Sunday, March 12, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Barcelona Marathon

This morning, I ran the Barcelona Marathon in Barcelona, Spain.  I’ve wanted to visit Barcelona for years.  I was interested in seeing some of the work of Antoni Gaudi.  In particular, I wanted to see La Sagrada Famila.

I’ve had this race on my bucket list, but it never quite seemed to fit into my plans.  I kept putting it off and saying, “Maybe next year.”  I thought 2017 would be the same story.

My passport was going to expire this year, so I mailed in my application for renewal in November.  I wasn’t going to book any international travel until I had my new passport.  I didn’t expect to get it until late December, and by then it might be too late to plan a trip to Barcelona.  The race might be full, the airfare might be too expensive, or the hotels might already be booked.

Just a day or two after mailing in my passport renewal, I learned about an airfare sale.  Delta and American were both offering deeply discounted fares to several cities in Europe.  One of them was Barcelona.  When I learned I could fly round trip from Minneapolis to Barcelona for $446, I couldn’t pass that up.

After entering the race and booking my flight, I started researching accommodations.  Marathon Tours & Travel had a block of rooms at the Crowne Plaza.  I might have found something less expensive if I booked myself, but the Crowne Plaza was ideally located for the race.  I also like being in a tour group with other runners.

Despite pessimistic estimates of how long passport renewals were taking, I had the new one in about two weeks.

Thursday, March 9

I arrived around noon, after an overnight flight to Paris and a morning flight to Barcelona.  After I got to my hotel, I took a few minutes to unpack and then had lunch at a nearby pizzeria.

My hotel was located near Montjuïc, a large hill that overlooks the city.  After lunch, I hiked to the top of Montjuïc.  From there, you can get some good views of the city.

The climb was more tiring than I expected.  It probably didn’t help that I was overdressed.  While I was there, I toured Castell de Montjuïc.  This 18th century castle was built on the ruins of an older fort that was built in 1640.

I spent a good part of the afternoon touring the castle.  Then I still had to find my way back to the hotel.  To hike up and down the hill, I took a combination of sidewalks, stairs, and streets that snaked back and forth.  I knew which direction it was to get back to the hotel, but the easiest route down the hill often took me in other directions.  I had to use my phone for directions.  By the time I got back to the hotel, my phone needed recharging.

For the rest of the day, I stuck to sights that were close to the hotel.  About two blocks away, there’s a fountain called Font màgica de Montjuïc (the magic fountain of Montjuïc).  Near the fountain, there’s a large art museum.

At 6:00, there was a cocktail reception at the hotel, where I had a chance to meet other members of my tour group.  It was just drinks and appetizers, but I was still so full from lunch that I didn’t really need another meal.  After talking to other runners for about an hour, I finally ran out of gas for the day.

I had no trouble getting to sleep that night, but staying asleep was another matter.  My sleep was spotty.

Friday, March 10

After breakfast, I met the rest of my tour group in the lobby to begin a half day city tour.  Our stops included La Sagrada Familia, Passeig de Gracia, Casa Milá, Parque Guell, Plaza Cataluña, Las Ramblas, Barrio Gótico, and Las Ramblas.

We had great weather for sightseeing every day.  Lows were in the lower 50s, and highs were in the lower 60s with mostly sunny skies.

La Sagrada Familia is the crown jewel of Barcelona.  Once Gaudi began work on it in 1873, he dedicated his life to it, not working on anything else.  Gaudi died in 1926, but other architects have continued his work.  The church is still unfinished and will probably take decades to complete.

Passeig de Gracia is Barcelona’s main shopping street.  It’s also home to this residence, which was designed by Gaudi.

Casa Milá, also known as La Pedrera (the quarry) is a modernist home, which was also designed by Gaudi.

Parque Guell is a large city park built on a hillside overlooking the city.  It includes statues and other features that were also designed by Gaudi.

