Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Casablanca Marathon: A Journal

            The four-lane stretches northward toward Hassan II Mosque. I glance at the white surf crashing on the black rocks of the road's curving flank. At that moment electricity flashes through my legs and they turn to spastic stone. As I pitch forward Albino grabs me in a bear hug. He stands like a gate post holding me upright. The length of a marathon is 42K; we are at 31K...

Wednesday, October 17, Rabé de las Calzadas

Windows at Rabé 
          Again, I find myself running on el Camino de Santiago, running through Rabé de las Calzadas and onto the chalky dirt single-track that starts at the edge of town, at the little church with the walled cemetery with stone crosses, climbs two miles up a beautifully severe valley of steep cropland and sheep pasture, grand vistas marred by not a single man-made structure - no fences! -  finally to an abrupt crest offering an expansive view north where a tiny town sits in all that vastness like a stamp on a giant post card.
          I stand looking, thinking no one is around. Then, turning, I see a woman sitting at a pile of rocks on the bank above me. Our eyes meet. I spread my arms over the scene before us, and say,
          "Hermosa, hermosa."
          Oh. English.
          "Beautiful," I say.
          "Yes, it is."
          I ask permission to join her and climb the bank. I stand talking while she finishes a slice of pizza she'd saved. She wears straight blond hair and a gray jump suit, and she is from Holland, she says. As we talk, I notice a design on the ground a few feet in front of us and step over to see. The young woman from Holland follows. It is the outline of a heart made from field stones, maybe six feet across. The heart encloses a cross of stones. The cross frames the single letter "J"  on one side and on the other the letter "K." We stand looking down. 
          "Two sweethearts, I guess. Left a monument to their love," I say. And that may be right, two pilgrims inspired by the view.
          As we talk, I suddenly remember something, and it must surprise the Dutch woman to hear it from an American. It is a story about her own queen, Queen Beatrix. I read the story in Outside Magazine a decade or more ago. Queen Beatrix was scheduled to give a speech to the nation at the end of the year. It was routine political theater, nothing expected to be important.
          But Queen Beatrix didn't give a routine speech. She delivered a polemic, an environmental speech that changed Holland's direction and set the tone for a new era in that country. She said something like, "We are going to learn to live in a way that poses the least risk to all other livings things." Over the next few years, Holland did that, and became a world leader in green technology such as wind turbines. By stepping out front, the country captured an emerging new technology. They are yet a leader, due in large part to the wisdom and courage of Queen Beatrix.
          "She became my hero in that moment," I say to the woman. I don't tell her I even copied the article and saved it. We talk a few more minutes, and light rain starts. I wish her good luck and shove off.
          Altogether, I spend an hour on that road without seeing any kind of vehicle, only pilgrims on foot. A top-ten run of all time, a yard-stick to hold up to all others. And I put seven miles in the bag.

Thursday, October 18, Rabé de las Calzadas
El Camino stretches west of Rabé

          It is a windy day at Rabé de las Calzadas. From Albino's kitchen patio door I watch an eagle hovering in the updraft of the hill above the house, tapered neck, fanned tail.
          El Camino west of Rabé de las Calzadas is my newest favorite run. I met an old gent taking a walk there. We exchanged greetings. Caught up with him again on the way back, at the little church with the walled cemetery next to the sheep barn at Rabé. Stopped to chat. Told him in halting Spanish I was from USA. He listened kindly and intently, figuring correctly that one who spoke it so poorly could barely hear it at all. I spoke well of his puppy, a German shepherd mix. At his amazement, I told him I run for practice, that my friend Albino lives near Rabé and that Albino and I will run Marathon Casablanca in Morocco this Sunday. By way of sympathetic amazement, he made a gesture of exhausted runner breathing hard. I wished him a good day and shoved off.
          Albino has a DVD of The Way laying here on the coffee table. Why can't I find time to watch it?
          The albergue in Rabé has been hosting pilgrims for 800 years, according to a celebration banner I photographed there. Let's see, the USA has been around for 236 years...umm, something to think about. Meanwhile, put me down for four easy miles.

