Gianclaudio Marengo, the Italian marathoner and recovering addict who spent 36 hours after Sunday’s race wandering the city, hungry and lost, has returned to San Patrignano, the rehab center in Italy where he lives. Naturally timid even under the best of circumstances, he was too rattled to speak to a reporter by phone, but an American friend and fellow resident, David Howell, spoke with Daily Intelligencer, passing along what Marengo had told him about his day and two nights on the streets.
Marengo had been running alongside two members of San Patrignano’s eight-person team, but he got separated from them along the way. Each runner was carrying a bag containing some money, a seven-day MetroCard, and instructions for returning to the group’s hotel in Queens. When Marengo finished the race, fatigued and disoriented, he discovered that he had lost the instruction sheet. While his teammates and the four supervisors from San Patrignano reported his disappearance to the Italian consulate, which in turn alerted the police, Margengo spent the rest of the day and all night wandering around Central Park, too shocked and fearful to ask for help.
“He didn’t speak English, and he was scared to ask people for directions,” Howell said. “This is practically the first time he’d left San Patrignano, so it was a big shock, and it blocked him from asking for help.” Marengo did have $5, which he spent on a piece of pizza the evening after the race. At some point, he also approached a taxi driver who apparently understood some Italian. But when Marengo explained that he was lost and didn’t know the name of his hotel, Howell said, “That didn’t work out very well.”
Marengo is from the small city of Terni, in Umbria, and for the past three and a half years he has lived, free of charge, in the private community of 1,300 recovering addicts outside the tiny town of Coriano, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Residents lead a sheltered existence that revolves around therapy, cooperation, and work. For the last six months, Marengo has been working in the carpentry shop. Running is a popular sport at San Patrignano, and the marathon team’s travel expenses were paid by the center’s New York–based fund-raising arm, Friends of San Patrignano.
“We don’t have telephone or TV, so getting used to the outside world is something we do a bit at a time,” Howell said. The week before the trip to New York, Marengo paid his first visit to his family, part of the gradual exit process that usually begins after about three years.
Though news accounts had described him as mentally disabled or on medication, Howell says he is merely an emotionally fragile introvert who has trouble initiating conversations. “There’s a childlike manner about him,” Howell said. “He’s a very simple person. He has his things that he likes and things that he does, and complicated tasks take longer for him — he needs to concentrate more — so I can see how he would get overwhelmed. I’ve seen it happen.”
The rest of the story is murky. Marengo says he used his MetroCard to make his way to JFK Airport, where his team was scheduled to take a flight home. The Italian maintained that some police officers approached him and, finding that he had no ticket or passport, escorted him outside — but the Port Authority police have no record of the interaction. In any case, it’s not clear exactly where he went: There is, famously, no direct subway connection to any New York–area airport, and Marengo does not remember switching to a bus or the AirTrain.
Early on the morning of the second day, NYPD officer Man Yam found him on the subway at Penn Station. “He decided to trust the police officer,” Howell said. “They bought him breakfast.”