Run or Die — A Barcelona Runner's Saga

Anthony Bain

Through a forest I run, my legs pumping in time with my heartbeat. The beautiful Atalanta, the heroine of Greek mythology, is in full sprint only meters in front of me. She gives me a flirtatious smile as she bounds along, frequently looking back over her shoulder to see if I'm gaining on her. My stride is long and brisk; I can feel myself making progress as we push harder and deeper into the forest. Sunlight penetrates the thick canopy of the forest foliage, creating columns of white light as we race. Suddenly, she turns her head, her eyes darkening to black. "Run or die," she says with an innocent chuckle and takes off, out of sight.

I suddenly awake from my dream, sitting up in my bed, the image of Atalanta still strong in my memory. My breath is deep with a feeling of helplessness gripping my soul.

My muscles began to twitch and, for no reason at all, I find myself grabbing a T-shirt and shorts and pulling on a pair of white, scruffy trainers. I shoot out into the street, no pause. No small talk with passing neighbors, out into the street, no turning back.

At that moment, as the cold winter Barcelona twilight fogs my eyes, it hits me. I suddenly knew something about myself, something I had been waiting a long time to realize. After months of slogging it out, I had I finally become a kilometer fiend, an urban runner. Craving my next street fix.

From my apartment, it's a slight incline up towards Avinguda Meridiana, the main artery valve that pumps traffic in and out of Barcelona. My leg muscles tense up, readying themselves for the onslaught. With every stride, the district comes to life, bread shops taking hot, delicious deliveries. A lone street cleaning truck sits, noisily ticking over as yellow clad hose workers hunch over, spraying the previous night from the pavement.

Even at this early hour of the morning, cars barrel down the road, chasing green lights, angry horns fading in and out of the morning breeze. Steadily heading down the avenue, the water tower, Torre Akbar, looms out of the distance, its blue and red lights fading to gray in the morning haze.

My breath is deep and cold; I know I've got at least ten kilometers in me. It's a beautiful feeling, like finding out that, after months of hearing snippets of neighborly conversations, I can suddenly speak perfect Catalan.

This is where my journey starts to get interesting. I'm well into my second kilometer and going strong. Avinguda Meridiana suddenly develops a central sanded Rambla section where dog walkers stroll about, bracing themselves against the morning wind.

"Que Valiente!" says an elderly dog walker as I thunder past. His French bulldog bolts after me, until it suddenly reaches the end of its leash and rebounds back, snarling indignantly.

Once the central Rambla area comes to an end, the street, Consell de Cent, plugs in from the right hand side.

From here, I cross on a red light. An Arabic meat van steams past me, only inches from my face, giving me glimpses of lamb carcasses swaying back and forth like Halal pendulums.

The van comes to a halt next to a market butchers shop. Two stocky Middle Eastern men dismount, singing verses of an age-old song to each other, pitching back and forward the warbling ancient tones of their ancestors, oblivious to my presence as I shuttle past them. A morning flea market suddenly opens up to my left. Shadowy creatures in high-visibility jackets move amongst bric-à-brac stalls, seeking undiscovered treasures with magnifying glasses and flashlights, and a fleet of white utility vans off-load furniture salvaged from the street at the entrance to the market. Each van spray-painted with a thousand tags and a galaxy of bizarre multicolored spray-painted effigies. They jostle for space like oversized bumper cars. A tired looking Policeman plays referee, trying to hurry them on with sharp words to little effect, while a crowd of Gypsy breakfasters' cheer them on from the sidelines with chants fueled by coffee and brandy. The atmosphere is carnival like, infused with disorder and confusion.

On the next intersection, a block of disused warehouses reverberate baselines from an undisclosed illegal party still rolling into the early hours of the morning. The street Consell de Cent suddenly runs into the Diagonal, the boulevard that cuts Barcelona in two. It opens the city up and allows modernist architecture to course through its veins.

At the intersection, I can take the central area of the boulevard. I've got a straight shot all the way up to the Royal Palace in Pedrables, into the green areas and wide open spaces of The University campus. These spaces are a runner´s dream, devoid of urban population overload and fresh air you can breathe that filters down from the mountains.

As I mentally plan my route, I decide I have other plans in store for today's journey, submerging myself a little further in my runner's theme park. At this point, my breathing has become slightly shallower; beads of sweat begin to form on my brow. My head begins to prickle. I've broken into the fourth kilometer. Kilometer four rebels, whispering sweet words of self-doubt. It tries to undermine my reasons for leaving my flat at such an ungodly hour and finding myself so increasingly far from home.

My breathing becomes heavier; my legs begin to burn, and sweat trickles down my spine. At the intersection, I decide the best form of navigation is to take a sharp turn going upwards towards Sagrada Familia.

