I run early before heat encases the city, although its grip is palpable already. I slide beside walls and stick to shadows cast on slivers of street littered with last night’s debris.
Morning tourists are few but strewn like slowly perambulating hazards. Smart locals in shades dodge them deftly whilst speaking nineteen to the dozen on their phones.
On carefree repeat the visitors: meander – stop – meander – stop – point out an interesting shop here – a decent menu there. Back home I’d be irritated by obstacles so oblivious, but I’m mindful that I’m away so should chill out and live and let live. It’s too warm to run fast anyway.
Cool relief comes on the busy Paseo del Prado which has a lovely strip of tree-lined green. I skirt around a camp of tents comprising a small neighbourhood of homeless people. They are begging to not remain invisible.
As I cross the road I hear English-speaking voices remarking what a shame the pretty little park is blighted by tents.
I head for the greater green of Parque del Retiro, a rectangle on the right of the city map lodged in my head.
I know I’ve arrived when I see a band of runners exiting a gate onto the street corner. Done and sweat-dusted and exhaling hard as they stretch.
A clockwise route makes sense to me, but not a single running Madrileño agrees (there are many). Anti-clockwise they all jog, and I question why. Later a friend tells me (with a winking emoji) that it’s because I’m not a Madrileña – and maybe she’s right. I tend to chase the clock and am definitely prone to worry about mañana.
Half-way down the right hand side of the park is one of the most peaceful libraries I have ever seen. Windowed pods jut out so that it’s possible to sit at a desk surrounded by glass, airily protected by trees above and beyond.
I come to a complete standstill.
I could move to this city just for a headspace place like that.
For now I continue past a lone pensive woman on a beautiful tiled bench, and a child scooting loudly with his mother in tow. There are birds and slides, bikes and stillness, and the hum of Madrid all around.
And still no one goes my clockwise way. But I make it back to where I started and hit the hot pavement again.
It’s upwards to breakfast at cosy café Plenti, pounding a slope as steep as Cardiac Hill (I hadn’t banked on that – tourist maps don’t detail contours). I pant up the ever-rising road under an ever-rising sun in ever tighter air, and can only respond with a gasp of Gracias! when a smiling happy, downwards jogging Madrileño calls ¡Arriba, Arriba!
Mañana it’ll be anti-clockwise and downhill all the way.
I go neither clockwise nor anti-clockwise, but opt to revisit old haunts instead. At the Palacio Real a Chinese couple stop me to ask if I will take their photo in front of the Almudena Cathedral opposite. I take a few so they can choose the best. They check the results and are reasonably polite, but as I run off, I see them resort to their selfie stick to secure a better shot.
It’s fine. Maybe I’d have done better mañana.
Mañana plus a week
I’m home again and it’s Sunday, and I’m running in my usual patch. Gentle morning rain has drifted by, allowing the sun to break through.
Ahead of me is an unusually large crowd limbering up in front of a starting line straddling the Gallops (an open valley formed by an ancient river and more recently favoured by horses). Anticipation seizes as I draw closer, a horn sounds and I’m caught up in the race (there’s nowhere else to go).
Some run fast, some fast walk, and there’s everything in between. Soon a steep path winds up under a canopy of trees. Along with my fellow runners, I’m cheered by spectators, which is greatly appreciated but I feel like a fraud.
At the top we part company; the racing numbers veer left (clockwise around the House), but I choose anti-clockwise. Somehow it makes more sense.
I meet them again as they are homeward-bound, running my opposite path; some smile, some are focused, others are spent but doggedly determined.
I chase no clock, and I don’t think about mañana.
At least, that is what I tell myself.