Valeria Straneo couldn’t help but feel a bit like a fish out of water.
Here she was last month, a middle-aged mother of two and an understated professional runner, rubbing elbows with Italy’s social and political elite at a gala in Lake Como.
“I had to wear a long, formal gown and shoes with heels about this big,” Straneo said, using her thumb and index finger to display about a three-inch height. “I am always in sneakers. I don’t even own any makeup.”
Since her breakout performance at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, where she earned a surprising silver medal for her 2:25:58 finish, Straneo, 37, has become one of the most in-demand sporting personalities in Italy. She is one of the rare runners to cross over and reach mainstream popularity, appearing on television talk shows and satellite radio programs such as Radio DeeJay.
But while attention and public demand swirl around her, Straneo has kept herself insulated from distraction, and her focus is as razor-sharp as ever on what remains most significant to her.
“The most important things to me are my training, my family, and my racing,” Straneo said. “I am still going to be myself. I am not changing.”
Straneo’s rise to prominence is as unlikely a story as any to be found in the sport. After barely finishing the San Blas Half Marathon in Puerto Rico in February 2010, she was diagnosed with a blood disorder called hereditary spherocytosis. The condition caused an unusual enlargement of her spleen and ultimately required Straneo to undergo a splenectomy.
After she regained her health, Straneo’s running career experienced a renaissance. In October 2011, she finished eighth at the BMW Berlin Marathon in 2:26:33. In April 2012, she clocked a national-record 2:23:44 in Rotterdam; four months later led the London Olympic Marathon before fading to eighth (2:25:17) due to intestinal distress.
But it was her podium finish at the IAAF World Championships this summer that captured the hearts of the Italian people. Upon her return home, the mayor of her town of Alessandria, about 60 miles southeast of Turin, chose to celebrate her feat publicly with her fellow citizens, which only endeared her to them more.
“Since I got back from Russia, people recognize me everywhere I go,” Straneo said. “When I walk around my town, people give me the thumbs-up signal. It is very nice.”
That popularity has also brought demands on her schedule. Unwilling to give up what she deems to be precious time with her husband, Manlio, and their son, Leonardo, 7, and daughter, Ariane, 6, Straneo has had to learn how to say no.
“I get invited to go everywhere,” she said. “I remember there was a week about a month ago that was full of places for me to go and I was so tired at the end of it. I decided then that was it. I can’t do that anymore because I have to train. I train twice a day and what little free time I have, I want to spend with my family.”
Straneo said she has not allowed her status as a World Championships medalist to affect her expectations of or approach to racing in the ING New York City Marathon.
“I don’t feel any pressure and I don’t have anything to demonstrate in running this race,” Straneo said. “My strategy is elementary. I run by feel. I have no problem running in the front. I never use pacers. But if they start out running fast, like 3:20 per K it will be impossible for me to follow.
“My goal is to be on the podium, and it is going to be difficult. First will be impossible. Second will be very hard. Third is a possibility.”
If she does finish in the top three, Straneo expects the reception she receives to rival her homecoming last summer.
“Oh my gosh, it would be on par with finishing on the podium at the Olympics or the World Championships,” she said. “The start list is as strong as a big championship. New York is about the marathon, with a big M. It has been my dream to be here. I am just proud to be running.”