And girl it looks so pretty to me
Like it always did –
Like the Spanish city to me
When we were kids
Dire Straits – October 1980
La Rambla de Almería. An elegant Spanish boulevard, rising gently but inexorably towards the sunlit mountains of the Sierra de Alhamilla. Just 2.4 km of climb, and yet this one stretch defines an entire race. Twice.
I look across at my running partner today, Sweder, envious of that commitment, that confidence, that gift for climbing hills. Lacking any of these, I’m just grateful to be running with someone to chase. The first time round, it had been hard enough, but now 14 km are in our legs and it’s pure survival. ‘The Snake is my friend’, he chants bizarrely, a cryptic homage to the legendary climb above Brighton which has underpinned his training plan, indeed possibly his whole life, if the exhortations over dinner last night were to be believed. I’d laugh out loud, but the rasping of my breathing won’t allow it, so it’s a wry smile which replaces my grimace for a few more metres as we approach the top. Steepening all the way. Prestwood Hill in Crawley and South Hill in Guildford were never like this.
Several times along the climb, I know it’s finished. Those shamefully concealed, scarcely admitted moments when I reluctantly stop to walk on my home ascents, coming home to roost. It can’t go on.
Once, twice, three times, the thinnest of gaps opens up. Half a metre, a metre. And each time I grind it back down, fighting against pain, all reason and common sense. I’m draining my body of everything I’ve got left, and there’s still a third of this course to run. But fall back now, just a couple of strides, and my race is blown. All that emotion and hard work, that marvellous excitement just a few breathless minutes ago of running an arm’s length away from the greatest distance runner of all time, Haile Gebreselassie, striding towards another major international half marathon victory, all of that will be gone. So I hang on, a few strides more. I count breaths. It’s hard not to. You could count them in Huddersfield – they’re loud enough for certain. A hundred will do it, surely. It doesn’t. 121, 122, 123…., and finally we round the palm trees and head back down the Rambla once more.
At last there’s time to breathe. Time to reflect. On Spain. On Spanish people, and Spanish hospitality. I’ve been coming here, all my life. One of my first ever foreign trips, I’m told, was to Dénia at the age of 2. Ibiza and Formentera four years later. Mallorca at the age of 10. Another country, the Spain of the tourist. And even with ETA planting a bomb on Dénia’s beach just last night, it won’t stop me returning now. Because it’s a different Spain which calls me back.
The real Spain was somewhere I didn’t discover then. But years later, it came to find me, far away in the north of this vast and mountainous land. In the open horizons of Castilla-León. Tierras del Cid. The scented pine forests of the Iberian Chains. The green mountains and coasts of Cantabria and Asturias. The vineyards of Cataluña. Deserts and gorges of the Ebro valley. The humbling scale of El Pilar in Zaragoza, of the citadel in Lérida and the Roman viaduct of Segovia. The drama of the Pyrenees and the cliffs of Huesca. Spring snow under a blue sky on the Picos de Europa and the Guadarrama. The gritty honesty of the Basque Country, the raw industrialism of Bilbao, the bustle and energy of Madrid. I saw them all, and they changed me. And later on something, not yet enough, of the flavour of the south, of Andalucía. The white towns and orange trees of Málaga, the olive groves of Murcia, and the desolate and beautiful landscapes above Almería.
But did I really understand them ? Not at all, not at first, but gradually they’ve become a part of me. On any given day, I can conjure the taste of a cooling tortilla española, of paella, and huevos con jamón. The aroma of freshly fried seafood and alubias rojas con chorizo. That sprinkle of sugar in my first café con leche. Those honey cakes at breakfast time. The bone-numbing chill of a winter night in Burgos, and the searing heat of July. The smiles of dark Spanish eyes. The respect for family. The dignity of age. The excitement of youth. The warmth and pride of a nation, a land and its people.
And that’s why running here is important to me. It’s a different country now – the ox-carts and Séat 500s of the post-dictatorship mountain villages back then have given way to the Mercedes and BMW’s of a vibrant European economy today. Almería – it’s an elegant and exciting modern and yet historic city, with a chic and style of its own. A working city of friendly people, and of passionate runners. The home of the Mediterranean Games in 2005, with a dramatic new stadium to match.
Just what the locals might think of us is hard to imagine now. The pain of ascent has given way to a post-euphoric recovery on the boulevard’s return leg. Having witnessed the timeless grace of a World and Olympic Champion hurtling past in his distance-running prime, the spectators lining the streets are now treated to the sight of two gangly middle-aged Englishmen singing the strains of La Bamba all the way back down to the sea. ‘Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán‘ – yes, it’s only partly true, but in mitigation you’d have to admit that ‘Yo soy geologo loco, y el es ejecutivo inglés de logística‘ just doesn’t scan half so well.
Our pace improves all down the hill, and we’re on course for a reasonable time, but it really doesn’t matter now. The worst is over, we think. Four more windswept kilometres along the Avenida de Cabo de Gata, and into a gale that defiantly swings round to resist us up the Avenida del Mediterráneo. The road rises. Sweder’s been slipstreaming shamelessly behind me ‘contra el viento‘, but now it’s my turn to hold back on his shoulder. It’s strangely hard work. Another three kilometres left, past scores of tiring runners, falling like flies on the roadside past the railway marshalling yards. None more tired than me, but I daren’t admit it now, or I’ll be lost. Gradually I realise that a half marathon whilst marathon training is one thing, but run as a goal in itself it’s quite a different experience altogether. At least three miles longer, for a start.
Finally, we round the corner, and there it is. El estadio Mediterráneo. All those years of watching marathon leaders approaching the stadium, and I was sure they’d always been lifted by the sight. I’d never thought for one minute that actually they’d been distraught at how far away it still looked, doubting whether they’d get by without a quickly-snatched walking break, right now. But somehow, I’m ahead again, with no idea why. That 8:06 last mile on my Garmin must have had something to do with it, but in this moment there’s no logic, just legs full of lactate and lungs labouring their lament.
We turn into the compound and the road falls away towards the long-awaited promise of the stadium ahead. It’s so much steeper than I expected, but then a huge sky opens up and we’re running alongside stands full of people, amidst the cheers of the crowd. Five hundred metres to run, past cone after cone. Still something left for a surge down the straight. It’s 1:54 – I’ve run better times, for sure, but the stadium finish brings a new acceleration to an entirely untried level of speed. It’s a thrilling end to this tactically-shared and hard-run race, a moment to stay with me for a very long time, and a memory to store for the dreams of a lifetime to come.
There’s a fantastic lunch to enjoy with Antonio, our Almerían host, through the afternoon ahead. A night of good friends, and tapas, of tinto, tortilla and Guinness.
And finally, next morning, there’s a relaxing Spanish stroll of a recovery run along the beautiful beach promenade. Just 5 km of gently warming Mediterranean sunshine alongside an azure sea.
And girl, it looks so pretty to me – like it always did.
After a dramatic race, it was a thrilling finish. Such a marvellous experience to complete an international event inside a major stadium. Here it looks like a classic case of premature overcelebration from Sweder, just before I sneaked past him on the line.
And if I recall correctly, Haile Gebreselassie is around 200 m behind us, just out of shot. Honest.
90. Iberian chains – Tierras del Cid, Spain
137. Otro día más sin verte: a return to Spain
91. Madrid me mata
98. Off the shoulder of Orion – Costa de la Luz
129. Tenerife – 1: the light at the end of the world
28. Thoughts on racing