“I will tell myself again that no one can run this far.”
1.1 Running a marathon is a division of parts: you must run 26.2 of something, 42.2 of another thing, 138,435, 42,194.9 of something else. Yet all things are brought back to one.
1.2 This must be how my grandfather thought of running as well: that through the division of labor, we can reach something larger than ourselves. No one starts running with the intention of completing a marathon that afternoon; it is always a goal that exists ahead of us, an ever-moving date on a timeline, a spot on a horizon. At the completion of your first-ever mile ran without stopping, you allow yourself to unbox the task. Just do that twenty-five more times: a bargaining you make while covered in your own salt drying on the ridges of brows.
1.3 On my living room wall is a print of my grandfather’s auca, a form of storytelling in drawings that is popular in Catalunya. It consists of sixteen panels, each one illustrating a moment from my grandfather’s life. The first is a drawing of my grandfather in a bassinet looking out toward the table-top mountains that surround the village he was born in, the third an image of him as a child standing on a stool cutting an older man’s hair. This is how the stories of my family are told. The etches are never perfect—the lines jagged and incomplete, the colors overwashed. The original hung in my grandparents’ living room when I was a child. It was my introduction to the language they would slip into while speaking to each other in the kitchen: I could infer the meaning from the text the same way I could tell that when their words crawled to a whisper, it was about something that was never meant for my ears in any language.
1.4 My grandfather began running in the basement of a house that I never knew: my grandparents moved well before I was born. He started by running in place—no laps around the track at the local high school, where running was reserved for the track star students sprinting for a scholarship. He later ran in the streets of Barcelona, and encouraged his fellow countrymen to do the same, despite being chased down Las Ramblas by loose dogs, weaving past lurching bicycles. I started running the same way: an interval program that alternated between walking and running until I could feasibly pretend that my lungs were not caught in the back of my throat. Instead of running in place in a basement, I ran on a treadmill in an air-conditioned room with no windows. I would not allow myself to run outside until I had earned some semblance of completion—until the pencil lines were looped, the shades colored in.
1.5 Another print: this one hangs above a desk in my parents’ house. An overhead map of Barcelona, yellowed from age and tape marks, cut awkwardly enough to fit a glass frame. In red, my grandfather has marked the route of the inaugural Barcelona Marathon—a jagged monster of a race departing from Plaça d’Espanya, etching through the neighborhoods of Sants-Montjuïc and down the palm-lined Passeig de Colom before twisting back down the Avinguda de la Reina Maria Cristina. I could tell you that the way the lines connect look like something: a man running, a bird, the mountain range outside of my grandfather’s window as he cut hair. I could ascribe meaning beyond the loop; I could say that there is something more complete to be found.
1.6 During my freshman year of college in Baltimore, I decided to run that route. My father and uncles were running the Barcelona Marathon too, as a tribute to my grandfather, who had been struck with Alzheimer’s only two years after helping to plan the marathon route at the 1992 Summer Olympics. I trained the way that an eighteen-year-old would train for anything: one day, I set out to run as far as I could. I cut a path from one side of campus to the other, looping through the quad and back. I only made one circuit. Instead of running the whole thing, I planned with my cousins to split the marathon into three sections: 8.73 miles, 14.06 kilometers each. A month before it was time to fly to Barcelona, I learned that my cousins were not ready to run their parts. I wasn’t ready either: I had gained weight; I hadn’t run in months. Yet I still wanted to take part. I believed that doing something wrong was still doing. When the day came, I was the only one of my cousins in the race: I started 8.73 miles from the end and walked until I saw the tops of the Venetian Towers and then I quickened my pace to run. The spectators at the finish line didn’t know any better: they cheered me on as if I had run the whole thing.
1.7 I never saw my grandfather running. I would see the before: a white cap on top of his bald head and an announcement of the amount of miles he was logging that day, a number that seemed impossible when I was younger. When I was younger, my body would be scolded for its ineptness every time we had to run the mile in gym class. It was a day the indefinite was made definite. I would fake illness on the morning of: convince my mother that I wasn’t feeling well, that I did not sleep well the night before. Sometimes, when my mother would not be deceived, I would force water from the drinking fountain down my throat between classes. The pure volume and the metallic taste would cause my stomach to churn to the point of vomiting. This is easier than a mile, I would tell myself, as the capillaries around my eyes popped from the strain of trying to expel anything but my heart.
1.8 There are days where I believe that none of this is truly possible: that my grandfather was a con man with tall tales—that every story that I know of his is a lie. That he never ran a day in his life; that I was mistranslating, as children do. There were no socks rolled up into gray balls and stuffed inside his New Balances after a long August run. He never stood at the sink drinking glass upon glass of water before plodding upstairs to shower. He never walked 42.2 kilometers around Barcelona with a meter stick to make sure he got the distance right. The auca is a form of storytelling: though rooted in truth, it does not have to be all truthful. The route of the marathon passes by Cervantes’s neighborhood while he lived in Ciutat Vella. My con is that I finished a marathon in 2001: there is a photo of me at the finish line. The truth is that I am claiming a number I did not earn; the truth is that I started the race at Mile 17.46, Kilometer 28.12. For years I’ve convinced myself that I was at the beginning of that race and ran it in its entirety. That I don’t need to be doing any of this, that when I was nineteen years old I completed the Barcelona Marathon. On days when I do not feel like running, I tell myself it is pointless for me now, thirteen years later and ten years after my grandfather’s death, to burn my legs out on treadmills in an attempt to run it again. And yet I fear that if I stop running this time, I will misremember my grandfather—that I will look at the auca and see it as cartoon without context: just a panel of a man running, purple hat, purple shorts, wristwatch crudely drawn over a cartoon wrist. I will look at a photograph of my grandfather: midstride, grayscale, his eyes closed and mouth open, a white hat on top of his head soaking up sweat. He will be in a striped tanktop, folds of skin peeking out from below his shoulder, his nipples pushing through the sheer fabric. He will be wearing a wristband, and on top of that a digital watch so he can keep track of his pace: how his splits look, his mind always calculating how long it will take him to see the finish. I will look at the photograph and see only the outlines of the mountains behind him: the hay on the side of the road, half of a palm tree, a shrub with no leaves. I will see only a photograph of a man running—I will not know why I have this photograph, I will try to see the beauty in the composition, and I will fail. I will be a young man looking at a photograph of an older man. I will tell myself again that no one can run this far. I knew my grandfather for 21.4 years, and he knew me for only 12.2. The lines do not match up. The streets do not connect. At every turn a windmill.
1.9 The penultimate panel of the auca is a drawing of my grandfather with his back to us. He is walking toward what appears to be a sunset with a suitcase in each hand. There are footprints behind him. Over his torso is a giant red question mark. As a child, this panel frightened me; I did not understand it. The others—the airplane headed eastward toward the United States, the bus winding away from Cantoni, the crowded scene at the starting place with the Torres Venecianes looming in the background—I could make sense of, even without understanding the text underneath. The panels always seemed self-contained: each one told its own story and was not connected to a larger narrative. But here was a drawing of my grandfather walking toward forever without anything to ground it—one of sixteen individual stories. And yet this one, with all of its discomfort and uncertainty, is the one that gets the story right.
More in this series
Seeking the Fairway, But Caught in the Rough: When You’re Not the Golf Prodigy Your Father Hoped You’d Be
“The first set of clubs arrived when I was seven, cotton candy-colored in pink and blue.”