Review: What We Owe to Each Other

Review: What We Owe to Each Other

What We Owe to Each Other by T.M. Scanlon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like many readers of this book, I was led here by the show The Good Place—though my path was indirect. A friend of mine spent months trying to convince me to watch it, arguing that it was “made for me.” But I very rarely watch TV and I never felt compelled to make an exception for the show, however brilliant it may have been.

About a year after my friend moved away, however, I received this book in the mail. Apparently, this relatively obscure philosophy text was referred to multiple times in the show, as the protagonist slowly learned what it means to be a good person. And my friend decided, if she could not get me to watch the show, it would be far easier to get me to read a book. Considering that I am here now, this was a correct surmise.

I really don’t know why the show’s writers chose this, among all of the available philosophy texts, to be featured in the show (an in-joke?). For I really can hardly imagine a work of philosophy less likely to improve a person’s everyday behavior than this one. This is not a criticism of Scanlon, you see, as the book was not written to be exhortatory or uplifting. Rather, this is a work of academic philosophy about the abstract nature of morality. I only point this out to save fans of the show from disappointment.

Scanlon here sets out to give a contractualist account of morality. Well, not quite. He quickly admits that his focus does not include all of what is conventionally thought of as ethics. For some people, saying grace before a meal is morally right, whereas for others preserving a particularly beautiful tree from destruction is something they consider a duty. Indeed, what people consider to be a moral requirement is a large, messy, and varied category. Scanlon here restricts himself to a narrower domain, what he calls “what we owe to each other.” This, in short, has to do with the morality of interpersonal behavior—how we treat one another.

Scanlon begins in a somewhat unusual way, with a delve into the psychology of motivation. He argues that humans, as rational creatures, are better described as being motivated by “reasons” than by “desires.” A desire, in his view, is a kind of short-term motivational urge; and while we do experience such urges, we most often do things because of some larger goal or in accordance with some value. A parent may punish a child, for example, because they think discipline is a necessary part of child-rearing, even if they feel no actual anger—or, indeed, even if they are tired and would rather let it slide.

The fact that humans are motivated by “reasons” and not just “desires” is what makes us, in Scanlon’s views, particularly subject to the laws of morality. This is because we humans, as rational creatures, have a strong motive to care that the reasons for our actions be justifiable to our fellows. Social life would be impossible otherwise. Indeed, for Scanlon, this is the very heart of morality: that we act in a way that no one affected by our action could reasonably reject the principles which guided us.

You might notice that this formula has much in common with Kant’s categorical imperative. Where it differs is in its social (or contractualist) orientation. Morality is not a consequence of a priori rational rules or a special metaphysical category, but rather a consequence of the nature of rationality itself—something we are almost certain to care about, given that we live in communities and act in accordance with broad principles. This account of morality does, however, differ sharply from those along utilitarian lines, and Scanlon argues at length against such views.

I have been trying to present Scanlon’s views fairly, but I have to admit that I did not find this book compelling. For one, his distinction between reasons and desires—an important foundation of his theory—strikes me as particularly fragile. At various points in the book he formulates principles (such as about honesty) which could serve for ethical action. But it is obvious that these principles are so abstract that virtually no ordinary person would think along such lines. Indeed, Scanlon himself admits that most people have rather vague intuitions about their reasons for action, though for him it suffices that the reasons could be formulated.

Worse, while arguing for the primacy of reasons over desires in human motivation, Scanlon does not cite any but “phenomenological” evidence—which is to say, his own experience. To be fair, I have no idea what the state of psychological research into motivation was in 1998, when the book was published. But within a decade, researchers like Jonathan Haidt would make a very strong case that the reasons we profess for acting or thinking in a certain way are not reliable indications of our true motivation.

For example, people often have strong moral feelings (of outrage or disgust, say) without being able to say exactly why they object to something. It seems that our emotional reaction comes first and then our frontal lobe tries to justify the feeling, rather than the opposite. To quote Benjamin Franklin: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

If Haidt’s model is true, and humans are not primarily motivated by “reasons,” then many of Scanlon’s arguments about morality and why we ought to care about it are considerably weakened. Yet even if we leave this issue to the side, I also found Scanlon’s test of moral validity to be unhelpful. His formula is: Act in such a way that nobody affected by the action could reasonably reject the principles which guided your actions.

To my mind, Scanlon ought to have spent much more time specifying exactly what he meant by “reasonable.” He does not provide any sort of test or easily applicable standards which would show whether a given principle can be reasonably rejected or not, apparently believing that our intuitions about what is reasonable or not would mostly coincide. Perhaps that is true much of the time, but in my experience there is a great deal of disagreement over what is reasonable (and, indeed, what is moral). By the end, I could not help thinking that Scanlon’s formulation was so vague as to be close to useless.

This is related to another fault. Though Scanlon spends a great deal of time explaining the specifics and advantages of his ethical system, he does not show how his way of thinking applies to any tricky areas of morality. He entirely avoids any controversial case—such as abortion, animal rights, the death penalty—and seems content to show that his system forbids murder and most forms of dishonesty. Bertrand Russell once remarked that, in ethics, the philosopher often proceeds by taking the conventional conclusions of morality for granted, and then finding some extra way of justifying them—and this strikes me as precisely the sort of exercise Scanlon is engaged in.

As for the writing style, I notice that many readers found it off-putting. But by the standards of academic philosophy, I would actually say that this book is extremely accessible. That is, of course, not high praise, but at the very least Scanlon avoids formal logic and the impenetrable argot of continental philosophers. Yet it must be admitted that by normal standards the writing is quite dry and lifeless.

But I really do not want to heap so many criticisms upon this book. Scanlon here presents a thoughtful new take on ethics with a minimum of jargon and without being strident or doctrinaire. If I did not find it a rewarding read, it is probably because I am not part of the book’s intended audience (other academic philosophers). Now, after having spent weeks on the book and a lot of time on this review, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off just watching the show…

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In the Heat: Elche & Murcia

In the Heat: Elche & Murcia

During my trip to Alicante, I decided to visit a part of Spain which I had never been to before: Murcia.

Now, aside from the two cities still under Spanish control in northern Africa (Ceuta and Melilla), Murcia is probably the least popular province in the country—for domestic and international tourism, both. Indeed, I would say that the place has a rather unfortunate reputation. Students of mine used to joke that “nadie vive en Murcia” (“nobody lives in Murcia”). Every time I expressed an interest in visiting, the Spaniards around me would shoot me a look of puzzlement and concern. Needless to say, this only strengthened my resolve to go.

And as luck would have it, the train from Alicante passed through another town which has long been on my list: Elche. I thus had a full and rewarding day trip with hardly any planning required.

The Vinapoló running through Elche.


With a population of around 200,000, Elche is a medium-sized city, only slightly smaller than nearby Alicante. The vast majority of Spanish cities are built around an obvious geographical landmark—a river, a bay, or a mountain—but Elche seems to be in the middle of nowhere. There is a tiny trickle of a creek (the Vinapoló) that passes through the city, and that is all. Perhaps this is because the city is 10 km distant from its original location to the south (nearer the coast). This was an ancient city of considerable importance, founded by the Greeks and occupied by the Carthaginians and Romans. But, for whatever reason, Elche was moved north to its current location during the Moorish period and has since languished in moderate obscurity.

A replica of the Dama de Elche, on display at the Casino of Murcia (more below).

But Elche remains famous for two reasons. (Well, three if you count its sizable shoe industry.) One is the so-called Lady of Elche, a stone bust discovered near the city. This is one of the most spectacular ruins found in the country, though it is not exactly known who made it nor whom it is supposed to represent. The standard interpretation is that it was made by the ancient Iberians (though not a whole lot is known about them), and it may represent a Carthaginian goddess. In any case, I recommend a trip to the National Archaeology Museum, in Madrid, in order to see it. The workmanship is of astoundingly high quality. And it is so stylistically different from Greco-Roman sculpture that one cannot help but wonder about this ancient people.

