Mes que un jog: On the Barcelona half marathon

What feels like a lifetime ago, I went on a city break to Madrid, and was amused to find that the boy had packed his running kit so that he could enjoy his usual weekend jog while we were there.

“HA! What sort of exercise-obsessed loser eats into valuable café con leche nursing and people watching time to go RUNNING?” I thought, while enjoying a bonus lie in. #FTW

Fast forward five years to the weekend, and I’m back in Spain. But this time the daps are in my suitcase. The loser here is very much me. Or at least that’s how it feels the night before, as I push paella around my plate, panic-stricken.

I’m not really sure how the whole caper began. I was all on a serotonin high after managing to haul my sorry ass (and how sorry it was!) around my first half marathon in October.

I knew I had to commit to another challenge if I wanted to keep running, because that’s how my mind works. Without a goal in mind, and something to work towards, it was obvious to me that my running regime would slip.

Juggling a pretty full on day job (that never really ends when daytime does), a budding Lionel Messi seven-year-old and keeping a home doesn’t leave a huge amount of time for running. So I had to find a reason to keep pulling on my daps and getting out there. I had to plan something that would force me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

My relationship with running – as with romcoms, shortbread, classical music and other things I really want to like but don’t – is a complex one. The first thing to admit about it is that I never really want to go for a run. I have to tell myself it’s good for me and that I’ll feel better when I fall, exhausted, through the front door. Because I do. I always do.

I wonder if all runners feel this way? Anyway, I’m not a runner per se. More of which later.

Since stumbling half-heartedly around my local park last summer, in an attempt to find something – ANYTHING – to take my mind off an assorted jumble of seemingly insurmountable lifecrap, running has become like one of those close friends who is painfully honest with you when you’re clothes shopping.

You know the type….


“You look like a Guardian reader. Put it back.”*

(*with full credit to the girl who has said both of things to me. You know who you are. And thank you. You’re always right).

Bear with me, dear reader, while I extend merry hell out of a metaphor here…

The reason running is that overly honest shopping mate, for me, is because I don’t necessarily relish the experience, but I know the process is for the greater good.

Running, as much as I still hate the first 2K every single time, has been – and is – bloody good for me. In the seven months I’ve been doing it regularly, running has given me a sense of clarity, precious thinking time, more energy, a better quality of sleep and just time to be me; not be a mother, or a boss or a girlfriend.

When it’s just me and my little heart thumping and lungs squeezing and nose tingling and thighs aching, life feels achingly uncomplicated. It always reminds how lucky I am to just be, and that I can do this. Oh, and I’ve lost a tiny bit of weight – but that’s very much a bonus.

So here I am. In Barcelona. It’s the night before the city’s half marathon and I’ve walked much further than I planned to today, because that’s what you do when you’re hungry to squeeze every last drop out of a city that’s this damn brilliant.

It’s my fifth time here, and I find something new and wonderful about this place every time. Stumbling into a secret churchyard off a main drag, bathed in sunlight. The best ham and egg breakfast in the shadow of a cathedral that always takes my breath away (and it’s not even the one off all the postcards!). Getting lost in narrow side streets,  with washing strung from balconies in between Catalan flags hung the proper way. Have that, Franco!

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Every time I’m here, I think of George Orwell, the Clash, how Catalan people remind me a little of Welsh people, and of the Manic Street Preachers. And I always think of hope, for some reason. I first came here as a teenager, and it reconnects me with the optimism of a whole world yet to discover, I suppose.

One night, on our balcony overlooking the city’s rooftops, the boy and I discuss love, and how one word is woefully inadequate to describe all the different passions you feel for people, and places in the course of a lifetime. I wonder what the Greeks would call the love I feel for this city?

But tonight I’m not feeling much love for anything. I’m pissed off because I was supposed to be “saving my legs” (whatever that means) and I’m not so sure this was a good idea anymore. YEAH! What kind of loser eats into valuable café con leche nursing and people watching time to go RUNNING?

I feel sick with nerves and I don’t really understand why because this time I have the advantage of knowing I CAN run this race. Before the Cardiff half marathon the furthest I had ever run in one go was ten miles, so back then, I wasn’t even sure I could make the last three miles without limping.

This time I know I CAN. But I’ve set myself a target time of 2:15 that involves shaving 10 minutes off my Cardiff time. That means running every single kilometre 30 seconds faster. And I suspect that’s what making me nervous. Because I’ve said it out loud and I wish I hadn’t.

