I have been a bad athlete for as long as I can remember. Apart from a brief and embarrassing stint on a soccer team in elementary school (all I can recall is spending an entire game crying my eyes out), I have avoided team sports all my life. And they have avoided me. In gym class I was always one of the last to be picked for a team. For all of middle school and high school I was tall, overweight, and consequently I had all the gawkiness and sluggishness of both conditions. True, I did spend a few years taking taekwondo classes in high school, and I was not so bad at it. But my unpromising career as a martial artist came to an abrupt end when all the stretching and kicking made it necessary to go to physical therapy for my aching, cracking knees.
Of all of the sports that I have failed at, the most conspicuous is running. Every year I dreaded the day in gym class when we would be made to run a mile. I always began with the hope that, this time, I would be able to run the whole thing without stopping. After all, nearly everyone else could. But inevitably, less than halfway through, I would run out of breath and have to walk; and I spent the rest of the time alternating between a wheezing run and a panting walk. Not once did I manage to run a mile in less than ten minutes. Just as bad was the PACER test, when we had to run from one end of the gym to the other within progressively shorter intervals, signalled by an ominous beep. The real studs were able to get to level nine, while I gave up far before that—defeated by the high-pitched tone.
This long and undistinguished experience taught me that I would never be a runner. My knee problems only added to this belief. So, after high school, I never tried. I was pragmatically and philosophically committed to a life of inactivity, with the sole exception of walking (a true intellectual’s sport). But then something happened to break my conviction that I could not run.
Last year, I got into the habit of leaving my apartment at the exact minute needed to catch the bus. Sometimes I left a little late, however, and this put me in a dilemma: walk and miss the bus (and this would mean arriving late to work), or run and catch it. My fear of being fired overcame my combined fears of looking foolish, getting my clothes sweaty, and dying of suffocation. So I ran. It started with only a half of a block, just a short sprint to catch the light. Then it became the whole block, and eventually two blocks—sprinting for the light, stopping, sprinting for the next light, stopping again—until I would run almost the whole way to the bus. And the strangest part is that I did not hate it.
Still, nothing changed. I did not participate in my school’s “Race Against Hunger,” a charity race that we do every year. Instead, I sat by the sidelines feeling bored and useless. I did not even own a pair of sneakers. Nevertheless, circumstances were quietly conspiring to make running a reality. Aside from my bus sprints, living in Europe had left a mark. On all my travels I had tried to walk as much as possible, mostly to avoid paying for taxis and buses and trains; and this had made me a resolute trekker, capable of walking miles under the hottest suns.
All of this unintended athletic experience culminated in a growing curiosity: Could I, finally, after a decade of not running, run a mile without stopping? Sure, I was no athlete; but I was skinnier and in better shape than I was in high school. That adolescent experience had left within me the iron conviction that a mile was an impossibly long distance for me, and that my body was simply unable to do it. Yet in the spirit of science I wanted to test this conviction.
So, one cold February day, I went to a sportswear store with my brother. I could not have felt any more out of place as I looked at sweatpants, recovery gels, and headbands than if I had wandered into an Aztec ritual sacrifice. This was not my world. But I managed to buy myself tights, sneakers, and an armband for my phone, feeling absolutely ridiculous all the while.
That same day I carried my purchases home and prepared for my trial. The tights were, well, tight; the armband was awkward to use. When I walked out into the street, I felt acutely embarrassed, as if everyone was staring at me. I had not worn athletic wear since… actually, I don’t know. What was I doing? Long before I began to run, my body became flushed with adrenaline. I was certain that I was about to make a fool of myself.
The walk to the park, where I would begin my run, seemed endless. But finally I arrived. This was the fateful moment. I opened the app, Runkeeper, and started the tracking function. Then, I fumbled in getting it into the armband holder, and then fumbled again in putting it on my arm. Now the run began—slowly. The first steps felt strange. Retiro Park seemed to bounce up and down. I remember finding it odd that I could enjoy the beauty of the trees while running; I had assumed that I would not be able to think about or appreciate anything.