Of course, I was not in Elche to see this bust. I was there to visit the Palmeral, or Palm Grove. This is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of palm trees. However, in the case of Elche it is both very large and very old. The tradition of cultivating date palms in the area goes back to Roman times, was greatly expanded during Muslim rule, and was preserved into the Christian period. Today, there are about 70,000 palm trees in the city of Elche with many more just outside the city limits. What is more, this tradition of palm cultivation and water management (mustering enough water in such an arid area is quite the challenge) was deemed historically important enough for UNESCO to declare the Palm Grove a World Heritage Site.

I arrived in Elche early, at around 10 in the morning. But it was already hot. I could tell that it was not a day to be outside. Indeed, the temperature was set to ascend above 40 degrees (well over 100 Fahrenheit) by lunch-time.

The Palm Grove is just a few minutes away from the local train station and, in no time, I was immersed in the thicket. I am not sure exactly what I had been expecting—an enormous, dense jungle of palm trees, perhaps—but the Palmeral appeared to be just a municipal park with all of the trees replaced by palms. Legions of pigeons were hanging around, and geese sat silently in a little pond. Apart from me, there were just a dozen or so people present. It was hard to believe that this was a World Heritage Site.

At the time of my visit, I did not really grasp why so many palms had been planted here. I assumed that it was just for the aesthetic effect (which I found questionable). But of course these palm trees were originally cultivated as a crop.

Dates, as you may know, are an important ingredient in North African cuisine. Indeed, the date has a symbolic importance in Islam. The prophet Muhammad was said to have broken his own Ramadan fast by eating a date, and this has become a common tradition. (Wine can also be made from dates, though this is expressly prohibited in the Quran.) Palm trees also have a significance in Christianity, of course; and the leaves from Elche are still used in Palm Sunday celebrations today. I should also mention that other parts of the tree—the seeds, the sap, and the leaves—also have various uses, such as animal feed or material for baskets. The date palm is, in short, quite a versatile crop.

But I knew virtually none of this as I strolled through the grove, sweaty, thirsty, and snapping the occasional picture. If you are going to visit, read up a little bit on the history first. And don’t go during the hottest part of summer.


My train arrived in Murcia at around one o’clock in the evening. The weather by now was blazing. Not having done any research into the main sites of the city, I had no idea what to expect. But my immediate impression was disappointment. The train station itself was undergoing repairs. The area looked like an open construction zone, and the stairway leading to the different tracks was a mere scaffold. What is more, the area immediately around the train station was not particularly welcoming. The streets were dirty, the buildings shabby, and there were many drunkards lolling about. If this was Murcia, I could understand why nobody wanted to come here.

Yet I decided to suspend judgment until I got into the center of town. The walk quickly took me into more seemly parts of the city. I soon passed by an attractive park (La Floridablanca) and arrived at the Segura river. The area surrounding the river was quite lovely, though sadly I felt little inclination to stay and soak in the sights, as by now the sun’s rays were like laser beams on the back of my neck. Rather, I had to get inside, drink some water, and eat something.

For this, I went to Bodegón Los Toneles, a well-rated tapas bar. I was surprised to find the menu full of dishes which I had never heard of (I thought I knew Spanish cuisine pretty well). To order, I had to trust the wisdom of the waiter, who directed me to order three separate dishes. The first was called “michirones,” and it is a bean stew made with fava beans. Next I had zarangollo, which is just scrambled eggs with zucchini and onion. Last was a dish called chapinas, which consisted of little bits of lamb cooked in oil and garlic. All three are typical of Murcia, and all three were extremely delicious. Suddenly I began to feel much better about my choice to visit Murcia.

Murcia, I should mention, is among the larger cities in the country, with a population of almost half a million. Its name goes back to its Muslim heritage, originally being called Mursiyah. Indeed, unusual among Spanish cities, the visitor can find a statue of the city’s Moorish founder, Abd ar-Rahman. Though Murcia is extremely hot, it occupies a fertile valley that has made it a major exporter of produce. This is also partly why the food is so good.

My first visit was to the city cathedral (pictured above). Like many cathedrals in Spain—especially in the south—this one was built over what had been the principal mosque before Christian “reconquest.” Also, like many of the great European cathedrals, this one took quite a long time to build: the better part of a century, from 1394 to 1465. And this does not count the impressive bell tower, which took an additional two centuries—1521 to 1791. Naturally, during such a large span of time, many styles were incorporated: the interior is mainly gothic, while the outside is a mixture of Baroque and Neoclassical.

A detail of a reliquary in the cathedral.

More importantly, however, all of these styles are well done. The cathedral is imposing and impressive from the outside—dominating the entire center of the city—while being quite attractive within. As usual, the church is full of paintings, friezes, sculptures, and other works of art. I was especially impressed with the choir stalls, though these are not gothic originals. The cathedral was gutted by a fire in the 19th century, requiring the organ and the stalls to be replaced. Thankfully, the repair job was done with beautiful taste in a neo-gothic style in keeping with the rest of the cathedral. In short, by the time I concluded my visit, I was convinced that the Murcia Cathedral is among the most beautiful in the country—and that is no small thing.

My next stop was the Casino de Murcia. Now, I normally have no interest in casinos. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, this was the first time in my life that I stepped foot in such an establishment in my life.

A room imitating the Alhambra.

Yet this casino is not simply a sordid place of gambling. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The self-guided audio tour took me from room to elaborate room, each one fitted out with luxurious decorations. And each of these rooms seemed to be a kind of homage to a Spanish architectural style—with one room fitted out like the Alhambra, another like the Royal Palace, and another like the library in the University of Salamanca. I could not help but picture a posse of paunchy, cigar-smoking men dressed in tuxedos, waddling through these rooms while they casually placed bets and discussed their (legally dubious) business dealings. It is, in short, an evocative space.

The central hallway of the casino.

My next stop was the Museo Salzillo. This is a museum dedicated to the work of the esteemed Murciano, Francisco Salzillo (1707–83), one of the great (though lesser-known) artists of the Baroque period. If you have some sensitivity to language, it may have struck you that his name is not especially Spanish. His father was the Italian artist, Nicolás Salzillo, who moved to Murcia during one of the high points of the city’s history, in the 1700s. The son surpassed the father in both fame and ability. Indeed, Francisco’s work is considered so important that his museum occupies what used to be a large church, as well as some neighboring buildings.

Like his father, Francisco was a sculptor, working in the medium of polychromed wood. The bulk of the museum is given over to his nativity figurines. Now, I normally have little interest in this sort of thing. Spain is absolutely full of nativity figurines around Christmas, and I cannot say I have ever derived much enjoyment from the examination of any of them. But the works of Salzillo are of another order: the level of craftsmanship is so superlative that the tiny scenes become genuine works of art—moving human dramas played out in miniature. The visit culminates in the aforementioned church, where Salzillo’s Holy Week floats are stored. These are just as striking and dramatic as his nativity figures. I emerged onto the street convinced that Salzillo deserves a much larger reputation.

It was around four in the afternoon now, and the temperature was truly unbearable. I had to count every minute I spent outside, wary of dehydration and sunburn. The streets were basically deserted—since the locals are smart enough not to tempt fate with this weather.

My last stop in the city was for an iced coffee. For this, I stepped into a large coffee shop called Cafélab; and although I normally do not go in for fancy coffee, I must admit that it was delicious. But I was originally attracted to the establishment because a (much smaller) café in my hometown has almost the same name: Coffee Labs. It was—nonsensically, perhaps—like a little taste of home. But the baristas seemed very amused when I told them about the coincidence.

