Vous n’êtes pas loin.
‘Not far to go now,’ cried the marshall in the Dorney Dash 10 km last month, a pleasant, friendly run beside the rowing lake – the sparkling new facility where oarsmen, kayakers and canoeists will race for their London Olympic golds, five years from now.
It was just before the halfway mark, beside the lavish Eton College boathouse with its sleek new carbon shells, that we spotted the strangely lumbering-looking rowing boat, parked up incongruously in an empty field. A boat built for a racecourse far longer than this one.
Two kilometres were left to run as we rounded the final turn towards that voice. Kindly thoughts, warmly offered, despite the lashing rain – the sentiments of so many spectators at a running race, yet so often the words you don’t want to hear.
Twentytwo miles down in a marathon, and ‘only’ four more to go ? Just forget the idea – because the physical and mental effort required for that short distance will be far greater than for all the miles which went before.
So much, and so little, I know of the balance between motivation and suffering. I think back to the tiny boat laid up beside the course, and try to imagine hearing the same encouragement, somewhere just east of the Azores, with nearly 2 000 miles behind, and ‘only’ 600 miles of the North Atlantic still in front.
(updated and completed 26.06.2007 …
… banner image © Microsoft Virtual Earth)
The straightest line on any map.
In southern England, as in much of Europe, straight lines most often record the course of a Roman road.
2,000 years later, Roman roads form an important part of our transport network, even today. Their arrow-straight trajectories define the traces of many of the modern roads which radiate out of London.
Even in this wildest and most remote colony of the Roman world (and perhaps especially here), the Roman legions had to travel. Trade needed to flow. The effective linking of the farthest outposts of Empire was necessary not just for military protection, but also fundamental to the process of Romanisation.
The traveller passing from Dover to London along the A2 and continuing northwestwards on the A5 from Marble Arch to St Alban’s is following Watling Street, all the way.
It’s not even 9 on Sunday morning, and already I’m out of my depth.
Looking out of my new goggles and through a bubble-strewn maelstrom of churning waters, I can see the floor of the pool falling away far beneath me, and just for a moment, I consider drowning.
The truth is, I’m into new territory here. Way out of my comfort zone.
I’d thought it only in concentration camps that arrivals were routinely branded, until the ruthlessly efficient blonde by the desk had smilingly scrawled numbers onto my flesh.
And a few minutes later, fearfully lined up in numerical order beside the pool, we’d all edged nervously forwards towards our fate. This was something different. We weren’t just starting a race – we were being processed.
Back to the beginning.
The school playing field, on a Saturday, was a place I never knew. The only time I saw it, as substitute at hockey. we won 3-1, but the hockey coach refused to bring me on. I wasn’t picked again.
Now, thirty years later, I’m on the playing field again. I’ve picked up my number from the teachers in the gym, and ticked my name off on the list. And this time I’m ready, more or less.
There are a few of those long-nosed and lanky-legged running club runners you so often see in a local race – I can see them warming up around the track. But there are many more nervous housewives and out-of-training Dads, sipping anxiously on their water bottles. Revenge for a school career of sporting failures lies tantalisingly within my reach.
The oldest regularly-held sporting event in the world reached its 153rd edition in London last Saturday, and I was lucky enough to watch the coverage along with millions all around the globe.
The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, from Putney to Mortlake.
Rowing – it’s a sport I know so little, which taught me so much of what I know.
Now I could tell you that sport is all about fitness. I could tell you that it’s about improvement, and dedication and companionship. I could relate the heightened mental acuity felt by the long distance runner, show you the slow-motion symmetry of a perfect iron shot towards the flag on a silent summer’s evening, or try to describe the sound of a mountainside half-shrouded in cloud.
Sport might really be about all of those things. But I know that’s not true.
It was rowing which taught me that lesson. It was the summer I spent doing this. The summer when I learnt that sport is all about fear.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and movie footage … well, maybe more.
It’s a thrill to complete a major international race, even in the heart of the pack.
There’s just no experience quite like it – the patter of trainers on tarmac, the companionship of fellow-runners, the roars of the crowd, and the ghastly rasping sounds which form the soundtrack to my own near-terminal efforts.
So here it is – Roads in southern Spain, and en route to a 1:59:57 half marathon.
Spanish steps – La Rambla de Almería: the ascent for glory (advisory – this film features poor Spanish grammar, right from the start)
The weather for this year’s Brighton 10 km was every bit as calm and sunny as in 2005, if nowhere near as cold.
Returning to this race made for a much more pleasant encounter with the scenic seafront esplanade, a backdrop which features so memorably in Graham Greene’s classic 1930s novel Brighton Rock.
And that tale of sordid seaside strife and natural justice found more than fleeting echo as I recalled the sad and painful script of last year’s race.