Today’s Running the World interview comes from Italy. I love Italy, I did an Italian degree and spent six months studying in Florence, which was not an unpleasant experience! To find someone to interview, I contacted the head of parkrun Italy and asked if he knew anyone suitable that I could speak to. He outdid himself – I have an interview with two runners from Sicily coming up soon. He also put me in contact with another runner based in Rome, Franca. When I opened her email and saw that she had won the New York City Marathon back in 1998, my jaw literally hit the floor.
I emailed Franca – explained how small my blog was and asked if she REALLY was up for talking to me and she said yes. So, without further ado, here’s my interview with Franca Fiacconi about running in Italy!
Hi Franca. Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do when you’re not running.
I am a teacher of physical education and doctor in Physical Education with a specialization in science and the technique of sports activities. I’m married and I have a 12 year old daughter and 6 cats that I rescued from the street. Since 2005, I’ve been a specialist running coach. I train amateur athletes of any age, whether they want to start running and therefore want to learn to run or whether they want to improve their performance .
Since 2008, I’ve been an Official International Travel Partner of the New York City Marathon -I organize the trip to NY for Italians amateur athletes. I’m currently an ambassador and consultant for MACRON technical sportswear, an Italian company.
Since I stopped running as an elite, I enjoy running marathons with friends but I really don’t have much time to train: once I trained twice a day, now I train twice a week.
How did you get into running?
I started running 12 years randomly, in Rome’s Piazza Navona, one of the most beautiful squares in the city. There were competitions for children, I was convinced to participate because they said that I had long legs, but the girls my age had already run so I agreed to participate with the older girls: after leading for most of the race, I came third in the sprint finish. Everyone told me I was born to race. My passion for racing was born that day. It was basically ‘love at first sight’, a thunderbolt, and I still carry this passion with me to this day.
Let’s talk a bit about your incredible career. In 1998, you won the Rome Marathon, came 4th at the European Championships in Budapest, then you won the New York Marathon in 2:25! How on earth does it feel to run along the home straight in Central Park and win the race?
I spent my youth running the middle-distances, becoming one of the best junior Italian middle distance runners, and then, at the age of 23, it was suggested that I run my first marathon. I did not want to, but my then coach, Oscar Barletta, convinced me that this was my way to success, as he considered that even the longer middle distance races were too short for me.So I ran my first marathon, doing the Rome Marathon on 1 May 1989 and came second behind a Kenyan athlete. That day I had another thunderbolt moment, falling head over heels with the marathon.
1998 was a great year. I won the international Roma Ostia Half Marathon, then the Rome Marathon, then the Italian Championship in Turin. I only came fourth at the European Championships, but I went there to try to win – unfortunately I had a fever a week from the race.
Winning the New York Marathon is the dream of any marathon runner but for me it was amazing because I’ve always loved the marathon itself, I’ve always had a great passion for this race distance. In fact, I always prepared for and participated seriously only in marathons – the other races in which I took part were, for me, just training runs for my favorite race.
I remember that during the last few meters of the 1998 NYC marathon I laughed with joy and felt like I was flying. I was very happy and I wish those last meters were endless. I wanted to freeze time at that precise moment when I broke the line. The next day I received the key to the New York City from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani: I was honored to receive the award.
(Cat’s note: there’s a youtube video of Franca’s race HERE. The quality is dreadful but you can still see the thrill of her victory).
Since you’ve retired from professional racing, how has your relationship with running changed?
It remains a great passion. Clearly, when I was an elite runner my thoughts were all focused on running. I saw little of what else was happening around me, I was living in another dimension because I was always away from home, doing loads of training in the mountains all alone, months and months in preparation for one big event. It was hard in the eyes of others but I did not mind because I enjoyed it so much. It was a strange pleasure because it was made of much hard work and loneliness, but I liked it. Today I enjoy running differently, with friends, because I’m not watching the clock or monitoring opponents.
Now you are a running coach – what do you like about this? What kind of people you train?
I train amateurs athletes, ie people who work, who have a family and then carve out a little time for themselves to run.Training amateur athletes is very satisfying because we share a mutual passion. I always try to teach them that running should help them to lead a pleasant and healthy life and should help them understand themselves better. I like to make them understand how wonderful the human body is, and how running will help them test their mental and physical limits.
