I was running along the Atlantic coast in the cool remains of the evening. The sun, tired from its long day’s work was sinking towards sleep, dimming its light, brushing a soft orange glow over the darkening grey ocean. Laying its head on the pillows of the clouds.
I ran at a steady pace, my body refreshed from the luxury of consecutive nights’ of good sleep and some days of relaxation. I was loving the warmth of the air in my lungs. Only last week I had dashed through the cold of Copenhagen; the week before I had cut through the icy night air of Helsinki. I had been breathing in a fridge and a freezer, now I was inhaling in an oven. Just loving Lanzarote in the winter.
I always run alone – at my own pace, with my own thoughts, and serenaded by my own music. There may be other humans on the path – runners, walkers, shoppers, dawdlers – moving ahead of me at different speeds. If so, I close up behind them. They neither see me nor hear me. But I spy them. I anticipate their next move, calculate the gap to pass through and ease effortlessly past them. They only see me as I glide past, like an ice-skater.
I didn’t see the guy join the path behind me. He must have jogged down onto the coastal path from the town , falling silently like a shadow off the hill. No sooner did I sense his presence, hear his heavy breathing and the quickstep of his feet, than he was in front of me. He must have just started his run to be moving so quickly, gaining extra speed from the slope of the hill. He was like a car accelerating down the motorway slip road, determined to get ahead of the car cruising along the inside lane.
All of which, I thought, was rather rude. Did he not think it more polite to let the established runner have priority? To give way gracefully? Where was his race etiquette? Besides which, I was clearly more experienced than he was. What happened to age before beauty?
But then, he was yet into his rhythm like I was. Let’s see how fast he would be after another kilometer? Had he not read the story about the hare and the tortoise?
Unfortunately, as he settled in front of me, I realised that this guy was not only younger than me, but also in pretty good shape and had longer legs. So be it. I reminded myself – I run alone, at my own pace. It’s not a race.
But then again, no harm in tracking him, using him as a bit of a pace-maker. As we weaved in and out of other path users, I matched his speed, in all humility, without too much difficulty. I kept an even distance of about 3 meters behind him. I would follow him for a few minutes and then we’ll see what happens. Meanwhile I was breathing in the evening air and absorbing the beautiful sunset. On my headphones, “Don’t let the sun go down on me”.
By now he had noticed me. He did a couple of those disguised looks behind, tilting his head slightly whilst trying to hide his eyes behind his ears. But I spotted him. He knew I was there. And I knew that he knew that I was there. He stepped his pace up ever so slightly, not wishing to suggest he was competing. But we both knew the game.
I eased up half a gear to match him. He wasn’t going to shake me off that easily. I felt confident, maybe even a little smug. If that’s how he wanted to play, the race was on. Bannister and Landy, Prost and Senna, Coe and Ovett.
I had set off on a 6km run. I had run 1km already – so if I turned round after 3km, we would have 2kms to race. It was like the older Ovett running 1500m and younger Coe joining with 800m to go. And Ovett won the 800m.
We weaved in and out of runners, walkers, shoppers, dawdlers moving ahead of us at different speeds. We came up behind them – anticipating their every move, easing effortlessly past them like a couple of ice-skaters. Sometimes he would go one way round, and I would go the other. Zig and Zag. Torvill and Dean. Rogers and Astair. We danced through the crowds.
The voice in my ears (from my iPhone) announced the distance covered. We were approaching the final few hundred meters. Like runners on the top straight before the final bend. I was on his shoulder, ready to strike. Not that he was aware of where the finish was. No need for him to know. It would accentuate the surprise and disappointment when I overtook him at the imaginary tape.
I hadn’t allowed for the hill. I am a flat road runner. There are no hills in Denmark and I create flatness in Finland by running round the edge of a lake. This path by the sea is also meant to be level. It had looked pretty flat on the map.
I’m okay at cycling up hills as I have 20 gears to work through. Not so easy with one-ratio legs. All you can do is shorten your stride. I did my best, but he was gradually stretching ahead. Another surreptitious glance from him – and maybe a gleam in his eye as he pushed on. He was 5m ahead at the brow and suddenly I needed the finishing line to be a little further ahead than I had projected it.
I’m good at downhills. Some people apply too much brake. As a child I would run – I mean really run – down hills. I applied no brakes. My little legs would just relax and take over my body – going faster and faster without restraint. Like the clappers. Like Billy Whizz. Sometimes I would fall flat on my face, grazing knees and elbows. But the exhilarating feeling of effortless speed was worth every fall. It was the closest I could get to the dream of flying and freedom.
And so now I was reeling him in. My little legs going faster and faster. I would take him on the final straight. My excitement was hard to contain. The thrill of victory was about to be mine.
Just as I was about to draw level and overtake – he turned his head. Not a surreptitious glance, not a frown of one about to be defeated, but a big beaming smile. He held his arm out and opened his hand as we slowed down side by side. I laughed – and accepted the warm, magnanimous gesture. My hand in his, we came to a halt – like two runners coming in together. Brownlie and Brownlie. Paula and a stranger.
Meet my new friend Pablo. He is Spanish and he lives in Lanzarote. He has a big smile and a warm handshake.
The sun was almost submerged now, skimming its crimson beams along the silver sea, picking out the tops of the gently rippling waves. In the glow of the evening, the warm sea breeze in our lungs, my new friend and I ran back together along the stone path, and talked.
Pablo runs 3 times a week, up and down this coast. He loves the sunshine, he loves the island. He loves to run. He grimaced when I mentioned Denmark and Finland. They were as alien to him as the polar ice caps.
He told me that he used to be a professional footballer. He played for Tenerife. I questioned him further. He had played in La Liga – the Spanish equivalent of our Premier League. He told me his name, carefully spelling it out “look me up on Wikipedia”, he suggested. Had he played against Ronaldo and Messi? I enquired. Indeed he had – Ronaldo, he thought, was the perfect player with a perfect physique. Pablo had been a defender. I smiled at my audacity – racing after a guy who had chased after Ronaldo.
Pablo ran marathons. I confessed that my distance was normally in the 5-10km range. The voice in my ears announced that we were tracking at 5:20 mins per km. We seemed to be evenly paced – if anything, in my fantasy world, he was slowing me down a little. I could track 5:10 mins per km on a good day.
I shouldn’t have asked him for his marathon time. When he said 4:45 – he was taking about his average speed per km, not his finishing time. This guy could run fast if he chose to. Today, he had just chosen not to.
Pablo did not have a phone or headphones or even a watch. He ran to enjoy the sea, the air, the view and the sunset. He had played football at the highest level. But it was me who was the competitive one – who had played football only at the lowest level. In fact Pablo gave it all up at 30, as the lifestyle was too demanding. He came back home to the sea and the sunsets and a languid run along the coast. And occasionally to find friendly conversation with strangers.
We talked about many things on the journey home. A bit more about him, a bit about me. He runs a small rural hotel on the island, I run some big IT for an international retailer. We both agreed that the important thing was to enjoy our work, not to chase after more money. Or for that matter “not to chase after other runners”, I thought to myself, wryly.
We stopped together outside the gate to our hotel. “Look me up on Facebook” he said, spelling his surname out for me again. I haven’t and I don’t think I will.
I think this is all better wrapped up as a serendipitous encounter with a very nice guy. A very nice guy who knows how to cherish what he has, and what he has had, rather than chase after something more, something that may flatter to deceive, and may just be out of reach.
The sun had tucked itself up under its duvet by now, switched off the light and drawn the curtains on a beautiful day. I sat on the sea wall and gathered my breath along with my thoughts. A refreshing, cool breeze drifted in from the sea.