Las Ramblas is a pedestrian boulevard that runs from Plaza Cataluña to the harbor.  It’s lined with shops, restaurants, bars and markets.  It’s also home to street vendors and street performers.  On one side of Las Ramblas is Barrio Gótico (the gothic quarter).  Here, we saw a gothic cathedral.

After our tour, we walked over to the expo.  Then I had a late lunch with two of the other runners in my tour group.  I say late lunch, because it was already after 2:00, but that’s a normal lunch time for Catalonians.  Restaurants are typically only open for lunch from 1:30 to 4:00.  Then they reopen for dinner at 8:00.

After lunch, I returned to Plaza Cataluña on my own and walked the full length of Las Ramblas.  I also explored a few of the narrow streets of Barrio Gótico.

On my way back, I walked by the magic fountain.  On Friday and Saturday evenings, they have light and music shows.  I got there just as they were starting.

Finally, when it was late enough for restaurants to re-open, I went back out for dinner.

Saturday, March 11

The day before the marathon, they had a 4.2 kilometer race called the Breakfast Run.  Several large international races have fun runs like these.  Sometimes they’re called friendship runs.  The race was free, but I usually skip races like this so I can have fresh legs for the marathon.  Unlike some runners, I don’t run every day.  I usually rest the day before a race.

What made this run difficult to pass up was the course.  To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Olympics, the route followed the last 4.2 kilometers of the route used for the 1992 Olympic Marathon.  I remember watching TV coverage of the 1992 Olympics.  They frequently showed aerial views of Montjuïc, since the Olympic Stadium was there.  The Olympic Marathon route finished by climbing this hill to reach the stadium.  This was my opportunity to experience that same climb and finish inside the stadium.  The marathon route we were running on Sunday didn’t include Montjuïc, so this was my only chance to run it.

The Breakfast Run didn’t start until 9:30, so I had time to eat breakfast at the hotel first.  I ate light, knowing I would have more food after the run.

The race started in a plaza next to the magic fountain, which was only two blocks from the hotel.  Before the start, I saw a few runners in costumes.  This one was the best.

At first the road was downhill, but it quickly turned up.  We had to make several switchbacks to get to the top.  After we ran one kilometer, I saw this sign.  For the Olympic athletes, this was 39K.  I tried to imagine how hard this climb must have been for them.  We had cool weather, but they were running it on a hot evening in August.

This was a fun run, so nobody was trying to run fast.  As we entered the stadium and started running around the track, about half of the runners were taking pictures.

As we left the stadium, there were volunteers to lead us on the most direct route down to the plaza where we started.  Volunteers there were serving pastries and fruit with coffee, tea or water.

In the afternoon, I went on a guided tour of La Sagrada Familia.  I could have done a self-guided tour, but by going with a tour group I was able to skip the ticket lines.  You can easily spend two hours waiting in line.  I saw the outside of the church during our city tour in Friday, but you have to see the inside.  Our guide explained some of the architectural details and the symbolism of the artwork.  There’s a lot of light from outside, and the stained glass windows fill the nave with different colors.

Outside, there’s a bronze scale model that shows what the church will look like when it’s complete.  They still haven’t started the main façade or the central towers.

Our tour package included a pre-race dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant.  Most of the runners had pasta, but the menu also included pizza.  Naturally, I had the pizza.

Sunday, March 12

Sunday was race day.  The race didn’t start until 8:30, so I had time to grab a light breakfast at the hotel before the race.  The start area was close enough to the hotel that we could walk.

The weather on Sunday was just like the previous few days.  It was low 50s at the start of the race, but warmed into the low 60s.  It was mostly sunny.

Ted, another runner in my tour group, was assigned to the same start corral, so we walked to the start together.  Because our hotel was so close, we didn’t need to use the gear check or the port-o-potties.  Ted’s goal was to break 3:50.  I wasn’t sure if I could run that fast, so we each started at our own pace.  Before long, I noticed we were both running at the same pace.  Before long, we were running together.