The people's church sits looming over the horizon like the mother ship drawing me in. A sudden incline forces me to bow my head momentary to the ground as I rotate around 90 degrees onto the Carrer de La Marina and pound up the street.

Sagrada Familia goes unnoticed at this hour of the morning; there are no hordes of tourists to gaze at her admiringly. Luxury autobuses, with reclining chairs and tinted windows, are elsewhere. Flash photography is, thankfully, absent.

I wait until I'm practically underneath the church before I crane my head to take her in. It's a beautiful and welcome diversion, as if Gaudi had created her for freaks like me when he imagined her, the people's church, the runner's distraction. As I look up at her, I almost fall backwards as I try to catch a glimpse of her towering spires.

Kilometer five: from here I take Carrer de Mallorca, joining the flow of the early morning traffic which bottlenecks and, like a sling shot, sends it out clear across the city.
As I continue, Barcelona takes on the visionary city grid design of L´Example. Built back in the late 1800s, L´Example is a template for effective city planning, the extension that linked the city together into a grand conurbation, which integrated the villages and metropolitan areas to produce the city, my theme park.

The innovative shape of the L´Example does not make for good running; navigating the octagonal blocks can be a frustrating chore, doubling back on myself constantly, sharing the pavement with recently ejected nightclub ghouls that fumble about sweaty and bleary-eyed in the morning twilight. Talking too loudly, their dispossessed shouts sound like encouragement as I pick up my pace to race past them. They lurch out at me as I quickly leave them behind, picking up pace, pushing my stride into the next block.

Diagonal reappears, joining with Passeig de Sant Joan. I have reached the sixth kilometer mark. My pace slows after the sudden sprint past the nightclubs; I take this point to make a short power rest. Standing with my hands on my hips, my head bowed to the floor. Salty, humid diesel-scented air fills my lungs, and my sweat pockmarks the pavement.

Another runner, stretching next to a children's park, acknowledges my presence. A middle-of-the-road veteran with a Barcelona Marathon T-shirt. He strikes a lean, neat shape, cut from years of pavement pounding, dressed from head to toe in black, aerodynamic Lycra.

"I've just come down from the Mountains," he says in Catalan, giving me a thumbs-up and waving his hands in the direction of the summit of Tibidabo and the Church that perches on top. For a moment, he thinks I've misunderstood him. His eye's narrow as he tries to read my expression.

"Every morning I do it." He begins stretching his calf muscles and running on the spot. "You can't appreciate Barcelona until you've seen the sun come up over the city. Then the day belongs to you."

He doesn't wait for an answer. Without another word, he jogs off in the direction of the Ocean and the Gothic district; another runner, another route, another ticket to ride in the runner's theme park.

With a new found sense of motivation, I take off toward my intended next destination: The avant-garde district of Gracia.

Gracia is an interconnecting web of alleyways and squares; a network of turn of the century bohemia, interlinked into one district of Barcelona.

Running Gracia is like running the gauntlet. Make a wrong turn and you could end up doubling back, desperately searching for an exit out of the maze, urban exploration at a unique level. Take an alleyway or a side street and find yourself suddenly lost, coming out in a secret square, a forgotten piece of Barcelona still maintaining it's quiet dignity a hundred years down the line.

It would be easy to find a main thoroughfare and make a straight honest run into the hills, but that would take all the enjoyment out of it, so I take an alley so narrow that I almost scratch my elbows on the walls. The potent smell of urine and stale beer perfumes the alley and violates my nostrils. Discarded bottles of Estrella Damm beer roll around in the morning breeze. I hear my own steps echoing down the street as I thud out into Plaça Vila de Gracia, the districts main square.

Two guitarists sit in the shadow of the square clock tower, playing Bob Marley medleys to each other, stopping occasionally when they hit a bad chord. They don't notice or seem to register me as I pass by.

Plaça Del Sol, another infamous square and a renowned center of local Anarchism, suddenly opens out before me. A police van sits, quietly ticking over on one of the square's corners, while two local policemen smoke and observe an urban tribe of street punks as they gulp Xibeca beer for breakfast, a silent standoff with the local constabulary.

My presence in amongst the punks causes them to stir. A crossbred dog from their pack fires across the square at me, taking me by surprise, causing me to suddenly shriek and sidestep, knocking over a plastic chair from a bar terrace, which clatters to the ground, echoing around the square, causing all life to suddenly come to an instant standstill and making all attention suddenly turn to me.

An alpha male from the punks lets out a whistle and the dog suddenly grinds to a halt at my feet. All it's aggression ceases, and it watches passively as I jog unsteadily past.

