The 2016 Duathlon World Championships in Aviles, Spain
June 5th, 2016: Pre-race electricity and adrenaline. Lithe endurance athletes mill about, doing whatever it is that lithe endurance athletes do. They stretch, shake out their arms and legs, set their watches, compare and measure calf muscles, perform Haka war dances, shave and wax one another, etc.
(Forgive me, I’m not a lithe endurance athlete—my comprehension of this rare and impressive breed is rather limited.)
Among these lithe endurance athletes (last time I’ll write that weird phrase, don’t worry), who range in age from 16 to well over 80, a rotund, middle-aged Spanish man warms up, his arms windmilling like Don Quijote’s imagined enemies. Grinning confidently despite his bright red, aerodynamic race suit — which looks as though it will explode at the seams at any moment — he jabbers a kilometer a minute to his friends and family. I’m no duathlon expert, but my first impression is that this particular old dude seems out of place, especially alongside the competition. He’s surrounded by some of the fittest 60 and 70 year-olds in the world. He doesn’t look the part. A cooked bean in a bag of dry rice. A rubber bouncy ball in a box full of bullets. He reminds me of a Spanish Mike Wazowski (Miguel Wazowski?)— the lovable, tennis-ball-with-legs protagonist from Monsters Inc.
The announcer calls competitors to the starting line. Yells erupt from the Spaniard’s entourage, “Vamos, Tigre!” and “Sí, Tigre, va!”
“Go, Tiger! Yes, Tiger, go!”
The Tiger. Ever the cynic, I laugh —spitefully, I admit — to myself. What a silly nickname.
Over two hours later, after most of the younger duathletes have finished, more shouts of “Vamos, Tigre!” split the air. Here he comes, El Tigre, rounding the last corner; a huffing and puffing aristocrat; España’s eldest statesman; a tapa racing across the bar, an olive sprinting on toothpicks; the sweat-stained, defiant heir to Humpty Dumpty, a hard-boiled egg that refuses to crack. Panting, he hammers short, lopsided yet powerful strides to the finish line.
I can’t believe it. I feel like a presumptive asshole. I judged the book by its cover before I even stepped in the library. I’d be huffing and puffing just the same in my mid-20s; I can only hope I’m in that type of shape as a grandfather. My skepticism fades into embarrassment, which transforms into full-on admiration. The heart, the patriotism, the hours of work this man has put in to be here, to wear his nation’s colors, to cross the finish line. The pride in his eyes is as clear as the sweat on his jersey. I watch as The Tiger crushes a challenging race and with it, all of my preconceived perceptions of: a) what body types are required by endurance sports, b) what age means (maybe it’s just a numero after all?), and c) what retirement looks like in Spain.
Hear El Tigre roar. What a fitting nickname.
I shake my head and howl along with the rest of the crowd. I think to myself: damn, I should really go for a run after this.
It’s healthy to choke on our own laughter every once in a while.
How To Chill: A Book Written By Old Spaniards
Not all Spaniards are as industrious in their old age as El Tigre. In fact, and this hypothesis may be construed as a politically incorrect generalization, but I estimate that a significant majority of elderly Spaniards do not train for/compete in endurance races.
There. I said it.
All jokes aside, after living and traveling extensively in this country, I am a huge fan of Spain’s older generation—duathletes or no. Why, you ask?
Because when life gives them oranges, they make sangria.
Slam the siesta all you want. Blame Spain’s economic woes on a national nap time. Point to shuttered storefronts at 2 PM on a Wednesday and say, “Well, look at what happened to Greece.” While pundits can and do contend the economic efficacy of Spain’s cultural norms, there’s one thing no one can debate:
The Spanish know how to chill.
If there were ever a book entitled “How To Chill,” I’d wager it would be penned — in a most unhurried fashion — by an old Spaniard. With a paunch. And a polished wooden cane. And a calendar as empty as the town plaza at lunchtime.
El Tigre likely starts his morning with a long swim or grueling bike ride. Your average Spanish senior citizen, however, arguably has a schedule more similar to this one:
- 10 AM: sip a coffee and read a newspaper at the cafe.
- 11 AM: unabashedly wet wrinkled whistle with glass of red wine.
- 12:30 PM: migrate a hundred meters down the street to a quiet bench.
- 1:30-4PM: retreat indoors for the culinary marathon that is the Spanish mid-day meal (I guess more old Spaniards are endurance athletes than I previously supposed).
But who knows? Maybe they’re slipping in an interval training or attending a cross-fit class. Maybe my hypothesis is wrong. All I know is that countless times, I’ve walked past them and wondered what they’re thinking about: well-dressed old Spaniards watching the world spin from a park bench, eyeing a towering cathedral, as vigilant and unmoving as the gargoyles that guard the church facade above. Contemplating a flock of pigeons. Exchanging a few words. Watching children kick balls down the street. Not doing much of anything at all. Meditative as monks. Regal and content in the stupor of well-deserved hedonism.
A testament that life doesn’t happen on a screen—it happens in the street.
As an amateur chilling enthusiast myself, I can’t help but revere these mavericks of relaxation, these fearless champions of lethargy—just as I admire El Tigre. What poise. What stoic courage. What unwavering commitment. They really have written the book on this shit. (It’s on Amazon. Look it up –> How to Chill: A Spanish Guide to Drinking, Eating, and Napping—Revised Edition contains new chapter: Coping with Subsequent Economic Crises).
A couple of days ago in the Basque city of San Sebastian (I’m currently on a road trip through Spain), I met an English ex-pat who said, “The Spanish understand me. I understand them. They’re not concerned with money. You need money, obviously — but it’s not everything.” He went on, “In England, and the United States, too, I imagine, it’s like this: we’re all individuals pushing to get on to this bus of life. We’re all saying ‘I’m going to get a seat.’ In Spain, they’re still pushing to get on the bus, but they’re saying ‘We’re all going to get seats.’ See the difference? There’s a sense of togetherness that I haven’t found anywhere else.”
I agree with him on the spot. I’ve never met a people so gregarious, so hospitable. As George Orwell said, “I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than in most countries. How easy it is to make friends in Spain!”
Days later, wandering through Spanish streets, smiling at El Tigre’s counterparts chilling in cafes or on park benches, the Englishman’s words float back to me. The duathletes, the siesta-seekers, and everyone in between—they’re all enjoying seats on Spain’s idiosyncratic, saffron-scented bus.
It doesn’t guarantee a timely arrival, but it does promise a damn good time.