A runner’s homage to Catalonia
You might associate Barcelona with footballing brilliance; vibrant nightlife; a history of radical politics; or the unique architecture of Antoni Gaudi. But for one weekend in March, Barcelona is also home to Spain’s biggest marathon, and the fourth biggest in Europe, with more than 20,000 runners having registered for the 2017 race.
This year the Barcelona marathon, which took place on March 12th and was the 39th edition of the race, also marked the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, which was an important landmark in Barcelona’s modern reinvention of itself as a leading tourist destination and emblematic post-industrial city.
I had signed up in December for Barcelona. The Dubai running season is well suited to preparing for a Spring marathon, and my research into the Barcelona marathon indicated that it is a good one. I also had in mind that Barcelona might be a good place to try to get a qualifying time for the 2018 Boston Marathon.
The day of the Barcelona race was dry and cool. I need a marathon time of sub-3:25 in order to apply for Boston - and most likely I need 3:22 or faster to be sure of getting in. But in the days before Barcelona I wasn’t confident that I was fit enough to get 3:22. And if I started too fast I risked blowing up, and having to jog-walk through the later stages of the race.
My previous three marathons had been derailed by poor judgment about pacing, as well as by injury and illness. So I decided that it would be wisest to scrap the Boston-qualifier plan and instead target a more conservative time of 3:30, which would require an average pace of just under five minutes per kilometer. As the clock ticked towards the race start time of 8:30am, I loitered anxiously at the back of the 3:15-3:30 pen.
The Barcelona marathon is a true city run. The start line is just off the central Placa D’Espanya, with a backdrop of the Font Magica ornamental fountain, and beyond that, Montjuic hill. From Placa D’Espanya, the route charts a clockwise circuit that passes many of the city’s sights, including FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium; Passeig de Gracia, an upmarket shopping street; the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s most famous work; the seafront; and the Gothic Quarter of the Old City. Most of the route is on wide boulevards, and is largely flat, with a few moderate gradients.
As we returned to the city center, crowds of spectators thronged the route, while drumming groups and rock bands kept up the tempo. I had resisted the temptation to speed up in the early stages of the race, and as a result I had got well past the 30 km mark at a steady pace and without blowing up. At the point where the route plunged into the Old City, a bunch of Green Day-lookalikes chopped out growling riffs that chased runners into the narrower streets.
After the Old City, there was not much further to go. There is a noticeable incline in the final 2.5km stretch to the finish line by Placa D’Espanya, but runners should be grateful that the route does not follow that of the 1992 Olympic marathon, which featured a steep climb over the final 4km, because the 1992 race finished in the Olympic stadium situated at the top of Montjuic.
In the men’s 1992 Olympic marathon, the winner, South Korea’s Young-Cho Hwang drew away from his final remaining rival, Japan’s Koichi Morishita, in the last mile of the race, by making a gritty effort on Montjuic. Hwang’s win held a wider drama because the only previous occasion when a Korean had won the Olympic marathon was in 1936, when Korea was under Japanese occupation, and so that win had been credited to Japan.
The six medalists from the Barcelona Olympic marathon - the male and female gold, silver, and bronze medal winners from 1992 - were invited to the city this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of those Olympics and their race. All six took part in the 4 km Breakfast Run that took place on the day before the marathon, and the 1992 bronze medalist Stephan Freigang also ran the full marathon. Freigang finished this year’s marathon in a time of 3:03, so even now he is no slouch.
In the 2017 elite field, Ethiopia’s Helen Bekele won the women’s race, in a new record for the Barcelona course of 2:25:04. In the men’s race, Kenyan Jonah Kipkemoi Chesum, who was running as a pacemaker and was expected to drop out once his task was done, staged an upset by deciding at the 35 km mark that he was feeling strong and would continue - and then going on to win in a time of 2:08:57, in his first full competitive marathon.
A long while after the elites, but in line with my plan, I crossed the finish line in a net time of 3:30:13. I had enjoyed the run and achieved what I had set out to do, and I was happy with that. And in that moment I was probably even more happy to be able to stop running and flop on a patch of grass close to the Font Magica, clutching a banana and an electric-blue energy drink.
Making an international trip to run a marathon could be seen as an extravagance, and travelling from Dubai to Barcelona is more than a short hop. But a visit for the marathon could be extended into a longer stay in the city, or used as a springboard for a tour of this north-east corner of Spain, or of the country, or a wider trip across Europe. Barcelona, and its marathon, are unlikely to disappoint.
Barcelona Marathon - key facts
When: The 2018 marathon is scheduled to take place on March 11th
How much: The registration fee for the first 10,000 runners to sign up is €61.50; thereafter the fee is €73.00 until 17,000 have registered; and then the fee goes up to €84.00
Event website: www.zurichmaratobarcelona.es