Thursday, January 8, 2015

RetroPost: Bilbao (We Miss You)

I’m running again.  Not quickly, not without lungburn, not without shame at how slow I've become.  But it’s shoes on, wind in my hair, rain on my face, sweat on my forehead running. 

A certain something about running in the Amsterdam winter inspires me to think about summer.  I suspect it's that wet, dark, cold, windy certain something.  So I've been thinking a lot about the five days we spent in northern Spain last June.  There, in beautiful Bizkaia, otherwise spelled Viscaya, otherwise spelled Basque Country, the hills are sumptuously green, and there are hikers and runners and mountain bikers all over them.  There, the Virgin Mary herself awaits you at the top of every mountain (how does she do it?) with benevolent, open arms.  There, be pintxos and the Guggenheim and really good wine. These integral aspects of the outdoor experience are deplorably lacking from running stair repeats in the dark at NEMO.  At least in my experience.  

Ah.  Bilbao.

I snagged the trip to Bilbao as part of Is This For Real My Volunteer Job.  Back in 2013, when complete and total neglect of this blog was yet but a twinkle in my eye, I mentioned a trip to Newcastle and a certain EAP organization of track meet(ing)s.  One of my EAP-related responsibilities in 2014 was to observe and evaluate at least one of the meets in the circuit.  The official languages of EAP functions being Italian and French, I naturally gravitated to the Spanish-speakers in the group.  One of them spun seductive tales of running in the mountains around Bilbao, and I blindly raised my hand.  Vous allez Bilbao, said the EAP President.  Apporter une veste de pluie!  I thanked him for his kind words, and counted down the months until June.

Bilbao!  I'd been eyeing the north of Spain for years as a travel destination, and the circumstances could not be better.  Hills, trails, track and field, pintxos, and my travel costs would be reimbursed.  

Even better than going to Bilbao on someone else's euro was being able to go there with Ed, who had his bags packed at "mountains."  Our friend Mark was equally enthused.  Thus it was that the three of us took a KLM city hopper to Bilbao on a sunny Tuesday in mid-June.  

In the photos, you will notice that Mark is always wearing long sleeves.  This is because Mark is British and exposure to sunlight makes him fry like bacon in a hipster dive bar.  Two weeks prior to Bilbao, Mark went to Chicago and forgot to wear sunscreen.  The resulting pink glow prompted one barista in Bilbao to deliver Mark's coffee while softly observing, "You ahr REEELY burnt."

Mark may actually be shirtless in this photo.  Difficult to say.

My Bilbao EAP friend, Alfonso, was only too happy to slip away from the hectic preparations surrounding the weekend's athletics meeting.  He picked us up on Wednesday from our AirBnb near the train station in the family furgoneta (in American English, "90's soccer mom van"), and drove us about 45 minutes out of town.  After navigating an impass of sheep, we parked to the side of a steep, narrow road at the base of the highest point in the region.  After a couple of miles, the road became less paved and more pasture, and we entered the glory of Gorbeia.

Gorbeia is technically a massif, which means there are multiple peaks forming a sort of ring.  We were headed for the topmost point... via happenstance hiking and blind trust in our trail running guide.  We set off at a good clip.  Some hours later, after plunging after Alfonso into the underbrush while ignoring the concerned shouts of more conventional hikers, we broke onto a grassy, open meadow.  It was so green and soft, we had to run on it.  Joyful, uninhibited meadow cavorting also helped distract us from the stinging nettles we'd brushed in the forest.

Alfonso, turns out, is a little bit crazy.  I should have seen this coming, given his hobby of racing hundreds of kilometers through the rugged European wildernesses multiple times per year.  He told us at one point that he tries to get lost every time he's on Gorbeia.  Every once in a while, he'd remember that he wasn't alone, look back, and apologize for getting so far ahead of us.  "I'm so used to running alone!" he said at one point near the top. "I forget you are here!"   

Chasing Alfonso on the way up.

Chasing Alfonso on the way down (which, against all logic, seemed to be mostly up).

After those reassuring words, we put our full trust in our fleeting guide and prioritized keeping him in sight at all times, stopping less frequently for photos.  While on the move, the ground took our attention away from the scenery, but it was also pleasant to look at after months of bike lanes and sidewalk pavers.

Eventually, lungs aflame and our Achilles tendons stretched like saltwater taffy, a chorus of cowbells greeted us at the top of Gorbeia.  Our old friend Mary was up there, too.  I used to think it was a happy coincidence that the Holy Mother and I always seemed to be hiking the same Spanish peaks, but now I think it's just a Catholic thing.  She always looks so composed.  I bet she has wicked calf definition.

Speaking of calf definition.

Oh hey girrrl!

Then, we went down.  Which was not at all as routine as it sounds.  Alfonso took us on an alternate alternate route, which involved scrambling over sharp boulders in the woods for a few miles, eating canned pineapple rings like it was our last meal, and navigating more knife-edged rocks on the very rim of the massif.  Every time (twice) that Alfonso rolled an ankle and went down, we three sheep mentally calculated how long we could survive on fifty calories of pineapple rings and a handful of salted frutos secos. We needn't have worried.  He bounced up every time with the perseverance of a Punch and Judy puppet, and led us back to the car.  We were tired and hungry and dirty and happy.

I caught Alfonso!  I made him take a picture with me to prove it.

The northern edge of the massif.  From above, it looks like Jaws's teeth, if he'd had a severe overbite.

Meadow grass so soft, we could spread you on toast.

Do the cows have a secret portal to the summit?

Back in Bilbao, we showered and changed and found the nearest ice cream.  It was delicious.  Then we found dinner, and wine, and maybe more ice cream.  Then, we had a massif night's sleep.

Mark is probably wearing a shirt here.  Tough to judge.

There were other days that week!  We enjoyed all of them.  And, despite the warning from Monsieur President of the EAP, I did not need a rain jacket (at least not until Saturday).

Thursday at sea-level: Kite. Knots. Drunk, "helpful" fisherman.

A slightly less adventurous hike on Friday: Pagasarri. Formidably shadeless.

Saturday: "Work". For some more than others.

Bilbao, Bilbao.  You are mental fuel for these rainy running months... burn long, burn bright.  ¡Aúpa!

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