Now my visit was over. Sweaty and exhausted, I walked the 20 minutes back to the train through what felt like an actual desert. Even the area around the train station was mostly empty by the time I arrived. There is really no way to exaggerate how punishing a Spanish summer day can be. Stepping onto the train was a sweet relief, and I dozed during the journey back to Alicante. After so many years, I had finally stepped foot in Murcia. And I am sure I will return.

Alicante & the Island of Tabarca

Alicante & the Island of Tabarca


Though I have, by now, spent years exploring Spain—having seen most of the major sights, done most of the deeds, eaten most of the comestibles, and drunk most of the potables—there still remain some corners of the country that have escaped my notice. In the summer of 2021, one of these was Alicante, the second largest city in the province of Valencia. With a bit of spare time on my hands, I set about to remedy this.

The fast train from Madrid deposited me in Alicante early in the morning. My first impression of the city was rather uninspiring. Like many Spanish cities—particularly great tourist destinations on the Mediterranean, of which there are many—the city had a generic look, consisting of medium-sized white or gray apartment blocks looming over streets full of cafés.

I made my way to one of these establishments for a much-needed coffee, and quickly fell under the charm of a busy Spanish café, full of chattering abuelas and well-dressed abuelos reading their newspapers. This older generation was accompanied, as is usual, by several grandchildren, who sat in the chairs with their legs hanging off the ground, their mouths stained with chocolate pastries.

After killing some time this way, I went to the Airbnb, which was a spare room in the apartment of a retired British man. It is quite common (or it was, before Brexit) for English retirees to move to Spain. It is considerably cheaper than the UK, to say nothing of the weather. This particular Brit struck me as very happy in his new home. He mentioned a local girlfriend, and his apartment was full of large photographs he had taken on his travels around the world. I particularly remember one of a mountain he had climbed in China.

“Of course, I’m not stupid,” he said. “I used the proper equipment to climb it.”

I do not think even the most generous traveler could argue that there is very much to do in Alicante. Indeed, sightseeing struck me as contrary to the spirit of the city. It is, rather, a place to relax—preferably, on the beach, or perhaps sitting at a nice café and eating ice cream. But I am not very good at that sort of thing. Besides, I have found that sitting on the beach by yourself—as I was—can invite melancholic thoughts. So I resolved to keep myself reasonably busy.

As with many Spanish cities, Alicante was built around a naturally defensible location. In this case, it was Mount Benacantil (the name comes from Arabic), a rocky hill that looms over the city. This elevation has proven to be such an advantageous feature that humans have been inhabiting it since at least the bronze age. But the castle, as it currently exists, has its roots in the Moorish period of Spanish history. It was captured by Christian forces in 1248 and thereafter dubbed Santa Bárbara, and during the many wars since that time it has been bombarded by the French and occupied by the English—not to mention, used as a concentration camp by Franco.

Approaching the Castle of Santa Bárbara

The walk up to the castle was a bit tiring, but it takes you through the small historical center of Alicante—where the generic streets below give way to the intimate sprawl of medieval living. Despite its bloody past, the castle struck me as a tranquil place. There really is not much to see aside from the old walls; but the views of Alicante and the sea beyond are worth the trek.

Now, at this point I must mention something which has absolutely nothing to do with Alicante. On my way up to the castle I started to feel a sharp pain in my left ear. The sensation was not emanating from deep within my ear, as in an earache. Instead, the outer part of my ear was throbbing as if somebody had hit it. It hurt to turn my head and to touch it. I had to take out my headphones, and wearing a mask (this was 2021, after all) was agonizing.

I was naturally afraid that I had gotten an ear infection. But my symptoms did not seem to fit. Thankfully, the pain subsided after about an hour. In the years since this trip, however, my left ear has periodically flared up with this same painful sensation. There are weeks when it hurts almost constantly, and months when it doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve been to four doctors, but none of them have been able to shed light on the matter. They’ve mostly just assured me that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with any part of my ear. Still, it is rather annoying. If anybody reading this perchance has any idea what it might be, let me know.

With my ear still aching, I decided to visit the Archaeological Museum. I was immediately struck by the size and grandeur of the building, which seemed almost excessive for a regional museum. This large, multi-winged structure was actually first constructed as a hospital with multiple wards. The archaeology museum, though founded back in 1932, was not moved here until the year 2000, by which time the hospital had been shut down. (Before this, the museum occupied a space in the Provincial Palace.) As a result of this architectural inheritance, Alicante’s Archaeological Museums is among the largest museums in the country—at least in terms of floorspace.

Once I walked inside, I found that the museum’s collection was also quite impressive—both in terms of quality and quantity. With more than 80,000 pieces, the collection spans prehistory to the modern period; and this extensive treasury is displayed in a series of attractive exhibits, along with audiovisual supplements. There are even a series of large-scale models of major archaeological sites that you can walk through. As I have said before, provincial museums in Europe can often be surprisingly good—and this is yet another example of this general rule. My ear even felt better by the time I finished my visit. 

By now it was lunch time, and I wanted to try that most iconic of Valencian dishes: paella. Luckily, quite near the museum is a well-known restaurant called Racó del Pla which specializes in the savory rice. I believe that the place is normally booked solid. Fortunately for me, however, I was given a seat at a high table near the door. I was disheartened to find the smallest amount of paella on the menu was to share between two people. But some skillful begging on my part convinced the waiter to let me order a personal paella. It was among the best I’ve ever had.

This fairly well does it for my sightseeing in Alicante. But before I move on to Tabarca, I wanted to include a note on language. If you know any Spanish, you will probably notice that there are many signs and advertisements in Alicante which don’t seem to be in Castilian. Indeed, the very name of the city is sometimes written as Alacant. This is the Valencian language—more commonly known as Catalan. It is curious to note that, although the same language is spoken here, and although there is a strong regional culture, there is virtually no talk of Valencian separation. Regional Spanish politics is complicated.

The Island of Tabarca

The most popular day trip from Alicante is to the island of Tabarca, which is an hour away by ferry. Tabarca is rather small, with a permanent population of about 50. Most of the year, the primary activity is fishing; but in summer the island is overrun with tourists.

That included me. After booking my ferry ticket online, I walked along the attractive promenade beside the Mediterranean until I got to the dock. The ferry was medium-sized (maybe big enough for 120 people), with two decks. I decided that I would enjoy the views from the top.

The boat rumbled into life and we began our journey.

My attention was immediately arrested by a massive wooden boat that was moored in the city port. This is actually a replica of the famous Spanish galleon, the Santísima Trinidad—the biggest ship of its time, which held 130 canons. It was called the Escorial of the Sea, and was understandably the pride of the Spanish navy. But it was so large that it could not effectively sail during the Battle of Trafalgar (fought between the English fleet and a combined French and Spanish force), and was captured and eventually sunk near Cádiz.

The Santísima Trinidad, with the Castle of Santa Bárbara in the background.

This replica is even more cumbersome than its namesake, since it was never designed to sail at all. Rather, it was meant as a kind of floating tourist attraction—complete with a museum and a restaurant. It was moored in the port of Málaga from 2006 to 2011, when the owner decided that an offer from the city of Alicante seemed more profitable. It was a major attraction in this city until 2017, when the ship suffered a reverse of fortune. That year, it was bought by a company which planned on bringing it to Benidorm. But for whatever reason the entrepreneurs thought better of the idea, and ultimately left this floating hulk to rot in a corner of the port. It was still there in 2021 when I visited.

So much for the flagship of the Spanish armada. Meanwhile, my little ferry did not seem to be faring much better. As soon as the boat reached the open waters, we began to rock side to side from the current. I was surprised by this, since it was hardly a windy day and the seas did not look at all choppy. The problem was that we were traveling south, while the tide was coming in from the east, thus turning the hull into a kind of sail.

