The Worst Race Ever

Saturday 31st December 2016

Often a traumatic experience takes a long time to recover from and depending on the severity of the trauma this can be counted in days, weeks or even years. In my case it is 10 months.

Periodically I have a dream where I am competing in a race that I am well prepared for but when the gun goes I freeze, unable to move. My legs feel like they have concrete weights attached at the ankle and the track has turned to treacle. Incapable of running, I desparately flail around trying to find something to grab hold of as I fall to the floor, in the vain hope that I can pull myself forwards. My opponents laugh as they lap me, or even worse, give me a condescending pat on the back as they fly off into the distance. The torment is usually concluded, not by me finishing the imaginary race, but by my alarm clock sounding. I wake up, check that it was just a dream, and when I realise this, laugh it off and get out of bed.

But February 27th this year was, sadly for me, no dream. I entered the National Cross Country Championships as one final attempt to salvage what had been, by the standards I had set myself, a mediocre cross country season. I was in decent but not peak shape but thought that this would be at least sufficient for a finish somewhere in the 100-150 range. How wrong I was. Accompanied by Stephanie, who did not realise what she was letting herself in for, I made the short journey to Donnington Park, an uninspiring corner of the East Midlands better known for heavy metal and motor racing than for athletic excellence. The charcoal grey skies punctuated by low flying budget airliners on the descent to the nearby airport felt like a dark omen for the horror that was about to unfold over the next 49 minutes.

The details escape me so long after the fact, but the memories I do still have are similar to those of my recurring nightmare and appear in my mind in a hazy black and white; the mud seemed thicker for me than for everyone else, the hills steeper, the course longer. Every ascent heralded a loss of 10 places, every descent 5 more. Nothing was working. I was overtaken by people who I didn’t recognise from races and those I would normally be racing against were several minutes further up the course. At some point I saw a runner I knew step off the course, clearly having a similarly bad day. The voice in my head telling me to do the same was loud but silenced, perhaps misguidedly, by the fact that Stephanie had come to watch me race and would be disappointed if I were to record another DNF. At some point I entered the finishing straight. By this point all mental strength I did possess was gone and I didn’t even bother trying to muster a finishing sprint. I collapsed over a railing near the finish line and went home and sulked.

In fact, though it never got as bad for the rest of the year, 2016 was far from a vintage year for me from a running perspective. The summer and autumn were better but unspectacular, characterised mostly by performances in races that didn’t quite match up to how well I was training. Highlights included a steeplechase PB in August (finally under 10 minutes!) and a good position in a Birmingham League race at the end of the year, but others were few and far between. Whilst this all sounds very negative, I am actually as optimistic as ever about running. In every race I performed badly in there was a winner. In each of these races there was someone setting a personal best, someone beating a competitor they had never finished ahead of before, someone exceeding their expectations. There is always something good that can happen in a race; there is always a winner. On several occasions in the past that person has been me and it will be me again. And as long as the overall trend is upwards I’ll be working hard and sticking at it.

Here’s to a great 2017. Happy new year!

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