Because even I, the girl who came out of the womb with ‘ambition’ etched on her umbilical cord, have to admit that this is pretty bloody ambitious. Why can’t I just run it for FUN? And enjoy it? WHAT, ACTUALLY, IS WRONG WITH ME?

Cue the sort of sleep you have when you know you have an early flight to catch, and you’re on edge, yet the darkness seems to stretch endlessly on, like Question Time seems to when there’s some right wing nutjob from the Daily Mail on it but you can’t quite bring yourself to turn the telly off. IS THERE NO REPRIEVE FROM THIS HELL?

6am. Stumbling onto La Rambla with sleepy dust in my eyes. The moon is still in the sky. Human debris from the city’s clubs litter the pavement. Revellers stagger drunkenly around, yelling, singing. All the freaks and lovers and losers feel as if they’re here, on this one street, suspended in a darkness that may never lift. A prostitute haggles with a bearded teenager. He looks undecided. A few lone commuters head for the metro. This is one of those moments that will feature in the film of my life, played out in my own head time and again. I adore this street. Why else would I ever get to witness this scene, sober, at this silly time of the morning?

There’s a Starbucks open, which is a relief. I mainline a coffee and a granola and head for the starting line. A 25 minute walk to warm up the joints and my brain.

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Here’s the other thing about running. I don’t feel like a RUNNER. I just go for a run sometimes. And there’s a BIG difference. Actual real life runners intimidate me, with their brightly-coloured patterned running tights, snazzy trainers and stretches that look like they know what they’re doing.

Just like I did at the Cardiff half marathon, I feel like I’ve been invited to a party for the novelty value. Somewhere, somebody is laughing at me. I just wish I could laugh at myself, but none of this is remotely funny. WHO RUNS 13 MILES FOR FUN ON A SUNDAY MORNING?

10,000 of us, apparently.

And we’re off.

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I’m feeling quite alone in a sea of Spanish, selfies and Apple headphones. I’m at the back of the pen with all the other slow coaches who predict a finishing time of over 1:55, and suddenly I need the toilet and start to panic. I’m about to mess up my race before it’s even started.

We are heading towards the starting line and there’s no way out of the pen without turning a long way back. Why am I such an idiot? And then, thanks to the international language of running kindness, I manage to make my predicament known and get a bunk up over the fence from a guy in a blue t-shirt. I’ve never meant a gracias quite so much. A quick dash for the loo and I make it back in time to rejoin the throng. And so it begins. An extranjero on the run.

I’ve seen Barcelona from many angles. From a tourist bus, on foot, from the back of a cab, from a cable car….But seeing the roads I’ve started to recognise thronged with a lycra-clad lithe-limbed army feels pretty damn cool, it strikes me, as thousands of trainers thud against concrete in no sort of unison at all.

Obviously, I hate the first 2 kilometres. Hate probably isn’t even a strong enough word. At one point, I seriously consider turning back. Who even cares whether I do this or not? Nobody will be angry or disappointed in me. I’m a grown woman. I’ll just give the fundraised dollars back and do a sponsored bake instead. All of these thoughts flash through my mind.

But of course I don’t give up. I keep putting one foot in front of the other. And I’m struck by how much running is like the tough bits in life. It feels really profound, as insights go, but it is 9am on a Sunday morning and I’m somewhat sleep-deprived, so bear with me dear reader.

I think of my dad – the first person who told me I was good at running – and of the searing pain of grief. I think of heartbreak. I ponder becoming a single mum when the last thing I planned for my life was to become a Daily Mail statistic. About how that one ambition I never even knew I had became the best job ever. And I think of about how,through all the trials life throws at us, we just keep going, don’t we? Just. Keep. Going.

I’m lost in thoughts, of dreams dashed and hopes fulfilled, and somehow I’m at the 10k mark already.

The stuff you see when you’re running can be brilliant, and sometimes it’s just plain surreal. It’s like fast-forwarding yourself through a rapidly unfolding scene as city life plays itself out around you in every direction.

Hola! Here’s a woman who seems pretty mad throwing sticks at runners from her balcony. She’s being admonished in Spanish by a pedestrian on the street below, but she doesn’t seem that bothered. She keeps throwing her sticks.

Maybe she hates runners. I know I do.

Then I turn the corner and there’s the boy, with an energy gel and a smile, precisely what I need to get me through the next bit. I’m feeling pretty damn pleased because I’m ahead of my target time for the first half of the race, and I’m not feeling that tired really. Haribo bears have now entered my mental box marked ‘secret running arsenal’. Who knew? So far, so buen. #FTW.