The constant swaying, while at first merely annoying, began to be truly distressing about half an hour into the journey. My stomach began to protest at the churning. I did my best to focus on something else, which helped a little. But when people around me began to vomit, this became understandably fairly difficult. By the time that Tabarca came into view, I was covered in sweat and doubled over in pain. My first step onto dry land filled me with relief.

One of the many ferries approaching the island.

But the trauma of the journey faded quickly when confronted with the beauty of this small Mediterranean island. Tabarca has the profile of a melted dumbbell, the two parts connected by a narrow strip of beach in the middle. Virtually all of the human dwellings are on the smaller of these parts. It is quite an attractive little town, though one would be hard pressed to say there is very much to see or do. I contented myself with wandering around and enjoying the different views of the sea and the coast of Spain, until it was time for lunch. This was, of course, seafood—something the Spanish can be relied upon to do well.

After this, I decided to walk around the other, uninhabited half of the island. This is a strangely beautiful and barren landscape of rocks and grass, seagulls perpetually flying overhead. With no obstacles to break the wind, I was buffeted by strong gusts that almost made me shiver on the hot summer day. Yet there is something both exciting and calming about the roar of waves and the rush of wind. I spent an hour just sitting on a rock and enjoying it.

One of the few structures to be found in this part of the island is an imposing square building, called the Tower of San José. This is just one of the many defensive structures which have been built on the island over the centuries. A plaque in the city informed me that this was the site of the execution of 19 Carlist sergeants in 1838, during the so-called Carlist Wars (between factions supporting different claimants to the Spanish throne). They were executed, apparently, as a reprisal for a similar execution of prisoners on the Carlist side.

In any case, I was surprised at the tone of the commemorative plaque, which calls them “martyrs” and proclaims Don Carlos V the “legitimate” king of Spain. For one, Carlos lost the war and never became king. What is more, Carlism is associated with the most fanatically conservative parts of the political spectrum. Pretty heavy stuff for 1996, which is when the plaque was installed.

When you are lucky enough to travel to a place as lovely as Tabarca, it is pretty rich to say that you have “regrets.” Nevertheless, I do wish I had tried snorkeling in the crystalline waters around the island. This area is a “marine reserve” and is considered to be one of the best places for both snorkeling and scuba diving in the country. As somebody who has never done anything similar, I can only imagine how fun it must be to swim amongst the sea life.

Now it was time for the ferry ride back. Dreading the seasickness, this time I figured that I would stay on the lower level, as close to the middle of the boat as possible. My thinking was that this would be the part of the boat which would experience the least movement, in the same way that the best place to avoid turbulence on an airplane is over the wings.

The boat began its journey and my confidence quickly evaporated. If anything, the swaying was worse than before, and this time I had no view to distract me. Instead, I put on an audio book (one by David Attenborough) and stared at the floor. My own physical discomfort was manageable this way—at least for about twenty minutes. But I began to feel real distress when the vomiting started. It was, to say the least, difficult to ignore. The ship’s crew were running back and forth with white paper bags, as the people two rows up, to my left, to my right, and finally right next to me, all began to wretch into these bags. By about 45 minutes into the ride, over half of the passengers had lost their lunch. In retrospect, it was amazing that I did not smell anything.

But the sight alone of all this sickness was strangely contagious. My stomach twisted itself into a tighter knot. Sweat covered my whole body. I curled my fingers into fists and buried my head in my arms, trying to block out my surroundings. When I could not see anything, the swaying actually did not seem too bad. Yet I did not have the discipline to remain like that. I would look up and, when I did, would inevitably witness another victim.

Finally, I decided to get up and walk up to the prow. Here the wind felt like ice and water continually splashed up onto the deck. This cold air was, however, exactly what I needed: I snapped out of the sick feeling and was able to enjoy the final approach to Alicante.

You may think that after such an ordeal, the last thing I would want to do was eat. Yet I had seen a ramen shop that intrigued me that morning, and I arrived back in Alicante just in time to get a table (there was a queue forming even before it opened). Thus, I concluded my final day exploring Alicante hunched over a bowl of hot noodles. And that is certainly the mark of a good vacation.

Review: Les Misérables

Review: Les Misérables

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was in the sixth grade I was placed into the “challenge” class. This was a special program for academically “gifted” children, meant (as its name would suggest) to give us more stimulating schoolwork. If memory serves, most of our classes were given over to logic and math problems. But our major project was to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

We were, of course, assigned a student version of the novel, though even this abridgement seemed immense to me. I am really not sure whether I read the whole thing. If I did, I barely understood even the basic outline. (Maybe I didn’t deserve to be “challenged.”) My only memory of the book is of a description of the streets of Paris, which struck my 11-year-old mind as unbelievably and impenetrably detailed.

The year culminated with a visit to see the musical on Broadway. (Living close to NYC has its perks.) I was stunned that such a long and boring book could be transformed into an exciting performance. Was this what we had been talking about all year? The music was stuck in my mind for days—weeks. And ever since then, I have had the vague intention of making another go at this literary challenge.

The perfect opportunity presented itself when I signed up to run a marathon. If I listened to the audiobook during my training runs, I could tackle two challenges at once. It turned out that Victor Hugo had even more stamina than an endurance runner, since there was still a substantial chunk of the book left by the time I ran my race. But even the longest books submit to persistence!

It is tempting, when finishing a book of this size, to sing its praises. After all, if the book was not brilliant, then spending sixty hours on it hardly seems worthwhile. But I had quite a mixed reaction to Les Miserables. And I think I would be doing my sixth-grade self a disservice if I did not attempt an honest, accurate report.

The book opens with a long and loving portrait of a character who plays a very minor role in the plot: Bishop Myriel. This is Hugo’s version of the thoroughly good man, a living saint, someone who emulates Christ in word and deed. And though this section was (as usual with Hugo) unnecessarily lengthy and (also typical) highly sentimental, I admit that I found this portrait of human goodness thoroughly moving. Bishop Myriel, indeed, is the heart of Les Miserables, the culmination of the sort of humanitarian goodness that Hugo hopes to inculcate.

This high sense of moral obligation is what prevents the novel from devolving into a long exercise in romantic windbaggery. Hugo writes, not just as an entertainer, but as a reformer—even, perhaps, a revolutionary—and he urges his readers to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, clothe the poor, educate the ignorant, to pardon the guilty, and to lift up everyone who has been cast off by society. And Hugo is not merely paying lip service. The most moving parts of the novel are also the places where Hugo illustrates his social vision.

I think this goes a long way to explaining this book’s lasting appeal. The world is still full of Jean Valjeans, born into poverty and then receiving only punishment from the law.

But of course Les Miserable would not have been made into a musical if it were a long sermon. It is also (at times) a cracking good story. At his best, Hugo is able to raise the tension of the novel to a fever pitch, and then hold it there for page after page. I am thinking, in particular, of Jean Valjean’s long ride to attend the trial of the falsely-accused Champmathieu, or when Valjean is taken prisoner by Thénardier in the apartment.

These high points are, however, compensated by many, many slow sections. By modern standards (and probably at the time, too), Hugo is longwinded in the extreme. Partly this is because he does not abide by our strict notions of the novel, simply narrating the deeds of his characters. Rather, he is constantly analyzing, opining, and moralizing, in a rhetorical style which, at its worst, could sound very much like a self-important politician giving a speech to his donors.

