On Wednesday I ran my first competitive race for fifteen years. Fifteen years equates to approximately half of my life span. This means that I have, staggeringly, spent half of my life slumped in arm chairs, eating pot noodles, drinking lager and only vicariously participating in sports by simulating them through computer games. Mercifully, this period only left me with a vaguely distinguishable pot belly. But what kind of damage will it have done to my 5k time?
As a junior athlete I could happily nip through 5k in around 19 minutes. And dipping under 20 minutes probably didn’t seem daunting at all – my 800 metre best was somewhere around 2.12, so running 5 straight kilometres at 4 minute pace mustn’t have seemed like much of a stretch.
But so much has changed in the past 15 years. A couple of months ago, when I first started running, I could hardly make it to a mile without fear of going into cardiac arrest. I doubt I could have run 5k in under 40 minutes, let alone 20. I was spectacularly unfit. The kind of unfit that has you wheezing when you walk up stairs, straining to carry shopping bags and struggling to push through non-automatic revolving doors.
Still, I must have some kind of latent aptitude for running. A block of two months of regular running has seen me transform from a wheezy, sweaty plodder to a wheezy, sweaty runner. And that’s the key improvement – I can actually run for sustained periods now, running in the actual dictionary definition sense of the word (I don’t just waddle for a few hundred metres and pretend to stretch to that onlookers don’t realise that I just have a stitch). All of this begs the question, just how quickly can I drag myself through 5 kilometres these days?
I found out at the Jog Scotland 5k challenge at Haddo House.
This was my first Jog Scotland event and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. There was a kind of carnival atmosphere at the race that verged on mass hysteria at some points. Before the start we were led through a mass warm-up by a personal trainer from a local gym who, for some reason, conducted the session dressed in a green morphsuit. Any passer-by who witnessed the spectacle of over a hundred people touching their toes, sidestepping and bouncing in unison could be forgiven for thinking that they were witnessing some kind of keep-fit cult, led by the chanting of a green lycra shaman.
The beginning of the race was reminiscent of a mini London marathon – the elite runners jostling for position under the start banner, the normals bunched together in the middle and the people dressed in inflatable sumo wrestler outfits clustered at the back.
As the gun sounded my old racing instincts immediately kicked in. I gave the main pack of runners a wide berth, skirting round them until I found a clear stretch of road. I bolted through the first kilometre just behind the leading pack. I started to set my sights on the vests ahead, tried to slowly reel them in. “I’m Steve Prefontaine”, I said to myself, “I’m Steve F**king Prefontaine!”
It was all going so well until I rounded a corner and was presented with a hill. I hadn’t expected there to be hills. “Why the f**k did they put that hill there?” I asked myself. “How the f**k am I going to get up that?” My interior monologue grew progressively coarse as I realised that I had only just passed the kilometre mark and I was already totally knackered.
I kept going though, and I even passed a few more runners as I clawed my way up the incline. But when I reached the summit something happened to my body. My legs started to surrender. My lungs seemed to be deflating inside my chest, refusing to suck in any more air. And the back of my throat felt like it had been napalmed. “I’m totally f**ked now,” I thought.
The rest of the race was just a battle with my pride really. I refused to stop and walk. I was also determined to limp round in less than 23 minutes. It was a strange sensation, holding on like that. I felt like I was cleansed of all of life’s superficial worries – my job, my bank account, my visa application. All that was left was the purest of concerns – keep breathing, left foot in front of right, right foot in front of left, don’t shit in shorts. That level of exertion was excruciating, but empowering at the same time.
I finished the race 31st from a field of 272, my time 22 minutes and 36 seconds. “Thank f**k for that,” I said to myself as I hunkered down and tried to catch my breath. For a while I did wonder why I would ever subject myself to this torture. A few minutes later those fleeting moments of exhaustion and nausea passed though, and I just felt an enormous sense of pride. Sure I’d set a fairly modest time and failed to emulate the mighty Steve Prefontaine (see various previous posts on this site), but that didn’t really seem to matter. I’d made it round, and that was good enough for me.
More picture from the event, courtesy of the Jog Scotland Flickr stream, can be viewed below. I look like a complete gimp in all of them. Full results are listed here.
For a whirlwind tour of the course I ran, watch this …