Marathon and Beyond

Marathon Mom

by Shannon Holley Nadalini

For an Energetic Mother, There's No Such Phrase As, "Nope, Can't Do."

© 2000 42K(+) Press, Inc.

Preparing for a marathon is an enormous challenge. Add to the training regimen a bit of childbirth, a transatlantic move, some unexpected brain surgery, and training with a BabyJogger on tiny Italian roads in order to run a race in a city (Venice) that has no streets, and the challenge might appear insurmountable.

But with a little organization, a lot of discipline, and some good fortune, we did it.

On our oldest son's second birthday, and two months after the birth of his baby brother in Coronado, California, we moved to Italy, where my husband, Jimmy, started teaching English at the Italian Naval Academy in Livorno, a Tuscan port city just south of Pisa.

Having already set our goals on running the Venice Marathon, a mere 10 months away, we chose to live outside the city to give us access to more quiet streets on which to run.

Also, the double-seated BabyJogger required space, which we found to be a rare commodity in an Italian city. We found a house in Tirrenia, a very small Mediterranean beach town about five miles west of Pisa. Two weeks after moving into our house, I began having severe headaches and found a lump on the top of my head. My intuition led me to believe I was experiencing more than what doctors in Italy were calling "culture shock." After my pleading to be examined in-depth, I was diagnosed with a tumor on the dura lining of my brain.

The uncertain nature of the tumor and having to wait through the logistics of returning to the United States for surgery were some of the hardest aspects to endure, but those were not the full extent of the difficulties. Moving into an Italian house proved to be a feat in itself. I was not yet fluent enough in Italian to communicate with the plumbers and electricians who seemed to buzz in and out at will. Telling the plumber that we would rather have a clothes washer plugged into our bathroom instead of the bidet was like an embarrassing game of charades.

Due to a malfunction in our heater and the cold concrete walls and marble floors dissipating what little heat the ancient radiators mustered, for the first week in our home, with freezing, mid-January weather outside, we slept in our ski clothes all together in one small rental bed. One day, with the electrician at our house and me in extreme physical pain, I got the Italian dictionary out to help me tell him I was sick and going to bed. Instead, I mistakenly told him if he needed me, I would be in my room constrained to the bed.

Between the communication barrier, the diapers, and around-the-clock feedings, I was exhausted emotionally and physically. And as my headaches intensified, I couldn't run as much as I wanted to. It was not an easy time, and the likelihood of running the marathon of our dreams was seeming less and less possible.

Home for Surgery

Six weeks after the diagnosis of the tumor, we flew to Dallas, where our families were and where a neurosurgeon had agreed to remove the tumor. I was relieved when a biopsy revealed the growth to be benign. I was so elated, in fact, that I didn't care that half of my head was shaved or that I had 40 staples in my scalp when I awoke in the recovery room.

Jimmy brought the boys in to see me after the surgery. In anticipation of their witnessing my bandaged head, he wrapped their heads in toilet paper so it would seem like a fun game to them.

I had arranged to pump milk before and after surgery, as I was determined to keep my supply up for my five-month-old son, Travis. So, I awoke to an industrial-size double pump at my bedside and found using it to be a tricky ordeal, especially while streaming in and out of consciousness.

I stayed in Dallas for six weeks of recovery before returning "home" to Italy in June sporting a half-inch of hair. We realized we had less than five months to train for the October 26 marathon, which was to fall on Travis' first birthday. With a renewed spirit and appreciation of life, I welcomed the challenge.

We began jogging three miles four times a week, increasing the daily mileage gradually each week. Sundays were our long, slow distance days when we added a mile to the total distance each week. These runs were great bonding opportunities for our young family. From the double BabyJogger, the boys trained with us the whole way along the streets and rural roads near our home. We received stares from the locals who had never seen such a stroller, much less an entire family out on a run.

As our loyalty grew to our town of Tirrenia, the people grew to know us and look for us. Some days before our runs we would first stop to see the lady at the bakery who loved doling out free focaccia to the boys in exchange for sticky kisses on her cheeks. We knew the house at the end of our street on the left with the family of ducks. On lucky days, the ducks would come out with their ducklings and follow us as far as they could. We watched wheat and corn grow in the University of Pisa agricultural fields. We looked for the familiar shepherd tending his wooly flock. Sometimes the shepherd was on foot, and sometimes he rode his bike in the middle of the flock. We noticed how the sheep seemed to look both ways with him before stepping out into the road. We began to imagine that they were looking for us. We grew to love them.

The boys knew we were approaching our turnaround point in the middle of our longer runs when they spied the dilapidated, 18th-century firehouse on the right. If the house was still operational, it was a very good thing we didn't have a fire in our home. But how much damage could a fire do to a house with concrete walls and marble floors?

The Perfect Turnaround

On a longer distance day, we would know our turnaround by the sight of our very favorite gelateria in the village of San Piero a Grado. The gelataio took pride that his ice cream was our youngest son's first taste of solid food. "Crema di latte" was the only flavor of gelato he would let Travis eat, claiming it was the only one with the richness of breast milk. Our two-year-old son, Taubert, insisted on "Fragola e Limone" (strawberry and lemon) in a cup, as these were the most brightly colored flavors; most of it would invariably end up on his cheeks, chin, and shirt. But Viva the gelato ritual!

We were cheered by the golden sunflowers that lined the road and towered over our heads in late summer. The boys brought the bug bottle along in hopes that we would find and capture "the very hungry caterpillar" on the road. And we did. As they turned pages of their books, we would read aloud to them and even sing songs when their patience ran thin on a long run.

