Friday, November 12, 2010

One Day in Funkytown

From Running Journal, November, 2010.


Morning comes to Barcelona.

The window in our seventh-floor room faces south, overlooking dark patios and balconies of apartments below. The crescent moon hangs low and a pale glow washes the eastern sky. It’ll be daylight soon. Our time is near. The marathon Albino and I’ve long aimed at will start at 8:30 this March morning, just two hours from now. I open the window and stick out my hand, the old anxious question about the weather. Barcelona hums and answers: perfect, calm and warm.

Albino and I meet our bunch in the lobby for the walk to the race. Alejandra, Jorge’s gracious wife, who is not running today, carries my camera to make pictures for me. We drift up Gran Via, a loose collection of six warriors. Morning is creeping over the city. There’s no sense of rush. Eduardo, the youngest of us, strolls with me, the oldest. Today he makes his first marathon attempt.

“How do you feel, Eduardo?"

“Pretty good. A little nervous.”

“Don’t worry. That will fly away as soon as the race starts.”

“I know.”

I would go into battle with this bunch. A man could do worse. Angel, talking with Albino at this moment, is competent and tough, a natural leader, always showing generosity to the others. Jorge is a big man with the muscle strength for strong-arm jobs, an engineer and problem solver. He has a booming laugh that keeps everyone in good humor. And who could guess the depth of quiet strength in Alejandra, the lone woman.

Look at Albino and Eduardo—two smart young guys, bold and successful, intimidated by nothing, Eduardo serving in the economic office of Spain’s president, Albino managing the finances of a multinational company.

A good team all right. We have to split up today though. Each has to go separate and alone. At the Placa, the five marathoners line up and pose for Alejandra.

The race starts on Avenida de la Reina Maria Cristina, a short street stretching from Placa de Espanya to Museu Nacional D’art Catalunya. I stand with 8,000 marathoners, among the “blue” group, up front due to my projected finishing time. The Plaza lies 200 meters ahead, an ornate monument anchoring a traffic circle flanked by two elegant towers. Behind us on a hill sets the Museum of Art, a palatial building fronted by Font Montjuic, the Magic Fountain. A more glorious place to start and end a race would be hard to find.

The Magic Fountain, asleep until now, springs to life. A soprano’s voice ascends high in the morning light, then swoops and soars over us, the Fountain choreographed to her singing. A few thousand jets, articulated and synchronized, create water acrobatics.

The central jets shoot founts of water higher than a tree. Peripheral founts dance and waver like ballerinas. Suddenly the central founts sweep outward, forming a giant water blossom of hurling water. The whole display trembles and collapses into a frothing cloud of angry mist and chaos, then recovers and dances again.

It’s a glorious send-off. I stand facing backwards, looking over the anxious faces of scowling runners. They appear oblivious to the water ballet. Why are they so worried? I wonder. Thus I am when the race begins, and I know we are under way when the throng surges forward, pushing me along like flotsam on a wave.

The race has started.

The first three miles it’s all elbows and heels, and body odor of others. I want a fresh breath.

At the end of the first 5K, I check my watch and discover I’ve fallen one minute behind, due mostly to the crowded conditions and twisting turns, I figure. During the next 5K, I make a point of fighting off the feeling of lost time and run no harder than before, monitoring my breathing to keep my effort in check. Even so, I gain back half the lost minute.

The thinning of the crowd makes the running quite easy. The markers pass me by: 10K, 15K, 20K.... My speed holds with little effort from me, varying only a few seconds from my planned pace of 23:17 per 5K.

A couple of young men, surprised at the old man running so swiftly through their town, cheer wildly.

“Muy bien, Senor!”

The scenery is hardcore. Barcelona is a complex city, a mixture of crass and sublime, sacred and profane. Ancient buildings and monument-filled plazas scatter throughout the city. On top of that, Barcelona boasts several architectural icons singularly unusual. The course takes us by some of them.

Catedral de Sagrada Familia, Church of the Holy Family, is a religious shrine like Las Vegas is a summer camp. Dark, imposing and forbidding, it squats before us, shooting spires of curvilinear taper high aloof. Its front is covered with statuary of saints and drips all sorts of scabby relief I can’t quite make out. No place looks plain. It is all busy, like a cave turned inside out. Pale salamanders would not surprise you.

A cathedral’s purpose is to instill a fear of God. Fearsome is the word for this temple. So gloomy and morose, it strikes me, paradoxically, as downright sinister. The Dark Lord of Mordor hatched his evil plans in a place like this. The church was designed by architect Antoni Guadi, who died in 1926. It’s still not finished.

Three miles later we come to a recent addition. Torre Agbar is as unusual in its shiny and garish way as the cathedral. This 474-foot tall structure of curving sides and round nose sets on the Plaza of Glories like a spent bullet clad with tinsel, a phallic paraboloid rising bluntly to a helpless sky.

