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Kristin Armstrong Forges Teamwork with Her Partner in Mille Miglia Race

The columnist participated in the historic Italian car race as navigatore before coming home with lessons learned and gratitude felt

I spent several years of my life living between Austin and Europe. It seems like another lifetime, as some memories fade and others remain in sharp focus. I can see my children and me playing on the rocky beaches in the south of France, my son Luke’s first ice cream cone — a gelato in Florence — and my twins’ double stroller bumping along the cobblestones. I learned new languages, made friends, became a mother, learned about the world of professional cycling and started (and ended) a marriage. I became more at home in me because of my time far from home.

Between kids, life, COVID and other distractions, I lost my link across the pond. I have only been a few times since my life re-rooted back in the States. Sometimes I still dream in French or Spanish.

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New seasons are opening up for me with an empty nest and a full heart. This past year I fell in Love, at last and for real, and the man who holds my heart also happens to race cars — specifically vintage race cars. A dream of his has been to race the Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile historic race in Italy. The race has been run since 1926, and to enter you have to have a vintage car that meets very specific requirements. Mark has a poster of the racecourse hanging on the wall in his bedroom — the first thing I see in the morning when I open my eyes (other than the gorgeous man next to me). Like so many other dreams becoming reality at this time, he was thrilled when his car was accepted into the Mille. He invited me to join him as his co-driver on this bucket list adventure.

I pictured us driving around Italy in this beautiful race car, stopping at cafés for a cappuccino, gelato or an Aperol spritz. I imagined wearing big sunglasses with a scarf tied around my hair, calling forth my dormant inner Grace Kelly. In my mind it was a montage of slow romance and fast cars, filmed against a backdrop of picturesque Italian landscapes.

And then we got to Brescia.

This was not some leisurely drive through the countryside; we had training. Training at the Porsche racetrack to learn how to do speed trials, training with a roadbook to learn how to follow the course, training on the importance of making each time stamp — not one minute early and not one minute late. We thought: What have we gotten ourselves into? Mark and I were wide-eyed and totally unprepared. Thank God the man knows how to drive, really drive, because the clutch on our 1953 Osca MT4 was moodier than a teenager and everyone hauls ass and shrugs at traffic laws on the roads in Italy.

New seasons are opening up for me with an empty nest and a full heart.

As the co-driver, I was the Navigatore, the navigator. This was highly amusing and terrifying to me because before the advent of Waze, I couldn’t find my way anywhere. The Navigatore was in charge of the roadbook, one spiral bound tome for each day of the race, with a series of instructions that looked like hieroglyphics on the inside of a cave, all arrows and circles and slash marks with notations in Italian.

Our car had no roof and no windshield. We didn’t know we needed headsets, so I spent 14 hours a day screaming directions into the wind. We didn’t understand the focus required to drive and navigate at top speeds, weaving through race cars, regular traffic, and tourists. We didn’t know it would be hotter than hell and we needed a tiny cooler; we spent three days drinking water as hot as tea. Instead of my Grace Kelly vibe, I was soggy with sweat that became a white salt coating by sunset. We were covered in exhaust grit with dirty nails, sunburns and crazy tangled hair. I smelled worse than a marathon. I got us lost one night, on the wrong highway bound for nowhere. I waited for him to scream obscenities at me and confirm that I sucked at this. Instead, he said gently, “Take a deep breath and figure out what we need to do next.” I somehow got us back on course and we made our time stamp to compete another day.

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We made it all the way until the final day, where our sweet Osca broke down on a winding mountain road. The mechanic pulled what looked to be a broken bike chain from the engine, shrugged and said, “Finito.” And just like that, we were done. No red carpet podium finish line, no bottle of regional champagne. I made it back to the hotel room before I, too, broke down — sobbing. I wasn’t relieved it was over. I wasn’t happy to be in the AC or take a shower.

I didn’t want it to end.

Just us two in the little red car, one sunset that was so beautiful I cried, so many laughs, so much to learn, so freaking exhausted, so much trust in each other, a cold beer at the end of a long day, new friends, brightly colored cars driving through cobbled streets and ancient arches, a police escort around the Colosseum in Rome at night, collapsing in spoon sleep and waking up a few hours later to do it again, a whole other world opening up and taking us in. We learned things about ourselves and about each other that would have taken us many, many more miles. It was solidified — we are a team.

Grazie Mille. (A thousand thanks.)