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.

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