If you’d have told me four years ago, when I did my first ever marathon in Amsterdam, that I’d do another eight before the end of 2016, I’d have laughed in your face. As anyone who knows me will attest to, I have a strange relationship with marathons. For the most part I can’t stand them: all the hours of training, the last hour of pain, the aching limbs the day after. Why would I ever make myself do another one? I’m by no means an impressive long distance runner either, what with having a bulky little body and legs like a hamster. But still, I keep doing the things.
Half marathons I love. The distance is perfect for me. I’m relatively good at them as well, not great by any stretch of the imagination. Competent though. I know how to pace myself and my little legs can handle the distance without any issues. Marathons are a different thing altogether though. My first few were a disaster. I paced them as if I was running a half, my legs practically useless by the time I got two-thirds in. What then happens is an hour or so of absolute pain where I end up doing a weird sort of hobble run.
I’m much better at pacing them now though. I know how fast I can go for the first half before picking it up in the second to get a negative split. I also know how much water to drink, how not to get overexcited with energy gels and, most importantly, I know my limits. I’m not a natural marathon runner. I know this only too well. So I run marathons differently than other races. I treat them as an experience; as a challenge to survive and understand the distance better. I also use them as an excuse to visit other countries. I’ve done five European marathons now: Amsterdam, Paris, Munich, Madrid, and now, Venice. As a single man, weekend breaks visiting cities alone can become a bit boring quite quickly, so running marathons offers a sort of goal to a trip that stops any sort of aimless wandering. It also means you generally get to see a ridiculous amount of a city in a short period of time. Marathons also have a way of bringing out the best in people, whether that’s the runners or the crowd. It’s pretty much the perfect way to see a new place.
So anyway, Venice. I’d been to Venice only once before on an InterRailing trip around Europe. I only spent a day there the last time, but really wanted to go back and see it properly. Venice is a vast labyrinthine series of streets dotted around an archipelago of islands. There’s a hell of a lot to see there and it really is a phenomenally beautiful place. Seemed like a pretty logical location to head to for my next marathon trip.
By marathon standards Venice, with around 5,000 runners, is by no means big. It’s actually relatively small fry when you compare to some of the more popular events like London or Berlin (both about 40,000). But those marathons are ridiculously busy, too busy for me most of the time. No, 5,000 would do me just fine. I might even be able to find a nice bit of space to myself on the way round.
Like a lot of marathons, the majority of Venice doesn’t actually take place in the centre of the city. Instead it’s a point to point event starting at a little town called Stra. From there the course takes you pretty much on a straight road all the way up to Venice Mestre, the mainland and less picturesque part of Venice. It’s basically where all the businesses are found. I was prepared for this first section being pretty dull, but then you leave the mainland and head out across the 4km road that leads to Venice. This was the bit I was really excited about. It’s not often you get to run across the sea in a race, especially with the backdrop of Venice roofs looming in the distance. This is the real reason I chose to do it.
As always with marathons, the expo ends up being in some location nowhere near where you actually want to stay. For Venice this was a big park situated in Mestra. Aside from the marathon, there were also a series of other events that would make up a running festival taking place across the whole weekend. So the expo actually doubled as a race location for some of the smaller events. As expos go it was fine: the usual stalls of people giving out flyers for other marathons, some clothes sellers, people offering you energy gels. I stayed for about three minutes before grabbing my t-shirt and bib and heading back to do some tourism.
Note: Get a travel card before you get to the expo. It’s almost impossible to find a ticket machine anywhere to allow you to get the tram to Venice. I had to walk and get the train.
As the race begins about 30k away from Venice, the organisation puts on a series of buses to get you to the start line, either picking you up from locations like Venice or Mestre. They start and finish pretty early though, and can get ridiculously rammed, so you need to head down pretty sharpish. This also means that you end up at the race start area with absolutely ages to kill. Not great if you’re on your own. They do give you free hot lemon tea though, which is a nice little touch.
Note: For the love of God, make sure you bring your own toilet roll. The portable toilets had one roll each, which disappeared within about three minutes.
After you’ve dropped of your bag, to be picked up in Venice, they usher you down the road into the group enclosures. The planning for the start is pretty damn good. With the marshals moving people into their correct start waves based on estimated finish time. From there you have a good twenty minutes wait. Then you’re off.
As expected, the first 20km or so is a pretty big slog. There are crowds and a few bands dotted along the various towns and villages. But to be honest, you may as well be doing a marathon in Slough for all the scenery. What makes it worse is the fact you’re not allowed to wear headphones during the race, which makes it about ten times worse.
Now I’m not sure if this is specific to Venice marathon, or because I’ve never done one without headphones before. But Jesus there’s a hell of a lot of spitting going on. For the first two hours all I could hear were people hocking up and spitting on the road, like it was a marathon set up specifically for twenty a day smokers who’d had a late night. So much so that I actively had to run a couple of metres away from people in front to avoid getting my t-shirt covered. Seriously, run over into a hedge or something.
After heading through the expo at the 30km mark I was actually feeling pretty good. I grabbed an energy gel (I rarely use the things unless I’m on the last bit of a marathon), and started to get excited about the fact we were actually nearing the nice bit of the race. After a couple more kilometres we were suddenly on the bridge, looking over at Venice in the distance. It was actually one hell of an impressive sight, with the sea sitting on both sides and the occasional train heading past with waving tourists. It did seem a long way into the distance though, and didn’t appear to get any closer for quite some time.
The final stretch took us on the outskirts of Venice, past the port and then running beside the sea for the last few kilometres. Beautiful, impressive, but with a load of bridges to cross that seemed to relentlessly keep coming.
Finally, I crossed the finish line with a time of 3.42. Which, based on limited long distance training, I was ecstatic with. I felt great as well. My legs weren’t aching, I felt calm. It was probably the second best marathon I’ve ever ran, even though I’d trained harder for others. Whether it was the HIIT training, or some factor I’m not even aware of, I seemed to have done something right.
From the finish line, the organisers put on a handy boat service for marathon runners to be taken back to the other side of the island, as well as a bus heading to Mestre and Stra. Which is a damn nice touch actually. If you’ve just done a marathon there’s probably few places in the world I’d want to walk through less than Venice, with it’s ambling tourists and windy-bridged streets.
As marathon go Venice is a nice little race. It’s relatively flat, really well organised and one hell of a place to enjoy an after race pizza. It’s also pretty cheap in comparison to some of the bigger European ones, with a place costing £70 and including a race top (Berlin is £100 without). If you’re looking for your first European marathon though you probably want something a bit more grandiose, like Paris or Berlin. Our favourite has always been Madrid, which is smaller than those, and hilly, but one of the most scenic you’re likely to find.
The Venice Marathon weekend includes the full marathon, the 10k and a family run. You can find out more about how to register for it here.