I know the next bit well. The bit of a long run where thoughts run out because your legs start to ache and that’s all you can focus on; where even your lovingly crafted playlist doesn’t lift you. There’s a long avenue in Barcelona called Diagonal and 13-15k involves running up and back down it. I HATE having to run back on myself, I don’t understand why, but I like circular routes. It seems so pointless to run up something and back down it.

And there, like some sort of human mirage, the boy appears again. Cheering, taking pictures, handing me another energy gel. And I know this is the last time I’ll see him before the end, which seems a HELLUVA long way away.

Then something really bad happens. I stop for the toilet, because I have to, and because there’s a queue I know that I’ve ruined my target time. And I have no choice but to resign myself to it. Adios dos hora y cuarto, I think.

And oh, what is this? Another mishap! I am almost religious about using the Map My Run app, which gives me audio prompts on my pace, telling me to speed up or slow down accordingly. It’s this function that helped me shave valuable minutes off the first 10k of the race. But after that god damn toilet stop, the audio cues just stop working. And I don’t have the time to stop and fiddle with it, so I just accept it. And keep running.

Predictably, this is the bit of the run I actually bloody enjoy. Because I don’t know how fast I’m running, I just run at a pace that feels comfortable. I’ve given up on my target. And I’m overtaking people, and the music sounds brilliant again; probably because I can focus on it when there’s no little voice interrupting it telling me to speed up every two minutes.

And in that moment, I am convinced that there is no situation that can’t be improved by Lost In The Supermarket by the Clash, blasted as loudly as your ears can bear. Try it, and tell me I’m wrong.

We turn a sharp corner at 18k, and a beautiful view opens up ahead. Stretching ahead of us as far as the eye can see is the golden seafront, boats bobbing up and down, sun reflecting off skyscrapers in the distance. It’s so azul it hurts. And then another corner, and a long avenue that leads to Sagrada Familia (the church off all the postcards!), resplendent in all of its higgledy-piggledy majesty. Suddenly I’m grateful. What a way to see so much of this city I adore. Cabs will never quite cut it again.

The last 3k, I sort of enjoy, in a weird way. My legs are tiring, but without the target obsession, it’s a bearable sort of tiredness. I have no idea how fast I’m running. The White Stripes, and the urgent, sexy-as-hell helicopter-whirl opening bars of Blue Orchid, and the series of inflatable arches that mean the finish line is ahead, and there’s the boy at 21k shouting at me to sprint. Just a few hundred metres and it’s over.

I’m elated. I wish I could bottle this feeling. And I don’t feel exhausted the way I did last time. I realise I have more in me, which feels pretty damn incredible.

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As I make my way to the medals and oranges and ponchos, I resignedly check the stupid bloody app and realise it has timed me at roughly 2:07. A whole eight minutes under target, including a toilet stop.

Maybe this is another life lesson, I think. Stop obsessing about the goal, enjoy the getting there and the goal somehow becomes more achievable precisely BECAUSE you’re enjoying it. Living it. I don’t know. I’m pretty all over the place.

I pull on a poncho, shivering in the sweat-cooling aftermath, sit on a wall and light a menthol cigarette. I daydream of salty tapas and sweet cava and a bath, and clutch my medal tightly.

Still. Not. A. Runner.

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PS – I ran for Safer Wales – feel free to donate here. Here’s why what they do matters.

2 responses to “Mes que un jog: On the Barcelona half marathon”

  1. As another not really runner (took up running last year) I enjoyed this. I’ve just booked flights to Barcelona for Feb (also a place I love and know well, but haven’t been back to since 2000!) to do my first half marathon, having done a 10 miler in August and survived it!

    1. Hi Josephine. Thanks for your lovely comment. I’ve also booked to do it next year, determined to beat my time! Maybe see you there. If you’ve done 10 miles you’ll be totally fine! And it’s a great race, great scenery, I loved every second of it!

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Hello. I’m Sara. This site is home to my writing for the Western Mail, a newspaper kind enough to publish my internal ramblechats. In 2022 I was named Wales Media Awards Columnist of The Year for this column. Madness. You’ll find me spaffing opinions on feminism, inequality, festivals, tech, art and whatever else pops into my head at 3am the day before deadline. There’s also bonus content, when the muse takes me (WHERE IS SHE TAKING ME? I DIDN’T ORDER THIS CAB! Etc…).

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