The scare has blown the air from my lungs. The bored policemen let out a burst of laughter that rolls like thunder across the square, followed by the punks who join in. For a second, they are united in their mockery.

As I reach the corner of the square and aim myself towards Carrer de Verdi, the laughter subsides, and the tension slowly creeps back in.

I begin the approach to Carrer de Verdi, a street known for its Middle Eastern restaurants and mojito bars. Here my seventh kilometer begins; the doubt in my mind long gone. My legs rage fire; my rhythm is steady and strong.

The entrance to the street is blocked. Two subcontinental gas bottle vendors are trying to reverse their truck out of a bad turn.

The gas bottles rattle wildly against the steel cage of the truck, awaking Gracia from its slumber. Several elderly shoppers stand transfixed. Others discuss the situation and watch as the vendors try to back out of the turn and reverse high up on the high verges of the street. The truck shakes, bouncing violently of the curb, rocking dangerously backward and forward.

Taking a momentary risk, impatient, I duck under the tailgate which is blocking the pavement and set myself up for a straight run up Verdi, and in to my goal: The Collserola Mountains.

I reach kilometer eight. My legs are going like pistons, independent from my brain which reels in discomfort. Doubt is back in my mind again, urging me to stop, take a rest. I need a change of scenery; the gauntlet has got the better of me. Distraction is needed.

I hit a side street, throwing my internal GPS into confusion. For a moment, I'm unsure which way to turn. Seeing a gap in between the blocks of modernist masonry, I can see the Collserola Mountains looming out toward me. I search for break in the buildings and find myself on Avinguda de Vallcarca, a boulevard that leads upward and onward.

A sudden incline takes me by surprise and, as I follow the avenue round and up, droplets of sweat form on my brow. The street begins to slowly fill with locals going about their daily business. Taxis thunder past, looking for early morning fares.

As I follow the road around, the incline becomes more severe. The droplets from my brow begin to pour, leaving a water trail behind me, and my breathing becomes so severe that several morning shoppers and dog walkers turn around, surprised by the heavy-gasping creature plodding up behind them.

Finally, as my vision blurs and turns to white, I can't continue. I've made it to the foot of the mountains. The boulevard narrows and turns into lanes that snake around the mountainside. I can smell the fragrant pine trees, effusing the early morning with chlorophyll. Insects begin to buzz around my head as the sun burns through the clouds.

I drop down on a knee high wall next to a water fountain, ten kilometers of adrenaline coursing through my veins. Sweat runs into my eyes, stinging. Barcelona, in full view, peeks out from between the trees, giving me glimpses of familiar landmarks.

The city is now in full swing. Noise levels increase, a cacophony of sound gaining momentum, which rises and breaks against the mountainsides like waves against a rocky shore.
Suddenly, a sharp rustling sound comes from a nearby bush, catching my attention, followed by a series of playful grunts.

Out of nowhere, a jet-black wild boar breaks cover from a nearby forest path, followed by a litter of four small, light-brown, stripy young boars who file past me. The sow glares at me, meeting my eyes. I freeze, not daring to move. My heart jumps into my throat. I fight the instinct to run. Instead, sitting still like a statue, my eyes move cautiously in their sockets.

The boar stands directly in front of me, locking me in eye contact, daring me to make a sudden movement, her maternal instinct symbolic of nature's pure, basic savagery. Her litter files past me, playfully oblivious to the danger, unfamiliar with the world of man.

They begin to drink from a puddle of water collected at the foot of a fountain only a couple of feet away from me. They frolic playfully in the pool of water under the stern eye of their mother who keeps me under surveillance; then, presuming that I pose no immediate threat, she trots off down the lane with her brood in tow and crosses into a woodland patch.

My heart slowly sinks back to position, and I take a breath of fresh mountain air. Ten minutes later, my adrenaline rush has worn off. I feel sleepy, hungry, and strung out. I realize, as the sun takes position over Barcelona, that I couldn't have asked for anything better. The day belongs to me.

A moment of pure clarity washes over me. I've pushed myself to the limit with the last uphill stretch, the runners' mantra echoing in my brain, "You feel like dying and then you are reborn."

My journey through the streets of Barcelona, homage to the runner's heroine: Atalanta. The Greek mythological character who challenged her suitors to a footrace, and those who could not beat her died trying, a trial by sweat and pure, bloody determination to push through and come out the other side—Run or Die.

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May Barcelona hold you in the palm of her hand.

About the Author

After studying in the London School of Journalism, Anthony Bain has spent the last 12 years living in Barcelona and sharing his experiences writing about the city for such publications as The Expeditioner Travel Magazine and publishing historical pieces for local publications such as the Barcelona Metropolitan. He has just recently discovered the concept of running as a new form of urban exploration and as a result is discovering places way off the normal spectrum.