Sunday, May 29, 2011

Race Bandits Run Again

Photos 2 and 3:


From the Herald-Citizen, March 23, 2008.


We sit on Madrid’s Plaza Mayor drinking beer and eating blood sausage, Albino and I. My overnight flight into Madrid arrived this Saturday morning. Albino drove down to meet me from his home in Burgos, a city in the mountains 150 miles north of here. After walking around Madrid a bit, we’ve landed here. It is a little chilly but pleasantly sunny this February afternoon. We sit at a table outside, the busy plaza spread before us.

Sharing our table are Belen and Yeya, two young women Albino called a few minutes ago. They are his age, which is half my age. I’m too sleepy to care about that, having missed a night’s sleep on the plane. We order another round of beer, another plate of tapas. Belen puffs Marlboros, Ducados for Yeya. The marathoners abstain.

You could argue that Albino and I ought to not be here. We are scheduled to run the Barcelona Marathon. We should be resting, saving our energy for the big show. But then that’s not until next weekend. Meanwhile, we have business here.

Tomorrow is the third annual Media Maratón de Latina de Madrid, a half marathon, a race 13.1 miles long. And we plan to run that, too, whether I wake up or not.

After two rounds of beer and tapas we quit Plaza Mayor and wander narrow cobblestone streets, ending up at Sanlúcar, a bar that plays flamenco music Albino discovered a few weeks ago. We order another round of tapas and beer. I opt for Coke, playing it safe.

Lacking castanets Yeya claps her hands to the flamenco, little quick pats. Two men and a striking blond woman sit at the table next to ours. A toddler, a little girl, dances beside them. Yeya encourages her. The air is dense with smoke and fast music. Yeya strikes up a conversation with the blond woman, the toddler’s mother. Albino tells me that she is an actor on Madrid TV.

More beer comes to our table, more Coke for me. Yeya keeps clapping. The toddler gets tired of dancing and stands looking up at Yeya through dark, baleful and earnest eyes. Yeya gets up and shows her how to dance, swaying her body, feeling the music. She tosses her hair, pulses her lips and cuts hooded eyes at us, clapping to the music.

The party rages until I lose count of the rounds of beer—maybe six, maybe more. My suppertime comes, and I realize I didn’t have lunch, just the tapas. Anyway sleep trumps food. My jet lag shows. Albino leans over and says, “We need to get you back to the hotel so you can rest for supper.” Belen’s car is nearby and she offers to drive us. We amble along, looking for the car.

Yeya sides up to me and asks in English, “How are you, Dallas?”

“Muy Bien.”


It’s a lie; I’m not very well.

After the long drive to Arturo Soria Suites, I feel indebted to Belen. I take her hand.

“Tú eres tan amable,” I say. “Thou are so kind.”

I turn to Yeya to tell her too. She beats me to the draw. “Thou also.”

“Tú tambien,” I repeat.

I hug Yeya and brush both cheeks, the same for Belen, then turn away, likely to never see them again, and follow Albino into the hotel.

I hit the sack at six o’clock, skipping supper. Albino leaves to meet friends. Down on me crashes the paradox of jet lag: an overwhelming fatigue capped by an ironic inability to sleep. I lie wide awake, awake. Albino returns around midnight and I am still awake. We chat. Soon he is quietly asleep. I continue my sleepless night.

Morning comes. At 7:30 a.m. Albino raises up. I am already awake.

“It’s late,” he says.

He’s right, if we plan to make the 10 o’clock race start.

I sit on the bed, knees propping elbows, miserable all over. No real sleep two nights in a row, and no lunch or supper yesterday. I hate the very thought of running and sit wondering if there’s an honorable way out. But it’s hopeless. I know that. My sport admires misery, and rewards suffering.

To win, you have to suffer, and to run as hard as you can takes great suffering. You try to out suffer the next guy. He knows how to suffer too. If you are fast enough, and if you suffer enough, you will earn the first place award, a trophy that honors suffering.

Hoping to skip this race is vain fantasy. You can’t quit in the face of misery. If there was any doubt, Albino squashes it like a scurrying roach. He opens the window and samples the air.

