It was a dark, though thankfully storm free Thursday night in the smallest city on the Island of Ireland. It would take close to 600 of Armagh, with a population under 15,000, to fill London.
A surprisingly large crowd lined the edges of the course, expectantly awaiting by far the fastest 5k road race in the British Isles, implausibility situated yet annually graced by a legion of superb athletes.
20 of the top 30 UK times for that distance last year were run in Armagh, including 8 of the top 10. Last year a pack of fifty six broke the magical fifteen minute barrier, and I had flown home for the race holding a tenuous and ambitious hope to join that illustrious crowd.
On the start line, I would have been especially delighted to join that number this year, as I was beginning to struggle with an ominous cold. The illness was to put paid to my ambitions of a first national vest in a selection race several days hence, but this, by and large, is a happy tale, and such things are best skipped over lightly, or at least without breaking down into a sobbing heap. And so onward…
Just starting to warm up, a familiar face appeared, and I knew a villainous Highgate vest lay under perfectly nice looking jacket that was nonetheless guilty by association. My wandering mind was shocked into a greeting: ‘Hi Chris’ I squeaked.
Never knowing how much time other athletes spend on Power of 10, pouring through race statistics, I’m unsure how relatable this sort of information gulf is. If you, oh general reader, know not what Power of 10 is, a lot of the below will seem like esoteric ramblings and claptrap, which it only partly is. I hope the general humour and flow of things make it readable anyway, but sincere apologies in advance if my verbal superfluity causes you to flee, never to return.
I knew he’d easily broken 31 minutes for 10k, had beaten me by nearly 49 seconds in a five mile race last year, and was accustomed to a single digit MET league token. In contrast, when I was handed one last week, several lower than his, but won in a time only a few seconds faster, I spent the rest of the day in befuddled euphoria. He knew… well, I’m not sure really, but he did nod acknowledgement of something or other.
It transpired the cunning team Highgate had me outnumbered seven to one (that I knew of, there were in fact nine… like the Nazgul, but rather more scantily clad and with slightly more refined respiratory systems). No doubt they had flown over on chariots guided by winged black and white capuchin monkeys. Zebras are perhaps a more appropriate but less viable steed…
Somewhat surreally, our arch nemeses had followed me home, as if Saturday’s defeat of Chris Rainsford had been such a cosmic aberration that the foe had decided to waste absolutely no time in restoring balance to the force. On also seeing Peter Cambers and Andy Maud, it appeared the only zebra striped athlete noticeably faster than me who wasn’t here was Norwegian International Audun Nordveit. Without prolific Highgate vanquisher Tom alongside me, nor indeed any Heathside vest other than my own, I felt very outgunned indeed.
Undeterred… well, actually I was very deterred, but I’d prefer to seem brave in this story, I I took to the start line, politely waiting towards the back as very fast looking athletes waited until the last moment to join the pack.
It became apparent that although each shoe had a chip on it, there was no mat to cross after starting, so those shoes would all receive the same start time, irrespective of when they crossed the chalk line on the road. This considered, bodies arranged themselves very agreeably, athletes looking sideways and either retreating respectfully, standing assuredly or moving forward with the steely glare of a prefect bisecting crowds of unruly first years in the lunchroom.
The call to prepare to start cracked the frosty air and the tightly packed group of athletes became a scrum, albeit an extremely light and multi-vested one. The horde stepped back as a recalcitrant beast, and after much shepherding a precarious arrangement was reached, with shoulders leaning inexorably forwards, awaiting the start like a hundred and sixty coiled springs, only with slightly more running shoes.
As the horn of beginning blared, things sprung rather abruptly, and I felt pushed from all sides (well, apart from the front, because that would be absurd in an activity where moving backwards is strongly discouraged) to carry myself along with euphoric zeal. Invitation accepted, I came through the first mile in a wildly unsustainable 4:35. Considering my mile PB was 4:25, had I been aware of the pacing at the time, I would most certainly have despaired of any possibility of continuing at a reasonable speed for two more.
In a more spectacular tale, I would have somehow continued at this blistering rate, and, defying all expectations, beaten Highgate’s dread trio by a hair’s breadth on the finish line. Sadly, reality is much less ideologically flexible, and refused to confirm to my ludicrous aspirations. I viewed Chris Rainsford’s white hat as some kind of sugared confectionary in a fevered opium dream (a metaphor I’m vastly better equipped to comprehend after my surgical adventures), and kept it in my sights.
