I signed up to my first 10k eight weeks in advance, when I'd just hit 5k and wanted to aim for a new challenge. Over two months I trained three times a week, adding 5 minutes per week. My body felt like a new toy. I remember the triumph of running for 30 minutes, then 40, then 55. I was thrilled that I could run a whole 25 minutes as a compromise on the odd days when I really couldn't be bothered, when a short time earlier it had taken every fraction of my stamina to reach that. I was slow, but I didn't care. My first 5k took 40 mins, so I aimed to do 10k in 90. I didn't really care how long it took, I didn't care if I came last: I wanted to run the whole 10k, no stops, no walks.
The run wasn't particularly well-organised, and neither was I. It wasn't until the day before that I realised I had no information about start times or meeting places. When I searched online I discovered that there were no trains running on run day so I had to arrange a cab (at a hefty cost) with a 6.30am pick up time for the early start time of 8am, leaving time to queue for the racing number I still didn't have. But that wasn't the only nasty discovery I made.
“This race has a maximum time of 1hr 15 mins”.
This was because the lanes needed to be clear from the half marathon runners who had a later start time. Also – race? I'd signed up for a run – an act of running for a set distance, nothing more. Now it was a race – a running competition - with a time limit I was certain I couldn't meet. Anxiety seethed in my belly like a snake pit. I packed and repacked my bag – plasters, water, raincoat, hairpins, Rescue Remedy - certain I'd forget something important, I wouldn't be allowed to run, and I'd let down my charity and all the people who'd sponsored me.
On race day I felt sick with nerves. I was tense and irritable and I just wanted to be alone. I didn't want to be around anyone, particularly not 300 racers, each one looking as though they knew exactly what they were doing, swigging coconut water and dong special sexy stretches in special sexy pants with mesh panels behind the knee for strategic breathability. One lady was wearing knickers – actual running knickers, like Paula Radcliffe. “They must chafe like a bastard after the 40 minute mark” I thought, wan. After an inaudible announcement that I took to mean “the race is about to start”, we shuffled to the start line. Although I'd studied the map, I'd already lost what little sense of direction I had. I had no idea which way I was running, so I asked the women in front of me. “Just follow the crowd!” they beamed at me. Their kind smiles thawed the knot in my diaphram, and I realised I was excited. I'd noticed one of the women earlier. She was a strikingly large woman, her size 24 frame enrobed in fluorescent yellow lycra. “Are you running for a charity?” I asked her.”No, it's a personal challenge” she grinned. Adele was running 1000km – 600 miles – in the year between her 39th and 40th birthday. She was halfway through her challenge, running a combination of 10k and half-marathons. I told them it was my first 10k. “It's a great achievement. It's a very emotional thing too - don't be surprised if you cry at the end. Good luck, enjoy it!”.
The race began, and my queue friends ran ahead of me. As did the 300 other participants. I'm slow, I always knew I'd be slow, and I always said it didn't matter if I came last as long as I finished, but I've never been more daunted than I was then, left in the dust. There was one man running behind me as I trotted along the almost-empty course. When I came to the crossroads I stopped. There was no signposting. “Straight ahead!” the man behind me called, “over the bridge, then follow the other stewards!” I turned around and looked at him. My running mate was a steward, making sure the runtiest wildebeast in the herd found her way to the watering hole. I thanked him and jogged on, alone. Already there were uber-runners speeding back for their second lap, theirs legs like pistons. I felt a little envious, but more than that I was fascinated to watch ordinary people running. What they wore. How they moved their arms. Whether they managed the perfect midfoot-strike (I run on my heels, an awful habit I'm told). All ages, all body shapes. And yes, I may have been the runtiest wildebeast in the herd, but at that moment I was so proud to be part of it I honestly didn't care.
The race was split into two 5k laps. It took me forty minutes to finish the first, by which time I really was on my own. With no signposts and no stewards on hand, I found myself back at the start line, where the half-marathoners were gathering, snorting out hot steam and pawing the ground in ergonomic trainers. I was lost, and alarmed. If the half-marathon started now I'd be swept up in the stampede. I'd die like Mufasa. Anxiety welled up in me again. I couldn't find my track, I couldn't find a steward, and was losing time – I needed to finish. In desperation, I elbowed my way down a side street and nipped back onto the track. It may have been a tiny shortcut, but not much of one. I was on the go again, and I was completely over other runners, what they were doing and what they thought of me. By the time the marathoners started overtaking me I was totally lost in my own experience, just me and my legs and my lungs and the road and the cold grey sky. I saw Adele, towards the end of her second lap, and waved furiously, and nodded my appreciation at the stewards who yelled “keep going!” at the last remaining 10ker. I made room for faster runners, but I didn't stop or slow down (not that I could slow down much without stopping altogether). On the final fifty yards, I knew I'd done it, and different type of wobbly anxiety filled my belly. When Adele and her friend spotted me from the finish line and starting whooping applause, I burst into tears. I held my bosom, and tried to regulate my sobs as I ran. “Enjoy it!” yelled a steward, and I crossed the finish line to cheers. I wasn't distressed or unhappy – I cried like an ill-at-ease toddler, unable to articulate or identify my emotions. I remember that it didn't hurt, there was no discomfort, nor did I feel utterly exhausted. A weight had left me – I'd done it, I'd proven that I could do it, something that frightened me, and I clutched my medal as I wept tears of happiness and pride.