Running fever sweeps Spain

But as more people embrace the sport, experts say that business is replacing sportsmanship

The latest running of the Canillejas night race.
The latest running of the Canillejas night race.Samuel Sánchez

Calves, quads, biceps, abs, glutes... The list of the more than 200 muscles you use when jogging is seemingly interminable, and sometimes unpronounceable. Running also kick-starts the mind into action, producing serotonin, the famous happiness hormone. This in turn creates what is known as runner’s euphoria, an oddly pleasant feeling that takes over right after you’re done sweating it out on the streets.

This may be the reason why something as simple as jogging has become a mass trend in Spain. More than 100 races are being held a year in the Madrid region alone, according to estimates by event organizers.

“Every single weekend you have a race somewhere in the region,” says David Rumbao, marketing director for MAPOMA, which organizes the highly popular race Madrid corre por Madrid.

Affordability and flexibility work in the sport’s favor. Spaniards used to refer to it as jogging in the 1990s, then switched to the neologism footing at the beginning of the 2000s (as in “I’m going footing”). But these days the Spanish know it simply as running, which sounds trendier than the traditional Spanish word “correr.”

A few important races


La Melonera. Usually the second weekend of September. Start: Hipercor shopping center in Méndez Álvaro. Distance: 10,000 meters. Entry fee: €8.

Madrid corre por Madrid. September 21. Start: Avda Ménendez Pelayo. Distance: 10,000 meters. Entry fee: 12.

II Milla del Mayor. September 21. Start: La Rosaleda Los Llanos Vital. Distance: one mile (1,609 meters). Entry fee: €5.

Carrera de las luces de Cercedilla. September 13. Start: Parking lot in downtown Cercedilla. Distance: 8,000 meters.

Carrera popular de Tetuán. September 21. Start: Bravo Murillo. Distance: 10,000 meters. Entry fee: €9.

V Carrera Popular del Corazón. September 27. Start: The boat dock at Casa de Campo. Distance: 10,000 meters. Entry fee: €2-8.

Carrera popular Asociación Víctimas del Terrorismo. September 28. Start: Moratalaz sports arena. Distance: 10,000 meters. Entry fee: 11

In recent decades, the number of runners in Spain has been growing exponentially. Just take Madrid’s most popular race, the San Silvestre Vallecana. More than 17,000 people took part in it in 2005, but eight years later that figure is up to nearly 40,000, according to the specialized magazine Runners.

But there are many more: La Melonera, José Cano Trophy, Najarra, Milla del Mayor, March Against Cancer, the Woman’s Race, the Madrid Half Marathon, Sunrise Trail Ultra… The list goes on, and registration fees range from €3 to €18. This year’s edition of Madrid corre por Madrid is being held on Sunday, and more than 10,000 people have already registered for a race that donates part of its proceeds to charity.

“Popular races are a highlight for any runner,” explains Rumbao. “Many of them train every day to reach a personal goal, while others treat it more like a celebration.”

Alejandro Herrero organizes the mountain race Carrera Vertical de Najarra, which covers a relatively short but very uneven route.

“It’s another way to run. It’s more fun than running on the pavement – the routes are prettier,” he explains. “This other form of running is on the rise, which is why more competitions are being organized.”

Santiago Díez, technical director for the Madrid Athletics Federation, says it is nearly impossible to know exactly how many races are taking place in the region.

“Two seasons ago we tried to come up with a ballpark estimate for the city of Madrid. We found information about 50 races or so. But there are at least another 50 outside the capital,” he says.

According to Anacleto Jiménez, competition director for the National Athletics Federation, all races should be federated to ensure stable calendar dates.

“They should be organized down to the last detail, and they should have official approval, insurance and licensed referees,” he says in a critical tone. But few races follow these recommendations.

José Cano, organizer of several popular races, including the trophy that bears his name, disagrees with federation officials.

A runner training in La Pedriza.
A runner training in La Pedriza.Santi Burgos

“They are asking for a fee of €3 per runner,” he says. “This is supposed to represent a one-day license, or if you prefer, a temporary registration for the runner. That’s €3 for just a few hours. If you multiply that by 5,000 [the number of runners in the José Cano] you get €15,000. What do they do with that money?”

But Anacleto Jiménez has a quick reply: at least €1,000 to grant permission for the chosen course, €500 to include it in the national circuit, €800 for technical expenses, and another €800 to pay the judges. “The runners pay for all this when they sign up and get their number. The more services you get, the more expensive the entry fee,” he says.

On a recent Saturday night, the Madrid neighborhood of Canillejas was full of people. They were not out for the local fiestas, but for the Canillejas night race, which is also organized by José Cano.

Alicia Crespo, 40, was one of the participants. She took up running only a year ago, and has since promised herself that she will participate in one race a month.

“The popular races motivate me to keep running,” she says. “You join all the other runners and at the end you feel the satisfaction of having reached the finish line.”

But it’s not always just about the spirit of competition.

For some, running is the new golf, a passing fad that ignores the sacrifices that true athletes need to make

“A few years ago, races were organized out of sportsmanship. Now the goal is to make money,” says Cano.

Guillermo Ferrero agrees. A former runner himself, Ferrero is part of the group that organizes La Melonera, one of the oldest road races in Madrid.

“Many companies whose line of business has nothing to do with sport are sticking their nose in here. They make money if participation is really high,” he says.

In fact, running is a business that generates over €300 million a year in Spain, according to consultants NPD Group.

Many races, however, boast about their selfless motives. The Milla Solidaria del Mayor, to be held this Sunday, is a race for runners aged 75 and over. Germán Fernández, 82, began running at the age of 64 and has since participated in marathons in New York, Berlin, Jordan and Athens. He was also Spanish champion of the half marathon.

“When you reach this age, you can do a lot of things,” he says. “Seniors have to keep fighting and remain active through sports.” In this particular race, which is only one mile long, there are participants in wheelchairs and others with walking sticks who reach the finish line with help from younger volunteers, illustrating the spirit of solidarity.

But for Cano, running is all about competing. “I don’t understand races for anything other than sports-related reasons,” he says, adding that what many Spaniards now trendily refer to as “running” is the new golf, a passing fad that ignores the sacrifices that true athletes need to make. And he recalls that popular races have been held in Spain for many decades.

“Back in the 1970s there was just a handful of us,” he says. “But running back then was considered something for cowards.”

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