A Very Lisbon Marathon

Twenty minutes before the start of the race, and still only a few dozen runners milled about under the limp bandeira nacional at the top of the majestic Parque Eduardo VII in the heart of Lisbon. I sat on a wall, stretching and sipping from my hydration pack, disassociating from the miles I would run, walk, and shuffle through over the next six-and-a-half hours.

I’m not a fast runner–never have been. And I’ve let time ease me into a slower pace. That’s okay. I was preparing to run my 19th marathon last weekend, my first in Portgual, and I picked a course that intrigued me—the Lisbon ECO Marathon—not one known for its fast times.

My friend, Rui, tried to warn me. “It’s a tough one. Big hills.” I looked at it on the map, and saw that it coursed across the massive and lush Parque Florestal de Monsanto, which overlooks Lisbon and the Tejo from one of the highest perches in the area. Sure, I get hills. I love hills. Perversely, I abhor a flat marathon—there is nothing more boring than having the same exact footfall for 26.2 miles. Hills force you to change gears, and what goes up typically must come down, rewarding your slow upward progress with a delicious descent later on.

Rui was correct: There are big hills on this course. There are short, steep ones, on trails and tracks, and there are long, steady ones, on roads and paths. The sheer variety of the course made me very happy, as it turned out. Just my kind of long, long run, mostly under the shade of pines and plane trees.

But there’s something important to know about running road races in Portugal. In general, only the swift sign up. I discovered this after participating in several, of varying distances, over the last two years. In the United States, races typically open to all contenders—only a handful, like Boston, require a qualifying time—and many have course times to allow for a healthy number of back-of-the-pack runners like myself to finish. I’m used to having many folks around me running, walking, what have you, throughout the race.

Not so here. If you’re not a 10-minute-mile runner, be prepared to run alone. Most who run slower than that speed will sign up for the accompanying caminadha, a shorter event, often not timed, for people who are not “competitve.” Since I prefer the long distances, and being timed to challenge myself, I signed up for the corridas, like the full marathon, and was prepared to finish alone.

Being nearly last at a previous race had been unsettling—considering it was a half-marathon and I finished in 2:30—not my fastest time, but definitely not my slowest. Being followed by the sweeper truck wiping the course of trashed plastic bottles behind me certainly spurred me on. But it also left me mentally prepared to be nearly last when I toed the line for the Lisbon ECO event last weekend.

I had on my hydration pack, squirreled away with packets of honey “gel,” margarita-flavored Bloks, and gummy Stingers in pink grapefruit. I banked water early on, drinking from the plastic bottles served out in a resigned fashion (one big improvement to the race would be coolers from which to refill bottles, or the new seaweed-wrapped water packs used at the London Marathon). I talked with volunteers at later stations, happy to have them still open, and taking on extra treats figuring I would be out of luck once we passed six hours on the course.

I passed through the first 21km in a respectable 2:48 (for me, this course, this year). Given the size of those hills, I was thrilled with my time. But I knew it would not be sustainable. So I changed up my strategy, and walked the next hills, running down the strikingly long downhills gingerly, working to preserve my quads for later use. I told myself that all I wanted was to finish, and if I did so in 6:30, I would be happy. But I anticipated finishing alone.

I talked with several folks along the way: one Frenchwoman who took a wrong turn on the trails and lost nearly half a kilometer, and one man from Athens who moaned about the 20km he’d touristed the day before on Lisbon’s notoriously steep sidewalks. I’d passed a young woman early on, and didn’t see her again until we looped back on the course at 25km—I kept cheering her on in my mind, knowing we could be having very similar experiences.

The woods we ran through took away the brunt of the May sun, and I enjoyed those miles as much as I could, vowing to return for shorter runs in the future. I had resigned myself to the fate of the solo runner, not a bad one at all. 

But the volunteers stayed. Up through the last aid station, they generously handed me bits of power bars and fruit, and gave encouragement. Especially poignant, considering this Sunday was O Dia da Mãe—Mother’s Day—in Portugal. Several mothers clearly waited to go to lunch with their families so that we could finish our prova. Oh, they made me smile! And they kept me going.

Imagine my happy surprise as I completed the last long straightaway next to the highway, and came to a big roundabout where a group of policia gathered to stop traffic and guide me through. They knew by radio that I was coming. So very considerate to stay with us til the last!

And when I came up and over the last hill, and down into the finish area, I expected to see the course partially dismantled, the timers stopped, and people going along on their way. Instead, the full finish line with its balloon arch waited for me, and folks got up to cheer my arrival. The clock read 6:23. I can’t recall the last time I was so happy with a finish, with a medal being draped around my neck. 

My love was there to greet me, and we walked straight over to the beer cart. We chatted with a couple of women from Boston who ran the race while on their vacation, and they raved about it too, about the beauty of Lisbon, and the kindness of its people. Then we took our beers over to the finish line again, as the young woman in the blue tank strode under the arch, all smiles, to a cheering crowd.

The race renewed my conviction that Portugal’s one of the loveliest places on earth to live. Thank you to the organizers and volunteers of the Lisbon ECO Marathon, for putting on a tough but marvelous race, and supporting us all of the way through. Even the tortugas! 

This quick pulse makes for a great, healthy recovery snack after a long run–or even a marathon! With your beer, or wine, or what have you…

Fava Bean Smash

Favas Esmagadas

About two cups large fava beans, removed from the outer pod but with inner shell intact

About two cups of kale leaves, stems removed, roughly chopped

1 large garlic clove, minced

Fresh herbs, such as sorrel, and mint (or could use cilantro or basil), about 1 cup, chopped

1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or pimenton

olive oil, about 1/4 cup

salt and pepper

  1. Wash the favas in their inner shells and drain. Bring a small saucepan of water to boil (about 2 cups of water) and put the beans in the water. 
  2. Simmer them for about 8 minutes (less if they are smaller than a quarter, a bit more if they are much larger). Test one for tenderness (it should be smushable coming out of the shell).
  3. Drain the beans and let cool for a few minutes so that you can handle them safely.
  4. Peel the beans of their inner shells, and place into the food processor. You can also use a stick blender, if you like.
  5. Put in the kale, garlic, and fresh herbs (stems and any tough bits removed).
  6. Sprinkle in the Aleppo pepper, a pinch of salt, and any additional pepper you like.
  7. Pulse the greens briefly to begin to combine them, then scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  8. Add a tablespoon of the olive oil, and pulse for 5-second bursts to combine. Continue with the remainder of the olive oil to your taste and desired texture.
  9. Serve with tostas, chips, flatbreads, or on toast for a change from avocado toast.

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