Cars beeped at me as they blew by my red-lining scooter. I was driving down the highway on the margin somewhere north of Valenica in my running clothes, checking my watch over and over. I had my black shorts on, covered in jeans, and noticed that the Timbers jersey I was wearing was proudly displaying the American flag on my left shoulder to all of the angry Spanish commuters blowing past me in their tiny European cars. Great. Just in case they were at all confused as to how foreign I am, I am literally wearing it on my sleeve.
I showed up for the wrong race in the wrong city.
Well, I showed up for the right race in the wrong city. Or maybe I signed up for the wrong race in the right city. But either way, at 5 am I was waking up in the southern tip of Spain: Seville. At 7, I hitched the high speed rail to Madrid, transferred at 11, then grabbed a sandwich and headed east and arrived at the coastal beach city of Valencia by 4. I had signed up for this race over a month ago as an excuse to enjoy my time off from teaching in Seville to be a tourist in beautiful Valencia.
One of the problems with living in a gorgeous city like Seville is I never really got the tourist experience, though Seville is a hub for tourists in Spain. I flew in and moved into an apartment in the historic district of La Alameda De Hercules. This area is well known for being posh yet exotic, and the perfect place for young successful foreign couples to enjoy the food, buildings and culture of the south.
But I skipped all of this. I wanted the seedy underbelly of Spain. I wanted to live with the countless unemployed artists who ran puppet shows in the park or scraped together money to project independent movies on the side of a bridge. The ones who put Che Guervera on their band’s poster to advertise their show for charity at the local bar. I drank coffee not on the metal chairs on the street in the shopping district, but at the art houses where the barista was indistinguishable from the one I met in Portland. We played board games on rooftops balconies, lighted by strings of bulbs patched together, instead of sipping wines overlooking a viñedo. I found what I was looking for in Spain, but the expensive hostels, the clubs with the possibility of bumping into one of the Hilton sisters, the restaurants with 10-euro tapas… I was just as foreign to that Spain as I was before I moved there.
So this weekend was going to be different. Valencia is the king of tourist cities. I highly recommend it. In one stroll, you can see dramatic cathedrals, old men in alleys singing La Vida Breve while cutting chorizo, then pass the modern shopping malls with German ice cream shops, hop quick bus and make it to the beach to walk the boardwalk. My friend Fil had booked a nice youth hostel in the heart of the city with a (perhaps slightly forced-feeling) party atmosphere–I mean, it had its own club on the rooftop.
My plans was to get in by 4, have some dinner, run my race at 8, then hop on the party wagon for the next few days of beaches, bars and bocadillos. I had a quick glance at the course map on the train ride in, confirming that my hostel would be right down the road from the start line.
Yep, everything looks goooood…
Except my train didn’t pull in to the city that would be holding “XXXII Volta de Peu L’Eliana.” Volta de Peu Valencia was held last week. Volta de Peu L’Eliana de Valenia was this week. I hope you’re as confused as I was.
Turns out, “Volta de Peu” isn’t the name of the race, it’s the name of the organizers. What I actually signed up for was a race in a small olive-growing region north of Valencia, called L’Eliana.
I had to find a way to get there in the next 3 hours.
I don’t have the permit to rent a car in Spain, so I start searching bus routes. There’s one heading out in 30 minutes from the city center, but the next one coming back isn’t until the following morning. No hotels, no hostels, no AirBNB… I’d have to spend the night in the hammock tucked away somewhere. Though the thought of that isn’t completely unappealing. I very seriously considered it.
I check the time again. 4:42. That’s when I remember the scooter rental signs, catering to the tourists as I was getting off the train. I briskly walk to the rental shop, sign a ton of paperwork, assure the salesman that “I will only use the scooter within the center of the city,” pack my stuff, hop on, and try to navigate the streets of Valencia on a scooter with a map in my pocket having just arrived an hour before.
There was one elusive highway that I knew would take me right to the heart of L’Eliana, but finding it took over an hour. That’s why when the highway turned to “solo para los autos.” I checked my watch, took the on-ramp and gunned it. Not enough time to try to navigate the farmland back roads to get me there.
In the end, I find the venue with 20 minutes to spare. I got my bib on, changed into my running gear, and line up in the sub-45-minute pace group. This is when I noticed I haven’t eaten since Madrid. I finally have a chance to look around, and find that on this beautiful summer night, L’Eliana is one of those picturesque cities that can only be shown in movies with romantic Spanish guitar being played in the background.
My group is ready. Me, not so much.
I’m in there somewhere.
