All I can see ahead of me is a sea of people moving. And we are all moving uphill. Many people are walking, but I am running. In the distance I can see a building with mirrored windows and I know that is where my wife is going to be standing waiting to see me. I have just past the 41km mark of the Barcelona Marathon. It is tough and things have been tough for a while. Then from the crowds lining the street a woman shouts encouragement, "Venga! Venga! Campiones!!" (Come on! Come on! Champions!!). In that moment, she gave me the encouragement I need to keep going up that hill. If one thing summed up Barcelona it was that moment. I well up just thinking about it.
Head down I plough on. It is very hot but luckily this street has a bit of shade. I pour another bottle of water over my head to keep cool, something I have been doing for about the past ninety minutes. I am aware that I am passing people, but also some people are passing me. As I get to the final, steep part of the hill, a runner goes down. So close to the finish, but as others help him, I carry on. I just need to get past this rise and I am almost there.
With a final effort I get over the brow of the hill and reach the flat part of the course. I raise my arms. I know I am going to be able to run a full marathon without stopping. I begin to recover from the effort and as I scan the crowd I spot my wife. I run over to high five her. I suddenly feel ecstatic. The man next to her high fives me as well. Only a few hundred metres to go now. I turn into Plaza Espana and look up at the two giant towers that straddle the entrance, the course is still rising but very gently. The view looking towards the finish line.
I try and focus. I want to drink in the experience, I need to remember this, I need to take it all in. I can see the finish line and the fountains beyond. I keep going, still overtaking people, as I reach the line I look at the clock, raise my hands and punch the air. It is over. I have done it. I am a two time marathon finisher. As I stop I almost stumble but I gather myself and I punch the air again. I have taken on what will be, for me, the ultimate physical challenge and I have done it. It is the most incredible feeling. Relief yes, but also euphoria.
Four and a half hours earlier I had been in the same place but heading in the opposite direction, full of nerves. I felt ready but anxious about what lay ahead. It was a beautiful, if slightly chilly morning as I headed towards the start line before 8am.Even before the race began the sun was warming things up
We started before 9am, but even then it was clear that the early morning coolness was not going to last and it was going to be a warm day, warm even for the Catalan capital at this time of year. There was not a cloud in the sky as we walked toward the start line. The song, "Barcelona" by Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe rang out as the confetti cannons fired and our wave began. The atmosphere among the runners was euphoric. As I reached the line, the song changed to an upbeat Spanish number which clearly all the locals knew as ninety per cent of the runners began singing and clapping along. Then we began to run.
I knew the early miles of the course were a slow climb towards Barcelona's Nou Camp football stadium so I had always intended to take this part pretty easy, knowing of the greater challenges which lay later in the race. I crossed the line and in those opening miles quite a lot of runners went past me. After 5km I was in 12724th place, a number I will come back to later. For me this was a crucial part of the run and I made an important decision. I ignored them.
This was about me running my race, not being distracted by anything or anyone else. The race was marked in kilometres, with signs for miles only every five miles of the race. As someone who always paces in miles this did give me some other mathematical challenge to figure out on the way around.
As I got to that five km mark I had already made another decision. I was going to abandon my plan to aim for a time around 4 hours 20 minutes and I was going to focus on maintaining an even pace and getting round safely. It was clear to me in those early miles - most of which were in the shade - that the day was going to be too hot to push things hard. After around ten miles the course would open up and the shade would be much less so this was going to get hot, certainly much hotter than anything I had been training in for the past four months through a Scottish winter.
The course itself was pretty flat and took you round some of the city's most iconic sites and there is no doubt that running along past the Gaudi designed Sagrida Familia Church was truly a special memory. As I came past there I ran past two Canadian women, running with special Canadian flag hats. We talked briefly then I carried on. The course had two sections which basically ran up and back, which was mentally hard as the runners only a few feet away were, in fact, miles ahead of me. The second of these, up the Diagonal, was particularly tough going as it seemed to stretch forever, but on I ploughed. This was also the section where all the runners had to move to one side to allow an ambulance past. There were physios tending to runners every so often as well at the side of the road as well. It was becoming very warm now but I was making good progress, the kilometres were ticking by.
From now until the end of the race, many people were walking. It was so tempting to join them, but I knew that if I did I would find it almost impossible to start running again. So I thought about some things. I thought about how much pain I had been in when I had done the Stirling Marathon in Scotland last year, and I knew that this time the pain was nothing like as severe. So I kept going. I thought about all the morning and evening training runs, particularly the ones with the JogScotland group as I got to 10km and less to go, a distance I had run hundreds of times, a distance I knew I could do. And I kept going. I thought about the runs I had done on my own, with no support. And I kept going.
