In 1967, a friend of mine from Gijón lived for a year with his aunt and uncle in Santurce, a village just outside of Bilbao. He was seven years old, and one day his uncle took him to a soccer game in San Mamés stadium to see the local team, Athletic de Bilbao. Soccer was as big then as it is now, fans were as dedicated and fierce as now. But País Vasco, the Basque Country, was not at the time the settled region it is today. There was a strong Basque separatist movement—even the football club signed only Basque born or raised players—and the national police with its heavy presence in the area was a thorn to the Basques, who saw it as an occupying force. The now disbanded organization ETA, which formed in the late ’50s to promote Basque independence, had recently adopted armed struggle, and soon was to claim its first police casualty. País Vasco was a dangerous assignment for the police officers. They protected their identities as much as possible, and on the morning of the soccer game, when they patted down every man, woman, and child who entered the stadium, they wore masks—ski masks, called pasamontañas, the sort you picture on hoodlums, making themselves appear that much more threatening to the locals.
There was no violence and no demonstration on that long-ago day, nothing memorable, and my friend mentioned the game only because we were driving through Bilbao on our way to San Sebastián for a race, the Behobia-San Sebastián. It is a 100-year-old, 20-kilometer race of much renown, from the village of Behobia on the French border to the center of San Sebastián. Twenty-seven thousand runners completed the course when we ran it last year, on the second weekend in November, which coincided with national elections and also happened to be a very wet couple of days, not just in that corner of Spain but all over the country.
We’d driven the four hours over from Gijón early on Saturday, the day before the race, to sightsee, but we didn’t see much of San Sebastián—it was raining so steadily and the wind kicked up so regularly every half hour that all we achieved was the splendid view that evening of other pedestrians doing what we had just done: rounding a corner onto the ocean front, umbrellas in hand, to be brought up short by the force of the rain blowing inland. On that exposed corner you could see nothing because of the water in your face. Feel, however, you could—the water slapping you, the wind pummeling you and twisting the umbrella from your grip.
We’d lowered and closed ours immediately in order to keep a hold of it, and then had stumbled blindly across the street to stand on the opposite side with the wall of the Hotel de Londres at our back. From there the light from cars, streetlamps, and shops was perfect to illuminate the sheets of water blowing past us horizontally and, across the street, the people coming around the corner into the full onslaught of the wind and rain. They came in pairs, trios, or singly, passing with one step from nasty blowing rain to impossible deluge. Strange how eagerly we watched, as if at something staged and not quite real, an endurance game. One after another the people reaching the corner braced as if to continue on down the sidewalk but then crumpled, giving in, and came splashing across the street to shelter on the far side where our expanding group made room to fit them in against the wall.
The next day dawned wet and cold, and I wondered if the famed crowds of spectators would come out in this weather to cheer the runners. But when we left the hotel at 8 a.m. to catch a train to Behobia and the starting line, only scattered drops were falling. The same was true in Behobia. There, while we waited for our turn in the staggered start, we kept dry under plastic ponchos we would discard at the last moment, and we kept warm by moving. As we trotted around the starting zone, we noticed other runners wearing more clothing than we were and discarding extra pieces as they lined up. We were astounded by the piles of gear that accumulated as runners moved in enormous milling groups toward the starting line—not just frayed old garments but new, sleek items. Hats, gloves, rain jackets, tracksuits. When our group advanced along the path, we gazed at the piles left by the previous nine groups. Not dozens of pieces but hundreds. Possibly thousands. Lying crumpled on the wet grass of the slope above the path, already being scavenged by people who were holding up the sodden clothing to better judge the quality: yes, no, no, yes, yes, no. People filled garbage bags with the goods. I thought of the two runners who were police officers that we’d met on the train. Could there have been a pasamontañas in the piles? If there had been, it would have been worn to protect from the cold, not from the locals. Times had changed.
The spectators did not fail us: thousands lined the route the whole way. Hundreds of children stretched out their hands to touch fingers with passing runners, among them one little boy with his orange hat so low on his head that he had to tilt his face up into the rain to see. Onlookers read our race bibs to cheer us by name, as friends would. “¡Ánimo Clellan! ¡Venga, campeona!” Courage, let’s go, champ. Despite the rain that started up and turned into sleet, nearly everyone seemed happy to be out on that cold, wet day. The only serious faces I saw were the people in groups of two or three at a few points along the way quietly holding signs with someone’s face on them. Other than those solemn few, everyone was all smiles. And for what? For running in the rain.
After the race, I asked my friend what those signs were about. Those, he explained, were pictures of imprisoned ETA members, etarras, kept at distant prisons, and the signs were part of the quiet, unending effort to not forget them and to seek their release or their transfer to closer prisons. The towns we’d run through were their hometowns.
I don’t remember the faces because I hardly saw them. But I can still see the few, still, gray-looking people with their gray signs in the bustle of the day that was so memorable: a stranger calling out my name like a friend; the two tall, young, personable members of the national police who’d sat across from us on the train, whom I’d passed with a happy greeting halfway through the race, and who appeared just ahead of me again in the last 500 meters, spurring me to a final sprint. They disappeared in the crowd immediately but afterward appeared a fourth time, leaning against a wall to stretch out their calves, their identities as police officers boldly emblazoned on their blue, gold, and red track suits, no masks. And the piles and piles of discarded clothing, the astonishing volume of it, the quantity and quality, the strange sad look of it crumpled, inert in the rain, picked through, kicked through, tugged and yanked and stuffed into a garbage bag or cast aside to lie again discarded, just empty shells.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.