Hugo was a romantic in the full sense of the word, and this also made him prone to a kind of sickly sentimentality which the modern reader can scarcely tolerate. There were times when I felt as though I could not roll my eyes hard enough. This is most apparent in Hugo’s characterization of Cosette, who is portrayed as very sweet, very beautiful, very pure, very innocent… very nothing, in other words. She is hardly given any personality at all, which makes both Marius’s infatuation and Jean Valjean’s adoration dramatically dull.

Now, I am probably achieving some sort of apotheosis of stupidity by saying this, but Les Miserable is just too long. This is not just owing to Hugo’s prolixity, but to his roaming digressions. Perhaps a quarter of the novel could be excised without doing any damage to the story. There is, for example, an entire section on monastic life, one on the sewers of Paris, another on slang, and an unbelievably long one which narrates the Battle of Waterloo. Admittedly, some of this material is interesting (I particularly liked the essay on slang). But it struck me as, to say the least, rather clumsy to insert these opinions as essays—and especially at some of the most dramatic turning points in the book.

To put the most generous interpretation on these digressions, however, they can be considered a mark of the book’s great ambition. And this is ultimately a winsome quality. As with many of the great novels of the 19th century, one feels that the author is attempting to reform the whole society, from the sewers to the schools to our very souls. And if the novel can seem a little flabby and bloated, it is also strong enough to confidently take its place among its peers—War and Peace, Bleak House, The Brothers Dostoyevsky, Middlemarch… This is a high bar, to say the least.

One hardly imagine two authors less alike than Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, and yet Victor Hugo somehow manages to combine elements of both writers. He has Tolstoy’s sense of history and his focus on realistic detail, while being just as committed to social reform (and just as prone to sentimentality) as Dickens. If he does not quite reach the artistic heights of either writer, Hugo remains an inspiring figure—intellectually ambitions, socially committed, and dramatically compelling. At the very least, his book presents a worthwhile challenge.

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Review: The Egyptian Book of the Dead

Review: The Egyptian Book of the Dead

The Egyptian Book of the Dead by Anonymous

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of all the great classic books, The Book of the Dead has been on my list for the longest time. My interest in the book was first ignited by the 1999 cinematic masterpiece, The Mummy, which was released at just the moment to leave a permanent imprint on my growing brain. Unfortunately, I have discovered that The Book of the Dead does not really allow you to summon an army of ninja mummies or to revive my long-lost love, Anck-su-namun. If anything, I appear to have only resuscitated Brendan Fraser’s acting career…

Some books are far more interesting to read about than to actually read, and this is one of them. The Book of the Dead is not really a book in that it was never intended to be read for pleasure or even for edification. And, in any case, The Book of the Dead is not an accurate translation of what the Egyptians called it, which would be something like: The Book of Coming Forth by Day.

This sounds poetic. But perhaps a more descriptive title would be The Ancient Egyptian Manual for Safely Dying. For despite this text being the product of an ancient religion, filled with supernatural beings and too many gods to keep track of, this is above all a practical text. If you use the spells contained herein, you can be sure of making your way through Duat, the hellish underworld populated by monsters and other perils, to safety in the afterlife.

These powerful spells would be written on a long scroll of papyrus and buried along with the mummified body. These various papyri were not always identical, often containing variations of the same spell and a different total numbers of spells. But in total about 190 different incantations have been identified.

The practice of burying bodies with this “book” began about 1500 BCE, during the so-called New Kingdom, but many of the spells have even older origins. The very oldest funerary spells are known as Pyramid Texts, and they were inscribed inside the burial chamber of the Pharaohs in (you guessed it) the pyramids, during the Old Kingdom. Apparently, the afterlife was the sole privilege of the Pharoah in the beginning of Egyptian history. But this changed during the Middle Kingdom, when officials, courtiers, and otherwise very rich individuals began to be buried with Coffin Texts—spells inscribed on the inside of the sarcophagus or on the linen shroud that wrapped the body. When these spells began to be written on papyrus, their use became even more widespread. Life in Ancient Egypt was still thoroughly monarchical, but the afterlife became a touch more democratic.

Even (or perhaps especially) if you cannot read hieroglyphs, these papyri were often quite lovely, being richly decorated with vignettes. The most beautiful example of these papyri is the Book of Ani, named after the man whom the book was made for, a Theban scribe. It is worth scrolling through the entire papyrus (the full image is on Wikipedia) and just enjoying the many illustrations, including the famous vignette of Anubis weighing the deceased’s heart against the feather of Maat. This papyrus was actually stolen from the Egyptian police (who had confiscated it from antique dealers) and smuggled to England, where it became a prized item in the British Museum. (The man who stole it, E.A. Wallis Budge, is also, as it happens, the author of the most widely read English translation.)

All of this information is, in my opinion, quite fascinating. Unfortunately, the actual experience of reading the book is considerably less stimulating. As I mentioned above, the spells were not written as literature and make for repetitive, dull, and flat reading. I first attempted to tackle a Spanish version that had been given to me, edited by one Luis Tomás Melgar. But after about 100 pages I simply could not stand it, and decided to try the classic Budge version. The same thing happened: after about 100 pages, I could not bear to read another spell.

Indeed, I am a little embarrassed to admit how unpleasant I found this. Normally I can power through when I don’t much like a book. But it felt as though my brain had been dissolved with acid and was being extracted through my nose. Thus, I decided to have mercy on myself and to mark the book as “read,” while I still had some grey matter intact.

In fairness to the Ancient Egyptian priests and scribes who compiled the book, I ought to include a sample of a spell. Here is one allowing the deceased to transform into a hawk:

Hail, Great God, come now to Tattu! Make thou smooth for me the ways and let me go round to visit my thrones; I have renewed myself, and I have raised myself up. O grant thou that I may be feared, and make thou me to be a terror. Let the gods of the underworld be afraid of me, and may they fight for me in their habitations which are therein. Let not him who would do harm to me draw nigh unto me, or injure me, in the House of Darkness, that is, he that clotheth and covereth the feeble one, and whose name is hidden; and let not the gods act likewise towards me.

If you can make it through 200 pages of this, you are a stronger reader than I am.

Even if The Book of the Dead is not exactly great (or good) literature, it does provide an interesting insight into ancient religion. There is a striking difference displayed here in the attitude towards the Egyptian gods and, say, that displayed towards Yahweh in the Old Testament. In the former, the believer uses spells that grant him predictable control over the gods and other supernatural beings, while the psalms are prayers, supplications, thanksgiving, worship, meditations—attempts to approach and understand the divine, rather than command it.

Another noteworthy aspect is how thoroughly focused on death and the afterlife the Egyptian religion appears to have been. Getting to the afterlife was not seen as the reward of a life well-lived. To the contrary, the spells in this book allow the deceased to reach this eternal reward despite whatever sins they may have committed. The judgment of the gods was not inexorable or unavoidable, but open to magical manipulation. Even if you “defrauded the temples of their oblations” or “purloined the cakes of the gods,” there was still hope of escaping divine retribution.

I know it is highly unfair—and, also simply pointless—for me to judge an ancient religion, especially considering that I did not even manage to finish the sacred book. But I couldn’t help thinking that this religion lacked most of the elements which I normally find compelling in a creed: a substantive moral code, consolation for life’s tragedies, acceptance of the inevitable… There is nothing poetic about death, life’s last major transition (if it can be called that). Instead, the final journey is regarded in such a prosaic, literal-minded way that it evokes no strong feeling. The soul must be defended from physical dangers in order to reach a state of physical well-being, and that is all.

Of course, it is quite possible, and perhaps likely, that The Book of the Dead is not perfectly representative document when it comes to Egyptian religion. After all, the book was not meant to be read by the living, so maybe it is no wonder that I did not find much of value. If I can still access Goodreads from beyond the grave, I will update this review at that (hopefully remote) date.