While running along the sea wall of Marina di Pisa on some of our distance days, the sea spray was ever refreshing as it bathed our faces on the home stretch. We could always expect to see the salty old fishermen selling the catch of the day directly off their boats to those whose tastes permitted only the freshest of fish. The many sunsets we watched over the Mediterranean Sea were magnificent enough to offset any pain our bodies endured during the distance runs.

Our longest run before race day was 20 miles, as we trusted adrenaline would carry us the last six miles on the day of the big event.

First Hello to Venice

Indeed, our adrenaline began flowing at the prerace pasta party in Venice on the eve of the race. It was here that we nervously sized up our competition. But a gondola ride through the canals captured the aura of Venice, entertained the boys, and eased our minds.

This was our first trip to Venice, and we had already decided it would not be our last. Because this was our first marathon, we couldn't help but notice how the others seemed more familiar with the prerace routine. For dinner we ate sandwiches at a bar--one of the only places that accommodates early dinner appetites in an Italian city. After surveying the finish line and finding the location of the starting line on a map, we turned in for an early night's sleep.

At 6 o'clock on a bitter cold race morning, Jimmy and I left the hotel and jogged almost a mile to the ferry that took us across the water to a bus that drove us almost 40 kilometers outside of Venice to the starting line. My sister, Megan, visiting from Dallas, and the boys would meet us at the finish line. Keeping in mind that it was Travis's first birthday and that we would have his postrace birthday celebration in Piazza San Marco, Venice's main square, I put his birthday presents in a bag with my excess clothes and put them on a bus for officials to deliver to the finish line.

Waiting to start the race, I read the back of someone's shirt, which stated: "A marathon is a race without race, without color, without nationality, without sex, without prejudice, without hate. It is a race where everyone starts equal and finishes a winner." I was inspired.

There were 6,000 runners representing 42 countries. Truly an international event. There were 1,000 women running. I could not help but wonder how many of them, like me, were nursing mothers who would be eyeing their watches trying not only for a respectable race time but also to get back in time for the next feeding.

In typical Italian fashion, the start was delayed 35 minutes. The TV helicopters hovered, and we felt the effect of our PowerBars and GU. Finally we heard "Via! Via!" and we were off.

As we ran through the small Italian villages along the picturesque Brenta River, residents lined the streets, some out of curiosity, some to cheer, and some to hand out homemade treats such as fresh bread spread with local honey. The course was marked in kilometers, so we were converting to miles as we ate slices of apples grown in nearby trees and drank ERG every five kilometers. Averaging a comfortable 8:20 per mile pace, we were feeling a bit drained by the 30K mark. Knowing that Megan and the boys were making their way by boat to the finish line brought great strength and inspiration to us to run farther than we had ever run. At 39K a man passed us with a Dallas Turkey Trot shirt tied around his waist, reminding us of home.

At the 40K mark, when we were finally entering Venice, we got an emotional high, and each of us fought back tears as we ran up and over bridges spanning the numerous canals. We finished the last two kilometers hand in hand, understanding that we were achieving the goal we'd set for ourselves over a year earlier. The experience was so reminiscent of childbirth a year to the hour before. The pain was great all over, but fortunately we were able to keep mind over matter.

Finally, when the end was in sight, we felt no pain. Among the thousands of spectators lining the race course we spotted the familiar "Happy Birthday to You" helium balloon tied to the familiar backpack with a familiar birthday boy inside it on Aunt Megan's back. Megan had a video camera to her eye and her extra hand on our older son's head. She had instructed him to hold tightly to her jeans at all times. They had been watching with the thick crowd in the bleachers until Taubert announced that he had to go "TeeTee RIGHT NOW!" (Ah, the joys of potty-training a two-year-old.)

Our Last Steps, His First

So by the time we approached the finish line, they were standing along the roped-off path. As we passed them, Jimmy was somehow able to grab Taubert and carry him across the finish line. We met up with Megan and Travis at the spot we had staked out the evening before. As we sat, winded and drained physically, unable to take another step, we watched as Travis took his very first walking steps. Watching him, it struck me how far we all had come in a mere year. We found Travis's birthday gifts and our warm clothes, and after the Birthday Boy nursed, we headed to Piazza San Marco to celebrate.

We chose the perfect cafe in the center of the famous square to have a birthday party. We gave the waiter a candle to put in Travis's piece of cake, and after it was lit, the quartet played "Happy Birthday." As the pigeons enticed Taubert out of his seat and St. Mark's cathedral created the most picturesque backdrop, the sun set on a perfect day.

The Italian sailors began the flag-lowering ceremony in the middle of the piazza. In an attempt to capture all of this on video, I missed Travis pulling the plate of cake with lit candle into his lap. He opened his gifts with the unavoidable help of his big brother. It may indeed have been the most exciting birthday of his life.

All partied out, we feebly walked to the water taxi and headed back for showers and to load up the car for the three-hour drive back to "the new home" (as Taubert still referred to it after almost a year). Despite the labor of the day, I drifted to sleep that night with a smile on my face.

The completion of the race symbolized an ac-hieved goal, celebrated the anniversary of our son's birth, and finally offered proof to me that I was physically healthy again after the tumor. Hand in hand, Jimmy and I realized physical exhaustion had consum-ed our bodies, but our spirits were elevated to new heights forever.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2000 issue of Marathon & Beyond. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M & B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or at 217-359-9345.

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Last update: November 28, 2000
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