Friday, October 19, Madrid
          As we drive into Madrid, radio RNE 3-FM, 95.8, is playing  a cut from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Amazing! How did they know? It's only one of the best jazz recordings ever made.
          Terminal 4 of Barajas, Madrid throws you into confusion. Its architecture is so futuristic you feel like you've fallen into a science-fiction movie like The Matrix. Albino breezes through with practiced abandon. I can only draft his wake.
          In Casablanca, we've gained two hours - after I'd barely acclimated to losing seven hours flying to Madrid a week ago. Have to reset again. Sleepy and tired. But here's the answer:  Go to bed. The marathon is not until Sunday.

Saturday, October 20, Casablanca
          All chaos, all chaos, a stirring throng of people! Beggars sit on broken sidewalks that drop off abruptly, turn to dirt and abruptly start again, waiting to trip the unwary, sidewalks made of tile laid directly on dirt rather than a concrete base. Here and there metal studs stick up two inches high where a street lamp ought to be. Instead studs with tops polished shiny by thousands of footsteps stand as monuments to good intentions and failed plans. Waiting to kill you.
          We walked two hours in a maelstrom of traffic without finding either the starting line or the packet pickup - in the rain. I'd stupidly left my hat at hotel Barceló, and worn only a tee shirt against the weather. But it was a Flying Monkey Marathon tee, which fact did prompt me to sent a Tweet to Trent Rosenbloom, @hhflyingmonkey, the director of that race, the following: "BREAKING: flying monkey tee spotted on the street. Police arrest usual suspects. #casablancamarathon"
          Unless you are comfortable with Third-World chaos, better pass on this race.

Camel meat is for sale in Casablanca's Medina       

          Back at the hotel, we searched our smart phones for two hours looking for race location, and then gave up. Because we had an ace in the hole - Albino's friend Iñigo lives in this town. Albino called him up, and he eventually came to the hotel and guided us around the rest of the day, including the open-air markets of the Medina.

Marathoners tour Medina, Albino and me

          I was more comfortable afoot in the Arctic wilderness six years ago, where I knew a grizzly could easily kill and eat an unarmed hiker like me, than I was in Casablanca this day, a world more foreign to me than wilderness. Police seemed in hiding, afraid for their lives; most intersections had no official control that I could see. I saw just one cop all day long, standing in an intersection, traffic swirling around him, as irrelevant as a broom in a monsoon.

Life, raw and urgent, is a-swirl in the Medina 

          Oh, Mother! The places I go. Just making these pictures was risky. After following Iñigo all day - we could not have done without his help! - we are tired. We have been on our feet all day, tense all day, done without water all day. Can't drink water if you can't find a restroom. "It's complicated," Iñigo says when I ask. And we are supposed to run a marathon tomorrow? Worse, we both need to run a competent time to have a chance to catch our flight out of here. It is that close. That's how Albino rolls, courting exotic disaster. 
Sunday, October 21, Casablanca
          After my run collapsed and left me walking, Albino proceeded on, to get to hotel Barceló and bring a taxi back to the finish line for me - if I made it that far, and he didn't know if I would. Once we connected we were forty-five minutes behind schedule for our Madrid flight, where Isabel would be waiting to drive us the some 150 miles to Burgos, where Albino had two meetings scheduled the next morning. It was all coming undone. There was no time for me to take a shower. I pulled trousers on over my running shorts in the taxi, having already donned the finisher's tee, and prepared to ride the plane just so - if we actually managed to catch it. It was a tense ride to the Casablanca airport.