Sure enough, the tightness in my lungs soon came, that horrible feeling of suffocating. But it was never powerful enough to make me want to stop. I kept going until I got to the artificial lake, and then I turned left and then left again, to complete the circuit. The ground was mostly flat but there was a slight hill near the end, and I thought my chest would explode as I crawled to the top of it. Finally, and unbelievably, I made it back to where I had started. And I had run the entire time. I checked the app—1.12 miles, at a pace of 9:39 per mile. For the first time in my life, at the age of 27, I ran a whole mile.
The months that followed were full of constant surprise. The biggest was that I actually enjoyed running. I did not necessarily enjoy the physical sensation of running; the mythical runner’s high eluded me, and I felt mostly pain and exhaustion. But I did enjoy improving; and I improved with every run—running longer distances at faster paces. Unlike writing or playing music, running can be measured objectively, in simple, cold figures. There can be no dispute over which runner is better or worse. This makes progress very easy to see and, consequently, very satisfying.
I chatted about it incessantly, even getting mildly obsessed with the subject. It felt genuinely surreal to be spending so much time thinking about an athletic activity: this was not me. More important, it felt liberating to see myself as someone who could actually do something physical. My carefully constructed self-image as a delicate intellectual had cracked and crumbled. I felt as if a new continent of experience was now available for exploration.
Eventually, my coworker, Holden, suggested that I do the half-marathon. He had signed up for the marathon and had been preparing for months. At first I dismissed the idea as absurd. The longest I had run at that point was six miles, at a very sluggish pace, and it nearly killed me. Yet, the idea was implanted in my head. I thought of the feeling of triumph, of surpassing even my most ambitious running goals. And, of course, I imagined how much weight I would lose in the process of training (it wasn’t much). So, I paid my 40€ (somewhat indignantly) and signed myself up. Now the serious training would begin.
This consisted of one long run a week, in which I tried to increase my maximum distance by one mile, and several shorter runs wherein I worked on my speed. This regime got me to 13 miles two weeks before the day of the half-marathon, April 27 (it had been moved up a day because of the elections on April 28). On my long runs, I would end up going so slowly that I struggled to pass old ladies with canes. But at least I knew that I could go the distance.
Finally there was only one week until race day. I was nervous. Somehow, I was certain that I was going to do badly and disappoint myself. It did not matter what time I got, of course, but I had decided that I was to run the race in less than two hours—not an easy thing for a beginning runner. I followed all the typical advice, taking a break in the days before the race and stuffing myself with platefuls of pasta. By the time Saturday came around I was well-rested, well-fed, and as prepared as I could have been. Would it be enough?
Two day before the race I picked up my bib (the little paper with your number on it, and a chip so they can track your movement). Annoyingly, they put the pick-up location all the way out in Feria de Madrid, a large complex of expo centers on the outskirts of the city. It took some time just to get there; and then it took some time just to walk through the mammoth buildings to the proper hall. There, a series of volunteers in booths gave me a bib, a t-shirt, and a drawstring bag. The rest of the space was full of other booths offering running-related products and services—energy gels, massages, protein powders. Probably many had free samples; but it was late and I wanted to go home.
The next night, I attached the bib to my sleeveless running shirt with safety pins. I was officially ready.
I woke up, ate toast and peanuts, drank water and coffee, and headed out the door. I had been told that it’s best to warm-up a bit before the race, so I jogged about ten minutes to the train station. When I walked out of the train, I was surrounded by thousands of men and women in colorful sports clothes. I did not realize it was such a massive undertaking. Stalls were set up for clothing drop off; hundreds of port-a-potties lined the streets (all without toilet paper); rock music blared from enormous speakers. The closer I got to the running corrals, the more I was awed at the sheer size of the event. 35,000 people were running that day—the 10k, the half-marathon, and the full marathon. William the Conqueror had conquered England with fewer.
