are having fun but they take it serious. These people love football and here they can play it.”
I thought about the grey field and what it meant to that community. The two of us sat on the bench without speaking until halftime. Pian due Torri was winning two-nothing, and I decided to leave when it started to drizzle again. I said “ciao, grazie” to the man, and he nodded and waved back.
Legs heavy, lungs dry, and mind racing, I jogged the final two miles back to my apartment. When I got inside, my roommates were just starting to stir. As they got their days started, I sat down and untied my shoes. I got into my bed and stared at the ceiling, thankful that I had a roof over my head and a bed where I could give my legs a rest.
Dan Reiner is currently a senior at Marquette University studying Journalism. He is a member and former president of the school’s Running Club, which competes against top college, club and open competition from across the USA. Although he isn’t elite at any one event, he enjoys running all speeds and races from 200m up to 10k; the 800m has always been his favorite. Read more about Dan here!
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