It was a Sunday, and I was sore.
This was not the burns-so-good kind of sore. Sunday was my final day in Lisbon – a city peppered with stairs and hills and all types of quad killers – and I was butt-burning, calf-stinging, omigod-call-me-a-taxi kind of sore.
I’d also been training for a marathon – that would make any person sore. But this was different. My legs were supposed to be running 17 miles the next morning, and now, they could barely bend enough to let me sit down on the bank of the Tagus River.
That’s where I was, sitting alongside Portugal’s longest river and mapping out tomorrow’s run, when I spotted the statue – a massive wedge of stone, carved to resemble the bow and sails of a ship and depicting a queue of men looking ahead, toting maps and telescopes. Padrão dos Descobrimentos, I read. Monument of the Discoveries. People flocked around it, posing in front of Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama.
These age-old explorers still capture the imagination of their country today. I was surprised by how many Portuguese I spoke to mentioned them in casual conversation. Earlier, a bellhop told me that Vasco da Gama “wasn’t afraid of anything”, and suggested I channel him during my run.
I turned back to my map, sketching out my route. Start there, Cabo da Roca, I traced. Weave through that village there, Azóia, and into the Sintra forest. Then back towards Cabo da Roca again.
I folded my map, the one tool I shared in common with the great explorers. If they could do it, so could I.
* * * * *
“Distance,” my tinny GPS voice sang, “One. Point. Five. Miles.” I read the sign up ahead: Azóia.
“Time,” it continued. “Twelve. Minutes. Fift—”
The robotic chatter cut out. Huh? I rummaged in my bag as I crossed into Azóia. Must’ve pushed a button…
My phone screen was black. I tapped it, and tapped it again – still black. I shook it and clicked it and begged it to turn on. It was dead.
No. I stood on a road in Azóia, next to a café with a small tabby cat outside, and a man with a cigarette dangling from his lips. He lifted a hand.
“Are you okay?” he called, squinting at me in the sun. I looked down at my phone – the only map I had with me on my run – and back at him.
But then I remembered the last GPS clue: 1.5 miles. Up ahead, the road curved off into the Sintra forest. Come on.
“I’m fine,” I chirped, and my legs began to move.
* * * * *
Distance, I thought, mirroring the tin of my deceased GPS, I. Have. No. Clue.
The paved road turned into a dirt one, lined with scruffy bushes. I spotted a medronho tree, an unassuming shrub my bus driver had pointed out earlier. “It makes firewater,” he said, referring to aguardente de medronhos, a Portuguese brandy. I could use some firewater, I thought, watching the orange dust from the path creep up my legs. If this was Sintra – lore of Lisbon, known for its candy-colored castles and gardens – I wasn’t feeling the magic.
I was in week 10 of marathon training, and the runs were getting longer. To distract myself while running, sometimes I spelled my name. Sometimes counted backwards from 100. Most of the time, I thought about my 11-year-old sister, Chloe. She believes her big sister can do anything. I try to show her that she’s right.
I was sitting in a pool of dirt, alone in the Sintra forest. I hadn’t seen another person for a long time, and I was scared.
Today, as clouds descended over the increasingly dense forest, I was using all my tricks. C-A-M-… I spelled. 100, 99… I came to a fork in the path, paused uncertainly, and chose a route at random. 43, 42…
I’d covered about seven miles at this point. My chest hurt from breathing in dust, and blisters swelled under my feet. Okay. I’m running for Chloe. I’m running –
My legs suddenly gave out. Tears stung at my eyes, and painted little circles in the dust. I’m lost, I thought.
I always told myself I could do anything. I had tried desperately to show Chloe she could do anything, too. But I was sitting in a pool of dirt, alone in the Sintra forest. I hadn’t seen another person for a long time, and I was scared.
The dirt stirred behind me – a jeep was swinging around the bend! I hopped to my feet, jumping and furiously waved my arms. The car got closer, closer… and turned away before reaching me.
No! I thought, sprinting after it. I forced my legs to move faster.
When I made the turn, I froze. There was the jeep. And ahead of it was a castle.
It was the Sanctuary of Peninha, I learned later – a small palace and hermitage built on a rocky hilltop. I ventured towards its yellow walls. It was almost completely deserted, surrounded by little white wildflowers and blankets of fog. Beneath me was the Atlantic coast, spread out like a painting, its green hills melding into the blue ocean. I sat down on the castle’s wall, letting the breeze tickle my face.
This same endless Atlantic was the view seen by Portuguese explorers before they finally turned their ships away from home. I imagined what they felt at that moment, knowing they might never return – my bellhop had told me that Vasco da Gama was never afraid of anything, but I don’t think that’s true. I bet he felt hopeless sometimes, and lost at others. But he kept exploring.
I still don’t quite understand the magic of the great Portuguese explorers, but this one thing I do understand: keep running, and you’ll always find something worth running for.
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