And then there was the crowds, which grew in size the further along the course we went. As we approached the Arc de Triomf the crowds really swelled and everyone was cheering and clapping. The race organisers also had bands playing almost every kilometre of the race, so that in sections where the crowds were thinner you still got the sense of people supporting you. But back to the crowds. "Vamos" they would shout. "Animos" they would shout. "Venga" they would shout. Every so often someone would shout my name as it was on my bib number. (I heard so many different Spanish pronunciations of Craig on the way around it brought a smile to my face every time). And it was almost like their words were replacing the energy I was losing. As we turned from the Arc de Triomf the road ahead resembled to me one of those stages in the Tour De France where the cyclists are just making a path through wall to wall people, there just seemed to me to be so many people on the road. And so I kept going.
5km to go now - just a Parkrun. As we headed back towards the seafront I could see the cruise ships. I knew there was not far to go. On towards 4km and the statue of Christopher Columbus came into view. This really gave me a boost and I gave myself a few "come ons!!" to push on. The statue was 3km from the finish. 3km. A distance I would regard as nothing on a normal day. But when you have run 39km it is not a normal day. This was a day unlike any other.
We passed the Columbus statue and turned to run up the Parallel. In previous years this was the finishing stretch, straight up the Parallel, a steady climb but I knew that this year the course had been changed to take out some of that taxing uphill section. However as I looked ahead I could not work out where we were going to turn. The hill looked like it went on forever. I had also hoped that this section would be in the shade but no, we were still in the sun. By now it was after 1pm and the temperature was around 20C. At every water stop for the previous 10km I had been drinking water then pouring the rest over me to keep cool, not something I had ever had to do in Aberdeen.
Then suddenly I saw the runners ahead were turning, turning into the shade and when we turned there was the final water station and I saw the 40km sign. I was almost there. I was still running. There was no way now I was going to walk. I had got through that tough part. My body had fought my mind and my body had won. The road was still going uphill and I was still overtaking others. I grabbed more water, drank some then dunked the rest over my head. I took my hat off in the shade to try and cool down, even just a little. And then I turned and I heard that cry of "Venga! Venga! Campiones!!".
When I crossed the line I stopped my watch, but my phone had died on the way round so I had no idea what my time was. I did not care. Even though I had gone into the race with a specific time in mind, it did not matter to me anymore. I had done it. I had run a marathon, actually run it. And that means so much to me. I know this sounds stupid but I did not just want to be a marathon finisher, I wanted to prove to myself that I could run the full distance. No stopping. No walking. I am not criticising anyone who does. Just completing a marathon is an incredible achievement regardless of the time you take or the way you get from start to finish, but to me, inside, deep, deep inside, it was important to me to do it this way. Running is you against the distance. And on that day, in that city, I overcame the challenge I had set myself. My time? More than eight minutes faster than my previous best at 4hrs 30mins 23secs.
The other statistic that I am really happy with is that I finished 10127th. But you need to bear in mind where I was after 5km. In the race I overtook almost 2600 other runners between the 5km mark and the finish. And I did it by maintaining that even pace, and though I slowed in the last 7km, others slowed more than me, so in the last 2km alone, I actually overtook more than 300 runners. Had I gone out quicker I would never have been able to stay at that pace for as long as I did. Sticking to an even pace really paid dividends
Will I ever run another? At this point I am not thinking about another marathon race. The training for it is so demanding that I would need to have some serious motivation to take on that challenge once more. My focus for the rest of the year certainly is on a few 10km and half marathon runs.
What if Barcelona is to be my second and last ever marathon? I really doubt I will ever be able to beat the experience I had on Sunday. It is so hard to put into words the waves of emotion that keep sweeping over me. There have been times through this week I have been biting my lip and fighting back tears as I think back to various stages of the run, particularly the encouragement of strangers in the crowd. In fact, I found myself having to do that during the run itself, so overwhelming was the nature of the day. The course, the weather, the crowds. Amazing.
I know that the achievement will never mean as much to anyone else as it does to me. Not even close. And it means so much to me. The training. The not going out on a Saturday night because of the prospect of a Sunday long run. The fitting in the training around work and family life. The runs in the rain. The runs in the snow. The Parkrun PBs. The runs on Boxing Day and New Years Day. The runs in the dark. The runs with the JogScotland group. The runs when I have been abroad with work or on holiday. The easy runs. The tough runs. The runs when the last thing you wanted to do was run. The treadmill runs. The runs with friends. The marathon is all of that and more. And in one 26.2 mile course you pour all of that out into the effort to get yourself safely round. I am a marathon runner.
We want to say a huge thanks to Craig for sharing his epic achievement in Barcelona!
You can follow Craig on Twitter - craigaw1969
Craig also has his own blog which you can read - https://craigaw1969.wordpress.com/