I waited, warmed up again, and waited some more. Finally it was time to get into my corral. It was like being in a nightclub—a packed mass of bodies. How could I run through this? Rock music blared. The announcer counted down. Athletic-looking people were dancing (motivationally?) on elevated platforms in the middle of the track. They had spent a lot of money on this thing.
Finally the signal was given. I tensed for the exertion; but it was a bit anticlimactic, since the whole mass of people had to walk to the starting line before they actually began running. There were people holding big blue balloons with times on them; they were professional pacers, and would run the race at exactly the time indicated on their balloon. I struggled to find the 2 hour balloon: it was several hundred meters ahead, and had started before me. Finally I crossed the starting line and found myself jogging in a loose formation.
“Hey man,” I heard a voice say. I turned to see David, a friend I had made in my masters program. He had helped me work on my speed in preparation for the marathon, as I struggled to keep up with him on our weekly runs around Retiro Park. (This is something I discovered during training: running with better runners makes it easier to push your limits.) Soon it was apparent that he was still faster than me, as he pulled away through the crowd of runners. Besides David, I knew four other people running that day, but did not see a single familiar face during the whole race, even though our finishing times were mere minutes apart.
Peter Sagal said that anyone could run the first mile of a marathon, since it gives you the sensation of running with a mob. Unfortunately I did not feel the same way. Most people were fairly quiet, just focused on the long trail ahead; nobody burst forward in a mad dash. Our route took us straight north from the starting line, up towards the four skyscrapers near Chamartín station. The organizers had planned the route well, since these first 5 kilometers was the only stretch that was consistently uphill. After we turned the corner to go back south, it was smooth sailing.
Without the reference of the balloon, I did not know if I was going fast enough. I tried to keep a constant pace, not pushing too hard but not going easy. The presence of so many other people was surprisingly motivating. I felt as if I were being urged ahead by a social force, and all I had to do was to follow the wave. For the most part there were not many onlookers—just a few scattered people cheering us on. I appreciated it. There are few sports more boring to watch than long-distance running.
Fifty minutes in we passed our first water station, and I felt like a real professional as I drank my bottle on the move. I also took this opportunity to have some of the energy gel that Holden had given me. This is a cocktail of vitamins, sugar, and caffeine that tastes horrible but it has a satisfying effect. Suddenly I felt optimistic—even chipper. The exhaustion lifted and I felt my stride grow longer. Was this the elusive runner’s high? Probably it was just a caffeine rush, but it felt great nonetheless. As I reached a downhill area in the neighborhood of Salamanca, I began passing some runners ahead of me—which is strange for me. Also strange, I began to talk to myself in almost ecstatically encouraging tones: praising myself and egging myself on. Caffeine is an amazing drug.
As is often the case in Madrid, it was a perfect day to run: a clear blue sky, no wind, no humidity, and not too hot. I am not sure that I ever saw so much of Madrid in a single day, and the city looked beautiful in the sunlight. This is one of the great benefits of running: it makes you feel a part of the community. I had already experienced this during my practice runs in Retiro Park and Madrid Río. Because you are outside, covering plenty of ground, surrounded by others, you feel that you are really getting to know a place and to belong in it. That day, I felt like I belonged in Madrid.
Just as we reached the end of the hill, we passed through a small tunnel. There were people cheering on the road above. But the real noise came from the runners, who shouted and whooped as soon as they passed underground, making the space reverberate with a kind of barbaric din—a war cry for amateur athletes. I added my own feeble contribution to the chorus of adrenaline, and felt for a moment as part of something bigger than myself, as just one pulsating cell of an enormous beast. This feeling, I thought, is why people run these ridiculous races.
This sensation soon passed, as did the euphoric effect of the caffeine, and the usual pain and strain came back. Luckily, I soon reached another water station, and then swallowed the rest of my energy gel, which gave me another boost. But I could tell that my reserves were running low.
This particular marathon was a “rock ‘n’ roll” race, which meant that there were stages set up periodically along the course where local rock bands were playing. I must admit that I did not find the music particularly animating, partially because I was able to hear so little of it as I ran by. The cheering of the crowd was somewhat more uplifting, especially when I noticed my friend Monica calling my name. But by far the most motivating factor were the other runners, sweeping me up into a constant forward motion.
