The nearly race


Three friends ran tonight’s Woodford Green 800 metres with me.

Before I come on to how we all got on, I should explain the setting. We were at the Aston fields track, just a few stops east of Stratford on the central line. Most of the competitors in the races, which clearly were far busier than the organisers expected, were under 18, and the talk around the edges of the event was of a sudden Olympic boom in competition. There seemed to be literally dozens of thirteen year olds capable of sprinting the 100 metres in particular in under 13 seconds. I do so hope that they will still be taking part in athletics in a year or two’s time.

The track was busy, some of the races had to be put back to organise the extra numbers, and as it is late in the summer, we found ourselves running at first under floodlights and later against a vivid backdrop of a sky that was at first red in great, garish streaks, and then (after the sun set) a net of black and rapidly-fading electric blue.

Anyway, as to how we each ran:

Sam is the youngest of us (not much over 30) and the least experienced runner, having never run the distance before. He trains actively with weights in the gym, and exercises on a rowing machine in concentrated bursts of 2 minutes at a time. He attacked the field, running the first lap in 58 seconds (as fast, by comparison, as the women’s Olympic final), and, if he tailed off afterwards, still he just about held on to finish in around 2 minutes 15. He ran with his whole body, unreservedly, and ran brilliantly and won the race easily. I was delighted for him.

John is the most experienced runner of our group: a sub 2:45 marathoner who runs daily. His physique is the opposite of Sam’s; John has fantastic stamina but less fast-twitch muscle. He ran in laps of 70 and 75 seconds and has a vision one day of finishing a 400 metres in under 60 seconds – which I think he could manage, next summer.

Alexis used to run with me when we were both at school, and has maintained his running intermittently but continuously since. He can run 6 miles without difficulty (I can’t). But he smokes and has had sore hamstrings for a while. He ran in laps of 70 and 80 seconds, and was overtaken by John at about 300 metres from the line. We warmed down together afterwards and he told me he felt he had more in the tank, and with a proper summer training he thinks he could break 2:10. He, like John, was content with this race.

I was the slowest of our small group, and the slowest indeed in our  entire race of eight. Throughout the day, my calf felt stiff (although, unusually, I managed to finish without damaging it); I had a cold. And my mood was hardly cheered by the quick downpour that broke less than 2 minutes before we began the race. I had decided beforehand not to run in spikes, for fear of injuring myself before the first lap had ended, and now I regret that decision, as it seemed to represent a deliberate stepping back from the pure end-of-year race I’d hoped for.

As a result my legs seemed light, tired and weak. I had planned a first lap in 1 minute 20, with a very negative split (and a 1 minute 10 second lap), and while my second lap was marginally faster, it wasn’t remotely as good as I’d hope it would be. I tried to accelerate and there was nothing there. I finished in 2 minutes 39, not just last, but crucially eight seconds outside the target I had set myself of 2:30.

My friends encouraged me to be cheerful afterwards. Look, they pointed out, if I had tried to run that distance a year ago, I would have been around 30 seconds slower (and that’s true).

I know the deeper causes of my lethargy – I have been injured off and on throughout the summer, and haven’t done the track sessions I would need to get some speed into my legs. I was injured for much of the past two weeks and you can’t just “turn on” the sort of times I wanted without getting your body prepared for it in advance.

But while I enjoyed the race, and I am grateful to everyone else for running with me, I finished the session dissatisfied and wishing the summer would avail of one last chance to run properly fast

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