Sadly, the sugary hat (confused metaphors, while literarily spurious, can be delicious), seemed to disappear into the distance, and I became concerned with more immediate matters. After two kilometres had sped by in well under six minutes (5:43 to be precise), I knew the impossible was on – I needed 3:03 per kilometre to break the hardest club record so far, and 3:00 per kilometre to break 15 minutes. Going out slowly and building up would have been more practical, but far less exciting, and I now had an entirely different set of motivations: instead of picking up speed and earning the coveted sub 15 as I crossed the line, I now had fifteen seconds in the bank, and needed to avoid losing that advantage over my future self and cling on for dear life to an almost inconceivable number to greet me at the finish.
Despite these logical retrospections, as a child who has successfully escapes school exceedingly early, I ignored the obvious and painful future consequences and determined to make the most of my early speed and take the opposition by surprise. I ran past Peter Chambers at close to 3k, who it transpired was pacing a spectacularly Machiavellian race by enticing me to pass him, then unfairly stealing victory by being a massively superior athlete and finishing twenty seconds ahead of me.
He did come past me again after a few hundred metres, as we passed like the tides, if it were possible for two adjacent tides (itself a concept worthy of some semantic unease) to be moving in separate directions simultaneously. One tide would be confidently aware that it was speeding up, carrying expectation confidently on its crest, the other breathing like darth Vader in Kew Gardens with a pollen allergy and wishing it had been just the two miles.
My two mile split was 9.23: a flat out two miles last year had been 9:36. In fairness, I was a lot fitter than that time, and I do expect to run a good deal faster than my finishing time over 5k this season, but that makes this part of the story rather too serious, so consider this a whispered aside…
As the race progressed, the firm Tarmac underfoot seemed to take on the texture of sand, and my legs lost their enthusiastic bounding spring. Time was slipping away, but I knew I didn’t need to hang on for too much longer. Coming up to the last lap, I heard ‘go on Chris’: I wasn’t being lapped by the Highgate maestro, but an even more fearful possibility leapt to mind.
Christopher Madden, my nemesis, my vanquisher last year in the beloved hometown race, my first ever road race back in 2006, the Lisburn 10k, was closing in. But was he? I was sure he couldn’t be running this far under fifteen minutes, his best was 15:13, and… well I certainly didn’t want to believe it. Had he improved that much? Would be beat me even if he had? Yes, definitely, I was knackered and really feeling the weekend’s races in my legs, and he’d probably been altitude training in Kenya, abstaining from all forms of distraction, hell bent on defeating me in this most auspicious of occasions. Or perhaps he wouldn’t even know my name to look at. Never having actually spoken to him, I confess this is more plausible.
Closing down the final straight, mercifully downhill, I saw the time ticking down. I thought I saw 14:50 – another second, it said 14:40, and there had to be less than ten seconds of running left, surely?
The last seventy, sixty metres felt like, well ninety, anything more than that really would be ridiculous over that sort of distance, and I’ve got a pretty good sense of what meters feel like in an absolute sense like even at my most addled.
A sub fifteen finish came, but did not go, as it had always done before. I crossed the line beside it for the first time, yet not interrupting its passage. This was not a local standard track 5k where I stopped the clock, but an international class road race where I was close to a minute behind the winner.
Entering the finishing area I almost collapsed, thoroughly spent. Having run an utterly unexpected, ridiculous 14:50, all thoughts of other times and other runners vanished in an exhausted haze.
I recovered enough to wobble around unsteadily, then walked over to one of the finish assistants and asked to borrow a pair of scissors to cut the chip off my shoe. Despite the fact there were several spare, she must have looked into my exhausted and disorientated visage and thought that if the scissors were handed over I would end up lacerating my foot, and so kindly removed it for me.
Reviewing the results later, I finished ahead of one of the athletes selected to wear a Northern Ireland vest for the race, and, only knowing this, my ego was at dire risk of inflation.
Just the right amount of reality hit home a moment later however, and I saw that my local rival, my nemesis, Chris Madden, the having also heartbreakingly beaten me in our hometown race, the Lisburn 10k, last year, and taken my course record at the local parkrun, had beaten me by a second in 14:49.
The third mile had been 4:56, eighteen seconds slower than my first. By contrast, two of those who ran around 14:30 had splits deviating by a measly four seconds! No doubt they also left their icing until the end on cakes growing up, much more sensible to be sure, but a lot less fun!
I returned to London exhilarated, but safe in the grounding knowledge that I’m still not even the best athlete in Lisburn, and with much work still to do.