Not actually tinsel, the second skin is assembled from glass sheets, some 59,619 of them, I’ve read, which open and close under command of the building’s climate system. At night its 4,500 LED lights glow myriad colors. The water company of Barcelona innocently owns this gaudy shaft.

The marathon fans are as friendly as the city is picturesque, helping me along with their shouts.

“Vamos! Venga!”


This race transports me. We head across a cobblestone plaza where a drum corps bangs away. I fall in step. My foot slaps down smack on the beat. They’re playing my 7:30 pace! How did they know?

“Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom,” goes drum.

“Left-right, left-right, left-right,” goes me.

The music merges with me and me with it. We become one.

“Left-boom, left-boom, left-boom,” goes Me-Drum.

We run conjoined. Barcelona plays the root rhythm of my marathon soul, the canonical cadence of my Barcelona being. I race on, the sound fading, my eyes filling with water.

Oh. Trouble begins. I spot a grey man in a yellow tee 30 yards ahead. He looks to be in my age group. I have to go after him.

It soon becomes hopeless. He’s going too fast. After a half mile I give it up, unable to gain a whisker. To stay with him would take energy I will need later. I might ruin my race down the stretch. It is a tricky business to meter out as much energy as possible, but not enough to go busted.

I let him go and put him out of mind. You don’t always win. You shouldn’t expect it. This is Europe.

Around the 19-mile mark we come to the ocean front and follow it a couple of miles. I glance dully at the water. Water. Suddenly, I realize, the Mediterranean! A wind-rippled, sun-dappled water I’ve never seen before.

Meanwhile, the marathon sound track rolls on, pulsing from speakers unseen, surging in hot waves like the heartbeat of the city, its blood coursing streets and narrow alleys. I know that song: Donna Summer, gettin’ down on “Funkytown.”

If I’m wrong about the singer, Donna Summer lodges herself in my head anyway. I run along thinking about the meaning of it, the song ringing. I can’t connect the two, first view of the Mediterranean with Funkytown. Is there some lesson, some metaphor? The race has made me crazy. Some things just are. The Mediterranean just is. Donna Summer just is. Funkytown? Yes. Boogie on, woman!

Two miles to go, suddenly right in front of me is the man in the yellow tee! I hadn’t expected to see him again. I gauge his new situation: His juice is gone. He’s not dangerous now. No need to wait. I sprint around his right and don’t bother to look back. He won’t challenge; he’s finished. I know that story.

That was the moment, I believe, when I took the lead position for the over-65 age group. That night Albino and I were back in Burgos, having driven the 379 miles home that same day. Next day I checked my e-mail to find a message from Marato Barcelona informing me that I’d finished first in my age division, hitting the finish line in 3:17:05.

That was 35 seconds slower than I’d meant to run.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Burning Up the Road to Barcelona

This was an innocuous story about traveling to a marathon - or so I thought. But it drew a blistering letter to the editor. The writer thought I had disrespected Barcelona, a city I loved. She blasted me with both barrels. It was snarky. Best I could ever learn, she was married to a man originally from Barcelona and had strong nationalistic feeling about Catalonia as a region distinct from the rest of Spain. Filled with references to Spanish history, her letter must have been virtually unintelligible to the readers of a small-town newspaper in Tennessee. She even criticized me for calling Barcelona a town, an endearing term I'd thought. She then went on to educate me about how big it was, as if a guy who had run a marathon through its streets wouldn't know that. I never answered the letter. You never know who will read a story. From the Herald-Citizen, March 30, 2008.


We were cruising through the mountains of northern Spain in Albino’s BMW. It is 379 miles from his home in Burgos to Barcelona, and we were headed there for the marathon, Marató Barcelona, which was scheduled for two days later.

My running watch thought it was already tomorrow, showing March 1 as we drove along, having forgotten about leap year—it was 2008. I scrolled up February 29, creating myself an extra day.

Albino had brought along a couple of soft cases filled with CDs for our listening pleasure during the long haul. He sat with a case spread open on his lap and flipped through the choices, occasionally minding the wheel while we rolled along at the sensible speed of 90 mph. He has an eclectic taste in music and we listened to everything from Andre Segovia to Miles Davis to Etta James.

That last one was on a CD called Night Train to Nashville, which Albino bought at the Country Music Hall Of Fame during an exhibit highlighting Nashville’s blues heritage. He held the CD up for me to see.

“You wanna hear that?”

“Sure, why not? Plug it in.”

The very first sound to come out blasted me backwards fifty years. It was disc jockey John Richburg—John R his own self!—introducing his blues show from Nashville’s WLAC-AM clear channel station. At night that station ruled the airways over two-thirds of the nation during the 1950s and 60s, days before FM radio. The sun went down, WLAC jacked up its power and all stations with the same frequency blinked off. It didn’t matter if you lived in a holler in Appalachia or drove a taxi in Chicago, you listened to John R advertising Ernie’s Record Mart, White Rose Petroleum Jelly and Silky Straight.

“…John R in Nashville, Tennessee, smack in the middle of Dixie!” John R was saying on the recording.

