104. Puke, lies and finishing tape: Brighton 10 km

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What a way to spend an early winter’s morning. Late November sunshine streaming unbroken from a frostily huge and cloudless sky. Cool breeze hardly leaving a ripple on a dark blue sea. The gentlest ambling stroll along a quiet promenade, gazing up at the Regency splendour of Brighton seafront.

Not quite. The conditions may be perfect, but my running form is struggling today. The course is fast, but (and here come the excuses) it’s just a month since I ran a marathon. A good recovery, but not long enough, as a painful knee reminds me. I should have known better, but sometimes it’s hard to stop it happening. And I haven’t run for two weeks before today.

None of this should matter. I’ve been cycling the Sussex hills at lunchtime, and I’m still fit. But although my legs are turning over well, and I’m enjoying my racing today, it feels more laboured than it should. I don’t know why.

Is it desire, resolve, or energy that’s lacking ? It’s hard to say. It probably would be easier, if I knew how fast we were really running. But frankly, I’ve no idea. I left my GPS at home today. I forgot to start my watch. I can’t see any kilometre markers. And I’ve never run this town before. All excuses.

It never seemed to matter, when first I started. I just used to run, until I couldn’t run anymore. These days, it seems I want (and need) to know how fast I’m going, how far I’ve gone, and even more importantly, how far there’s left to go.

I’ve recognised that tendency, to rely on the watch too much. But if you’re trying to run faster for a change, sometimes it’s good not to know you are. You might be running well, but look out, because here comes Garmin’s Law to catch you out:
(velocity x knowledge) + demented worries = a certain and imminent decline up ahead.

The way to stop that tendency ? To worry less about the time, and run on feel. Sometimes you might as well just run fast, whilst you’ve got the legs and will to do so. And as my last race taught me, even if you hold it back for ages, it still can happen – collapse can catch you all the same. So hence the mental note – next time, perhaps, I’d leave the watch at home.

But that was then, and this is now. I’d long forgotten (or discarded) that crazy notion, until we’d done 2 km, and I simply had no clue how slow we’d run.

My running partner today, ‘Legs’ Sweder, kindly reassured me at the start. He wouldn’t push for speed. ‘Just another training run,’ he casually lied. It sounded fine to me. For although my knee was feeling better, somehow I knew it wasn’t a PB day. And now, at 4 km (I think), my breathing’s very noisy, my legs are still quite stiff, and I’m strangely rather listless. That’s not a good sign. There’s far too far to go, and it should be feeling better than this.

‘Now then, there’s just a very gentle hill ahead here,’ says Sweder, the hill-run specialist, smiling darkly. I know exactly what that means. And a moment later, sure enough, I’m looking less than closely at the back of a turquoise blue Diabetes vest, receding rapidly in front of me. I’d lost him briefly on the last slope, up to Black Rock, but I’d ground him down that time. It took a kilometre, but I bridged that gap. But this time – not a chance. Sweder’s got the pedal down, and my wheels are spinning. My drive-train’s buggered, with no response to wild lung over-revs. Oh well, I’ll soldier on, and see what happens. It might get worse.

We’re supposed to turn at 6.5 km, but with neither distance markers nor GPS, nor even a watch, I don’t know where that is. And it never comes. We dodge pedestrians and the occasional pedantic cyclist sticking doggedly to the bike lane. It must be some particular kind of bad luck or blinkered madness to foolishly stride or ride across the esplanade at just the very moment when 2 000 fast-stomping runners invade your roadspace, but they do it all the same.

That blue shirt flashes briefly past me, running now the other way, and smiling broadly. At last the turning point has come. And the end’s not that far away for me, either, but at least I’m heading homewards. I start my watch, 7 km late, and if that seems really futile, then at least I can count the minutes towards my doom. Two go by, and a runner nearby asks me, ‘Have you got the time ?’. I’d guess around half eleven, but before I can reply, the man beside me pipes up, ‘That’s thirty-five to here’. I feel more like sixty-five, to tell the truth, but then again … seven times five – that’s close to 50 minute pace. And Sweder’s far ahead.

It all makes sense now – those laboured miles, the burning lungs, the flagging legs. I ease it off a little now (let’s fob a lie, please, and call it tactical, shall we?). The slight incline at the Peace Statue tells me firmly that I’m still overcooking, big time, and so I slow it down a notch again.

But at least we’re getting close here. I can see the Pier – and we’re near the finish, I’m almost certain. Right on cue, a marshal shouts, ‘Nine km, coming up, just ahead’. And now I know we’re not. What’s it like, facing five minutes more of murder than you thought ? It’s a sinking feeling, really. Like arriving thirsty at the bar to hear those words, ‘We’ve just got to change the barrel,’ or staggering cross-legged into a public conveniences, only to find a great big queue.

My legs don’t like it. I don’t like it. I grit my teeth, and try to concentrate. That blue shirt’s out of sight (man), so I look around for another runner to pursue. And now for some entirely random reason, a Leukaemia shirt catches my eye, blonde pigtail flapping jauntily above. I grimace like a caveman, and strive to close down the gap, from fifteen metres, then ten. Now it’s five.

But, bloody hell, ‘Come on Karen, YOU CAN DO IT,’ roars a big shout from my right, and in response to motivation, that perky shirt makes a fantastic surge. She’s twenty metres ahead in an instant, and I’ll never catch her now. But I don’t give up, and perhaps she does, for with forty metres left I draw level. I’d like to say I’m accelerating, flying gracefully past, but it’s more of a frantic stagger and semi-chunder past, actually. Because if the finish doesn’t come very soon, I’m going to leave my breakfast right here.

At last the line arrives. Immediately I’m squatting down and heaving, but at least my deft forbearance on the caffé latte means there’s nothing down there to waste. It’s not the perfect way to finish a race. But wait, now – fortunately Sweder’s so far ahead he’s no idea what’s happened. Andy’s out of sight behind. And I haven’t seen those two colleagues of mine who’ve been running here, either. I’m in luck !

I gather myself from the roadside, mop my brow, regain my wits and saunter smiling down the chute. ‘Hey, Sweder – you only just got away from me there, right at the very end’, I cheerfully and blatantly lie.

Only by two minutes, or just a little more. 50:55 is my final time, with 48:48 for Sweder.

I never liked the 10 km anyway. That knee was bad, wasn’t it ? (although in truth I never felt it). It was cold today. My legs were stiff, that recent marathon…. and oh – the wind (just the faintest breath, but always strong against). And, no, I didn’t really feel like it. But still I finished, somehow, and I did quite well, considering, didn’t I ?

Ah, excuses. The perfect runner’s foil. I’m lucky to have so many, on such a lovely day. I didn’t run very well. It hurt (a lot). I almost chucked up at the very end. So what’s the final verdict ?

Now let me see – ah, yes, ‘Cracking run along the seafront, Gromit / Sweder. Jolly super weather. Really enjoyed the run. Delighted with my race. Training’s definitely paying off, although I took it all quite easily today. Just didn’t want to push the pace too hard, too soon, you see. Building up my speed gradually, for later in the season.’

Yeah, right. And if you think you might believe a single word of that old baloney, mate – then you’re certainly a runner, and just like me.

Related articles:
131. Brighton Rock
12. 10 km torment in Stubbington Green
55. A redemption in Manchester
68. The Beautiful South – Great South Run 2004
78. Spanish stroll: Almería Half Marathon
146. School cross-country – Clandon Park 10 km

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