Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Wadded Bundle Drifted Like a Weary Soul

Photo by Albino Jimenez

Esto es para mi amigo Albino. We have triumphed together and we have failed together. The weather colored it all.

From the Running Journal, January 2011.


Oh, the weather played a joke! The day after the Seville Marathon the local paper, ABC, featured a photograph of Constantina covered by snow. That town, just one marathon distance northeast of Seville, had not seen snow in 20 years, the paper said. So unusual was the storm, ABC spread it across six pages. Such rare weather coupled with such rare timing, gives you irony to wonder about.

At the XXI Maratón Ciudad de Sevilla that February Sunday, the material falling on Seville was not snow but rain. The temperature was 4 degrees C, and the wind was blowing.

The day before the race the weather had been sunny and pleasant, betraying no clue. We sat outside having coffee on Paseo Colón. Albino, Rafael, María José, their sister, Virginia, Rafael’s wife, Angel, a Madrid marathoner, and myself sat at a table overlooking the river. Townspeople and tourists alike strolled along the river walk. Albino said he could spot a tourist at a glance. I wanted to not look like one. I knew a few words of Spanish. I told María José her dress was pretty.

So the day before the marathon we sat in the sun relaxing on the street named after Columbus, at the place where exploration of the New World had its beginning. Before us stood Torro del Oro, the tower of gold, the building where Spanish ships off-loaded gold stolen from the Americas and the Indies. Some of it they mined, Albino reminded me. Behind me stood Plaza de Toros, where I like to imagine Hemingway hatched “The Undefeated,” a bullfighting story I’ve read and reread.

Time marched away that sunny day. Albino, Angel and I took a walk around the Cathedral of Seville, the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, which dates to the 1100s. The Christians recaptured Seville and built the Cathedral on the foundation of a mosque begun by the Muslims. Columbus’ tomb is inside. One of the double doors was open. It was massive, as wide as a man is tall and twice as high, made of bronze, it appeared. I laid the back of my hand on the edge to gauge its thickness: six and a half inches. Stone saints, cast in relief, high on the wall guard the doors.

We strolled through the castle Real Alcázar and among its gardens. A giant tree spread its crown over us, its trunk thicker than a truck; Albino said it was a ficus tree. We had drinks at a sidewalk cafe where I saw the only SUV I can recall seeing in Seville. Then we drifted past the Cathedral back toward the car.

Next day, after some 36 kilometers, the marathon returned me to the Cathedral. My circumstances had changed. The wind and rain focused their attack where defense was weakest, my hands and feet. Their pain shriveled my spirit.

What about pain, marathoner? When it calls, where will you hide? When the race wearies your flesh and time grinds and erosion sets in, what then? Can you hold onto your dream?

Questions come: How much farther, what time, why, and so on. But question words are no help. A good runner stays in the moment. Right here. Right now. And knows there’s nothing else. A good runner accepts the ache with placid resignation, examines it with professional detachment, dwells in the “now” like a Buddhist, avoiding thoughts of the end.

But I am not so brave or wise. Patch after marathon patch, I stitched with nothing but yearning for the end, faith and hope meanwhile slipping away.

I glanced up at the soaring Cathedral. Men worked, and died, on it knowing they would never see it finished. But they had faith it would. Banal lyrics from a Latin rock band ran through my head:

Dáme fe, dáme alas, dáme fuerza
Para sobrevivir en este mundo

Imploring words from Maná asking for faith, for wings, for strength to survive in this world. Thus slopping along the wet pavement I came as close to prayer as I would come—and thereby stitched in yet another tiny patch of the marathon, like a seamstress bent at her work.

Hoping for it or not, the end does, in some manner or the other, eventually come. And so I ran across Puente de la Barqueta, the fourth and final bridge, the only one I can remember—remembering it only because I knew that I must. After the last turn, straight ahead a tunnel gaped open to the stadium where the finish line waited. I decided to shed the plastic bag that had sheltered me the entire way. I reached a frozen claw up to the neck hole and ripped it wide. When I flung the wadded bundle off, the wind drifted it to the side like a weary soul.

Then inside—and it was over.

