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tom lowe photo
fine art • fine art portraits
12.7 miles or 20.5k – that’s what google maps is saying I ran today. But I have to confess that this was not a great run. For me setting out on a long run is all about mini-goals to the end. The night before I envision when I’ll sip the first energy drink, suck down an energy gel, round the corner at the halfway point and pick-up the pace for the last couple of miles. I mentally build the run in my head.
When we arrived at the hotel here in Milan they gave us a small map so we could find our way around the surrounding city streets. It’s actually a pretty good guide and helped me last week during my 2nd and 3rd runs in the city. Today’s run took me beyond the barriers of the hotel map so I consulted Google and tried to memorize where I was going.
This morning I woke up and went over the route on Google again, picturing the turns as they came. The opening of the run took me over familiar territory, up past the Castello Sforzesco and straight up Corso Sempione. This was the easy part, a straight shot to the cemetery – Cimitero Maggiore, around the perimeter and hook up with the streets on the other side straight back into the city and more importantly, back onto my little hotel maps circumference.
When running these distances there is always the chance that nature will call and the need to find facilities becomes dire. I have experienced this in the past but it’s always been on familiar ground and I could gage the urgency with the calculated distance. Also, I knew where the closest 7-11 or gas station privy was to accommodate me if the urgency became a life or death situation. About halfway around the cemetery just such a feeling struck my bowels. At first, I tried to deny that I had to go but the feeling continued to increase.
It is here that I should tell you that the cemetery is in an area of the city that is surrounded by industrial buildings. I of course did not know this until I had turned left and begun to run up the east side of the walled graveyard. The road widens here to a four lane flat blacktop extending just under a mile to where it rounds the backside of the boneyard and back toward the city. The cement walls of the necropolis were on my left and a 12-foot fence on my right concealed cargo trailers that had been dropped there by incoming trains that travel the various tracks on their side. Stacked 4 or 5 high the contrast of the old cement of the cemetery wall and the colorful boxes in the early morning light was kind of nice. Still, I had to go and had nowhere to do it.
The thought runs through a runners head at this point, “I’m on a desolate road, do I just drop the drawers do my business or keep going?” As I processed those thoughts the answer came when several dozen men and women began exiting at various points along the fence line of the industrial park. Obviously, their shifts had just ended and they were looking forward to a nice Sunday at home. I decided the sight of an American defecating on the outside of their cemetery would do little to endear them. Had I known a little Italian, like, “Where’s the bathroom,” I’d have asked but I kept going thinking I could hold it for the 6 miles back to the hotel.
As the road curves around to the west side of God’s acre the industrial park fades away to a beautiful meadow. Now it is here that many would ask, why not just run into the meadow? Well, the other side is lined with high-rise apartment buildings and I calculated the angle of the windows facing the softly blowing grasses and decided, again, to keep going.
The road dumps onto Via Gallarate and I convinced myself there would be a gas station, fast food place or somewhere I could stop. The situation was becoming desperate so I deviated from the memorized route and ran into the neighborhood. To my surprise the streets became a maze of dead ends, round-abouts and high-rise apartments as far as the eye could see. Not one gas station, fast food place or mom & pop café. I kept plodding along until I realized that I’d gotten completely confused and did not know where I was. After several roads lead to dead ends I came out on Via Fratelli Gorlini facing a huge city park on my left and a cornfield on right. Ahh, a city park, there has to be a public restroom but first, I had to pinpoint my location. I was still off the hotel map and to my surprise there was a little bus stop on the corner with a large map of the city. I found myself and determined the route was straight ahead.
The parking lane on the park side was empty so it was a perfect pathway and had nature not been so persistent in its calling I would have really enjoyed this part of the run even though I’d taken myself and extra mile or more off the original path.
Down the road I went. My urgency subsided somewhat. Maybe because I’d stopped to read the map or perhaps it was the site of a small building in the distance – a public bathroom? I have no idea what side of town I was on but I can say that the apartments felt more like public housing than luxury condos and as I approached what I thought might be a bathroom I saw a group of men and a couple of women still drinking from the night before. This didn’t seem unusual to me because I’ve witnessed scenes like this on every morning run since I arrived in Milan.
