In the car on the way to Lancashire, we discussed the race we were about to take part in and all agreed that it had the feel of a big event. Big, that is, within the very small pond that is UK distance running. Which is to say not very big at all. When we arrived, however, the event certainly felt serious and important, if not quite ‘big.’ Podium 5k is part of a new breed of no-frills, no-nonsense, no-finisher-medal type events where everyone participating is at very least a serious club runner and everyone goes with the same goal, to run fast. No one is using this one as a tempo run.
Of the four of us in the car, Dan, Mike and I were in the men’s ‘B’ race with a 15:15 entry standard, and Omar was in the ‘A’ race with a 14:30 cut off. We discussed the race ahead, looked at ranking lists and plotted our strategies. Us B racers agreed that ‘hang on to the pack and pick off a few in the second half’ seemed like a reasonable tactic to deploy. Omar, quiet and more prone to letting his legs do the talking than his mouth, decided he was going for more of a ‘get on the front and do some damage’ approach. I think there is a lesson to be learned here.
We walked to the start. The organiser had clearly jumped through plenty of logistical and health and safety hoops to obtain a permit under the new guidance but once we got in the start area it didn’t feel too different to a normal race, with the exception of the small field. Behind the start line was a grid of yellow dots. He called the names of the fastest five in the field (I wasn’t among them) and invited them to stand on the first row of dots. He then half-heartedly implored the rest of us to give each other a bit of room, mentally ticking boxes marked ‘H and S’ and ‘cover your arse in case someone gets ill.’
The gun sounded and we embarked on the first of just under five laps of a pancake flat, smooth cycle circuit. The temperature had dropped and apart from a bit of wind, conditions were perfect. I went straight to the back. Apart from the fact that I didn’t want to go any quicker, this also felt like a good strategy and I had a large group in front of me to block the wind. Because of this I constantly felt like I was going to run into the runners in front; I concentrated and tried not to clip anyone. The last thing I wanted was to trip myself or someone else. It felt too slow. It must be too slow. The first kilometre split is going to be well outside three minutes and I’m going to leave myself with far too much to do. “2:51,52,53,54…” OK, maybe not.
As we went round the next two laps I tried hard to concentrate on not letting any gaps form and on not letting the pace drop at all. When we got on to the long straight with the headwind, rather than running the tangent and aiming for the apex of the next bend as I normally would, I veered out into the middle of the road. The lead bike was doing this and the long line of runners between the bike and me had exactly the same idea: get in the slipstream and get out of the wind. Once I hit 3k in 8:48 I still felt like I had a bit in reserve and that I was definitely going to get under 15 minutes. With my track PB before the race just 14:59 it would have been tempting to ease off at this stage but I kept pushing myself in the knowledge that I could take a big chunk off this if I pushed hard to the finish. In the 4th kilometre I was unable to cover a surge from a club mate who was also running in our heat and found myself detached. By this point, though, I was so close to the finish and knew I only had to grit my teeth for a few more minutes. At this stage of the race a few runners were coming back through the field and were useful targets for me. It is always important to go straight past in this situation though; the reason they are coming back is that they are slowing down. You do not want to lose time getting stuck behind them.
The last kilometre passed quickly and in a blur. Whilst the first part of the race was all about concentrating on form, on pace and on staying relaxed, the last part was all about squeezing out every last drop. The phrase “give more” popped in to my head. It felt appropriate so I kept repeating it. In the long finishing straight I was outsprinted by one runner but held off another, crossing the line in 14:44. Fifteen seconds quicker than ever before.
Dan and Mike didn’t have the races they were hoping for, but were still quick to congratulate me on my time. As is often the case when a race has gone well, I didn’t feel pain or discomfort immediately afterwards or on the cool down. Writing this in significant discomfort 24 hours later I can confirm that this is not because I did not push myself hard enough; I think I was just on a bit of a high from a good performance.
We jogged round the outside of the cycle circuit whilst watching the women’s A race, then headed back to our position near the start to cheer Omar. Coming from a slightly warmer part of the world, Omar is not used to the British weather and whilst the rest of the field did their strides and final preparations in their racing vests, Omar wore a jacket and, almost comically for August, a pair of gloves. I took his jacket at the very last minute and he walked over to the start. As promised and true to form, he went straight to the front, undeterred by the presence of some truly world-class athletes in his heat, one of whom had stated his intention to target the British record.
Watching Omar is an absolute joy and an inspiration. For all we over analyse running, it is, in essence, a very simple sport. Run hard and keep running hard until you’ve crossed the line. Omar is as hard as nails and epitomises this way of thinking. Although he didn’t win the race, he finished fifth in one of the strongest possible domestic fields and made everyone sit up and take notice with his aggressive and uninhibited style of racing. He is one of my running heroes. He is also one of the kindest and most modest people I know. Although I ran a personal best on the night, this evening will be just as much about Omar when I look back on it in the future.