5-minutes to go.
I bounce. I hop. I shake off my legs. Maybe to distract myself, maybe because of the adrenaline.
I honestly can’t tell which.
3-minutes to go.
They give the countdown. 2-minutes till the gun. The crowd edges forward; all seven thousand of them.
1-minute to go.
Same call goes out. Same time left. I look to the others, making sure I’m not confused. Confusion (and hallucination) isn’t usually till later, when the blood is in the legs and nowhere else. Then the correction comes, we’re guided forward.
A late arrival, an elite runner who’d been striding back and forth — maybe to loosen up, maybe to psyche us all out (I imagine he does knows which) — settles in just in front of me, taking myplace on the line. I step round him as neatly as he cut in.
A mayor mills about in the background looking out of place and lost. Seems he won’t be the one to set us off. So why is he even here?
A wisened sporting legend offers a few words of encouragement. I barely hear them. My mouth’s dry. Did I get enough water? The gun is raised. Too late now.
The gun goes off, but it’s muffled. The others are going. I’m not doing anything else today. I go too.
The crowd cheers but I barely notice. The others jostle for position, I barely notice. The wind picks up, taking at least 10-seconds a mile from my pace. That I notice. Tuck in and relax, let the others take the wind. That’s all I can do.
We’re already passing mile marker ‘3’. Feels like the pack’s going too fast. I check my watch:
I’m right. Two options. Option one: stick with them, strength in numbers, shelter from the wind.
Option two: run alone, bear up under the wind, but run the way I trained to run. I drop off, relax my shoulders, and try to forget there are 23-miles left.
‘Stay easy, stay relaxed, stay easy, stay relaxed, stay…’ The mantra continues.
The marker says ‘8’. I don’t feel like I’ve done 8-miles. I must have passed the stadium and the war museum, but I don’t remember doing it. All I see is the flash of bright trainers. The pack pulls further away, but there are stragglers. I pick off the ones I can.
Marker ‘10’. I have company. The elite who stepped in my way. He edges forward a little, I match him. He does it again, I do the same. He keeps it up as we hit mile 11, mile 12, mile 13.
After another mile he quits edging forward. Maybe he doesn’t mind the company; 26-miles is a long way.
A group of kids are stood close to the latest water station. We must be close to 16-miles in. Only 10-miles to go. I pretend it’s just a 10-mile race. I’m just starting a little tired, that’s all.
The kids shove and push one another, jockeying for position on the curb. The front two, a boy and a girl, hold out their hands hoping for a low-five. I tack towards them and hold out my hand.
I’m not dazed yet, so I can still aim, but I’m distracted by Mr. Elite, still by my side. I hope the girl (maybe 8-years old) is keeping a keener eye on me than I am on her. I come alongside and…
Nothing. We miss each other by an inch. She squeals delightedly anyway, playing up as if there was actual contact, saving face. Beside me Mr. Elite edges forward. I match him. It’s a fun game.
Keeps us occupied.
Marker ‘20’. Only 6-miles to go. I pretend the race is a 10k. I just got up on the wrong side of the bed, but I’ll find my speed any minute now. Any. Minute. Now.
We run down the middle of duel carriageways, over small bridges, and past teeming crowds. It all blends together. Nothing really registers. Every so often I hear my name called out. Could be they know me. But since my name is printed above my number, it’s hard to say for sure. I only have eyes for the road. I nod at the shouts when I notice, but mostly I just run. Then run some more.
‘22’. 4-miles left. I’m just in a 4-mile race. Which is a lie. I try to sell the lie, but it doesn’t take.
Mr. Elite pulls forward, and I have to let him.
‘23’. Nope. Definitely not a 5k. Or a 3-mile race. I want to slow down. I want to walk.
Still lying. What I want to do is stop.
‘24’. And I would stop. Only the streets are suddenly full of people I know. The team coach, other club runners, my friends, and friends of friends. So I keep going.
‘Stay easy, stay relaxed, stay easy, stay–’ Christ I want to stop.
‘25’. Can’t focus. I look behind me: maybe someone’s closing in, or, maybe I shouldn’t assume anything blurry and moving is part of the race, since everything is blurry and moving. I pick up the pace (in my mind. In reality nothing happens. Forward movement just about keeps me going).
‘26’. 385 yards to go. Why are there 385 yards to go? Because once upon a time a monarch decided they didn’t want to walk to the start of the race to see the masses set off. Instead the race began by their front window. Knock on effect: 100-years later people are still running a pointless extra.
Down with the monarchy.
100 yards to go. I see the finish line. Mr. Elite is too far ahead to catch, but I pick up the pace anyway. ‘Thump, thump, thump’. There’s no elegance to these strides. I can’t produce any tension, but somehow I’m moving faster. 20-metres. 10-metres. 5, 4, 3, 2. I cross the line, reach out, and grab the nearest marshall to keep from falling.
I mumble a “Thank you” that probably sounds like no language yet discovered, and I’m ushered along. There’s another 6,990 to come. I’d better get out of the way.
Tom Charles ran the Manchester Marathon in a fairly respectable 2 hours, 25 minutes, and 34 seconds. His legs appear to still be working, so he’s thinking of doing another. Odds are his brain is working less well.
words Tom Charles