We left the lush, autumnal quiet of our private lakeside parking and headed back towards the north. A little over an hour of driving brought us to the outskirts of Bilbao. We were stopping at another aire we had stayed in before, Autocaravaning Kobetamendi, high on the hillside to the southwest of Bilbao centre, with expansive views of the city. €15 per night for all services, water and electric available on each spacious pitch, and for €1.30 the local bus 58, passing every fifteen minutes, will take you directly to the Old Town – ideal. We were back in town with a purpose – to run in the Bilbao Night Marathon event, although we were only doing the fun 10km rather than the title race.
Once settled, we caught the next bus down the hill, jumping off long before the Old Town to instead walk north to the San Mamés stadium on the west side of the centre, where our race would begin the following evening. The simple act of walking down a typical city street brought on a wave of gratitude and appreciation for our chosen wandering lifestyle. Yesterday we cycled in the rain by a rural lake surrounded by autumnal beauty, and now, so easily and only hours later, we were exploring the wide avenues of an iconic world city. We felt privileged to be afforded such opportunities and hoped that this continuous spark of wonder and joy never leaves us.
Much of the prep for the following night had begun, with toilets, barriers, route markers and inflatable banners already in place. Standing in the main square we began to feel excited about taking part. The construction of a large stage was being finalised, for announcements and musical entertainment. We walked on, to find the nearby registration hall and expo. We joined the crowds in a large hall and smoothly picked up our welcome packs, t-shirts and chipped race numbers. Beyond the collection point were interactive games, market stalls, many technical shops selling clothing, watches, nutrition and even physios offering pre-race massages. We slowly wandered through, soaking up the buzz from the crowds and examining the wares.
Our primary job complete, we then spent the afternoon revisiting key sights around the city, walking along the river from the stadium, past the Guggenheim to the historic Old Town. We occasionally spotted people carrying the same race bags we now had, feeling a silent kinship with them, our fellow runners.
We returned for a quiet night and a lazy following day, resting up around the aire. We were closely watching the weather, hoping the low haze would lift and the subtle threat of rain would dissipate from the clammy air. Suitably rested, we made our move around 4.30pm, dressed in our race gear and headed off for the bus into town. We shared the bus with one other competitor, looking keen, dressed in a club tracksuit. We followed him off the bus and made our way again to the stadium.
There were over 16000 runners taking part across the three distances, but almost none of them were as yet in the starting area. We were two hours early, but wanted to see the build-up. We returned to the river and crowd-watched, seeing a steady swell in numbers as runners flowed in from all directions. Soon we were surrounded by people chatting, warming up, stretching, sharing huge tubs of vaseline and the memory-inducing stench of deep heat.
We stripped off our warm layers, dropped off our bags and slowly made our way back to the start. It was now a bustling sea of humanity. Thousands were readying themselves for their race. Bands blasting out AC/DC classics whilst fireworks lit up the river and reflected on surrounding buildings. Triumphant flames shot skywards in fiery blasts set in unison with the music. Everyone was revved up and ready to run. After an ambling warm-up we joined our starting slot. The band blasted out a crowd-rocking version of ‘Highway to Hell’, all arms in the air, everyone bouncing, the last mass moshing session before the off.
Dusk was slow in descending, and the city lights retained a glow in the warm evening air. It was sticky hot, close, and we were soon soaked with effort. The streets were six spectators deep in places, a vibrant mass of flashing smartphones and encouraging yells, a solid wall of light and noise. The entire city had embraced the event, this moment, and we were buoyed by the overwhelming support.
We had been too honest when signing up, suggesting we should start in the <1hr finish section. Once finally underway, 4 minutes behind the main start, we walked over the start line in a tight mass, and the crowd of participants barely lessened from then on. We spent the entire race overtaking masses of people who should never have been in the <50mins or <40mins start. We were both feeling good, with the energetic start and early evening timing, and wanted to push on hard. Sheer numbers prevented us from going faster, with weaving, stuttering and mini-sprint bursts required to make any progress through the never-thinning masses. We passed thousands of runners who had been started before us, but there were always thousands more filling up the occasionally narrow streets, forming tight bottlenecks, for as far as we could see in front. This was the largest running event either of us had been participants in, and progress was difficult.
We felt strong and wanted to do the best that we could, but felt a little frustrated, constricted from running our own race. But we had to keep remembering to look around and enjoy the crowds and the passing city sights. We high-fived excited kids who yelled with glee each time they received a good slap.
50 mins and 13 seconds after crossing the start line we passed through the finish adjacent to Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, surrounded by with fire and fanfare. Glowing with sweat but a little disappointed not to have finished in under 50 minutes, we collected our goodie bags and race medals. It was all fantastically organised, very slick and smooth. We paused to change into dry, warmer clothes and then milled around, watching others come in and enjoying the after-party atmosphere.