The Unlikeliest Victory: The Golden Balls 20 mile race, Sunday 4th September 2016
I’m a wreck. I’ve got tummy ache, and I probably need to refuel but I can’t face eating. I’ve got two sores emerging just below my boobs where my sports bar has rubbed the damp, salty skin for all 20.1 miles of today’s race. I’m tired but I can’t rest. I’d make a good guess that’s one too many caffeine gels combined with pure adrenaline. I’ve got blood blisters peeking out from underneath ad hoc toenails – or at least where there were once things resembling toenails. I can’t get comfy, and generally speaking I’m just a derelict vessel having been washed up – ran aground.
Today was one of the toughest races I’ve done for a long, long time. Not because of the distance (well, kind of), or the terrain, or hills, or any of those things. It was tough because despite leading as 1st female for pretty much the entire race, my legs battled me for most of the last nine miles, and once they wanted to throw in the towel, my head joined in the party and tried to convince me to stop. Just stop running.
We arrived at the Salt Aire leisure centre a good hour before the start of the race. That’s our thing – it’s just what we do. Gav was nervous as we sat in the car, collectively dragging out otherwise minuscule tasks – did you know that if you fuck about for long enough it can take a good 15 mins to pin a number on a vest? I hoped to God that my breakfast would even pretend to digest. An 11am start time can really play havoc with your eating, and it’s a fine line between standing on the start line under fuelled, or as full as an egg.
Just like Gav, I was nervous. My legs didn’t feel fresh. We’ve had a good many weeks now of marathon training, and arguably ALL of our runs have been ‘quality’. For ‘quality’ substitute ‘bloody hard’ and you get the message. Speed work down at track; tempo runs with the Fast Pack at Harriers; looooonnngg weekend endurance runs. NONE of those are easy. Not any.
So, we mooched our way around the track of Salt Aire leisure centre in some pretend warm-up and I willed my hamstrings to chill out. Just relax! I messaged them. You’ve only got 20 miles to run, imminently. You may as well get used to the idea and we can be friends! I wasn’t convinced they wanted to listen to me, or to be my friend. Who can blame them?
The fleeting comedy turn of Barry, Lancaster Race Series’ Race Director was a mild diversion from the task ahead, and then we were off. ‘Don’t go off too fast, Rach. Do NOT go off like a bat out of hell. You will suffer later if you do.’ Fortunately, my hammies put an immediate ban on any land speed aspirations, and so we settled with a reasonably pacy but not outrageous start.
A scouse guy ran alongside me early doors. ‘What time you hoping for?’ He ventured. I didn’t have the heart to say ‘Oh just please fuck off – we’re not even 5 miles in and I don’t even know how I feel myself just yet.’ Instead, I murmured something inane and pleasant, hoping he would take the hint. He didn’t. ‘It’s just that I’ve forgotten my running watch and only have my regular watch with me!’ he replied, furnishing me with his predicament. ‘Ahh, that’s a shame. Have a good one, anyway!’ I kept up the polite pretence and put my foot down.
Almost every Marshall I passed, and even random couples out on bikes (no tandems, unfortunately) would shout ‘Yay! First Lady!’ Another hi-vis woman at a water station repeated it, shortly followed by a couple of dedicated spectators who’d been bothered to place themselves down a muddy track out in the middle of nowhere. I smiled and said ‘thanks’ at least seven times before it hit me. ‘Shit! I’m First Lady.’ And it was only relatively early in the race, 6 – maybe 7 miles in. There’s a hell of a long way to mess it up.
I kept checking on my pace, and it felt a bit all over the shop. Wavering from 7:10s to 7:50s. I couldn’t really find my rhythm, and wondered if it would feel so disjointed for the remaining 13 miles. It did.
I thought about Gav, and wondered how his race was going. I knew he’d set off far more conservatively than me, so I didn’t expect to see him on route. ‘Please let him have a good one today,’ I mused to myself, temporarily escaping from my otherwise self-absorbed little world.
