I am not a morning person but on Sunday I found myself standing on the platform, kitted out in running shoes and Lycra, waiting for an early train. I was off to my first 10K race in a decade.
My stomach churned all the way there and my head was telling me that it was a very bad idea. Well actually, I was articulating these doubts to Mr M, who had kindly given up his weekend lie-in to look after my warm clothes and cheer me on. I was doubly nervous as my training had come to a shuddering halt in September when I sprained my ankle. After a few tentative runs in the last fortnight, I decided to pitch up for the race and treat it like my weekly long run. After all, I had paid the fee and we were due to meet friends for lunch afterwards.
As the train drew nearer to Brighton, my valour ebbed away. I knew myself. Treating this as a slow endurance run was not going to happen. I knew that as soon as I pinned a number to my chest, a switch in my head would flip. Expectations would kick in: the instinct to give the best of myself, to not do a half-hearted job… As would the demons: the appalling races of the past, the scars of childhood cross country runs…
These thoughts dogged me from the station down to the sea front but once amongst the mingling crowd of runners, supporters, garish technical fibres and a crackling PA system, I remembered how much I enjoy race days. The camaraderie of complete strangers deflects attention from gremlins and the selflessness of marshals, who give up a morning to herd hundreds of runners, is an uplifting reminder of human generosity.
When the PA voice called us to the starting pen, I took up my position, in the pack well behind the 60 minute placard and carried out last minute checks: laces tied, number in place, music selection at the ready… The starting gun sounded and the pack shuffled forward. My fingers found the start button on my watch as I crossed the line. And then the anxiety and memories of past races were wiped out.
Just as I do on training runs, for the kilometres that followed I went into a strange time and space continuum. Although delineated by a starting and finishing point, it does not feel confining. On the one hand, I am intensely focussed on my pace, how my body feels, how my mind is coping with and responding to the exertion… On the other, I am acutely aware of others in each frame between the first stride and the last.
As well as the heady mix of comfort and exhilaration, exhaustion and mind games, my race is a kaleidoscope of vivid images. The lady I encourage at 2km. A septuagenarian runner who overtakes me at 3km. The spontaneous cheer for the fast finishers who pass us slower ones with only a kilometre to go. A gorgeous greyhound that bounds along at the 5km mark. Yellow, pink and blue beach huts just before the 6.5km turning point. The contrasting grey sky over the Channel as I dig deep for the last third of the race. A lady stretching out leg cramps at 8km. Encouraging yells from runners, already sporting their finisher’s medal, over for the last 800 metres… And then with fifty metres to go a cheer from Mr M and a friend, the finishing line, stopping my watch, a marshal handing me some water, another a medal,…
As Mr M wrapped a warm top round me and handed me a cup of tea, I was exhausted and elated. My ankle had held out. I could still cover the distance. I could once again claim the epithet “runner”.
My time…? Well, it was the slowest 10K race time I have ever clocked but I did not care. At under 72 minutes, I had broken my realistic post-injury target of 75 minutes. It was also the first proper/10K race I have run in my (late) thirties. And more importantly, it was the first event at which I cared more about the whole experience rather than the finishing time.
In my late twenties I trained to race. I enjoyed the training but it was all done with an eye on improving my personal best or stepping up to a longer distance. With the years though I have let go of the need for trophy-like badges for some imaginary CV and have come to see finishing times for what they are: a snapshot of the many conditions leading up to and on the day itself.
What matters nowadays is my experience of time: how I feel during and after training; how my health has felt in the months since I have regained my fitness; soaking up the changing seasons whilst running in Greenwich Park or on Blackheath; the joy of feeling the wind in my hair… Signing up for a race adds focus to my running but it is not the reason for running. Obviously, I would like to run more efficiently and faster. After all, 65 minutes of exertion and discomfort is less daunting than 70 minutes! But gone are the days when the finishing time is the only achievement. Being healthy and happy; making it to the start line (or even out of the front door on a cold, wet training day); crossing the finish line in one piece; just being a runner… these are the real achievements!