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There’s something missing…
This evening, as I sit here nursing burning thighs and very sore feet, I can’t help feeling that there is something missing from my day. It’s less of a ‘thing’ that’s missing; more of an entity. What’s missing is that nagging voice at the back of my head saying, “You’ve got to keep training for the Benfleet 15 – get out now – run, run; run”.
I’m always like this the day after an event; it’s quite a complex mix of emotions – on the one hand satisfaction in having set the goal, risen to the challenge and enjoyed every minute of the experience. On the other hand, wondering what will drive me out of the door every evening to keep pounding those trails. It’s not just running events – Cycle Sportives are just the same; you register, plan your training schedule, stick to it and then one day, you ride the race and…….it’s all over. It is that ‘Boxing Day’ feeling – the anti-climax after the main event.
Should I stay; or should I go?...
Those of you who follow my Twitter (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook) feeds will know how fraught the final days before the race got for me; a moment of stupidity and a foot injury looking like they would take me out of the event. Right until the evening before, there was a part of me saying, “Rest that damaged foot; don’t risk your whole season for an entry on one time sheet”. Frankly, I fought with this and it was tough – did I shoot months of training down the pan or take a chance and potentially send a whole season along with it?
Self-talk is a damaging thing and it wasn’t until a brief exchange of text messages late in the day with a mate – a much more accomplished runner – when I decided that it would be better to try and fail; rather than never try at all.
Here goes nothing…
Sunday dawned grey – with heavy clouds threatening snow. And, they made good on that threat too – before 09:00 AM, a decent layer of fresh powder was upon us. At this point, I was getting the usual pre-race jitters; would my foot hold up? What route home would I take if it did give out? Would I embarrass myself, recording the only DNF of the day? Is this really a good idea!!!
Half an hour later as I pinned a number to my chest, my mind began to clear. It’s amazing the effect that seeing that piece of paper pinned to you has – doubts suddenly melting away and thoughts now focusing on the race plan and strategy. Climbing out of the car in Hadleigh, that simple square of paper had even deeper significance. To the queues of traffic tip-toeing their way along snow covered roads it shouted, “I’m not just another runner out for a jog in the snow - today, I am a competitor; today, I’m running the Benfleet 15”.
Truth be told, I probably still looked like just another nutty runner to most of them; just a nutty runner with a number pinned to his chest. But, in my mind, the magical power of the race number was already taking effect – foot pain almost melting away, heart quickening as I spied other competitors (and began my ‘threat assessment’) and the damaging voice of doubt fading into the background.
And then I was at the start line – the usual banter with other runners – the briefing shouted from the side line – the heart rate quickening and, suddenly…….wallop; we’re off. From the moment I crossed the line, I could think of only one thing; finishing. I knew the pace that I needed to set to get my target time and, in the early stages, I set it.
Turning out onto Hadleigh Downs, the wind whipped furiously into my face, making an oddly comforting sound as icy dry-powder snow was blasted into the race number on my chest. As the 2 mile board appeared, a guy running next to me exclaimed, “Oh, good – just a half-marathon to run from here then!” We all laughed – and it gave us a lift. And, as the heavily rutted trails – now frozen solid – below our feet punished us with every step, these little exchanges really helped to keep the spirits high.
Winners – every one…
There were 370 of us there competing on that day; 370 stout folks, who had elected to pull themselves out and do something epic on this snowy Sunday morning – rather than hide from the weather with the Sunday papers and a coffee. 370 people all running for their own reason – at their own pace – in their own world. And each of them transformed from a simple jogger to a competitor - a racer - by that simple square of paper pinned to their chest. Despite the competition, the camaraderie was equally as strong – shouts of encouragement – simple knowing nods and smiles exchanged and many of those races-within-a-race that break out when you find yourself running alongside someone of a similar standard. But, today was not a day for personal bests; today was a day to be proud of a finish.