Let’s talk more generally about running in Italy. How popular is running in Italy? Is it is growing in popularity or has it always been popular?
Running in Italy is greatly increasing over the last 20 years. In the past the people who ran were generally from the lower social classes because it was an inexpensive sport. Today it is done by all social classes, since it is understood that it can be an economical sport both in terms of finances and time: for example, many managers have little time to train. Running allows them to train anywhere in the world and whenever suits them, they just need running shoes.
How popular is running amongst women? Is this a new phenomenon?
Running amongst women has gained great popularity in the last 10 years, but the number of female runners is still nowhere near the number of male runners, but we are increasingly greatly. It must be said that many women do not participate in races,so it’s hard to exactly gauge how many women run these days.
How popular are races in Italy? What are the biggest races or the most important? What kind of distances are popular?
In Italy there are lots of races every Sunday, from 10km up to the marathon distance. Every major Italian city has its own marathon. The most important race in Italy is the Rome Marathon, then there is the Florence Marathon and then Venice.
Is Trail Running popular in Italy? How are the trails?
In the last 5 years, trail running has become very popular, people find it really fun – not only because we have beautiful trails in Italy but also for the fact that we run without looking at our watches, but rather based on feeling. There are all kinds of trails, the most beautiful in my opinion are those in the high mountains.
As a woman, how safe do you feel when you’re running? Are there particular problems faced by women runners?
As a woman, unfortunately, I do not feel very safe when I run alone at times when there are few people around or in isolated places: years ago I had the bad experience of being assaulted in a race in a public park in Rome at 10 in the morning! In general I can say that women still have many problems when they go running alone in the big cities.
What do female runner wear in Italy? What kind of brands are great?
Women in Italy love to dress well and comfortably: both in training and for racing, they wear very fashionable clothing and spend a lot more than men for sportswear. I work with Macron Running, an Italian company based in Bologna: We specialize in highly technical clothing and in particular we pay much attention to elegance. My job in Macron is to collaborate with the design team, where I provide the technical guidelines of how a product needs to be made for comfortable and easy running. Fashion designers create prototypes and together we study the graphic and fashion trends. So our collections are born in that way.
What do Italian runners use to fuel and hydrate?
Athletes use only water or water mixed with electrolytes, alternating with liquid carbohydrates to provide energy during marathons. For fuel, we use a lot of pasta and rice, fruit and vegetables, olive oil – in short, it’s basically the Mediterranean diet.
Who are the most famous runners in your country?
Italy has a great tradition in running – the most famous names known among amateurs are Gelindo Bordin, Stefano Baldini, Alberto Cova. I’m the only female Italian winner of the New York City Marathon.
How important is social media in the running community in Italy? What are the most popular blogs? Are there some people on Twitter that we should follow? What are the most important magazines and podcasts?
Social media is very important but often the information is uninteresting. The most important magazines are Runners World and Correre magazine. Personally I do not read blogs so I can’t talk much about that.
If I came to Rome, where would you advise me to run?
In Rome there are special places for running: Villa Pamphili, Villa Ada, Villa Glori, Aqueduct Park, the Caffarella Park, Appia Antica, the Circus Maximus, the Caracalla Park.
(Cat’s note: if you’re heading to Italy, I’ve found this website Running in Italy to be really useful. Lots of info on races by month or by region and even website reader’s route recommendations.)
If I did any race in Italy, which would you recommend and why?
Italy is all beautiful, and there are so many races that you should just choose a city and try its big race. But if I had to advise you, the general consensus is the Rome Marathon and Florence Marathon because the routes explore the cities’ histories. Try the Cortina-Dobbiaco marathon in the Dolomites, the TNF Lavaredo Ultratrail and the Etna Trail Ultra for spectacular scenery. But there are many others.
What are the best and worst things about running in Italy?
The best thing is that Italy is beautiful and, in some places, running is really fantastic. The worst thing is that in Italy does not yet have the right sports culture – so when we are in city races, people still get angry because streets are closed to car traffic and there are very few people who come and cheer on the runners.
How can we follow you on social media? You’re on Twitter / Instagram / blog?
Franca, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me!
You can find other Running the World interviews HERE. If you’re a runner in a part of the world that I haven’t yet blogged about, I would love to speak to you – please email me at the address on this page.