A steady rhythm of our steps pounded to the loud beat from the speakers we were carrying. To the curious onlookers, we must have seemed like we’d escaped from a video game as we ran through the streets of Barcelona. As we reached Placa de les Drassanes by the port before 9 pm, there was a brief moment when we held our breaths: “Now what?”. Seeming just as (un)likely, we were equally nervous about whether all or none of the 10,000 people who’d indicated interest in the Barcelona Midnight Run would actually turn up. The latter fear was soon dispelled, as the first interested party appeared. The police car.
The guardia civil soon found better things to do on a Friday night, and one by one small tribes of people started filling the plaza with a cacophony of neon. When I looked around, there were TV cameras. Despite MRs seeming to have some of the coolest gadgets, Greg turned into a human microphone welcoming (or ‘yellcoming’) the crowd. Our salute to each other that night became ‘THIS. IS. FUCKING CRAZY!!’ The doubts I had entertained in my mind, were swept away by the Mediterranean breeze, as I leapt over the benches at the beach as if I had three lives. When one of the MR captains yelled whether I had seen the back and that we should spread out, I turned around. For the first time that night I was breathless – not because I’d been running and samba dancing at the same time – and counted, as if I was watching the world’s longest freight train disappearing into the night.
Three days later I was waiting for a train to take me to work. Above me, there was a billboard where two men embrace under the caption “He said ‘yes’”. While fighting back the tears of joy for the men having Lloyds bank accounts, I was thinking that saying ‘yes’ when this society wants us to, tends to come with a life time of compromises and monogamy or eight years of David Cameron. At the same time, when it comes to lots of other things, sensible adults say ‘no’. If you’re female, there are even more denials, and nowhere is it packaged so beautifully as in the cult of motherhood.
I’ve never been a very good member.
As a single parent, any adventure – well, anything – is about weighing the reasonability of lugging the offspring along versus the (financial and social) cost of leaving them home, while maximising the fun (or minimising the misery) for both. I call it finding your opti-Mum. Sometimes – like earlier this month – my whole family comes to rescue, but as the closest member lives a three hour flight away, it’s not the default childcare option unless I’m in hospital or at the risk of missing a marathon.
But let’s not overplay external constraints. Logistics are easier to fix than attitude. I’ve been thrilled about discovering Midnight Runners, the biggest threat to the gym dressed as just really nice individuals, but the idea of doing one of their trademark high steroid 10k runs 36 hours before the Marathon when other runners get sports massages and eat pasta, filled me with hesitation. A week before the trip, I was sitting at Serpentine Cafe in Hyde Park listening possibly to the vaguest event brief in my life. Greg, one of the founders, was telling us how the Facebook event had gone viral and attracted 10,000 joiners and a million visitors. We had no idea what the average bail rate was in Spain. We knew we were twenty people, had three Beatbringers, six speakers and zero permissions with the local authorities. Fuck it, I’m in!
I was excited about going to Barcelona. It’s hard to explain to Brits, to whom Spain is either party in Ibiza or a pensioner resort in Malaga, that for me, Spain was the context of self-discovery and spiritual growth. When many of the Midnight Runners were still having midnight feedings, I travelled to Spain on my own, and walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage (self-discovery); met my father for the first time and asked him why (self-discovery); and tongue kissed an unknown Italian guy at an unknown tube station in Barcelona (spiritual growth). Flying back was like opening an epilogue to my teenage diary.
Our base camp in Poblenou would have probably sent my mum into a mild hysteria and motherly guilt had that been my accommodation fifteen years ago. The building rising opposite one of the biggest clubs in Barcelona, also housed an African pentecostal church and despite its windowless front, it boasted a concrete step that was enjoyed as a break-out area by local crackheads, who we skipped over on our way out for early breakfast before pre-inspection of the night’s route.
It was colder than what our choice of fashion and Norah Jones playlist suggested. The Midnight Runners do exercise stops every couple of kilometres, so what might have been mistaken for a leisurely stroll along the beach on sunny day, was actually really hard work to confirm and memorise their locations. I can confess that I couldn’t remember any of them. I could hardly remember that I was going to run the marathon hours later or that I had an inflamed tendon. The experience has already been remembered in a confetti of photographs shared by hundreds of people of the 3,000 who turned up. What those pictures don’t tell, is what we reminded ourselves over a dinner at our arrival: none of us knew each other a year ago. Let alone any of the hundreds of wonderful people who we were high-fiving later. Cheers for that.
It was hard to beat Friday night, but Sunday’s Marathon was what most of us were there for, and while some chose to run it together, to me it was a return to introspection. I read a lot of running blogs and admire the authors’ ability to recall each kilometre. As established, details are not my forte. I felt strong and chose to ignore what I had thought my pace should be. Underestimating myself had put me in with a later start, which resulted wasting a lot of time trying to get past people, like it was a Monday morning at London Bridge and the world had come for a visit. Ten kilometres in I tripped over on the asphalt, which could have ended much worse than in a few scrapes. I was pulled up by a stranger and was able to maintain 5:00/km pace. I decided I wouldn’t worry about going too fast but accept positive splits (slow down) when I got tired, and still be able to achieve my goal of sub-4 time. I did eventually get tired and started to die – but not before the 40th kilometre (which, by the way is when they always take the official race photos. WHY?)
People, with best intentions, will tell you how fast you should go, where and how often. Sometimes they’re right. But most of the time they’re not me. Passing the 3:45 pacers felt unreal. My Barcelona room mate, a tall blonde woman in her 50s, said she didn’t really think about pace at all. Or bother with a watch for that matter. She’d just run. And did she run – finishing third in her overall category in three hours and ten minutes. I still have a lot to learn.
I’d been quietly hoping for a sub-4 time, but with 3:42 at 34 I got a ‘good for age’ for London! It will automatically guarantee me a place in one of the most popular and difficult to get to city marathons in the world. No ballot bullshit! No stressful fundraising targets! I had hardly collected my medal and before I had changed into a dry top, I turned on data roaming just to check that I missed the qualifying time for Boston by a couple of minutes. If I need to beat myself about something, I’ll go with that.
As to my first love, Spain, I won’t let another fifteen years pass before my next visit. In fact, I’ll be back in late August to walk the Camino de Santiago again, but this time I’ll be taking my daughter with me. I can’t safely say how many miles of ‘I spy with my little eye’ I can put up with, but that’s why we’re going to walk one of the busier routes. Sorry, pilgrims.