by Mary Jean Pramik
It became a spiritual experience.
An hour before sunrise on a June morning, Puglia beckoned. When I stepped out into the dark, the blackened narrow meandering streets of Alberobello opened like a labyrinth before my trullo. I was determined to maintain my marathon training schedule. Often when traveling, my resolve to keep up my running fast dilutes with the local wines from the previous nights. But not this trip. Over the years, running for me has become a communication with myself and the earth. Here in Puglia, it became a ritual, like making love to the land at the break of day.
Puglia, the district of southern Italy that fills the rugged heel of the boot-shaped country, stands as the heartland where Mussolini harvested his idea of growing food for the entire country that had become Italy. He intended to create a “bread basket” for the people. Puglia, an impoverished area far from the fashion centers of northern Italy and five hours by train from the power seat of Rome, responded. The province now produces tasty durum wheat for semolina, olives and olive oil, vibrant full red wines and a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits.
Without a map or a GPS device, I turned to follow the road out of Alberobello. Named after two feudal wars, alberobello means tree of war. The town nestles alongside a riverbed on two sloping hills about an hours drive from the Adriatic port of Bari. The eastern hill houses the modern area of town, while the western hill hosts the trulli, thick-walled houses with conical roofs sometimes marked by white-painted zodiac and religious symbols. Clustered in two neighborhoods—Rione Monti and Rione Aia Piccola—both boast National Monument status and UNESCO World Heritage site designation.
On Alberobello’s Via Don Francesco Gigante, I paced past an austere camping ground. No frills for three euros a night. Scattered hay lay under the automobiles and campers. As I ran up past Via Pasteur, in the early morning mist an elderly man tended geraniums on his balcony, pinching the decaying blossoms, moving slowly from plant to plant.
At the trident crossroads, I turned left on intuition, toward the spreading rays cresting on the horizon. I recalled a friend asking on a recent evening, “When will you stop this lifestyle?” He meant the repetitive hours of training required each day to achieve a level of fitness for some unnamed event. I had not thought of it as a lifestyle.
“I don’t do lifestyles,” I told him. “I try to live a life.”
Thrusting again toward the horizon, I recalled the Academy Award-winning 1981 British film, Chariots of Fire. I heard its soaring Vangelis synthesizer score as each foot struck the paved country lane. In the film, the Scottish track phenom Eric Liddell raced over the moors above the sea. In one scene, his sister Jennie worried that her brother’s interest in running and training for the 1924 Summer Olympics distracted him from their work as missionaries in China.
Reflecting on his sister’s concerns, Liddell commented on his running, “I believe that God made me for a purpose…