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Running the (Full) Madrid Marathon

Running the (Full) Madrid Marathon

Four years ago, I ran my first race, the Madrid Half-Marathon. Since that time, running has become a regular part of my life. I signed up for the same half-marathon in 2020 (postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic), and then in 2022, finally getting my marathon time down to 1:55. I also completed several 5ks and 10ks, and even a grueling trail run in El Escorial, which covered 20km of distance with 1,000 meters of elevation difference thrown in (we had to go up and down a mountain). As you can see, I got a little obsessed with running and racing.

But like many runners, I felt incomplete. I had not done the most iconic of all races: the Marathon. Now, of course, this was an illogical thought. There is nothing magical about 42.195 kilometers. And there are many excellent reasons to avoid such a long distance and to stick to other, more reasonable races. Indeed, as you will see, I am not even convinced that training to run such a long distance is even particularly healthy. But logical or not, reasonable or not, I wanted to overcome the challenge, and so I committed myself to the 2023 Madrid Marathon as a kind of Christmas “present” to myself.

There are tons of resources and training plans available to anyone preparing for a marathon. I followed one in a book by Matthew Fitzgerald, but I am sure that most of them contain the same basic scheme: a period of augmenting distance, two weeks of “peak” training, and a tapering-off period of two to three weeks before the race. This is essentially what I did. On the weekdays I would run two or three times, either an hour-long easy run or some sort of speed training. Then, every Saturday, I completed a long run of ever-increasing distance—starting at a half-marathon distance, and capping out at 19 miles (30 kilometers). Most of the training resources I consulted advised against going farther than this distance, or training for more than three and a half hours, since this is too stressful for the body to recover from.

As an aside, I also noted with curiosity that there are several different schools of thought when it comes to training. A serious runner I know, for example, advised me to focus my effort on interval training (running relatively short distances at high speed, then walking to recover, and repeating). The sports writer Matthew Fitzgerald, on the other hand, recommends mainly long runs at a very low intensity, with just a bit of speed training thrown in. Other runners swear by strength training and footwork exercises. Many other runners have no method at all, and just go as far and as fast as their feet can take them with every run. I suppose these differences probably don’t matter much in the end, so long as you are putting your body under the appropriate stress (and thus provoking an improvement).

For what it’s worth, I basically followed the Fitzgerald advice, and stuck to lots of slow runs with just a bit of speed work thrown in.

Though my training schedule was on the lighter side of marathon preparation, it was still enough to take over my free time. I gradually stopped practicing guitar and substantially reduced my writing. Normally, I like to take little trips to the mountains on the weekends, but these were also dropped. All of my other hobbies had to exist in the periphery of running. Marathon training, it seems, is hard to incorporate as just one hobby among many. It takes over your life.

My Saturday long runs were especially draining. I would go to sleep early on Friday, not wanting to run tired or hungover the next day. Then I would wake up dreading the run, and I’d do everything I could to postpone it. Normally it took me until 2 to muster the will power to drag myself out of the house, which meant eating an extremely late lunch at around 5 or 6.

Yet when I finally did manage to put on my running gear, tie my shoes, fill up my water bottle, and step onto the sidewalk, habit took over. I had the same basic route for all of these long runs, which I followed without fail. This was the path that runs alongside the Manzanares River, in the south of Madrid. Technically, this consists of two separate parks, the Parque Lineal and the Madrid Río, but in reality it forms a continuous greenspace that extends for as long as any runner could desire. It is also very flat and quite attractive, so I felt very fortunate to have such an ideal training ground nearby.

Keeping myself entertained during these long runs—which often lasted three hours and beyond—became something of a problem. Normally I listen to audiobooks for my runs (my choice for marathon training: Les Miserables), but I found that I could not focus on a book for such a long stretch. Thus, after about an hour I would switch to Bob Dylan’s old radio program, Theme Time Radio Hour, which would be like a second wind after Victor Hugo’s prolixity. But I made sure to spend at least a part of every run without anything in my ears, just focusing on the experience. I thought it deserved at least a slice of my undivided attention.

The long Saturday runs not only made Fridays unavailable for socializing, but usually I felt so tired afterwards that I had little desire to do anything on Saturday night or to go anywhere on Sunday. Long distance running, I must conclude, is very bad for one’s social life. 

I am fortunate in that I normally don’t get sick. But I spent most of January and February—my two first months of training—with a persistent cough, which seemed to be related to the long Saturday runs. During the work week, I would gradually feel better. By Friday, I’d think I had gotten over whatever virus was bothering me. But then, after my Saturday run, the cough would return with a vengeance. Though I cannot prove it, I got the strong impression that the long runs were notably weakening my immune system. Heavily breathing the cold winter air for hours at a time couldn’t have helped, either. I must also conclude, then, that marathon training isn’t necessarily even good for your health—at least in the short term.

Carlos (left) about to run the El Peluca trail race with me.

Marathon runners are often advised to do a kind of warm-up race a month or so before the event. For me, this was a trail race in Aranjuez called “El Peluca.”—the nickname of a local barber who has managed to become a long-distance runner despite his diabetes. The race was 18 kilometers long but with about 500 meters of altitude difference, making it roughly as difficult as a flat half-marathon. My coworker, Carlos—a triathlete—very generously helped me train for this race. He even ran it along with me.

The race left from a park at the edge of town, and we quickly were among the hills that ring the city. After about two kilometers of running on a flat road we reached the path that took us up into the trail, going up and down, over and over, on narrow, dusty trails. Carlos gamely stayed by my side, encouraging me to keep up the pace—which was very nice of him, but also slightly depressing since he made it seem effortless.

I began the race thinking my legs had gotten pretty strong—I had been training for almost three months by then, at much longer distances, often running up hills—but the steep slopes sapped my energy. By the time we ran down the final hill and back onto the road, I could hardly accelerate for a final sprint. I finished with a time of 1:55, in the bottom half. Another of my coworkers, Víctor, actually won the entire race with a blazing 1:19—though admittedly he may not have come in first had another strong runner not gotten lost and gone the wrong way. Trail running has its perils.

(Carlos, meanwhile, was having a great time, as he had found a purple wig that had been hidden in some bushes along the race course. He crossed the finish line with a cartwheel and won a basket full of hair products as the prize for having found the wig.)

During the week after the race, I had pain going all the way up the outside of my right leg, from my calves to my hip. I was afraid that I had given myself tendinitis or some other injury. I took it easy for a few days and stretched. This only helped a little. Then, I tried using a rolling pin to massage everywhere that hurt. Miraculously, that made the pain disappear almost immediately. I have no idea why that worked.

My next long run was what is called a “marathon-simulation.” This is a run of 26 kilometers (not miles) at your planned marathon pace—which, for me, was an unhurried 10 minutes per mile. This time, I actually managed to get myself outside in the early morning, and ran without anything in my ears. It was much easier than I expected. The miles flew by and I finished well under my projected time. Maybe I can do this after all, I thought.

This year, the Easter holidays fell three weeks before the race. I wanted to do something with my free time, but I also wanted to maintain my fitness. So I hit upon the idea of hiking on the Camino de Santiago. I covered about 115 kilometers in five days, from April 2 to April 6, and once again enjoyed the lush Galician countryside. But in retrospect, was this good “training”? I am not sure. I think hiking does benefit your running ability, but I also think it may have been too much distance, too close to the actual race day. The leg pain mentioned above temporarily returned. 

With my camino finished, this wrapped up the heavy phase of training for the marathon. The only thing left was the so-called “taper”—basically, relaxing a little. I did not do any runs longer than 10 miles in the two weeks before the race, focusing more on shorter, faster sessions.

