21 July 2006

Standard Chartered Great City Race

I told a colleague this afternoon that it felt as if I was coming to the end of my life’s work: organising the firm’s entry in the Standard Chartered Great City Race. An initial allocation of 20 places quickly filled, three more requested to accommodate all the would-be participants in the firm, then the drop-outs – rowing training, pregnancy, holiday, grandfather’s mistress’s funeral, you name it – well, I made the last one up, although I did have a delegate on a course once who disappeared at coffee time to buy a birthday card for his grandfather’s mistress: the ‘funeral’ part, I think, adds an element of surprise.
Two colleagues whose excuses didn’t impress me I had resolved not to speak to again, ever (the pregnancy I will give the benefit of the doubt). But one is now in hospital with an aneurism, and it’s hard not to be sympathetic to that. Another didn’t even offer an excuse. Otherwise, there were three injuries – OK, two injuries and a verrucca – which it’s hard to argue with. I would not wish to encourage anyone to run who wasn’t up to it.

First, the 18 remaining participants (one of whom became involved in a conference call and never made it) had to get to the start, a good couple of miles away. We quickly divided into those taking the tube and the ‘jog-overs’, who would use the trip as their warm-up. This latter group includes the usual suspects, plus another two, one of whom had pneumonia earlier in the year. Unsurprisingly, he finds it tough going – this is the tail-end of a record heatwave – and we lose him before we reach the start area. I volunteer to stop to wait for him, then just too late realise that with my running shades instead of my ‘seeing’ glasses I am the least suitable person of the five to undertake this responsibility. Fortunately, he catches up with the rest of us at the start.

I was bending down to fasten my shoelace – somehow my running shoes had become very loose, perhaps because this pair had been on loan to someone for a game of softball, and I needed to pull the laces tight – when the field moved forward towards the start. It stopped again at the exit from the HAC, and I was able to wend my way through the throng (‘excuse me … excuse me …’) to rejoin some of my team mates, whose shoe laces must have been tight enough from the outset: I was not going to allow Francis to get ahead of me if I could avoid it.

‘What’s happening?’ a tall young lady standing next to me asked. There was no apparent reason why we should have stopped at this point, but she was better placed (by a couple of inches) to see the reason, so I have little constructive to say in reply. Then the crowd moved forward a little and stopped, and she asked again, perhaps just for the sake of saying something. She was making adjustments to the iPod in her hand, arranging a programme of music to stave off the boredom that could set in during a 25-minute run, and I made a mental note to give her, and anyone else with visible earphones, a wide berth if I encountered them in the race.

The start, delayed while a broken-down taxi is removed from Moorgate, was officiated over by Paula Radcliffe, with Dave Bedford, the man whose long-distance running feats inspired me (after a delay of some twenty years) to try it myself, now running the London Marathon organising company, also in attendance. The taxi took a few minutes to remove, during which they tried heroically to keep us entertained.

Then Paula blew the horn to start the race, and the runners in front of us quickly got up to speed. The start here is spacious, unlike the exit from the Guildhall yard which was used until last year, and there was a clear, wide road stretching ahead. I settled into a steady rhythm down Moorgate, breaking it to dodge round the inevitable slow runners who had started further forward than they should, not considering how they might spoil the event for others behind them.

A quarter of a mile or so into the race, I passed iPod girl, the one who had asked me twice what was happening and I had admitted that I didn’t know. Partly to test whether she could hear anything apart from her musical selection, as I passed her I called out: ‘I know what’s happening now!’, and she heard, and grinned. And neither of us tripped over the other.

Turning right into London Wall, I suddenly felt a flood of ill-defined memories of times at London Guildhall University (before that, City Poly), as a part-time postgraduate student and later a lecturer: how many times had I crossed this road on the way to or from the building I had just run past? What would I have thought then, had I been able to see myself now, running (and, if I say it myself, at a respectable pace) round these closed streets? I’d completed my PhD long before I started running, but one evening after the half-time break in a class I was teaching years later, as I tucked into a Snickers bar and a banana, one of the students identified me as a runner, like himself, and told me he was just about to travel to South Africa to run the Comrades. As I hope I might do, one day.

The length of London Wall isn’t a long way to run, and although I knew my breathing was far from relaxed, I had run – and run longer – like this before, exhaling hard and pulling new air into my lungs. This should have been the right pace for 5K, though it would be nice to know where the Ks were. I looked at my watch: the minutes digit showed 4, and the seconds something in the twenties or thirties. At this pace, especially from the start (where going to fast is my biggest failing), the first K should have come up in 4 minutes or perhaps slightly less.