     Hassan II Mosque is massive, intricate, majestic

          Intense leg cramps had undone me at 31K, making even just standing impossible. Abino held me in a bear hug to keep me upright. I finally recovered enough to walk gingerly, Albino walking with me, grabbing me when he needed to avert my falling. Seven bottles of water failed to solve problem. I was severely dehydrated and I'd eaten all my salt and GU. After walking a 9K distance, I recovered enough to run the last 3K, and finished in 4:26 (unofficial), my worse finish ever.
          Now I need to sort out my thoughts. Until then it's not a story, only banal information: Old man runs disappointing marathon in strange town, nothing else.

Monday, October 22, Tardajos
          So now I walk around Tardajos and wonder and do what I mentioned - try to sort out my thoughts. I wander the ancient streets of the town and beyond, ostensibly to make two photographs, of Rio Arlanzón and the bridge across it. But mainly to think. What do I think?
          I said it was my worse finish ever. That excludes two marathons, the Rocket City Marathon, where I was pacing Amy Dodson in a training run for twenty-one miles, and the first Blister in the Sun Marathon, which I trotted through to help my buddy Josh Hite who'd organized the race. Didn't try to run it fast, having run an 8K state record in a night race just hours before that first Blister Marathon. So, making full disclosure.
          Albino and I ran together at Casablanca. We ran quite fast under the circumstances, a pace that would certainly have won second place in my age division at the Boston Marathon, maybe even first. That was crazy as hell. The day before we'd spent on our feet without drinking water. We stayed in the street so late, we didn't ever eat an official supper. I had an energy bar and drank a glass of powdered milk before going to bed. Some will claim no one should drink powdered milk ever, even for a marathon.
          And then there was this girl -  a young woman actually, a black woman. I saw her before the marathon started, standing in a pink top and spandex pants. She seemed alone, and a bit lost. I wanted to speak to her, but I was too shy. I went to the only toilet I knew about - although it was clogged and would not flush. A knock came on the door. When I finally opened the door to leave, it was this very woman, waiting her turn after me.
          I saw her during the race too. Albino and I passed her. After I blew up and was walking and Albino had left me, she passed me. In this strange city she seemed the only familiar thing in the whole world. She ran off, on out of sight. But I recovered enough to run again. With about 2K remaining, I passed her. After I'd finished and was wandering the fence wondering how I was going to find Albino, I came upon her again. We talked this time. It turned out she was from the USA, as not many here were, from Maryland. She was brave. We talked only a little, but I loved her very much. I remember.

Tuesday, October 23, Rabé de las Calzadas
          Beauty yet reigns. It does. From the hill above Albino's house I can see several towns. Rabé de las Calzadas is the closest. Further out lie Tardajos, Villabilla, Burgos... Also ample countryside stretches out before me, room to walk, run, and ride. Count the busted marathoner in for all that. Failure fails to negate future.

Rabé de las Calzada and countryside stretch out below me         

          This day I hiked to Tardajos with my backpack for groceries. Everyone thought I was a pilgrim on el Camino de Santiago, the trail that flows across northern Spain like a pipeline leaking money. Pilgrim spending boosts the local economy. Which must mean locals both love and hate it, love and contempt being two sides of the same coin.
          Found the vitals I needed. I want to fix Senorita Luz bonita a good lunch when she comes for her housekeeping chores tomorrow.
          Rio Urbel, which I crossed, is becoming my new favorite river. I could see four trout at the same time taking flies in the pool below the bridge. My fly rod is oh so far away.

After a long day's work, Albino stands smiling

          Mi amigo Albino esta un patron big shot, global risk controller for a top-fifty automotive manufacturer. But he held me in a bear hug like a soldier until I could stand alone after Sunday's blowup at Marathon Casablanca. And that falls in a separate category, oh my captain.

Earned: one Casablanca tee and medal

          Notwithstanding all the things I may someday find to say about the Casablanca Marathon, the finisher's shirt and medal do nonetheless reside with me. I own them. I earned them. Out on the course I'd had full-blown medical reasons for leaving them unclaimed in that far-away town. And that fact leaves precious little room for pride. Maybe we can allow a tiny bit of satisfaction: Notch Africa. 

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