ord got around in my labor and delivery room that I’d run the Rome marathon. I’d mentioned it to the midwife the morning I checked into the hospital, explaining that I considered the marathon to be the best measure of my own pain tolerance. “But I know a marathon is nothing like labor,” I said, adding that I thought I had an average pain tolerance.
The midwife disagreed. I’d come into the hospital with what I thought were early labor contractions because the pain, while real, was tolerable. “You’re almost eight centimeters dilated,” she said, somewhat teasingly. Eight centimeters usually means delivery is imminent. Everyone expected Baby Julia to come within a few hours.
But Julia had another idea. She was in a posterior position, or ready to greet the world sunny-side up instead of face down. That slowed down labor for 24 hours —enough time for me to see the faces of several nurses. Each asked me about the Rome marathon — I think to encourage me through another kind of marathon.
The Rome Marathon felt a world away from my Florida hospital room, but recalling it comforted me. The race, which I ran in 2010, marked my first visit to Rome after moving away in 2007 to care for my ailing mother. It was also a symbolic point of closure for the near decade I’d spent in the city — a period I’ve dubbed My Roman Girlhood.
It was the first time I’d returned to the city after my mother’s death. Enduring the marathon’s discomforts was a tribute to her. I’d watched her go through every cancer therapy available. In the process, she’d lost her hair, eyebrows, nails, appetite, and things I will never know. But she never lost her determination to live, and she rarely complained. Her pain tolerance humbled her medical team.
Wanting to sympathize with my mother’s pain, even after her death, and to test my own pain tolerance, I decided to sign up for the Rome race. My ex-boyfriend and I had once gone on long runs through Rome, often past the Coliseum, lit up like a jack-o-lantern at night. My last year in Italy, I ran races throughout the country almost every other weekend.
The winter I trained for the Rome marathon, I was living in Washington D.C., which endured “Snowpocalypse,” a season of consecutive blizzards. I’d wrap my feet in plastic bags to keep dry as I scuttled to the ice-cleared path in Rock Creek Park, and I got up regularly at 5 a.m. to work out with a personal trainer.
By the time the race rolled around, I was prepared, and I ran well. It’s often said that the real race begins in the last few miles, and that was true for me. Just as I reached Rome’s historic center, around mile 23, my knees buckled. I walked part of those last few miles, but when the Coliseum, which was also the finish line, was in view, I ran with everything I had.
Dai, ce l’hai fatta! someone cheered from the sidelines as I approached. “Come on, you’ve got it!” I crossed the finish line and hugged my medal to my chest, then stumbled to the stands for sparkling water and blood red oranges. I plopped down on the cobblestones next to a couple of British exchange students, who’d also just finished the race and were talking about where to go for pizza that night. I felt like My Roman Girlhood had come to an end.
My long and winding labor was not unlike the marathon, especially toward the end. Two hours before Julia made her debut, my doctor reached inside me and turned her head so that her own journey to the world could begin. Then, I alternated pushing and resting until the finish line.
“Room 376 is ready for delivery,” the nurse called into the doctor. My body involuntarily shook hearing those words — not unlike my knee spasms during the marathon. Then, I knew a chapter of my life was ending. Here, one was just beginning. As the cliché about becoming a mother goes, my life would never be the same. My body understood that before my mind could fully grasp it.
I’d had my eyes wide open during most of the pushing. I’d watched myself in a mirror the medical team had strategically placed, thinking it would inspire me, which it did. But in the end, I shut my eyes — in part, from physical strain. I also wanted to hear my daughter before I saw her. Perhaps it’s the musician in me, but I think sound is the body’s most intimate cue. When Julia cried, I cried, too.
When they placed her on my chest, I marveled at her full head of dark hair and big dark eyes — and her contemplative look that reminded me of myself, and my mother from whom that came. As I held Julia, we studied each other. She was delightfully foreign and familiar at the same time.