The Cueva de Valporquero, a cave a million years old and almost a mile long, with seven chambers and a stream running through it, is in the province of León, just over the mountains from where I live. It’s closed in winter but come spring you can buy a ticket and wander down the marked paths, or you can go with a guide and get farther in. Or, as I did, you can sign up for the June mountain race that dips into the cave for a few hundred yards.
The race began in the visitors parking area, took off up a steep and wooded track into the mountains, and then wound about, up and down, for eight and a half miles and 3,000 feet of climbing and descent to arrive at the cave entrance. In we ran, in ones or twos, sweat-bathed, in light running attire, past the tourists in their sweaters and long pants. The average temperature inside, year-round, is a chilly 45º F, and I felt the tingle of goosebumps springing up along my skin. The rocky ground inside the cave was wet, and we had broad stairs to negotiate in the dark; not tripping down them or sliding on the wet ground were my goals, and I didn’t look much farther than my feet, though I noticed the wet walls, the shiny stalactites and stalagmites, the line of ambling tourists on the other side of a rope, all in a blur. My legs were jelly. As I ran by I heard someone exclaim, “Good God!” Dios mío!
We circled a pool of water, and then back we went as we’d come, we runners on our side of the rope, half staggering, half running, divided from the orderly procession, our hurry and our wild look setting us further apart. Briefly I had the image of circus animals brought in to run their course and jump their hoops for the amusement of the visitors before being sent out again. Some of us bounded along, some seemed in need of a prod. Meanwhile, sightseers oohed and ahead in the dark. Many wonders were on display. “Look at that,” I heard as I stumbled along. I twisted my head and saw a man poking his wife. Then the hurry took over again to get back out into the sunshine and on to the finish line at the top of one last hill.
With the race run, I washed away the sweat and dirt in a shower set up in a dim equipment shed, lit only by a bare bulb and what light came from under the partially raised garage door. My skin tingling from the cold water, the calm of completion settled on me. I thought about the man in the cave who had jostled his wife’s arm. He’d wanted her to take note, though whether of the wonder of the cavern with its high vaulted ceilings, sparkling rock, crazy strange formations shining like Christmas Eve in the artful lighting, or something else, I didn’t know. Perhaps just the sight of the athletes appearing in the gloom, swathed in sweat, moist and gleaming, on a different path from theirs but for a moment side-by-side with them in the dark.
In the dim garage I dried and dressed, said good-bye to the four naked women in the gloom. Then I bent a little stiffly to duck under the garage door and back into the sun.
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