Another thing I notice is that the sub-45 minute pace group is one of the slowest groups. This is a 10k right? 40 minutes is very good, from what I had always understood. At charity races, you can get on the podium by doing just under a 40. Here, there was a mess of people in the sub-35 minute group, and even more in the sub-40. Then there’s me, with my ego deflated, way in the back, hiding behind all of the sponsored racing team shirts, calibrating their matching GPS watches and running clubs giving each other playful shoves.
The gun goes off.
Due to the summer heat here in Spain, and not knowing how the hydration system would be organized, I packed myself a little water bottle belt, with a bottle of water that I could toss halfway through the race. I also packed in some of those fancy glucose tubes that we got for free while checking in. Considering my glycogen levels were probably already low, I popped one after just a few miles in.
That’s when I noticed something funny. The zipper on the pack was open. And the pack felt very light. I slapped every portion of the pack, feeling the other glucose tube, but nothing else. Especially no scooter rental keys.
I pat where my pockets should be on these running shorts, but they’re freaking running shorts, there’s nothing on them. I pat everywhere, just to be certain. I do not have any keys on me.
I look down and see the cups and trash being kicked into gutters by the thousands of runners. My stomach drops. In that scooter is my wallet, cell phone, money, PASSPORT. I can’t even call the friendly scooter shop to get me new keys, because not only do I not have a phone number, I don’t have a phone or the rights to be allowed to be taking said scooter to said other town.
So, I am alone in a small town in the middle of a foreign country, now with everything I own gone, and nobody even knows I’m out here. For the next 4 miles, I got to think over and over about how completely screwed I am. All I could think about was maybe hitchhiking back to Valencia, getting Fil to let me into the hostel, getting a tow truck for the rental scooter, getting the rental place to unlock the seat…
No tapas. No cervesa on the beach. No wandering through cathedrals. No hitting on groups of rich little English girls on holiday with their parents Amex card. This trip was now going to be focused solely on how to undo all of the screwing up I had done.
This was the sad part. It’s really unfortunate that I didn’t pay much attention to the race, because it really was well organized, and absolutely gorgeous. As much as I love to think I’ll be back some day, the truth is, I’ll probably never see this quaint Spanish town again, and what I was doing was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
All over the town, locals came out and cheered on the runners. Drum groups, DJs and bands greeted us around corners to provide us with some listening material. Children sprayed us with hoses. Churches handed out snacks and water bottles. It wasn’t just a race, it was a large-scale community event. And I spent the whole time thinking not of what was around me, but only about myself.
I blow through the finish line, but my time doesn’t matter (although I did do pretty well and managed a bit over 40.)
Free beer, but no time to drink it.
I grab my oversized goodie bag, but not hungry.
Free watermelon, well, okay, no crisis is too big to deny free watermelon. Oh god that wedge was delicious.
Thank you, Mr. Watermelon Man.
Snap back out of it, I see the lost and found table. In my broken Spanish I inquire about me falta mis llaves. They shrug, look around, flip up and down some papers and say nothing was found. “Maybe they will turn up later,” they say. But they don’t do a good job of pretending that’s a realistic scenario.
I might as well head to the scooter, maybe sit on it to prevent any would-be thieves from taking it. As I walk up to The Beast (that was her name), I’m happy to see that it’s still sitting there. A small, silver, plastic-covered safe, containing all of the required contents to survive in this city. Maybe if I kick her over I can break the seat off and…
Wait, what’s that?
I see the glimmer of light coming from the key holder. In my runners-high euphoria I let out an audible gasp. I wanted to cry, and honestly I almost did. Of course, as a team of 5 of the most attractive Spanish running girls are walking by, I’m moaning with agonizing delight. They give me a look–one of those harsh Spanish ones inquiring what is wrong–and I turn to them like Golum holding the ring of Mordor, blabbering breathlessly “mis llaves… mis llaves… pensé, uh, me faltado… pero…”
They shuffle away. I didn’t get a phone number.
I pop open the seat, grab the cell phone, and return to the finish line to take this photo. I wanted to remember the race, the terrible lightness of my pouch, and the fact that sometimes everything feels like it has completely fallen apart, especially when you’re alone in a foreign country, but usually things have a way of working out, and even when they’re really bad, they’re not really bad.
When I get back, Fil and I realize that I still have a day left on the rented scooter. We ended up taking it all over Valencia and it was well worth the money I put into it.
We visited some of the lesser-known coastal towns, enjoyed tapas on the street, rubbed elbows with the chic day trippers, wandered the cathedrals and street-side cafes. Valencia had a beat, and we drummed along.
The man at the scooter rental place had to check the odometer twice, telling me that he thinks I set the record for number of kilometers put on one of his scooters in a single weekend. Of course, he says, he knows I kept it within the city limits, and gives a wink.