Partially because the race was a “rock ‘n’ roll” marathon, I decided to run it without headphones. This was the first time I had ever done a long run without my trusty audiobooks keeping me company, and I was afraid that I would get bored. But it turned out to be a good choice. Free from the distraction, I was able to focus my energy on keeping myself going at a steady pace. Indeed, the extended focus on my breath and my moving limbs made the experience at times rather meditative; I was completely absorbed in the experience of the race. Another advantage to not using headphones is that I did not have my running app telling me how much distance I had covered. This was a very strategic sort of ignorance, since it allowed me to keep pushing without fear of burning out too early.
I started to enter more familiar neighborhoods, and I knew that I was in the final stretch. The more I ran, the more impressed I became at the scale of the marathon: they had to shut down half the city for us. Now I knew why I had paid 40€ to run. Still, city life tried to go on—in particular the life of the elderly, who refused to stop for any sweaty army. More times than could possibly be a coincidence I had to stop or swerve to avoid an octogenarian slowly crossing the race course, cane or walker in hand. They were either very brave or quite blind.
Soon I passed several men and women shouting directions at us: those running the full marathon had to turn left, while us half-marathoners continued straight. I knew from the map that this meant that we were in the final stretch. I did my best to push myself to go faster, but my whole body was achy and unresponsive. So I compromised by trying not to slow down. A small woman with a very loud voice started yelling what she meant to be encouraging slogans to us, most of which were about the beer waiting for us at the end. This failed to motivate me, I am afraid, since the thought of drinking beer after getting so dehydrated filled me with disgust.
It was around this time that the thought finally crossed my mind that I would very much like to stop. I had been running for almost two hours by then, and I was tired and even bored, and the finish line was failing to materialize. Luckily the course started taking us downhill, past Retiro Park on the way towards Atocha. At this point I spotted Rebe, to whom I had delegated the task of taking photos of the race for this blog. She was busy at work—so busy, in fact, that she did not notice me until I was right about to kiss her.
Now it was truly the final stretch. We got to the bottom of the hill, into the Plaza del Emperador Carlos V, and then began up the Paseo del Prado. The finish line finally came into view. I was afraid to look at it, since I thought it would be too discouraging to see how slowly it came nearer; so I looked at the ground. The loud-voiced woman started shouting even more loudly and insistently. The crowd around us started to roar. I could hear music.
Before the race, I had imagined that the sight of the finish line would fill me with a final burst of energy, and I would be able to spring the last few hundred meters. But when I tried to speed up my body rebelled; it hurt too much; so I contented myself with, once again, keeping an even pace.
When I was within 100 meters I looked up and beheld the goal. Again, I tried sprinting, but it was impossible. So I jogged under the gateway and across the finish line, weakly raising my arms in tired triumph. I was done. Again, I had assumed that I would immediately feel transports of joy and accomplishment, but I was too exhausted to feel or to think anything—except, of course, at how exhausted I felt.
After the finish line volunteers were distributing medals, water bottles, and little bags full of food: a banana, an apple, a chocolate croissant, and a bottle of Powerade—for which I was extremely grateful. I started gulping down the water as I limped out of the race area and into the Plaza de Cibeles. Somehow, Rebe immediately found me, and we sat down nearby while I slowly recovered the ability to speak. My face was marked with salty-white streaks of dried sweat, my clothes were completely soaked, and I walked with an awkward limp. But I felt fantastic, and only felt better as the day progressed. Indeed, the sense of accomplishment, blended with complete bodily relaxation, creating one of the most pleasant days I can remember.
My final time was 2:05, which is five minutes above my goal time, but still easily the best I had ever run. I felt completely at peace—with myself and with the world. And I finally discovered the most valuable benefit of running: not losing weight, nor being healthy, nor even the sense of accomplishment, but just feeling good. And I felt good.