“¡Venga, venga! ¡Ánimo!” the abuelos, madres and niños cheered from the sidelines. I was just some giri (white, non-Spanish person; usually North American) to them – some slow, struggling foreigner – and yet they were rooting for me like I was the winner. I was far from winning anything in that half-marathon, but these people cheered with such energy and passion. Those moments are what I need to remember. In a beautiful way, they don’t fit with my experience here. I encounter negativity and inefficiency, the enemies of my American culture. I encounter disdain for my dress and accent. Then, for 12 miles, there was compassion, concern, and encouragement. Even recently, I was going for a short jog by the river, and I passed a group of friends lounging in the spring sun. One of the girls and I made eye-contact. “¡Venga!” she shouted. I smiled back with a thumbs up. Motivation doesn’t feel very Spanish. For the half-marathon I expected a few people to come out because that is race-culture, which I assumed would transcend the national culture. I was right, but not nearly enough. Lots of people were out, enthusiastically helping and supporting. They believed in me when I didn’t, and that doesn’t happen very often. I tend to swagger around believing that just about anything is possible if we really put our minds to it. In the tempering of this arrogance, who should lift my spirits, but the citizens of the city where I experience my defeatism. They smiled and gave me water. One of the volunteers was on a bike, cycling around, checking on the stragglers (me). His form of encouragement turned the air blue. Even as I ran and knew that the words coming out of his mouth were some of the most vulgar terms I was going to hear this year, I was surprised to feel my spirits lift and I ran a bit farther and longer because of it. Honestly, the only reason I made it as far as I did was because of the sideline rooters. Every “venga” and “ánimo” and “si, se puede” was little push to go on to the next kilometer and then the next. What I find is, it’s easy to remember the pain in my abdomen and my legs and my whole body, but it is better to remember why I went so far, and who carried me there.
One of the most frustrating things about learning a new language is the inability to express the correct emotion. During my half marathon for example, there was a desperate moment where I needed a bathroom.
“Hay un baño?” I asked a bit frantically*. But no one seemed to understand that this was no conversation piece. They shrugged their shoulders casually.
“No, there’s no bathroom on the race.” Asking again, I tried to look panicked to express how important a toilet was. But the response remained nonchalant.
“Well, there might be one in the bar just down the road, but I doubt its open.” In Spain, a bit of pessimism is normal. It’s also sensible to have a little doubt as to whether a place is open. Nevertheless, I took the detour to the bar and barely acknowledged the staff as I went into the restroom. When I got back to the course one of the race volunteers finally seemed to understand that I hadn’t simply wanted a tinkle break. He asked me if I was alright and if I needed an ambulance.
“No, I don’t need an ambulance. I want to keep trying.” I looked around and took a deep breath. I can do this. I can keep going. I was only at 8k out of 21k. I couldn’t stop there. So with a quick smile and a dose of determination I made my way.
At 19k, I experienced the same situation but opposite. I had just made it to the top of a big hill and I had to pause at the intersection for the policeman to stop the cars for me. My body giving out is a different post, however it did. I knew at that moment my legs weren’t going to take me any further, even if it was only 2k. Now there was nothing that needed immediate medical attention, I just couldn’t run anymore. The policeman saw my look of defeat and came over.
“Are you ok?” I shook my head.
“I can’t finish.” It was everything I could do to keep from crying.
“I’m getting the ambulance,” the policeman decided.
“No, I’m not sick,” I repeated, “I just can’t finish.” But no matter how much I tried to downplay the situation the policeman didn’t understand. I finally got him to agree with me, and he let me just wait for the van that marks the end of the race to pick me up and take me to the finish line.
Even now as I look back, I am confounded by my inability to communicate a sense of emergency when I needed a bathroom and a sense of simple defeat, but non urgency, when I couldn’t finish. In studying a foreign language, I learn words and expressions, but I never thought that I would have to relearn emotional communication. I still do not know what I could have done differently to express the correct emotion. At least I made interesting friends along the way and I have a story to tell about the time I tried to run half marathon in Spain.
* For practicality, all dialogue is in English. But everything happened in Spanish.