‘Clip, clop. Clip, clop.’ On the narrow bridle way just ahead was a wide-arsed horse with an equally wide-arsed hi-vis rider. I was glad to make it past the beast, when I heard it’s bastard clipping and clopping approaching behind me. The narrow, muddy track was heavily puddled after yesterday’s downpour, and I hopped, skipped and jumped through the puddles in a bid to escape the tortuous stalking brute. ‘That’s just what I need, to be cajoled along by a frustrated bloody horse,’ I grumbled, before it finally clopped it’s way off into the distance.
In my head I turned mathematician, trying to carve up the miles to make them more manageable. ‘Chop it into quarters, Rach. That’s four lots of five miles. 5,10,15,20. Simple. You can do that.’
‘Nope. That’s too big. What about fifths? Five lots of four miles. That sounds better. Yeah.’
I was approaching ten miles at this point. ‘Well, that’s half done.’ My (very) basic fractions were helping as a distraction, if nothing else.
Mile 11 came and I started to suffer. ‘Ahhh shit. Any which way you carve it up there’s still nine bastard miles to run,’ I ruminated to myself, feeling the first wafts of defeat. ‘Fucking hell, Rach. Pull it together. You’re doing well here. You’re first bloody woman! That means all the other females are behind you! Give up with your negative self-chatter. If nothing else, it’s boring.’
A guy I recognised for talking incessant bollocks to his reluctant pal at the start of the race passed me as I pulled over for a gel around mile 13. He gave me a smug, self-satisfied smirk as he did so. ‘Fuck you’ I thought as I willed him to trip over his laces.
We’d been warned of a hill around mile 14. I looked up at the endless, meandering road snaking ahead and I was momentarily broken. I stopped, berated myself, and messed around with my drinks bottle. Then I glanced back over my shoulder at the open, empty road. I wondered where Gav was. Should I wait for him? I’d have given anything for him to run around the corner and tell me it would be OK. But we’ve been here many times before. I had to run my own race and find the strength myself.
‘OK, OK. You can stop every mile. That’s the deal. That’s what we’ll do. Just know that if you lose out on 1st placed female, this is the moment it cost you.’ I bargained with myself, and ran on.
Mile 15 came and I reverted back to my fractions. ‘Come on you’re ¾ of the way through! That’s only one bloody quarter of it left.’ I pictured a cake with a quarter slice carved out, and thought ‘fair enough – it’s not as big as the other grotesque Bruce Bogtrotter slice, but it’s still a big old wedge of cake!’ Shit. The visualisation technique thing had also escaped me. I ran on.
At mile 16, I obsessed about the number ‘4’. ‘Four miles left. Four. It’s one more than three, one less than five. Four will soon be three. How long will it take to turn into three?’ I’d momentarily picked up my speed again, and was gaining on a fella who’d earlier left me for dead. As I ran past, I felt a wave of his tiredness wash over me. ‘Come on’ I turned to him briefly. ‘Don’t let me beat you now.’ He didn’t respond. Yup – that’s what being well and truly fucked does to you.
The surroundings began to feel familiar to me. I pictured the remaining mile markers in my head, and their approximate location. It helped me to just keep ticking over at a consistent, if not earth-shattering pace. ‘I can see the bridge’ I told my nagging ‘STOP NOW’ chimp. ‘I can see the bridge, and I know the 19 mile marker is at the other side.’ My chimp was temporarily silenced.
Remember smug bastard from Mile 13? I ran past him just shy of the 19 mile marker and almost shouted ‘Yeah! Fuck You!’ But stopped myself before realising that he may yet discover a final gear and put me in Check Mate. Plus it would be very rude of me to display my Tourette’s in public.
‘Keep going, Rach. Come on now. Just run. One foot, then another.’ I knew the finishing mile well, and I stuck to the very basic plan of ‘Just keep running’. One last bastard lap of the track, and I was done. I’VE HELD ON! I’VE BEATEN MY CHIMP! I’M FIRST LADY! OH GOOD GOD! And then I broke down and wept.
