To be fair, I fell down a rabbit hole on the third hole at Sandwich in late summer. I didn’t run a stride in September, and I’ve been slow since then.
But here I am, shivering on the start line in Brighton once again. Trying to remember just what it’s all about.
Organisation. I remember now – that’s the trick before any race, and with forethought I might have got here earlier. I had to go back to the car a couple of times today. To collect my rainjacket first, and then my gloves. I don’t regret the time I lost, because it’s bloody cold.
Amongst two and half thousand runners, I’m amazed to find Antonio, my friend from southern Spain. In his red Almería Half Marathon tee-shirt, he’s not dressed for this weather, but he’s fresh and eager. We’ll run together – a personal best of fiftyfive minutes is his target – and pacing work will suit me fine today.
The first mile is into the wind. A strong November easterly, blowing chilly from the English Channel. This resort grew fashionable in George III’s time, two hundred years ago, when seaside bathing was all the rage.
There are hardy folk who swim here on Christmas Day each year, but even those nutters would think twice about it now. To our right, I can see giant grey waves lashing the pebbles in a mash of foam and gravel upon the beach.
We start out slowly, tightly bunched amongst the crowd, and I hardly feel a breeze. Soon I’m boxed in traffic and Antonio slips ahead. I’ll catch him in a moment, I’m sure – but he’s running faster, all the time. We turn around and the wind is right behind my massive gangling frame, but I still can’t close him down.
Antonio is running hell for leather, keen to return to his warm Mediterranean as fast as possible. The inexperience of youth, I ponder. He’ll suffer for that zeal, eventually. There’s a price to pay for setting off too fast.
I decide not to bridge the gap, and tuck in instead, fifty metres or so behind him. Soon it’s a hundred metres, but I’m not concerned. It’s going smoothly, running fast downwind, until I feel a sudden ‘ping’ and a pang of pain. My left knee gave me problems all last summer, but it’s the other knee that’s complaining now. I leap into the air, bounding like a demented gazelle for a stride or two, taking the weight off that leg as best I can. The electrics fade away, if not quite completely, then more or less enough to run.
That gap stays stubbornly open, a hundred metres wide. No acceleration of mine can bridge it. But my Spanish friend may yet slow and come back to me.
Watching him glide by reminds me of running with Haile Gebrselassie in Almería – the grace and rhythm of an all-time legend, powering effortlessly in a blur of speed. And it’s not like that at all.
For three miles now, I’ve been cruising 7:45 miles. That’s wind assisted, and I knew it would be tough the other way. But when we turn, the gale is battering me to a standstill. In gusts, I’m almost running backwards.
That red Spanish tee-shirt ahead is suffering, too, and gradually I reel it in, measuring my efforts as best I can. Finally I draw alongside near the Grand Hotel, where Margaret Thatcher almost perished in a 1984 IRA bomb attack.
I’ll ease off now, and nobly bring my tired companion home. It doesn’t happen. Antonio surges, inexplicably. I grind him down again, and he’s a metre behind me, then two, now three. It’s time for motivational talk.
VENGA ! I shout, for all I’m worth. Come on ! It’s not polite – like an exasperated mother in the park, but in these hobbled, knackered, panting moments, it’s the best that I can do. Antonio speeds faster, to try and knock my block off.
We run a kilometre together, all along the front. I call out one kilometre left, hoping to inspire my friend, and it all goes wrong. He surges again, and I’m left for dust. We run a ridiculous dance – I urge Antonio on as he shouts back at me. Eventually he slows and I regain some ground.
In the final straight I’m dying, but Antonio grabs my hand and we cross the line together. It’s a marvellous gesture, recalling the very first London Marathon in 1981 when Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen sportingly shared their victory after twentysix hard-fought miles.
All that hand-holding nonsense makes it hard to stop my watch. But 53:59 is a new personal best for Antonio. It’s my slowest ever Brighton, but in the toughest weather, too – one more excuse to all those I gathered earlier.
A little later, a hearty Italian meal within and a pint of San Miguel beside me, we’re sitting in the bar as the rain begins. And whilst the winter’s dark arrives, the rain hammering against the windows, an hour or so of conversation follows.
We talk about running, yes, but there’s much more to say on writing, and travel, and Monsieur Sarkozy, and the state of Turkish politics, too. It must be the lager, and the welcome warmth, but I feel much more comfortable now.
131. Brighton Rock
156. The Dorney Dash 10 km – and how to row the North Atlantic
104. Puke, lies and finishing tape: Brighton 10 km
146. School cross-country – Clandon Park 10 km
28. Thoughts on racing
136. En directo – Medio Maratón de Almería 2007