London Wall must be one of the least inspiring streets in central London, although I couldn’t see much of it with the eyewear I was using. I’m not missing much in the way of scenery, I tell myself. At the end of London Wall, there’s a roundabout (by the Museum of London, which I remember enjoying so much, back in 1979) and runners shaving inches off the distance took to the pavement to follow the tightest line. I kept to the tarmac, reminding myself that it’s softer and does less damage to the joints.

‘Hi!’ A cheery greeting came from behind me, and a split second later Francis bounded past, his strides effortless and his breathing not remotely laboured. Determined not to allow the inevitable to happen, I lengthened my stride, matching his next two paces before age (but definitely not guile) and discretion took over. I hoped I would be the first runner from the firm to finish, but the chances of that had disappeared at a stroke. In little time, he was lost to view – though that tells you as much about my eyesight as anything else.

If this was going to be several races in one - me against the clock, for a PB, the firm's team for a top 50 placing, me against Francis - then at least one of those was over already. The realisation slowed me, made my legs feel heavy and sapping my will to run. Old Broad Street went by, and someone kicked my on my left knee as I barged past him (he was running slowly and making no attempt to give way), but at the junction with Threadneedle Street a solid plastic barrier pushed the stream of runners away from the left-hand kerb, then ended abruptly, forming a haven into which I swerved, stopping.

I had little idea what I was going to do there. I felt initially as if I’d be walking from there back to the finish, and had I taken another couple of seconds over it perhaps I’d have started to rehearse the excuses I’d have to make to my colleagues. I bent over and caught my breath, then remembering Toronto started to jog along again. And I ran faster, and faster, and although I hadn’t got back to 6:30 miling, before long I was keeping up a satisfactory pace.

Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was dehydration, maybe it was poor nights’ sleep for a couple of nights. Perhaps I hadn’t eaten the right things, perhaps I had eaten to much or too little. Perhaps it was the ‘jog-over’ to warm up. I kept off the running line for the rest of the way, until I could see the finish – or at least I could see the building by which we had started – and I put on a spurt. There was still something in the tank, though many others were less fortunate and I passed a fair number of runners on the way to the finish line. Of course, it was further away than I expected, and when a marshal, trying to be encouraging no doubt, called out ‘Only 300 yards to go!’, my heart sank, but I pressed on and staggered to a halt after crossing the line (and the all-important mat that would detect my timing chip), stopping my watch on 20:46.

It took more out of me than I thought, and after collecting a bottle of water I had to spend a minute or two leaning against a barrier (stretching out my calf muscles at the same time) to recover. Then I wandered through the finish area, collecting a goodie bag (another medal and tee-shirt for my collection) and a bottle of water for which I traded in my empty. Our muster point is just the other side of a barrier, which I not-very-elegantly clamber over: Francis is already there, looking cool and relaxed, though not on this occasion changed and without the appearance of having showered. So too is Ian, which caused me not a little concern.

‘What was your time?’ I asked him: the all-important question. ‘Don’t know,’ he claimed, unconvincingly. ‘What about you?’ I show him my watch, stopped at 20:46. He was a long way ahead of me, but he muttered something about the clock being on 20-something as he finished. In fact, later that evening (the wonders of modern technology!) the results showed that he came home two seconds under 19 minutes, exactly one minute and 45 seconds faster than me (the official time gave me another three seconds’ credit). How am I ever going to make that up?

Ian reckoned his time was over 21 minutes, so I was able to stop worrying that he had come past me while I wasn’t paying attention. He must have passed me while I was making my way slowly through the goodie-bag area, or stretching and catching my breath after the finish.

The rest of the team turned up one or two at a time, everyone looking warm but very satisfied. Vanessa clambered over the barriers even less elegantly than I did, and in front of a bigger audience. Eventually, a quick head-count – in response to requests to start moving towards the pub – revealed that we were one person short. Three of us retraced our steps, locating our missing team-mate at the finish where she had needed treatment for pains in her leg - which turned out to be sciatica.

I left the others to go to the pub while I collected a goodie bag for our last finisher, then I left the HAC's ground through a different entrance and found myself back on Moorgate (or is it City Road at that point?) heading north to find the Master Gunner. The roads, almost deserted now, were still lined with barriers. A lone figure, baseball hat pulled down over his eyes, was busily turning them to create breaks in the line, presumably preparatory to their being collected and taken away. I recognised Britain's great long distance runner, sometime world 5000 metre record holder, by his luxuriant moustache, and could not resist taking a moment to pass the time of day with him - and I'm still kicking myself for my twin failures, first to help him move the barriers and second to invite him to join the team for a pint. But when I rejoin the rest, and excitedly tell some of them who I have just been talking to, one twenty-something admits he'd never heard of Dave Bedford before this evening.

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