Dadgum! I swear I hadn’t heard that voice in nearly half a century. They’d captured his voice from that long ago time and stuck it on the CD. It was as if the space-time continuum stretched and twisted and folded back on itself. No longer was I hurling through arid mountains in northern Spain but instead lying on a feather bed in the unheated room of a farm house in Jackson County, Tennessee listening to an old white AM radio that sat beside the bed. John R talked me to sleep at night.

I never saw a picture of John R, and I hope I never do. I don’t know if he was black or white, and I don’t give two hoots which it was. What I have is his voice. And I’ll have that until they take away my drool bucket.

That’s how we drove 379 miles to a marathon—listening to obscure musicians that many people never heard of. Albino knows that old music from the 50s and 60s even though he grew up in Seville, Spain and wasn’t born until 1971. He collects vinyl records and owns 500 CDs. He moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 2003, and quickly fell in love with Nashville. He had fetched along a bit of Nashville for our trip today.

At 90 mph you can drive 379 miles in 4 hours and 13 minutes. Practically speaking it doesn’t work out that way. You lose time. We had to stop and buy gas, and eat lunch, and pay tolls. Three times we paid the toll takers. Two times it cost 26 Euros, or $39 US, non negligible, we thought.

The driver got sleepy, too. I suggested we pull into a parking area because I wanted to make a picture. Albino stretched out for a nap and I took a little hike to get my picture.

What picture? Of something that had bothered me a bit—the way the landscape is changing. We were traveling through a scrubland of brown rocks and badlands reminiscent of Wyoming, terrain familiar to fans of early Clint Eastwood westerns. Now and then we saw a compact town huddled on the slopes, some cropland.

And across the ridgeline marched rows of metallic invaders, tall aliens stalking the land, now facing windward at rigid attention. Legions of wind turbines turned lazily. The unearthly-looking machines provide clean energy all right but, in their imposing strangeness, they completely alter the value of landscape for the human spirit. As global oil production diminishes, I expect their numbers to grow. Spain, as well as all nations of the world, will need their help to meet energy needs. I made my picture, and photographed the future.

When we finally reached Sunotel on Gran Via in Barcelona, our nerves were whacked. It had all worn us out: Trying to find our hotel in traffic worse than New York City, getting the strap on my backpack caught in the car’s hatch so that it wouldn’t open while traffic backed up behind us, a guy insistently blowing his horn. Albino: “That’s why I don’t carry a weapon; I would have shot him!”

Albino asked a surly red-faced clerk for a late check-out time for Sunday, the day of the marathon, so that we could take a shower before starting our 379-mile drive back to Burgos. Hotels usually comply happily with that request. Yeah, he could do that but it would cost us 30 Euros extra. Sure. Another insult. Albino fumed, but we had little choice.

And then Angel arrived, a friend from Madrid, a generous hombre and also a formidable one. He had made our reservation. He dismissed our fear. Don’t worry, you won’t have to pay that, he assured us. He was as good as his word, we found out when we checked out that Sunday.

Eduardo and Jorge, two more Madrid friends, arrived. Jorge was escorting Alejandra, his esposa hermosa.

We all went to the marathon expo the next day, the place where you confirm your registration; pick up your timing chip, bib number and other miscellaneous stuff, a place where you can also shop for all sorts of running gear. It was crowded; about 8,000 runners had registered for the race.

The men’s water closet was crowded too. A woman worked to keep it orderly—while men were there. Men did arrive and men did go right in front of her, including myself. I was squeamish about that but overcame it.

In the words of Robert Jordan, the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a book I was currently reading, Ernest Hemingway said, “There are no other countries like Spain.” I believe that’s true, and in many ways. Barcelona is maybe an example.

As far as the rest of Spain is concerned, the town is perhaps too proud of having its own language. Catalan, which is spoken by its seven million citizens, is distinct from Castilian, the Spanish language. The reality then is that people of Barcelona must be able to speak several languages in order to talk to anyone.

Nevertheless they cling to their history and culture. As we made the rounds of the various counters, booths and tables at the expo, Albino came up to me.

“Did you notice that nobody will open their mouth until you start talking? They don’t know what language to speak. There are so many languages here!”

Angel has refined taste, and he had made lunch reservations for our gang of six at Seven Doors, Siete Portes, a white tablecloth place where the waiters wear black ties and dinner jackets. It’s been in business since 1836 they claim. We had paella—good race food, rice based—and wine and beer. I abstained from those last two, in abeyance to race needs. The tab for six came to 220 Euros, roughly $330 US.

That night I passed up a visit to still another white tablecloth place, opting instead for marathon snacks, rest and television: professional basketball, the ACB, Europe’s answer to the NBA; and, maybe better, the Miss Espanya contest, a gaggle of gorgeous women in tiny Bikinis. One by one, they did prance, each gliding the runway like a walking horse hitting its gait.I was pulling for Miss Tenerife, but Albino came in around midnight and we turned in. I didn’t find out who won. Come 8:30 AM next morning we had a marathon to run.