I also took the opportunity to try an experiment. One week before race day, I went cold turkey on coffee, tea, and anything else with caffeine in it. The first two days were unpleasant, especially the second. I felt groggy, confused, and almost sick. The closest thing I can think of is a hangover. But my sleep markedly improved. This was partly the goal: to increase the quality and quantity of my rest leading up to race day. The other goal of the experiment was to increase my sensitivity to caffeine so that, when I finally had some on race day, I would be extra sensitive to it. Caffeine, after all, is the only legal performance-enhancing drug.

Of course, in the lead-up to the race, alcohol was entirely cut out. I had to live the pure life.

Three days before race day, I began the famous carbo-loading. This took the form of large spaghetti dinners. The idea is that, by gorging on carbohydrates, you build up a larger reserve of energy in your muscles that you can use on race day. To be honest I really don’t know if it actually works, but I wanted to give myself every possible advantage just in case. Another common piece of advice is to hydrate profusely in the few days before the race. I did this, too—dutifully sipping from my water bottle throughout the day—though I was similarly unsure if it would actually work.

As you can see, I had done my best to optimize my body for the race. I don’t think I had ever tried to be so precise and careful with what I eat and drink, with how much I sleep, with when and how much I exercise. Every variable available to me, I attempted to manipulate. All that remained to be seen was whether it would pay off.

April 23, Race Day. This was also International Book Day, which I took as a good omen.

The night before, I was afraid that I would be too nervous to sleep, so I did everything I could to induce a calm, drowsy state—taking a magnesium supplement, swallowing a pill of melatonin, drinking herbal tea, stretching, meditating. This worked fairly well and, for once in my life, I was able to sleep peacefully before a major event. I woke up at 7 feeling well-rested. Breakfast was a piece of toast and some oatmeal—and, of course, the long-awaited coffee. The chemical worked its magic, and optimism surged up within my brain.

I arrived at 8:30 at the starting line and began to warm up. The area was absolutely packed. More than 30,000 runners had signed up, filling up every available spot. To get my body ready, I slowly jogged around the area—bouncing my legs, raising up my knees, kicking the back of my thighs—just trying to get my heart beating and blood flowing. My ankles, hip, and back popped, which felt good but perhaps was not a good sign. One final trip to the bathroom, and I was ready.

The race was divided into 10 “waves,” and I was number 9, scheduled to start running at 9:30. I entered the gate early, hoping to be near the front of the wave—since, if you’re not, you can get stuck in a huge crowd and be unable to go at your own pace. Directly in front of me was one of the official pacers. These are runners who carry large balloons which have a finishing time printed in bold letters. I suppose they must be pretty experienced runners, since they can reliably finish the race in that time. This pacer had the balloon for 4:15, coincidentally just the time I was hoping to achieve. I positioned myself right behind him at the starting line.

An example of a pacer baloon, this one for a fast half-marathon time. In the background you can see the sign for the first wave (“cajón”).

The pistol shot rang out, and we were off. I was in a group of about five runners—two French women, two Spaniards, and me—who were trying to stay close to the pacer. I knew that a 4:15 pace amounted to slightly faster than 10 minutes per mile, which for me is just above my relaxed pace. Even so, the speed felt surprisingly difficult as we wove through the crowd on the Paseo de la Castellana. Finally, after about 10 minutes, my breathing calmed down and I was able to follow without conscious strain.

The course took us north, past the famous Santiago Bernabeu stadium, alongside the government buildings at Nuevos Ministerios, through the so-called Gates of Europe—twin, slanting office buildings—and then to the four tallest skyscrapers in the city, the “four towers.”

(You can see a video of the entire course here.)

The road is just slightly uphill during this section, but since I had fresh legs I hardly noticed. Finally, we did a U-turn and started the criss-crossing journey back south. This is where we entered the massive, residential center of Madrid. We were running up and down streets very much like my own—mid-sized apartment buildings, the streets lined with restaurants and shops. So much of Madrid looks so similar that I became disoriented quite quickly, and gave up trying to place myself on the map. But now we were running downhill, and it felt almost effortless.

Though traffic in the city had been severely restricted, pedestrian life went on. The terraces were full of families having breakfast. Parents were shopping with their children. Senior citizens were chatting on benches. It all looked much more pleasant than what I was doing.

But we did have an audience. All along the route, there were people cheering us on. I really have to give anyone credit who spends their Sunday morning clapping for runners. After all, there really is no sport less interesting to watch than long-distance running. Nothing dramatic happens, and you never see the same face twice—just runner after runner, going by at moderate speed. And consider how long the event lasts: from the first wave to the last person over the finish line, around six hours elapse. Even watching long-distance running is a feat of endurance. (Reading about it isn’t much better—sorry!)

At various points along the route there were rock groups playing—though, by the end of my race, most of them had understantably run out of material.

I must say, though, that while I considered everyone cheering us on to be slightly crazy, I did very much appreciate the applause and encouragement. It really did help lift my spirits or, at least, distract me in moments of pain. Little kids stuck out their hands for high-gives. Adults held up signs with Super Mario mushrooms on them, to “power-up.” Two men were even offering free pizza, but it didn’t seem like such a good idea to have a slice. Meanwhile, the professional pacer did his best to rile up the crowd, shouting and waving his arms. Having so much social support is partly why, I think, people run faster during races than they do on their own. You feel as if everyone wants you to succeed.

Finally, we took a turn down Calle de San Bernardo, and I realized where we were. The next turn led us directly onto Gran Vía, Madrid’s most famous avenue, and then towards the center of the city, the Plaza de Sol. The size of the crowd surged, and we were surrounded by cheering onlookers. This was the first year that the race went through the center like this, and it felt great to be running through such an iconic part of the city.

As we approached Sol, a series of large black-and-white signs began to warn us that the marathon and half-marathon courses were about to part ways—the half-marathon to the left, with only 2 kilometers to the finish line, and the marathon to the right, with 23 kilometers to go.

In the background you can see the signs signalling the split between the half-marathon and marathon routes. I am looking rather grim on the left.

Just as we entered Sol, I noticed a group of paramedics and a police officer, who were gathered over somebody laying on the ground, wrapped in a metallic blanket. He must have been a half-marathoner who tried to push too hard during the final stretch of the race. As I passed, I saw his feet moving, so I knew that he was basically alright. But it is true that long-distance running can be dangerously stressful on the body. On March 12 of this year, a young man died after completing a half-marathon in Elche. And four people were hospitalized during the March 26 half-marathon in Madrid. Again, long-distance running may not be the healthiest sport, at least in the short-term.

I tried to put this specter of the perils of running out of my mind as I entered Sol. There were large crowds on either side of us, and a band playing on a stage right in the center. I waved at the half-marathoners, and then turned with some trepidation to the rest of the race. The Madrid half-marathon is actually quite a nice course—reasonably flat and mostly downhill. But the full marathon is considerably more difficult, with long stretches of up-hill and sections with little shade. Besides, Madrid in April is normally quite warm, and by now (around 11:30) we could start to feel the heat. I was sure that this second half would be far worse than the first.

By this point I had spilled some Powerade on my glasses and couldn’t use them. The Madrid Cathedral is behind me.

At least it began with some nice scenery. We ran down the Calle Mayor, passing by the Plaza Mayor, the Mercado de San Miguel, and the Casa de la Villa (a medieval building which serves as City Hall). Then we emerged onto the Calle de Bailén and ran right by the city’s cathedral and the Royal Palace. Finally we went up the Calle Princesa, through the beautiful Parque del Oeste, and across the Manzanares River.

All this time, I was still on the tail of my pacer, though several times I fell behind and had to struggle to catch up again. I could feel myself getting tired. I tried to combat it. My coworker, Víctor (the serious runner who won the Aranjuez race), advised me to drink water at every opportunity. This was more frequent than I expected, as there were water stations every 2 or 3 kilometers in the marathon course. I did my best to keep cool and stay hydrated: drinking a glass of Powerade (for the sugar), several gulps of water, and pouring the rest over my head. I also came equipped with energy gels, which are essentially just tubes full of glucose and caffeine that are supposed to keep your energy levels up during a long race.

