‘What are you training for?’
‘But what are you training for?’
I took the music out of my wet ears.
‘I'm training for a marathon.’ I lied.
‘Sometime this year.’
‘You have to have started your training regime!’
I was stretching out my right thigh at the traffic lights. The morning in Madrid was warm and dry and the sky had forgotten about clouds. I could taste the salt in my mouth.
‘I've done nine marathons in this city.’
‘Oh yes, and we came all down along here. Over Segovia bridge.’
He was in his seventies and was on a bicycle. He wore all over blue spandex, a helmet and dark sunglasses.
‘So, you’re training then?’
‘Yes. More or less.’ My face was hot and covered in sweat. ‘I'm trying to lose my belly.’
‘Hah. Very good young man.’
The lights turned green.
‘Well, good luck. Adios.’
He cycled off slowly and I trailed him, embarrassed to catch up. He slowed down and again I removed my headphones.
‘You must go steadily. Every day.’
‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to do a full marathon.’ I puffed. He turned his wheels slowly, the giant orb of the sun glinting off his spokes.
‘Start with a half. Don’t push.’ He smiled widely. ‘Poco a poco, young man.’
‘OK. I’ll leave you.’
Poco a poco the old man gathered speed and put more and more metres between us. Then I lost sight of him. The Madrid river park snaked left and right, up and down for kilometres.
I had lied.
Five kilometres later, dodging lazy families, leash-less disobedient dogs and determined skaters, I reached another bridge. An old man on his morning constitutional smiled broadly at me and extended a thumbs up in encouragement. Why?
At my flat, halfway up a long hill topped by one of the city’s old gates, I steamed by ancient women stepping into yawning pastry shops, children playing on the street while mother and father shared vermouth aperitifs in open-fronted bars, and swarthy Andalusian gypsies selling strawberries out of cardboard boxes.
A look at the mirror gave away the old codgers by the river. My face was deep crimson, smacking of exertion and sun-fatigue. I looked as if I had run for hours. The sad reality, with my shoddy knee and Rioja-fatted stomach, was that I had hauled myself around for less than thirty minutes.
I showered, spent some time on trains with Paul Theroux, and went to eat and drink far too much on some unknown terrace. Next time I would run the whole thirty minutes.