Wednesday 5 November 2003

In a darkened underpass I thought, Oh God, my chance has come at last

Apparently, perennial J-Lo botherer P Diddy was presented with the chance of competing in the Stevenage Half Marathon, but he opted for the balmy climate and iconic architecture of New York over the undulating cycle lanes and busy roundabouts of Hertfordshire's finest. Wuss. I'm made of sterner stuff than the hip-hop has-been and on Sunday I lined up with about six hundred others outside some anonymous leisure centre just off the A1 to compete in my second ever half marathon.

Conditions were not particularly good, wait, let me rephrase that, conditions were foul, appalling, disgusting. As I arrived torrential rain fell from the low, dark ceiling of cloud and was whipped in all directions by squalling gusts of cold wind. Ankle deep puddles of murky water lined the kerbs and the pavements were covered in a skin of slippery leaf mulch.

I met up with my virtual running partner*, Helen, as she pulled another fleece out of her bag and hurriedly wrapped it around herself. She quickly informed me she wasn't going to compete against the elements as well as her own fitness and I would be racing alone, she'd provide occasional cheering support on the route and a cup of tea at the end.

Somehow the rain managed to get heavier as I lined up on the start line, my long-sleeved top and tracksters quickly soaked through, and I had to bounce up and down on the spot like a gormless boy-band member just to keep warm. Unsurprisingly I was surrounded by runners, proper pink-of-thigh, ruddy-of-countenace runners. I like running, it's a portable way of keeping fit that suits my lifestyle, but I don't think of myself a runner; my frame is altogether too well upholstered to be considered lithe or athletic and I don't own a pair of much too revealing shiny shorts. There were plenty around me who did.

Barely audible over the howl of the wind, the starter blew his whistle and we were off, six hundred people first walking, then jogging, then running over the chalk line being washed off the cycle lane tarmac.

Whilst I picked a path through the crowd I kept a close eye on my stopwatch as I had no idea how I was going to perform. A time of 1hr 50m (about 8.5 minutes per mile) seemed a respectable target given my minimal training schedule. Ten minutes in I still hadn't seen the marker for the first mile and my heart rate was at the upper limit of my normal endurance range - I started to worry about quite how long I'd be jogging the wind-blasted wastes of Stevenage. Eleven minutes passed, twelve, thirteen, and still no sign. Finally, and with much relief, bang on sixteen minutes, I passed the two mile mark, the one mile mark had probably been blown to Dublin. I relaxed a little and switched the watch off to remove the distraction.

Anyone who says they go running to give them time to think over a particular life-problem is a bare-faced liar. Whilst I'm running there's no room for contemplative thinking or problem solving, my mind fills with bizarre little loops of thought - snatches of songs, finishing time mental arithmetic, wandering why club runners have such leathery necks - that spin around and around, occasionally interspersed with worries about how much my calf is tightening up. This time I played "Where's Wally/Waldo" to spot Helen amongst the crowds lining the course. It wasn't difficult, there weren't any crowds. Plenty of cheerfully damp yellow clad marshalls pointed the route through the maze of cycle-paths but there was no happy throng cheering on the runners. Helen popped up every three miles in an alarmingly bright Gore-Tex anorak to provide a welcome smile and shout.

On the stroke of eleven miles the wind, the rain and I ran out of energy. The clouds started to lift and some blue sky appeared, but I wasn't really taking it in. My stomach yawned for food, my head span and my legs felt distant, the world narrowed to the few metres of track immediately in front of me. I kept my legs moving as my mind tried desparately to ignore the pain. Over the last half mile other runners cheerfully belted past, picking up the pace to hit their own personal bests, but I had nothing left. Only in the final hundred metres did I find the energy to sprint past the small crowd, now containing two supporters calling my name, Louise having joined Helen, but I was so exhausted that I couldn't work out where the finish line was and a marshal had to catch me before I ran through the back of the timing and reception area.

I recorded a time of 1hr 48m 35s, good enough to win the Female Over 65 category if I'd only had the foresight to enter it.

So then, Sean "Puffy" Coombs, I'll be seeing you at the Gt Barford Half. I'm ready for you.

* Virtual as we never actually run together, merely send each other occasional motivational e-mails and text messages.

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