“There are clubs you can’t belong to, neighbourhoods you can’t live in, schools you can’t get into, but the roads are always open,” according to advertising copy for a Nike running shoe.
And, it’s true. Freedom is one of the greatest attributes of running. Generally, it can be done alone, with others, anywhere, at any time. The only requirements are the desire to move and a pair of shoes. More than any other sport, running is open-minded. It doesn’t matter where you are from, who you are, what you do—if you show up and run, then you are a runner. There are few other sports in which people train for countless hours in solitude and then compete surrounded by crowds of people sharing a single goal: to finish.
However, some places are more running friendly than others. In many ways, cities are a runner’s natural enemy. The miles of concrete, traffic, pedestrians, pollution, distractions and other dangers all conspire either to discourage or infuriate the dedicated athlete. The few cities like Boulder, Colorado that claim to be running meccas all boast small populations in settings that offer miles of soft dirt trails. But, it takes a great city to celebrate the sport of running with style. Standing on the sidelines of the New York Marathon for a few minutes will give even the most skeptical a new appreciation for people who think running 26 miles is fun.
While Barcelona suffers from anti-running woes like all major cities, it certainly knows how to put on a good race. In fact, the Cursa de El Cortes Inglés, one of Barcelona’s longest running races, holds a Guinness Record for the number of its participants in 1994: 109,457. The Cursa started in 1979 with 17,184 runners. Today, it usually registers about 50,000 runners every May and is one of the largest road races in the world. The race is open to all and registration is free, which usually causes it to be more of a fun run than a serious venue for top-notch performances.
The Barcelona Marathon is another race that has been drawing runners from all over the world for nearly 30 years. This year, the marathon celebrated the highest participation numbers in its history: rising from 6,311 runners in 2007 to 7,978 this year. In addition, most runners raved about the friendly reception, support and efficient organisation of the race, although there were a few complaints about onlookers smoking on the sidelines or crossing in front of the runners.
In addition to the growth of the marathon, the half marathon in February 2008 also enjoyed a record number of participants: 3,212 up from 2,320 in 2007. Other road races in Barcelona include the Cursa Bombers (Firemen’s Race), which is sponsored by Nike. This year, the race celebrated its 10th anniversary with a record number of nearly 13,000 runners. In addition, the number of female participants has risen steadily over the past few years, with the Cursa Bombers improving its tally of female entrants to 20 percent. Similarly, the 2007 marathon had a nearly 15 percent participation rate, up from only nine percent in 2006.
These numbers point to an increase in the number of women participating in the historically male-dominated Barcelona running scene, but there is still a long way to go. Marathon participant Sara Custer said she felt she was an anomaly running in Barcelona. She rarely saw female runners, and they were mostly foreigners like herself. Indeed, she was often pestered during the six months she trained in Barcelona for the marathon. While stopped at lights, men would try to chat with her, asking in a surprised manner, “Are you running the marathon? Do you know how far it is?”
Another area in which the running world of Barcelona would like to see some improvement is air pollution. While it is a common curse of large metropolitan areas, Barcelona is particularly prone to suffer from poor air quality due to the lack of rain and the hills surrounding the city, which trap emissions in the air. Many runners find that running along the beach helps them avoid the pollution, making the beaches the most popular running routes. The coastal breezes tend to push the pollution inland, allowing more fresh air to reach a runner’s lungs. Barcelona native Gregori Mora Cogul said pollution is the most annoying thing about running in the city. “Barcelona has to improve in some way, because we are one of the worst cities in Europe in air pollution and this is not a good thing for the citizens nor for the runners.”
Another popular running route in the city is the Carretera de les Aigües, a rolling dirt road in the Parc de Collserola. The terrain is fairly well-packed and the route is about seven kilometres with markers along the way. However, the main draw of this route is the spectacular views of the city. Other routes that offer lovely views, but are a bit shorter and require more tourist dodging, are the dirt trails of Parc Güell and Montjuïc. Running on the mile-loop along the walls of a 17th-century castle at sunset, or admiring Gaudí’s undulating forms with the city as a breathtaking backdrop is certainly worth the extra climb. For city running, Parc Ciutadella offers dirt paths with a nearly one-mile loop around the park. Those who fear hills can enjoy its flat terrain and fresh park air (except for the zoo smells at the southern end). Dipping into the adjoining neighbourhoods of the Born and Barri Gòtic can add some mileage, and the unusual feeling of running through a maze.
With the exception of the great support and participation in large races, running in Barcelona seems to be more of a solitary pursuit than in other cities. In fact, the city lacks running groups that meet regularly to train. When she was training for the marathon, Sara Custer searched in vain for people to run with. As she and her peers can attest, running in Barcelona is not for the faint of heart. It can be a challenge to find the space, time and energy, and to fight the smog, crowds and stares, but at least the roads are always open.
Websites About Running & Events in Spain
Runner’s World Spain - www.runners.es
Real Federación Española de Atletismo - www.rfea.es
Spanish Running Forum - www.foroatletismo.com
European Athletics Group - www.european-athletics.org
Runner’s Forum (in Catalan) - www.corredors.cat
International Association of Athletics Federation - www.iaaf.org
Catalan Running Site - www.atletisme.com
(Hash House Harriers)
Maps of Running Routes in Barcelona