On the run in Verona

Racing in the Wings For Life World Run was an opportunity to take in the wonders of a beautiful Italian city steeped in style and history


The best way to really get to know a place is to run around it for a couple of hours. Or at least that’s the positive thought that was fighting for space in my head as my body lurched toward the finish of the Wings For Life World Run in Verona earlier this summer.

Anyone who has chosen running as a hobby has, more than likely, been faced with the same loaded question by a dubious friend or family member – “is it not a little bit boring?” Well, the answer is yes, it is a little bit boring, but this is part of the attraction. The boredom gives you a chance to think about the things you need to think about. And in the case of visiting somewhere you’ve never been before, the monotony of churning out mile after mile provides the opportunity to fully experience your new surroundings.

From the humiliation of being passed out by a man dressed as a giant piece of fruit in the Edinburgh marathon, to the exhilaration of dodging a rampaging ox on the streets of Addis Ababa, my running trips abroad have left me with memorable moments that have greatly enhanced my enjoyment of those cities.

When it came to persuading my girlfriend, Rebecca, to join me on this one, I found that Verona, the city of love, home of Romeo and Juliet, was not a hard sell. While it is a beautiful area to visit as a couple, don’t expect to feel too much love under Juliet’s balcony. You’re more likely to feel a gentle elbow in the ribs from the next over eager visitor looking to make the most out of the photo opportunity. Rebecca’s considered verdict on Verona’s star romantic attraction? “Probably the least romantic place I’ve ever been.”

That disappointment aside, race day arrived sunny and warm; warm enough to convince me that the best spot to plonk myself before the start was in the shade provided by a parasol outside one of the many cafes in Piazza Bra, Verona’s main square. Nursing my espresso, I could take in the majesty of the Roman arena that dominates the piazza. The arena still functions as one of the world’s great outdoor opera venues, but I had arrived a few weeks ahead of its summer season. The only music to be heard on this morning was a selection of questionable dance tunes that came booming out of a PA system, designed to give the more energetic athletes a backing track for their vigorous warm-ups. The playing of Who Let The Dogs Out? seemed a little incongruous in the historic setting.

A few minutes of gentle stretching later and I was off. Within a couple of miles we had run away from the piazza, through the arched walls of the historic centre and across the fortified red brick Castelvecchio Bridge, built in the 1300s by the ruling Scaligeri family to facilitate a quick getaway from enemies with notions. From there, the meandering route took us alongside the imposing Adige river before cutting inland through vineyards and villages, past old churches and young families enjoying their Sunday barbecues.

At about the midway point, a fellow runner gestured towards my tricolour top and ventured, with a smile, “you’re a long way from home”. There followed a lovely conversation with Gianfranco from Modena about our respective reasons for taking part and the relative popularity of running in each of our countries. It was the kind of easy, informal interaction that can be hard to come by in the normal course of a weekend away.

Before the end, nagging doubts about the wisdom of my eve-of-race preparations had threatened to take hold. The short trip from Verona to Sirmione, a medieval village at the southern end of Lake Garda, had been perfect. Not so perfect was the decision to return via the nearby Lugana wine region for a lunch and tasting. The dessert wine, in particular, had been an indulgence too far and I was paying the price now.

There was nothing for it but to keep pushing on and the particular quirk of this event was that there was no set finish line; you kept going until you were caught by a slow-moving car. My own race ground to a halt just after the 23km mark, by which point the rolling hills had begun to feel like full-on mountains beneath my tired feet.

I could not have planned a more picturesque end point if I had tried. Clear blue skies allowed me to see snow-capped peaks in the distance, with a broad expanse of Veronese countryside in front and more vineyards behind and above me.

Better yet, there were no other runners for a minute or so – a moment of bliss that easily justified the two hours of physical exertion.

A less enticing sight greeted the hordes of tourists back in the heart of the city, as buses returned from the route and disgorged runner after sweat-soaked runner, each of us waddling crab-like as the stiffness and cramp began to take hold. This was not the Verona these visitors had read about in the guidebooks.

They got into the spirit of things soon enough though, as the atmosphere around Piazza Bra began to fizz. A large screen relayed live images from the 34 international locations that made up the inaugural Wings for Life World Run.

It soon became clear that Giorgio Calcaterra, the last man standing on the Verona course, was in with a shot of outlasting all other competitors from around the world. I had managed to find Rebecca by now and with the sun at our backs and excitement in the air, we couldn’t help but get drawn in by the cheering crowds. Suddenly the fate of Calcaterra, a person we had never heard of until that day, became of paramount importance to us.

In the end, poor Giorgio couldn’t quite seal the deal but he had done enough to help us fill those tricky hours on Italian holidays between late lunch and early evening aperitivo.

A short walk to Piazza delle Erbe revealed an equally beautiful square with a more local feel. The trendy-looking cafes and bars were packed inside and out with well-dressed people enjoying their spritz and nibbles. Just the place to celebrate a great day with a few hard-earned glasses of prosecco.

How To ... Verona

Getting there: Aer Lingus fly direct to Verona three days a week (late March to late October). You can also fly to Milan and take a train (1 hour 20 minutes) to Verona.

Stay: Hotel Scalzi (hotelscalzi.it; book directly with the hotel for the best deal).

Pre-race carbs: Enocibus (Vicolo Pomodoro, 3; enocibus.com). Hidden away just far enough from Piazza Bra to offer good food with great value for money. Expect plenty of interaction with the gregarious owner.

Post-race prosecco: Casa Mazzanti (casamazzanticaffe.it, Piazza delle Erba, 32). Mingle with the locals and try not to be too jealous of their effortless sense of style. Arriving here for aperitivo (post-work drinks with bar snacks alongside) is highly recommended.

About the run: Wings For Life World Run (wingsforlifeworldrun.com). If you don’t fancy going as far as Verona, keep an eye out for news of the Irish host location for next year (it was Kerry this year).The entire entry fee goes to spinal cord injury research.

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