With London and Berlin hosting the continent's two most high-profile marathons, Italy is sometimes overshadowed by its northern neighbours when it comes to European races. In the last few years, however, running events in the country have grown in popularity with a particular increase in the number of foreign participants. Entering a race abroad gives you the opportunity to combine running and sightseeing, and with more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country, Italy makes for an ideal place to do this.
Unsurprisingly, one of those UNESCO sites is the historic Italian capital, Rome. The 'Eternal City' hosts a marathon in March that starts and finishes at the 2,000-year-old Coliseum, taking in landmarks such as St. Peter's Square, the Vatican Walls, the Spanish Steps, and the Trevi Fountain. Few other races can boast such a collection of architectural delights!
Francis Hunter from Oldham ran this year's race and commented: "I think the marathon was designed by the Rome tourist board, it must be one of the most beautiful city courses going!"
The marathon was first held in 1982 and last year attracted over 16,000 runners which - combined with the 70, 000+ attending the 4k Romafun race held alongside it - makes it the most widely participated sporting event in the country. Despite being nicknamed the City of Seven Hills, Rome marathon has a relatively flat route.
As one would expect of an Italian race, there are lots of of cobblestones (about half the course), but this shouldn't deter you from trying for a PB. The fact both male and female Italian all-comers records have been set in Rome suggests that it is definitely achievable. The lively crowds lining the piazzas should also help keep you motivated. And any worries about your lack of Italian should be dismissed as there is always someone on hand who can speak English.
Prior to the event there is a three-day trade show, 'marathon village', where you can collect race packets and bibs and there is also an expo of sports-related stalls. It is worth attending just for the building it takes place in - the Palezzo di Congressi. Constructed in the 1930/40s during Mussolini's reign, it is a fine example of rationalist architecture.
Further north, Venice marathon offers one of the flattest courses in Italy. The Silver Label event was established in 1986 and starts off in front of Villa Pisani in Stra, a small country town about 25 km west of Venice. As well as being flat, the race has relatively few cobblestones and the mild October temperatures are conducive to posting a fast time. Even in October, Venice is a hotbed of tourists, but you can still find secluded areas to relax in, and enjoy secret campos and handsome Gothic palazzos.
As a country renowned for its sophistication, Italian race organisers often provide a rather odd selection of prizes at the finish line. Some hand out potted plants, while others reward runners with cartons of milk or bags of rice. Thankfully, the world-class cuisine on offer more than makes up for this. Pasta parties are popular before and after races all over the world, but there is no better place to top up on carbs than Italy. There is also usually a large amount of coffee available at events with the Rome marathon said to have more cappuccino stands per mile than any other race.
As well as satisfying your appetite, Milan marathon in December offers you the chance of a shopping trip in the world's fashion capital. Established in 2001, it is one of Italy's newer races and is fast and flat. The course starts at Piazza Castello, close to the city's famous marble cathedral Duomo - the second-largest Gothic cathedral in the world, which has been under construction since 1386 - and finishes at the Medieval Castello Sforzesco.
Italy's great appeal is the way it marries the past so effortlessly with the present. This marriage was symbolised when Ethiopian Siraj Gena removed his shoes as he reached the finish at Rome marathon, paying tribute to compatriot Abebe Bikila who had won the Olympic marathon in the city 50 years earlier. While the surroundings will remind you of the country's rich history, taking part in a race in Italy will allow you to see why today it is an increasingly popular destination for runners.
Sports Tours International will soon be offering travel packages for the 2014 Rome marathon. For more information visit the STI website.