Where am I? And what am I doing here? I just woke up from 15 hours of deep sleep. The window is in the wrong place; the sheets are a different color. I’m not at home. It all comes trickling back: the 3 flights across America and the Atlantic Ocean, the drive north from Barcelona. I am in Catalonia, Spain in the Pyrenees mountains where buildings are made with ancient stone and cement and topped with salmon colored shingles that contrast distinctly with the distant deep-emerald mountains. History is buried within crumbling walls. Outside, a couple stories below the bedroom window, a man kneels, tossing potatoes into a bucket with a steady thunk, thunk, thunk.
I’m reminded of my garden, my home, and my work. I check my phone: my one travel companion that connects me insufferably to everything and everyone I know and everything I have to do. Thirteen Facebook messages, several new comments on Instagram, four new texts, a bunch of emails, and a message on Airbnb from my host: “let me know when you are here so I can come meet you.”
I just woke up and the pressure to interact on social media is exhausting. Like a job that is never done, I wonder if I will ever fully understand or like ‘social’ which seems to be fundamentally anti-social. In contrast, I’m excited to meet Francesc: a real person, with a real furniture shop, in a real town, in real mountains.
During the prior week, I’d spent a few days with three team members at a retreat organized by an experience-oriented resort in the Colorado Rockies. Along with three other athletes and four employees of our sponsor, we were joined by four freelance writers and one freelance photographer. Quickly, I learned that some athletes are much more adept than others at waving their flag of appearance in the face of social networks. Surprisingly, even the best sponsors, writers, and photographers are duped by carefully crafted images versus genuine ability.
I left with a heavy heart and eyes open to the new era of athletic sponsorship where results and ability are trumped by appearance and relentless self-promotion. Apparently, people now choose runs based on the lack of competition, the amount of media coverage, and the options for great selfies. And what you get from sponsors is based not on what you need but on how popular you are. I was thankful to my teammates for filling me in on the social facade arena, but I left disappointed in the industry nonetheless. While I’d worried my athletic ability was my biggest weakness, suddenly it was clear my appearance was much more devastating.
But before I’d even unpacked from that lesson, it was time to pack again. This time for the final race of the Skyrunning World Series, a richly competitive international race series with athletes from all over the world trained and ready to push their limits in races that take runners far into remote, mountainous terrain where true ability actually matters. For reasons of safety, and life-preservation, what you look like in a true mountain race doesn’t really fucking matter. And I love it!
All this crosses my mind as I watch the man collecting his potatoes: thunk, thunk, thunk.
I make an espresso and get dressed just in time for Francesc to come to the front door and greet me kindly with a warm European greeting: exchanging a kiss on each cheek. He speaks fluent English, much to my surprise. The day before, his sweet mother let me into the apartment, speaking in Catalonian. Like Spanish, but just different enough to be difficult to understand. Small and slightly stooped, she let me open the door explaining, “no tengo fuerte,” (I have no strength). Her hand shook in a small Jacksonian tremor. She wore tan orthopedic shoes, like my grandmother once did, and a long skirt and pantyhose like most older women in Spain. She opened each cupboard and drawer kindly to ensure everything I could possibly need was available. She opened the drapes and turned the lights on, taking great care to ensure all was in working order, like she had all the time in the world.
Francesc leads me across the street to the furniture shop, where charming accessories clutter parts and pieces to home necessities. He brings out two maps: one of town and one of the surrounding area. Carefully, he draws directions to the apartment and out of town. He shows me where the markets and tourist offices are located. On the other map, he shows me the surrounding areas, tracing a general idea of where the Ultra Pirineu race will go in a few days time.
“Are you wanting to do Ultra Pirineu?” He asks.
“I am, yes,” I smile. “I am doing it.”
A small amount of disbelief or perhaps concern seems to cross his brow. He explains his wife is worried because I rented the apartment through Friday and the race is on Saturday. The apartment is rented by other guests for the weekend.
“If you do not find a place to say,” he explains, “please tell me. We will figure something out for you. You will come stay with us in our home.”
His generosity is astounding and heart-warming. I explain the race has arrangements for some of the runners at a hotel nearby, and that I will be okay. He seems satisfied, but again asks, “Are YOU running?”
I laugh and reiterate that I will. He mentions the length of the course and warns me it takes the fastest men nearly eleven hours. “Some people,” he includes, “will not arrive until 2 on Sunday.”
I wonder if he means AM or PM, but I know he means PM. The course is 110km (68 miles) with nearly 23,000 feet of elevation gain. It starts with a 6000 foot climb up to a jagged ridge looming just north of town. As a matter of consolation, I try to describe my last race from Vall de Boi, which was also in the Catalonian Pyrenees. The race was longer, with more gain, and took me nearly 17.5 hours. He listens intently and this seems to be enough of a resume to reassure him. But he writes his phone number on the map in case I need anything else.
To Francesc and his mother, it does not matter what I look like at the top of their ridge or what sponsors I have. I do not need to brag to them about all the famous people I met and ran with this year. To them, none of these things matter. They welcome me out of the kindness of their hearts, like a lost puppy. They look me straight in the eyes while they listen to me patiently. There is no waiting for the next opportunity to speak, even though we barely share a common tongue. I cannot describe their generosity except that it comes from a place of genuine concern. And meeting them is more priceless than anything I have to offer them. The experience is enough to renew my license to believe in some good parts of human nature.
Ultra Pirineu begins at 7am GST (11pm MST) and can be followed on ‘social’ at @ultrapirineu or @skyrunning on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.