Head down; finish it…
With the 7.5 mile point passed, I knew I was on the homeward leg. By now, the foot was beginning to suffer and I moderated the pace – to last the distance. The next 5 miles were hard going – flat, featureless terrain along the Sea Wall and around the edge of Canvey Island. Throughout this whole section, I simply kept my head down and settled into a rhythm that was not hurting the foot too much – but still saw me pass other competitors occasionally. I broke the monotony at the 11 mile point by sucking down an energy gel, which gave me a lift and then, turning back off of Canvey Island, the 13 Mile marker gave me new purpose – reminding me what that piece of paper on my chest was all about; turning me back into a competitor and not just another runner.
The last two miles was brutal – steep ascents – frozen, rutted trails; people clearly flagging and, by now, the pain evident on practically every face. Cresting the last ascent, the finish line swept into view and I used up every last bit of energy in the tank to shave just a few seconds off of my time. Crossing the line, the sense of achievement and pride was incredible; on this day, at this place, I had fought my doubts, donned the number and run the race.
A highly prized trophy…
As I collected my trophy running shirt (a greatly valued prize and mark of respect in local running circles), clumsy fingers saw it land on the muddy floor of the marquee. Picking it up though, it’s freshly distressed state seemed somehow appropriate. A hasty call to my wife and the pickup point was arranged for my lift home; Hadleigh – a short walk away.
Turning back out of Chapel Lane onto the main road, traffic still queued on slush covered Tarmac. As I Walked alongside it people in cars glanced across at me (probably more through boredom than anything else). But, I still proudly wore that number – that square of paper that had been my friend and motivation around these 15 punishing miles. And, in my mind, that simple token bore new meaning. Right here, right now it didn’t just say, “Today, I’m running the Benfleet 15”; it now said, “Today, I have run the Benfleet 15; today, I was a competitor - a racer”.
Where to next?...
The next event is already planned – the Essex Roads Spring Lamb Cycle Sportive; which I will ride with the SMCC. And, already, I’m looking for more – the Colechester Half Marathon perhaps. But, above all, I’m longing for that next race number to drop through my letter box – the simple token that will drive the next phase of training. And, I’m longing for that moment before I leave the house, where I pin the number to my chest and transition from just another bloke to my racer alter-ego.
You need perspective in all things. I will never be fast and seldom challenge for the lead in any event I’m participating in. But, that’s not the point; the race is the race. I say with certainty that every single one of the runners who braved sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow to run the’15 yesterday was a winner. They turned up, had the courage of their convictions and made their statement of intent through that simple token pinned to their chest – they competed – they were racers one and all.
Believe in yourself – and tell others why…
You may ride or run recreationally and enjoy the simple pleasure of simply being out enjoying your bike or getting those miles under your trainers. It may never have occurred to you to enter an event. But try it – just once – and I’ll bet you’ll be back for more. Pin a number to your chest; state your intent and, briefly, transition from onlooker to competitor –from runner or rider to racer.
We keep a large glass jar in our kitchen, which we fill with tokens that remind of positive things that happened to us throughout the year. It’s great to empty it out at the end of the year and reflect on so many positive memories – or even simply take a sneaky peek whenever you need a boost. Today, my Benfleet 15 Race Number and briefing notes sit proudly in there. It won’t be long before the next set joins them – and the next – and the next.
Back to reality – for now…
This morning, I’m just another bloke. On tomorrow morning’s run, I’ll be just another runner and on the next ride, I will be just another cyclist. But, yesterday, I was a competitor; a racer. Yesterday, I fought my demons: I finished well down the time sheet – but still won. Pin a number to your chest one day and shout to the world, “Today, for just a few hours, I am not an onlooker; I am a racer”.
Foot note… Thank You, BRC..
Events such as the Benfleet 15 take an enormous effort to organise but they are the lifeblood of real grass-roots sporting competition. I’d like to take just a moment here to say a sincere thank you to The Benfleet Running Club who bring this event together year-after-year and make it run like clockwork.
Even more, I would like to say a sincere thank you to each and every one of the Marshalls – who gave up their Sunday and their opportunity to pin a number on. Each and every one of these fine people applauded and encouraged every competitor – from the first to the last. Considering that they had been standing around in sub-zero temperatures as Mother Nature ripped wind and snow into them, I think it’s them who actually deserved the applause.