Q: When is a race not a race?

A: When I couldn’t give a Fat Rascal about anything other than finishing it.

‘I think I want to enter into a race again, Gav.’ I said. ‘It’s time to get over the fear.’

What’s the worst that could happen?

We chose the Ilkley Trail race on Bank Holiday Monday. It worked around the delicate orchestrating of childcare arrangements courtesy of two broken homes (sob*) having successfully amalgamated into one complete madhouse**

Regardless, it wasn’t an obvious choice for a tentative first race back since the debacle of the Dewsbury 10k back in February, during which I’d been forced to make the Walk of Shame back to the start after only 1.5 miles of purgatory (before being picked up by the Unfortunate Bastards Sweeper Bus.) That was my last race: it hurt my legs, my Achilles, and my pride.

I’ve written a lot recently about race anxiety. I’ve been known to have sleepless night before Parkrun. Yes, seriously. I’ve woken up with palpitations in a goose-bumped, fuzzy-headed clammy sweat, cleaned the fridge, and set off a good two hours before the marshals have even pressed ‘SNOOZE’ on their teasmade.

And why? I have no answer. It doesn’t really matter: none of it does. Nobody ultimately cares how I do, or what time I drag my carcass across the finish line. I used to think that it matters, and that it proved something about who I was, and who I could be. But it doesn’t. Successes are fleeting. They’re like the yellow marzipan around a Battenberg: a nice-to-have. Would you still enjoy the pink and yellow sponge cake squares without the yellow marzipan encasement? Yes, you would. Or I would, at least.

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A loss of form, however, separates the ego from the true self. It strips away the protective marzipan comfort of glory, and the pseudo almondy mask of acknowledgement. Injury; illness; life events. Any one of them can suddenly derail even the most cock-sure of egos, and have it tumble from the gilded perch on which it has merrily swung.

Q: What’s left then?

A: The pink and yellow sponge cake squares.

I woke on the Bank Holiday Monday having thoroughly processed and digested my ‘who am I?’ Battenberg analogy (I can only apologise for inadvertently stumbling across this clumsy pun.) I’d slept, and I’d slept well. PHEW! This was a good start. No heart racing, no palpitations, and no reaching for the proverbial mushroom bag. It’s all under control, Rach. And it was.

Resting heart rate: 54.

Kit on, bags packed, myself and the other half of me, commonly known as ‘Gav Dodd Fax’, headed out under a heavy sky in the direction of Ilkley. ‘I don’t feel nervous, Gav. Do you?’ I ventured.

‘No, not a bit,’ he replied. And he meant it.

‘But I don’t feel anything! No butterflies, no adrenalin, no tension. No nothing! I slept like a baby and haven’t taken to grinding my teeth, or cleaning out the fridge at 6am. It feels strange, that’s all.’ I continued, talking to myself as much as I was to him.

‘It’s the furthest we’ve run in months, Rach’ he replied matter-of-factly in his pre-8am tired tone, ‘And we’re only just starting to build our fitness back up. What can we expect?’

He was right.

We were – true to form – a good hour too early on arrival at the Ilkley Lido. With the heated seats on low, I slurped the remnants of cold coffee from my favourite Heisenberg travel mug, whilst Gav took half a dozen attempts to pin a small square of paper onto the front of a vest. It felt like coming home.

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Do these look like faces that could give a fat rascal?

‘Are you feeling nervous yet, Gav?’ I asked, as he stabbed his thumb yet again with a pin.

‘Nope. Not at all,’ he replied, shortly followed by, ‘is my number straight?’

And then the already slate-grey heavens must have remembered that it was a national Bank Holiday, and so began to spew relentlessly. For fuck’s sake.

‘I guess we’d better warm up, then’ we appeared to say in unison as the car clock nonchalantly indicated that it was a quarter past the hour.

Once our trainers had been replaced by the more unfamiliar off-roadies, we stepped out into the incessant shower pouring from a monochrome sky, and began to jog – no, hobble – up the grassy banking towards the start of the race. We continued slowly up the offensive hill in some kind of torturous pre-race dress rehearsal of what was about to come.

It’s quite possibly the worst start to any race. A measly hundred metres of flat followed by up, up, and then some more up.

‘Jesus, Gav. I’m fucked.’ I panted, stopping my pathetic attempt at a warm-up jog only a quarter of the way up the offensive hill, and stared at him, blankly. ‘And this is just the warm up!’ I could tell from his expression that my words echoed his exact thoughts.

Back down at the start line, we hung around at the back like a pair of shy teenagers trying to smoke menthols behind the bike sheds. ‘Start off slowly, Rach. And remember – it doesn’t matter. None of it matters.’

He was right.

We set off slowly, as Gav suggested, towards the back of the pack. My legs relaxed thanks to the entire absence of any pressure, and they took off slowly up the hillside. Steadily inching past a fair number of runners, they made it to the top. What had seemed incredulous whilst tottering about on our anxiety-inducing warm up was – in fact – perfectly feasible. My legs handled it: they were (just about) up to the job.  The climb continued, and – unbelievably – my legs were still turning over. A couple of miles in, and I’d pulled ahead. But lack of racing fitness kicked in, and I took the opportunity to pull over and wait for my Gav Dodd Fax who was sticking to his guns and approaching at a consistent, steady pace. I was thankful for the rest.

I’ll spare you the minutiae: I stopped a bit, and I started again. I felt temporarily beaten, and then mildly triumphant for fighting back. The rain was cold and cleansing, washing away any worries about performance, PBs or lack of form. I’m here, and I’m back running… No, I’m back RACING! Only racing in a different way. Free from heaviness and pressure; stress and worry. Racing on my terms, and running as well – or not – as my body could, on this day, today.

Crossing the finish line I was 5 minutes slower than the last time I’d tackled the very same beast back in 2015, when – entirely without injury, illness, life event or force majeure – I was happily swinging away on my merry little perch. But I didn’t care. I’d happily nibble on the pink and yellow sponge cake squares – minus the (admittedly delicious) yellow marzipan. Today, I was grateful for the squares.

Gav came over the line shortly afterwards, visibility having been an issue whilst having no wipers on his face furniture.

‘Bloody hell, that was tough, wasn’t it?’ he said, attempting to peer through his now entirely opaque spectacles.

‘No shit it was. Do you fancy going to Betty’s for a Fat Rascal?’

They don’t sell Battenberg.

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*not really

**hashtag smiley face