In the early kilometers, we were on pace for roughly 3:45.  I had doubts about sustaining that pace, but I felt OK, so I decided to stay with Ted for as long as I could.

I never took the time to study the course map, so there were times when I didn’t know where we were.  Other times, I saw familiar landmarks.  The course was one big loop, with a two out-and-back segments.  I like courses that start and finish in the same place.  It makes the logistics easy.

Some European races only have aid stations every five kilometers.  We had to wait 5K for the first one, but after that they were every 2.5K. That was about right.  It warmed up quickly, so I needed to drink at every aid station to stay hydrated.

Early in the race, we passed two different drum groups.  I’ve seen those in a few other races, but usually only once.  Every so often, we would pass another.  There must have been at least 10 along the course.  The sound of multiple drums carries much better than a rock band.

We must have been at least 10K into the race when we passed the runner who wore an Eiffel Tower costume in the breakfast run.  He was also wearing it in the marathon.  It looked heavy.

The first time I knew where we were was when I turned onto Passeig de Gracia.  This street has a noticeable grade to it.  This race didn’t have any steep hills, but there were several long gradual hills.

In races that are marked in kilometers, I divide the race into three 14K segments.  We reached 14K in roughly 1:15.  So far, the pace was fast, but felt manageable.  In the middle third of the race, the same pace started to feel tiring.

The highlight of the course comes between 16 and 17K, when we ran directly in front of La Sagrada Familia.

From 18 to 22K, we were on the first out-and-back segment.  Going out, it was mostly uphill.  By now, the sun was high enough in the sky that building no longer provided shade.  I started to feel hot and tired.

Just before the halfway mark, we turned around.  It was a relief to run downhill.  We reached the halfway mark in 1:54:11, but I had serious doubts about holding that pace in the second half.
About this time, I felt a nice cool breeze from my left.  I also noticed that the sun had gone behind some clouds.  The clouds and wind were the only things that kept me from overheating in the second half.

Increasingly, we started seeing spectators crossing the street.  Some ran, some walked, but none of them seemed to do a good job of watching for runners.  They seemed to expect the runners to avoid them, which wasn’t always easy.  I saw a few people crossing the street while looking away from the runners.  This was a common problem throughout the race.  I’ve never seen this at any other race.

From 26 to 31K, we ran another out-and-back segment.  On the way out, we were running toward Torre Agbar, which is one of the most recognizable buildings in the city.  We turned around just as we reached it.

We reached the 28K mark in 2:31 and change.  We slowed a little in the middle third of the race, but not as much as I thought.  Now I was just hanging on.  I decided to stick with Ted as long as I could, but I was worried that I would fade.  If I couldn’t keep up, I would focus on breaking four hours.  At this point, I was pretty sure I could do that even if I struggled in the late kilometers.

Around 32K, we turned and ran along the waterfront.  Now I started recognizing lots of landmarks ahead of us.  Ted was also struggling to hold the pace.  I realized we were slowing down when I found it easier to keep up.

We made a detour through the old town that took us right under the Arc de Triumf.  I hadn’t seen it before, so I regretted not having a camera with me.

Between 39 and 40K, we turned onto Avinguda del Paral.lel.  From there on, I knew where we were.  We were on the most direct route to the finish.

After struggling through the last few kilometers, we both finished in 3:50:43.  It took a few minutes to work our way through the finish area and get our medals.  After that, it was barely more than a block to get back to the hotel.  They were also handing out plastic ponchos.  I didn’t need anything to keep warm, but I’ll save it to use as a warm-up layer for a future race.

Race Statistics
Distance:  42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles)
Time:  3:50:43
Average Pace:  8:48 per mile
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  330
Countries:  24


  1. Sounds like you enjoyed this marathon. I may need to put it on my list. I only had one day of sightseeing when I passed through Barcelona in 2003, so I'd love to go back.

    1. It's a good course, and the start/finish and expo are all within a block of each other.