“It’s cold and it’s raining.”

More misery. That cinches it. Suit up. One step at a time.

I pull on running shorts, a long-sleeved tee and grab gloves, and I slip on a warm-up suit for the subway ride. Then I mix some powdered skim milk in a hotel glass and choke down a Snickers Marathon bar. Thus goes breakfast.

The subway trip across town to the Latina District takes twenty stops and one transfer. We ride along. Time drags on. Albino sits opposite me. He glances at his watch.

“We’re not gonna make it.”

That opinion stirs me none at all. There is nothing to be done. The train will reach our stop in time or it won’t. If it does, there’ll be another step. Until then I ignore my watch.

Of course the train arrives in time, with thirty minutes to spare. Disembarking, we follow other runners who had accrued to the train.

We search for Angel, one of Albino’s Madrid friends. He has his car at the race site, and that’s where we plan to lock our warm-up clothes, wallets and keys during the race. We not only find Angel but also Jorge and Eduardo, two more friends. We all lock our stuff in Angel’s car. Streets are wet, light rain falling, and the temperature is forty-five degrees. You hate giving up the warm clothes.

We are bandits. The race reached its 3,000 limit of runners before we applied, and so we couldn’t get an official bib number to compete. We will run it like thieves, shamelessly stealing the volunteers’ work, the gifts of water and food, traffic control, all.

Banditry becomes a blessing. I don’t have to run hard; I use the race for training. Albino and I decide to stay together, and I settle into my marathon pace, which is naturally slower and easier than my half-marathon pace.

It’s fitting that Albino and I run together today, a sort of commemoration. It was this month five years ago when we met. That was in a different half marathon, not here in Madrid but in the little town of Burns, Tennessee. He pulled up beside me. I was running too hard that day to talk, but we chatted briefly. He said he was from Seville, Spain. I wasn’t sure I’d heard that right, but I had. He’d been in the USA then only a month and was living in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

He was thirty-one and I was sixty-two at the time. Despite that age difference we became friends, a rare friendship spanning two generations. I wanted to help him make friends in his new home. After the race that day I introduced him to a couple of pretty women. I needed not worry. Soon he developed a circle of friends around Nashville, a town that became his spiritual home.

Three months later he invited me to his thirty-second birthday at his house in Hopkinsville. The tables had turned. It was now I who met new friends, including the beautiful Luz Maria and singer songwriter Stan Lawrence, who brought his guitar and sang for us that day.

Four years later Albino’s job took him to Michigan. After a year there it moved him again, this time to the mountains of northern Spain, far away from Seville, much further still from Nashville, the two cities he loves.

This day we run side by side in the cold drizzle, through crowded wet streets and along curving roads through green parks. I have no idea where we are. On a hill Albino gets tired. His job has kept him from training well.

“If you need to speed up, go ahead,” he says. I laugh and hug his shoulders.

“Speed up? Speed up? Man, I don’t need to speed up! I’m staying with you.”

A mile from the finish line Angel stands on the curb. He has finished the race already, and jogged back along the course to find us. He runs beside us just long enough to pin his bib number on Albino’s chest. Now Albino can cross the finish line, wearing a number nobody will know is not his. To theft, add fraud and conspiracy. We only laugh.

After the race we converge on Angel’s car, Jorge, Eduardo, Albino and I. Angel holds a bundle out to me. “For you,” he says. It is the red tee shirt all official finishers receive. Somehow he has wrangled one for the bandit. Printed on the front is the logo: "3 a Media Maratón de Latina." I didn’t officially cross the finish line, but I ran the distance. I’ll wear the shirt all right.

A bar is just a few steps away. A bar is always just a few steps away. Today is Angel’s birthday; following custom, he buys a round of beer for everyone. Except that I have coffee. I can’t get warm, even with my dry clothes on. My hands are in shock, a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome. The fingers go numb and turn the pale color of death. Only the application of heat can reverse the condition. Through my gloves no one can see the unsightly pallor. I sit with my fingers wrapped around the warm coffee cup and hold my secret close.