The last run I set off on before moving to Spain was on a cold, wet morning in May. I jogged around a country park in the south side of Glasgow, and as I was running, I made a special effort to take it all in. I absorbed the sights, the sounds and smells I was so used to – of the woodland, the birds, the cool, damp air, and the muddy terrain underfoot.
Knowing it would be the last time in a long time that I would run in these familiar conditions, I remember thinking things like “I wonder if they have trees like this in Madrid”, “Will I ever run in the rain in Spain?” and most importantly – “Will it be too hot?”
I had never enjoyed running in the heat, it felt punishing and unnecessary. In Scotland, running is the last thing on our minds when the sun comes out. Instead we go to a beer garden to enjoy a refreshment or head to the coast to bask in the rarity of sunshine.
Even though I had committed to a commute-on-foot from work, I was only faced with a couple of hot July days, when I would struggle home, red-faced and sweating. But the version of heat I knew then was significantly cooler than I know now. Even 18°C was considered much too hot for such vigorous exercise!
So, it was months before I plucked up the courage to go running here in Madrid. My first few attempts were a struggle but, timing is everything in the summer months and I have learnt to pick my moments. Heading out early in the morning when there is still a “chill” in the air or late in the evening when the sun disappears behind the mountains is prime time. It is not uncommon for me to be panting my way around the local parque at 9pm (wondering how it could possibly still be 30°C).
For me, running brings clarity. That’s why I find pounding the pavements a perfect time to practise Español. It’s the only time I seem to remember key phrases and can have semi-fluent but random conversations with myself. Even my pronunciation sounds muy bien (in my head at least).
Other times I count to 100 or just listen to a bit of Shakira – anything to distract from the heat!
In Madrid, it’s not just the heat to contend with, but altitude too. These conditions have got me thinking like an athlete. Mo Farah famously trained at altitude (albeit 1,800m higher than here). And I’ve even considered investing in some skimpy pants and wraparound sunglasses como Paula Radcliffe, but I fear this puts me at risk of becoming the female running equivalent of a “MAMIL” (middle-aged man in Lycra).
Inspired, and once confident that I wouldn’t faint from dizziness or die from dehydration, I started to feel invincible (of course remembering to drink water and replenish with some mean home-made electrolyte drinks after track sessions helped).
I developed a strong admiration for people who exercise in the heat, and this was when I heard about the Marathon des Sables!
A challenge of insane proportions. In short, it involves running 250km across the Sahara Desert, over 7 days (day 4 is a DOUBLE MARATHON), carrying all your own equipment and water supplies. The physical and mental barriers to overcome must be extreme, but I do wonder if the toughest part could be the heat? I mean, it is the Sahara Desert.
And it’s the original toughest footrace on earth, but I encourage anyone to watch the Barkley Marathons on Netflix to see what stole the crown…
(Spoiler: I did not even consider let alone sign up for this challenge. It simply changed my perspective on the running “extremities” I thought I was facing)!
Just imagine setting yourself a challenge so great and sharing that experience with people from all over the world, camping out under the stars, exhausted after long hard days of scaling sand dunes, and communicating only through runner’s language.
It is a language where often no words are needed (usually due to shortness of breath)! Emotions are evident on a runner’s face – pain, struggle, and sometimes even joy! Injuries can be signalled to, and times can be compared by pointing at your watch.
Most importantly though, displays of encouragement and support don’t need words. It takes no words to give a reassuring thumbs-up, high-five or pat on the back. And I’m sure none are needed to take someone’s hand and drag them up a sand dune…
The Marathon des Sables seems not only to be a challenge of survival, but of companionship and connection too, regardless of language. Maybe this is part of the reason why so many loco people head into the desert each year.
Just thinking about it makes me long for a refreshing run in the rain – the type where you have to relentlessly blink the water out of your eyes to see, trainers heavy from splashing through puddles, and soaked to the skin (but somehow manage to return home without breaking a sweat). It used to take a lot of mental preparation to venture out in the first place when the alternative was a cup of tea on the sofa, but there is not better feeling than having pushed yourself out there. Well, except for the hot shower afterwards!
It can take just as much mental prep to head out for a run in the sun. Except now, it is sweat I blink from my eyes, and the clothes I peel off are just as wet. This time though, the best part is the cold shower!
The next time I have to psyche myself up, I will remind myself that I am not navigating the desert with rationed access to agua, carrying 8kg on my back and don’t need a doctor to deal with my unsalvageable blistered feet, while the hot sand burns my legs.
Nowadays, I live closer to that very desert than I do to the piney forests and damp woodland trails of home.
And although it is hot, I don’t have to get up and do it all over again tomorrow.
But, with all those open, endless days of running and all that clarity it would bring, just imagine how good my Spanish would be…