Even with all of this chemical help, however, I felt myself flagging. After stopping at one water station, I looked up and saw that my pacer was about 50 meters in front of me. Try as I might, I couldn’t catch up. Soon the balloon was barely visible down the track and I had to resign myself to running a slower marathon. Admittedly, this was a kind of relief, since it allowed me to go at a more comfortable speed. But as I neared kilometer 26, I found that I had to exert effort even to keep going at this more modest pace.

Meanwhile, another one of my coworkers, Pedro, passed me. (I guess I have a lot of athletic coworkers.) He said hello and disappeared down the track, on his way to complete an impressive 3:55 marathon.

I look like I’m suffering, but I still felt okay… That’s the Royal Palace behind me.

Any hope of a strong finish fell apart once I reached the Casa de Campo. Here the path traveled uphill for kilometer after kilometer, often on dirt roads with little shade. I could not stop thinking that I had entered the Valley of Death. Many runners around me were experiencing this same difficulty, slowing down considerably or just walking, a phenomenon known as “hitting the wall.” This is when you use up all of your body’s glycogen (the way your body stores carbs for later use), which typically happens at around mile 20 (or kilometer 30).

According to the sports writer Fitzgerald, this happens to about 70% of runners who attempt a marathon, so I saw it coming. But I did not expect it to feel the way it did. I thought that “hitting the wall” would mean feeling dizzy, lightheaded, and totally out of energy. Instead, I felt reasonably alert and clear-headed, but my legs cramped up and began to feel extremely heavy. It felt as if my muscles had done as much as they could and were totally worn out. It got worse: as I ran up a cruelly steep hill, painful spasms shot up both my legs, which was concerning to say the least. I began to worry—perhaps irrationally?—that I was nearing my legs’ breaking point, and that I had to back off to avoid an injury.

Under these circumstances, I slowed down more and more, every kilometer more sluggish than the last. I was not alone in my predicament: by around mile 21 (kilometer 35) almost everyone around me was walking, at least part of the time. I considered walking for a bit to regain some strength, but I was afraid that if I stopped running I wouldn’t be able to start again. So instead, I just ran at a snail’s pace, so slowly it was generous to even call it running. I was barely going faster than those walking around me. This, naturally, had the effect of stretching out the final miles to an agonizing extent. Rather than passing a kilometer marker every six minutes, it was taking me eight. 

Though my stomach felt absolutely full, I dutifully stopped for my last drink of water, pouring half of it over my head. My eyes cleared in time for me to see the pacer for 4:30 passing by. They were not going very fast, but there was no way I could hope to catch them in my state. Not only had I missed my goal of 4:15, then, but I had even failed with my backup goal of 4:30. Yet I was much too exhausted to be upset. Indeed, I was surprised at how cheerful I felt. From what I’ve heard, many runners feel quite depressed at this point in the race. But if my body was breaking down, I still had enough mental strength to keep myself chugging along.

Near the end. I think you can tell I was struggling. (By then I had cleaned off my glasses with water.)

I was nearing the end now. The course took us through the Delicias neighborhood, down the Calle de Méndez Álvaro, and finally past Atocha station and up the Paseo del Prado. There were more and more spectators at every turn, swelling into a real crowd as we neared the end. Once again, I was very grateful to everyone cheering, though I admit I felt pretty ridiculous as I inched along, dragging my legs behind me, while people acted as if I were some kind of athlete. I certainly did not feel like an athlete at that moment.

The run up the Paseo del Prado felt endless, the upwards slope making me slow down to a barely perceptible forward movement. But eventually, inevitably, the end came into sight. I passed the Prado Museum, I passed the Fountain of Neptune, and finally the enormous Palace of Cibeles came into view. Just beyond, I could see the inflatable gate that marked kilometer 42, the finish line now directly ahead. I felt a surge of emotion when I finally saw it, and surprised myself by almost crying. But, realistically, I think I was too dehydrated for tears. In any case, the emotion passed almost instantly and I felt mainly relief as I attempted—unsuccessfully—to speed up for a final sprint.

Attempting jubilation.

I stumbled over the finish line. I was finished. Volunteers handed me a medal and a bag of food, and ushered out of the runners’ zone. Though I should have been enjoying my “triumph” (or at least savoring being able to stop running), I was quite worried at this point about whether I would be able to walk to the train and make it home without incident. I really didn’t know if my legs would take much more. But this fear was unfounded: I made it back to my apartment without incident, peeled off the sweaty clothes, and assessed the damage.

Everything in my pockets—my keys, my headphones, my phone—was sticky from the energy gel packs, which had spilled after I opened them. One of my toenails was bruised and discolored (even though I made sure to cut them beforehand!). On my other foot, I had a large and painful blister. And I had small cuts from chafing all over my body. Getting into the shower stung like crazy.

The rest of the day, I just sat on the couch, eating pizza and ice cream. I did not feel triumphant or euphoric, but I was done. My final time: 4:41. Of the 9,101 runners who competed, I was number 6,139—decidedly in the bottom third. But I was done!

I have already written far too much about this race. If you are still with me, you deserve a medal yourself. Now, I only want to address a few more points.

First, could I have avoided the dreaded wall? There were a few things I could have done differently on race day. I could, for instance, have gone at a slower pace for the first half, and thus have conserved more energy for the second (though it is far from certain I would have run the entire thing faster than way). It’s also possible that I didn’t take enough fuel. Many runners gulp down an energy gel every 30 minutes, with the express aim of not depleting one’s glycogen reserves. However, I am a bit skeptical that this actually works. Doesn’t it take some time for the body to process and absorb calories? Perhaps the most obvious answer is that I could have trained more. But that will almost always be true.

Realistically, even with all the tweaking in the world, I don’t think I could have done much better than I did. I am not built for speed.

Another question I am sometimes asked is: What do you think about during such a long run? The honest answer is: not much. For such a simple activity, running takes a lot of attention. Indeed, I find that it is quite meditative, and I don’t often catch my mind wandering far afield. Besides, while running, I hardly have the energy for anything more complex than a passing observation. This, I think, is actually one of the primary benefits of running. It clears the mind.

Running a marathon seems to have reputation as something admirable and noteworthy in our culture. It is the mark of somebody determined and goal-oriented. Now that I’ve run one, I can ask: is that reputation justified? Certainly, training for a marathon requires consistency and discipline. But the same can be said of many other activities—learning an instrument, writing a novel, painting a portrait, or simply having a job and raising a family. And considering the huge time expenditure and the questionable health benefits (probably training for shorter races is just as good for you), it is difficult to argue that it is an especially good use of one’s time. Thus, I am not convinced it deserves its reputation as an admirable challenge.

Last, I must ask myself: Will I ever do this again? I cannot say the experience was overwhelmingly positive. It was time-consuming, often painful, and I achieved unremarkable results. And, again, I am not even sure that I am now any healthier than I was before I started. Just a little skinnier.

Even so, I may be betraying the mentality of an addict when I say that I will almost certainly run another marathon. Though running is the simplest sport imaginable, as you can hopefully see, doing it to the absolute best of your potential requires a great deal of thought, effort, and focus. It is a kind of massive experiment you are conducting with your own body. I guess all this is to say that I am hooked, and eager to see if I can improve. But in the back of my mind, I know that running is, ultimately, just a form of exercise—a component of the life I want, but not its main focus. After all, I have a blog to write.

(Photo credits: All of the photos used in this post, except that of me and Carlos, were taken by professionals at the event and purchased at