Before I could peel my banana, Barry the race director ushered me to a table just beyond the timing clock. ‘First Lady!’ He said, kindly as I tried to gather myself. ‘Pick one of these from the table’ he said, gesturing with his hands towards a coffee maker, a juicer and something else. Think mini Generation Game. ‘ And a bottle’ he continued. ‘White, red, or rose’.
‘Oh, erm – I’ll have the juicer and rose please’ I said, too exhausted to care what box I took home. ‘And I’m really sorry I’m emotional’ I explained. ‘It’s just that – excuse my French – but I’m fucked.’ He laughed and handed me my spoils.
I sat down on the grass, and tried to compose myself. Second lady wasn’t far behind, and we spent a good ten minutes chewing the fat over marathon pacing, lessons we’d learned and self-congratulating on our victories (she seemed pleased with her coffee machine.)
And then my thoughts turned to Gav. Where was he? He wouldn’t be long. Nope – I’ll sit tight here on the grass. He won’t be long. I thought about going into the race HQ for a cup of tea, but didn’t want to miss him coming into sight for the last lap of the track. I waited, but he didn’t come.
I was getting cold. A lovely lady called Helen who was tasked with handing out t-shirts to finishing runners could see me sitting, and waiting. ‘Do you want to wear this jacket?’ She offered, kindly. ‘In fact’ she continued, ‘Go into the clubhouse, say Helen sent you in and ask for a big jacket like mine. You need to stay warm.’
She guarded my winning juicer and Blossom Hill as I followed her instructions and went inside for an oversize thermal-lined hi-vis with ‘MARSHALL’ in big black letters across the back. ‘Thanks so much’ I said as I returned to my spot on the grass with a cup of instant coffee which I was having some difficulty getting down.
Some more time passed, and I turned once again to Helen. ‘I’m getting worried about my other half, Helen,’ I said, getting flashbacks to Dubai Marathon. ‘He should have finished by now. He must have pulled out.’ She got out a mobile phone and called Barry, Race Director, who was out pedalling around the course keeping a general eye on proceedings. ‘What is he wearing? A Club vest?’ She asked. ‘No. A black vest and black shorts.’
I could hear her regurgitate the details to Barry. ‘It’s the First Lady – she’s worried about her partner!’ She said, kindly but with a comical tone as if there was some irony in the predicament. A few moments later, we had some news. ‘Barry thinks he’s just seen him approaching the bridge. He may be ten minutes or so.’ She informed me, reassuringly. ‘Ahh that’s good’ I said, and turned again to keep my eye on the entrance to the track.
Almost an hour had passed, and I started to cry. ‘Fucking hell Gav, where are you?’ I didn’t care any more about his race or his time. I just wanted him to be OK and to come round the corner. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I sat huddled my knees in the XXL hi-vis, surrounded by my spoils. I wasn’t bothered about my own race victory anymore, either.
And then he emerged. He walked round the corner and stepped over the tape barrier. I ran over to him. ‘Bloody hell, am I glad to see you!’ I said to him, still blubbing whilst checking him out for any obvious signs of distress. ‘I don’t even care what happened just yet,’ I told him. ‘Get a t-shirt and get warm. I’m just so relieved you’re back and you’re alright. It’s like Dubai all over a friggin gain!’
He’d been fine up to 15 miles, and then his legs had packed up. He didn’t know it, but his race was scarily similar to mine. The only difference was that my result flattered me, whereas his didn’t do him justice. There’s something so unfair about that.
Once he’d finished spluthering over how well I’d done (not that I cared by that point) I pointed to the grass. ‘At least we’ve got a new juicer’ I said, with a half-smile. It turns out he’d have preferred the coffee machine and the bottle of red.
Ah well, you can’t win ‘em all.