Don’t run for your life!

Over the past couple of weeks there have been runners on the streets of Madrid. On the way to the Very Big Bank early in the morning, walking through the centre of town, I saw a woman jogging through the traffic, in professional runners’ gear. There are people huffing and puffing through the Retiro, up and down Gran Via, and just about everywhere you look. A week or so ago there was the Half-Marathon, in its fourth year, an event which not only one of my students participated in, but also a colleague, along with approximately 16,000 other people. It was so over-attended that the starting post was jammed with people, and it took my student 4 minutes and forty seconds before he could even begin running. According to my colleague, who runs regularly in marathons, there was some disregard for race etiquette: for example, you are not supposed to run three or four abreast, but given the Spanish habit of blocking pavements this was no surprise (if there is a family of 6 out strolling, they will inevitably walk in an unbreakable  line along the entire width of the pavement while you scuttle behind, snapping at their heels like an impatient puppy, waiting for a gap in order to break through). Otherwise it was an upbeat and enjoyable event, hosted on a bright, sunny Spring day, the fastest time achieved by Ethiopia’s Reta Kabtamu with a time of 1:03:33. The female winner was Aseffa Aselefelch, also from Ethiopia with a time of 1:13:46. And this was only the start – there is the full marathon coming up on Sunday the 17th.

I won’t be here, I will be visiting the ‘pueblo’ in Soria for a few days with my mother. I am quite pleased not to be here, actually. When you live in a capital, the last thing you need is to come across a major sporting event when you least expect it. I remember one of my students last year, a rather glamorous goth, and Marilyn Manson fan, who was studying to be a make-up artist, telling me about ‘running into’ the event the year before. It is always held on a Sunday afternoon, but like most people, uninterested in these things, she had forgotten it was on, or perhaps not even registered that is was to take place. So, it was with some consternation that she returned to her house near Gran Via early one Sunday morning, from a big Saturday night out, still the worse for wear, and found her ‘walk of shame’ invaded by people all dressed in sports gear and earnestly running. It even caused her to have an on-the-spot ‘Oh God, what am I doing with my life?….’ crisis, until she realised they were marathon runners, rather than the other scenario- that the whole of Madrid had turned sporty, this is just what people do on a Sunday, and she was the last one to know about it.

So the runners in Madrid these past few weeks are in preparation for the main event. Even Madrid Metro television showed cheerful footage this week of runners training for the big day, and gave a few helpful tips on rehydration. However, in other bulletins, they showed apparently contradictory advice, when reporting on the levels of pollution in the city, an issue which is being hotly debated here. Advice that couldn’t be much less clear: ‘Don’t exercise outside when pollution levels are too high.’ Which would be all of the time, then. Madrid is one of the most polluted cities in Europe, with freguent CO2 and NO2 emission levels above the legal EU amount, regular, broken promises from Mayor Gallardon to block traffic from the city centre in order to reduce them (in 2006 he ‘promised’ to do it by 2008, then in 2008 it was put forward another two years, and now he speaks of dealing with this issue ‘in his next term’).  The EU is talking about sanctions for the continual flouting of the rules, and ecologists are furious. Meanwhile, the rest of us slowly choke to death. Two months ago there was a ‘boina’ (beret) of pollution hovering over the city, a blackish cloud squatting over our heads, which could be clearly seen and was photographed in all its revolting glory from high points in the city, or from the Sierra, prompting Sanidad (Health Ministry) to warn people in certain areas of the city not to spend too much time outside, and advising the elderly, very young, or those suffering from respiratory illnesses to stay inside if possible. Under these circumstances, is it really a good idea to run a full marathon through the city centre?

Far be it from me to rain on anyone’s parade, but maybe in this case we ought to learn from the original myth of Marathon. There are various different versions of the legend, but most of them agree that the original Greek runner ran several miles to Marathon to deliver the message about the battle victory, some versions claiming he ran further than others, some claiming he had fought all day and ran in full armour. But most legends of the story agree that upon arriving, he shortly dropped down dead of exhaustion. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt that exercise, after all, can be dangerous?…..

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