Someone wrapped a towel around my shoulders. Who? I strode past a tent where I could have gotten help for hypothermia, across the field to the tunnel under the stands on the far side. Someone hung a finisher’s medal around my neck. The towel, already wet, draped over the medal.

At least the tunnel was dry of the rain, but a cold wind was blowing through. I drifted around in a growing crowd looking for a place to get warm, a place I couldn’t find. I went into a locker room, but it was crowded, and it stunk.

At a table in the tunnel people were picking up their warm-up clothes placed there by race management. But I had made no such provision, my clothes were in Rafael’s car, and it was in an enormous parking lot. I wasn’t sure I could find it even if I ventured into the rain searching. And I didn’t have a car key anyway. Only Angel and Rafael had a key, and I hadn’t seen either since the race began. Now I wished I had not thrown away the plastic bag.

Without my clothes, I could only do what I was doing—stand and shiver, drift around and shiver. Or maybe declare an emergency and let medical workers take over repair of my hypothermic self. But language deficiency and fear of humiliation made me hesitate.

I found a wad of clear plastic lying on the floor, the kind used to protect construction supplies. I wrapped the dirty mess around my shoulders and continued as before—standing and shivering.
Suddenly in the crowd I came face to face with Albino. He had run faster and finished quicker than he expected, having recently recovered from an injury. So here he was, cold like I was. I was relieved to see him.

“Let’s go get a massage,” he said.

“I don’t need a massage, I need to get warm.”

“It’s warm up there.”

Ah. We hopped on the elevator and landed in a warm room.

While the massage was pleasant enough, for me, it was mainly a way of stalling in a place where it was warm. And it led to an unhappy discovery—I’d lost my marathon medal. The ribbon still hung around my neck, but the wet towel had dissolved an adhesive joint in the ribbon allowing the medal to drop off.

Back downstairs in the tunnel, we discovered we were still cold, cold to the core.

“I need to go see if they’ll give me another medal,” I told Albino.

The table of medals was at the far end of the tunnel; lots of people were in the way. We stood looking, shivering, deciding. We could take that long walk to where the medals were or we could go the opposite way and catch a van to the car. A warm van.

“Let’s not go; I’m freezing,” Albino said. I was, too.

“I’d kinda like to have a medal,” I said, the idea fading to wistful hope.

“Here,” Albino said. He reached out his medal to me.

“I can’t take your medal, man!”

“Take it. I’ve got others.” He’d run the race before, he said.

Our friendship may seem unlikely. Albino has half the years of my 60-plus. We had met two years earlier, soon after he moved to Kentucky and started running races around Nashville. His job had brought him to the states.

We had made this trip to Spain as partners. He put me up in his Seville apartment gratis. He took me to his parents’ house for dinner, to his brother’s house for lunch, and guided me around town. Now he stood offering his finisher’s medal, too. And wouldn’t take no for an answer. So today in my study hangs a medal that bears special significance.

A man who gives you his marathon medal is a friend.

This story resists ending—there is a postscript, and it starts at the expo two days before the marathon. There they had placed the age-group trophies on display. As I wandered around among the bays, Albino came up to me.

“I made a picture of your trophy,” he said.

He’d set his camera on “close up” and made a picture of the first-place trophy for “Category J”, as my age group was called. For the trophy to be mine, I had to first win it, and I thought that was unlikely. I expected tough competition from the European runners.

“I don’t know, man. I may not win here.”

After the race, we had not gone to the awards ceremony. We were too cold. My finishing time of 3:26 was not too bad for a man who ran the whole race cowering inside a bag of polyethylene. But they don’t give awards for bag wearing. I wasn’t hopeful.

So I didn’t know if I’d even placed in the top three until I got back to my Cookeville home. Then a check of the marathon web page showed that I’d won second place, not first as Albino had predicted. Albino called and said he’d ask his brother, there in Seville, to pick up the trophy for me.When Rafael went to do that, they told him that my second place showing was a mistake. I had indeed won first place! Albino’s prediction at the expo that day was borne out after all. Proving his prediction, I have the picture. Proving my win, I have the trophy