Madrid Marathon I've run only two marathons, Dublin and Madrid, but I'd happily make a stand that the Madrid Marathon must rank as one of the best in terms of organisation and support. Strangely enough none of the published league tables of top marathons agree with my assessment. But then again, the Runners World league tables rate Dublin as being in the top ten. Why? It's not a bad course, but the organisation was nothing special. The Madrid marathon is a grand and scenic tour of the city, taking both the new and the old into account. Although, when you have to work as hard as I do to run half decently the scenery tends to become no more than a passing fragment glimpsed through suffering, sweat-steamed, glasses.
Incidentally, is it just me or does it always rain during marathons? Two marathons, two different countries, same rain. Dublin: freezing bloody cold, high winds, and pissing rain. The only other time I've ever been that cold was when I slept in wet trousers in the back of an open van in the middle of the South African winter. In the morning I couldn't feel my feet. One of the other psychos present made me run up and down on the wet grass to get the circulation going again. Fortunately my trousers were only wet to the knee so the more interesting parts of my anatomy didn't suffer. Madrid: closing on 180 C, the rain like tepid tea, a light breeze just strong enough to take away the sweat. Quite pleasant really if a bit on the warm side
The race started on a tree-lined boulevard in front of some sort of civic buildings or museums. Toilet facilities were fine for blokes as there were plenty of trees. The loosely packed crowd of 10000 or so runners was entertained by parachutists leaping from helicopters and landing just in front of the start line. The biggest cheer went to the one who snagged on the trees lining the road. It took seconds to cross the line and the dual carriageway allowed the field to spread out within a minute or so. That was the easy bit.
Madrid is 750m above sea level, just about high enough to start thinking about an effect of altitude, maybe. I was staying with my brother, Paul, who lives forty minutes drive from Madrid in the foothills of the mountains to the North East of the city. There is no noticeable incline between the city and the village. Yet when I went out from his house for an easy twenty minutes, too loosen up the day before the race, I endured rib-cracking torment of difficult breathing and found myself bucketing sweat within minutes. Paul told me afterwards that when he saw coming back from that run he couldn’t see me ever managing a marathon. Unlike myself he felt it best not to mention this at the time and I failed to notice the thundercloud of concern in his subtle query, 'so, how far have you run before?'. Paul's village is definitely 'at altitude'.
After the first ten minutes or so of the race it was noticeable that we were climbing. Despite my brother assuring me that Madrid was 'basically flat', it is built on a hill. An elevation map of the race route showed the first 5K of the route to be uphill. The climb was enough to require effort, but manageable without losing pace. Once at the top of the hill the route circled round the 'new city'. Nothing special that I noticed here except that the group of Scots were behind me, and that is where they stayed. The old city, on the other hand was intensely atmospheric, if claustrophobic, and the crowds were inspirational. It is not often that I have groups of Spanish maidens shouting 'vamoose les campiones' at me. I wasn't dreaming, honest. After the old city we crossed 'suicide bridge'. This bridge has had barricades erected to stop poor souls jumping onto the lanes of the highway, or was it a river (?), far below. At 15 miles or so we passed through the university and the pack evaporated. There was a short but dismal stretch with no crowd support, and I was left wondering if I should have a shit in the wasteland bordering the roadside. I didn't.
Things improved when we ran down a single coned off lane towards the mad Spanish traffic. Paul tells me that the Spanish have one of the highest road death tolls in Europe. He thinks that this is largely down to attitude. Spanish drivers have to pass a rigorous written assessment before they are unleashed on the roads. The assessment of the practical skill of piloting a ton of fast moving metal through other, equally fast moving, objects of the same nature is, conversely, poorly assessed. Thus drivers enter the throbbing arteries of asphalt with the technical know how of a London taxi driver and the actual practical ability and skill equivalent to that of Eddie Eagle. Furthermore, they have the wonderful continental arrogant assurance that all the space in front of them, and around them, belongs to them exclusively and need not be shared with others. When I left Madrid I felt obliged to point out to my brother that driving on the roads in Spain with him was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.
Having survived the traffic we ran into Madrid's famous park, Casa de Campo. Here the supporting crowds picked up again. Presumably the marathon is not good for the professional flesh markets and there was no sign of the prostitutes the area is famed for. I have an overwhelming debt of gratitude to a man in the crowd, well tanned, looking very fit and strong, in his sixties, who, seeing that I was suffering at eighteen and a half miles, leaned right into the route, looked me in the eye, struck his fist and shouted what I presumed to be encouragement at me. It worked and I recovered, only to have the fifth lady paced past me by a motorbike and what looked like the entire male population of the Spanish version of Les Croupiers.
Once past the park the pain set in and I was able to concern myself with simply keeping going. The elevation map of route had shown that the last 5K of the race was also uphill. We had driven this part of the route the previous day so I had some idea of what was to come. Knowing that the hill was waiting around the corner at 37K kept me going. I ran for that hill. Upon reaching it I took vindictive pleasure in blowing away at least five people who had passed me at the 19-mile mark. Most of the climb was tolerable apart from the bloke wearing a heart rate monitor. Isn't it annoying when you are bashing out the last leg of marathon and you suddenly hear that 'beep-beep-beep'? Doesn't it make you feel like stopping the person and saying, 'Look, would you mind terribly, but I'm trying to be goddam hero here. Do you think you could turn that sodding thing off?' Or is it just me?
After the final corner there was a home straight of around one mile. This was one of those illusionary stretches that looks like it is going downhill when in fact it has a very slight incline. It was a good finish and I recall stating to myself that I was not going to beaten by the woman in yellow and orange stripy trousers, who was seeing someone in, in front of me. I ran past her, going like the clappers – my last mile was my fastest mile.
Completing any race, and a marathon especially, always brings a sense of satisfaction that needs coupling with reward. This is why it is always so disappointing, and such a poor reflection on organisers, when 'big' races, like the Swansea 10K, fail to make a fuss of the runners at the end. In smaller races camaraderie brings its own reward. Madrid scores well on the fuss scale. The finish included beer and lemon mix, watermelon, medals, and more drinks and goodies than I could carry. OK, the changing facilities were akin to the Gwent League, but there were no facilities at all in Dublin.
Most of all I think the crowd support was what stayed with me after Madrid. For the next two weeks all I wanted to do was run another Spanish marathon. The logistical support was also outstanding with well-stocked drinks stations every 5K, interspersed with sponge stations and medical tents. All drinks stations had water, sports drinks, and oranges cut into quarters – sheer bliss after 15 miles. It is not, though, a race for the faint hearted. The finishing field is a home one and is very strong. Around a third of the field DNF, indicating the severity of the course that has a five and a half hour cut off. Certainly, I would recommend Madrid to anyone looking for a cracking run, with outstanding support, in a great setting, which leaves you feeling like a hero. I wouldn't recommend it to a novice or anyone looking for a PB.