I usually don’t have a problem with this kind of thing and would’ve acknowledged them and gone inside but one of the guys had a blood covered face and the woman he was talking to did not look much better. What had they been up to all night? Were they the victims or the instigators? As I got closer, another man revealed a deep cut on his right leg. His sock was blood soaked and he’d attempted to wrap the wound with what looked like toilet paper. They were all pretty drunk, at least that’s what it sounded like in Italian and I began to wonder what would happen if they decided to follow me into the stall when I was in a very vulnerable position. Perhaps this is not such a good idea after all, I thought, and kept going. One more glance back and I the bloody faced man glared at me and I realized it was probably the right decision.
As the park faded into the background the urgency began to return and I realized this was a dire situation. Once back into the city, the first place I saw open on a Sunday morning was where I’d have to stop. Making a left on Via Novara I began to scan the buildings.
Unlike America, most of Europe takes their Sunday’s very seriously. Businesses close all day and there are few people out. Only the main tourist sites are open, other than that, you’re kind of on your own. In addition, I had started this odyssey at 5:30am and it was now 7:15ish so I was in a wasteland. I passed unopened, gas stations, two McDonald’s and a variety of convenience stores. All closed! Ugh.
Just as I was about to duck into an alley and do what a dog does in public I came across an open bar. Bars in Europe aren’t bars like as we think of them in the states. They are more like little cafes that serve pastry, fruit, alcohol and are usually rather quaint, well-lit and clean establishments. I entered and realize this was more like the bars in America. They still served sandwiches etc. but it was beat up or rather, ‘well used.’ I did not say hello or ask for permission to go to the back, I just made a b-line for the toilet.
A few years ago, when I was shooting in Guatemala, I got a case of Montezuma’s revenge and was forced to use some facilities that reminded me of the bathroom scene from the Ewan McGreggor film, Trainspotting. Dripping walls of condensation, dirty floors and all sorts of things indescribable in the corners on the rooms. At the time I remember thinking, never again will I subject myself to such facilities. As in most of life, never say “never” ‘cuz it always comes back to haunt you.
This little bar had a unisex toilet. In reality it was a tile covered closet, without a porcelain thrown, just a place to put your feet as you squat over a hole in the floor. From what I understand, this is a Roman toilet. The door hung off the hinges and wouldn’t close all the way but I didn’t care. I tried to turn on the light but there was no light bulb in the fixture and in reality I decided that the last thing I wanted to see was what I was about to lean against anyway. Removed my water belt and iPod earpieces and slung it over a dust covered corrugated pipe that came through a very small window. I knew if it touched the floor I’d probably just leave it behind. Then the process of figuring out where to position my feet and negotiate the hole in the floor. It was all I could do not to laugh!
Sweating like you do after running close to two hours and having to “go” for almost 30 minutes I must’ve been quite a sight for the staff and the one or two customers in the place. It was like a scene from a Terrantino film as I slinked back to the sidewalk adjusting my water belt and iPod earphones as I went. One guy stopped in mid-sip from his coffee cup. I just smiled and got back to running.
The last three miles were really hard. I’d expended so much energy holding myself together and had gotten lost in the process that I was exhausted. All the little goals I’d set for the run had been replaced by finding a bathroom. Because I was on a completely different road than the one I’d studied the night before, I had to stop several times and check my map so I did quite a bit of walking the last 2 miles or so.
Still made it back by 8ish with some walking and a pit stop – not the goal I’d set but not bad. This whole marathon training process is like finding yourself in a way. How much can you endure? Where are the breaking points? When you get lost, can you find your way home? I continue to be fascinated by what I’m learning. The next time Nature Calls during a run, I’ll ask the dock workers for a little help. By the way, in Italian that’s, “Posso usare il tuo bagno?”