Monday, December 13, 2010

Weather Report: Seville, Spain

A story about the weather seemed a good idea, considering what I see outside my window on this cold, snowy day. From Running Journal, December 2010.


We went barreling into the roundabout too fast for the wet cobblestones. The car lurched into a sickening skid. Rafael jerked the wheel, and we swooped through the circle clean as a pin. The lucky fact that no other cars were about at that early hour helped.

My friend Albino was riding shotgun; his older brother, Rafael, was driving, and I was in the back. The brothers and I burst out laughing. We didn’t care. The danger seemed small compared to what we were rushing toward, the place where our minds already were.

Which was the XXI Maratón Ciudad de Sevilla. On this February day that had yet an hour to wait before dawning, we rushed along wet streets heading for a rendezvous with the brothers’ running club. From there, according to plan, we would all drive to the marathon at Olympic Stadium.

The Peugeot’s thermometer showed 4 degrees C and the wipers beat back the rain. A little colder and there wouldn’t be rain—which would be an improvement. As it was, we’d be both cold and wet. Staying warm enough would be a problem.

“This is as bad as it gets, unless there’s wind too,” I said.

Then the wind came.

To this warm and dry city, an unusual weather system had sneaked overnight; the Seville Marathon was going to be a wet piece of business. Rafael had tuned in a station playing old pop hits from the United States. Dale Shannon was inconsolate: His little Run-Away had, sure enough, run away. “I’m walking in the rain…,” sang he.

At the pre-race expo two days earlier, a sunny day, Albino had picked up a folded piece of plastic and extended it to me.

“We may need these,” he’d said.

I doubted that but took it anyway. It was a plastic bag with a neck hole, the usual marathoner’s raincoat. That bag saved my race.

After linking up with the running club—an indefatigable group as sunny as the dawning day was cloudy, everyone wearing matching warm-up suits—we arrived at the Stadium to find the parking lot layered with water. We posed for a foggy group picture there, one that turned out blurred because Albino’s camera was inadvertently set for close-up photographs.

In cold conditions, what to wear is hard to decide. I don’t want any extra clothes to slow me down. On the other hand, freezing doesn’t help either. The plastic bag, I held in my hand. Sitting in the security of the Peugeot, I decided on shorts, tee shirt and glove liners, not gloves, for my hands—lightweight clothes for speed. I pulled the bag down over my head, and we walked through the rain to the start, a block from the Stadium.

I faced the gray day in just shorts and tee—and a plastic bag, which I planned to throw away after a mile or two, when I got warm. My guess was that once the sun came up, the rain would stop and the sky clear. And that was not only optimistic but also wrong.

It turned out to be a day of unblemished gray. The rain never let up. We slopped along wet streets. Water pooled at intersections. We cut across curbs and corners, or went splashing through, high-stepping like a guy wading through snakes. The sun never showed, the air never warmed, the rain pattered, and the wind rattled our plastic coats.

Early on, I had punched two holes in the plastic bag so that I could stick my arms outside for a natural arm swing. That didn’t work; my arms got too cold. I pulled them back inside. Thus cramped, I ran. Huddled, I ran. Nursing cold hands, I ran. Suffering wooden feet, I ran. Losing faith, I still ran.

It was easy. I couldn’t do anything else.

A woman passed me. She had a crooked left leg. It bowed outward at her knee. I guess she knew it. To compensate, she ran leaning to the side. Her short hair ran in matted spikes down her neck. She had no coat to protect her from the wind, the cold, the rain. She faced it like the runner I am not. And she ran faster than I could.

But her race is not my race, and her truth is not my truth. Whatever happens to her is as singular and as lonely as whatever happens to me. We share the cold, and the hard miles. And, together, we are ever separate.

Marathon fans can be counted on. They came out to watch, huddling under umbrellas and storefront shelters.

“Animo, animo!” they shouted.

A man with slicked-back hair and horn-rimmed glasses stood puffing a cigarette under a kiosk. I hopped up on the curb and ran by him. He looked at an apparition in flapping plastic. Our eyes met.

“Vamos!” he said.

The encouragement helped fight back the cruel weather for a few strides. Which is the way one runs a marathon—one little piece at a time. An observer might imagine a smooth continuum of passion. It’s not. Instead, one stitches together many patches and pieces along the way, finally unfolding a 42-kilometer pattern of random color previously hidden and hardly imaginable, like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Strange, what one remembers of the scenery. It is racing, after all, not sightseeing. The course crossed four bridges spanning Rio Guadalquivir. Two are modernistic and the most unusual I’ve seen. Having once designed bridges for a living, you’d think I would have noted each one.

But I can clearly remember crossing only one of those, the last one, Puente de la Barqueta. I remember it only because it was close to the finish line and because of a thought I had at the time: I need to remember this. From a high arch overhead, stay cables stretch down to the deck median.

The first one, Puente del Alamillo, I recall admiring from the car but not from the race. Parallel cables slant down to the floor median from a single massive column on the west bank. The column soars high and leans precariously away from the river, as if falling over backwards. The column’s weight pulls up on the bridge floor, putting those two great masses in exquisite balance, tugging at each other in a tensile standoff engineers call equilibrium and poets call a miracle. The taunt cables look like giant strings to pluck. The bridge is a harp for God to play.

Twenty-four kilometers into the race the crooked-legged woman quit. She was standing in the rain talking to a volunteer, a tall man. He was pointing down the street to a waiting ambulance.

The sound of wailing sirens spread over the city and became part of the race.

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