Why did I sign up to this bloody race in the first place? Why had I not been bothered to train properly? Why is it raining so hard outside?!
The omens from the off were not good (they never are when you're a devout pessimist such as I). The Friday night before the race was spent quivering beside a pool table with a couple of other runners who, for some heathen reason, were despicably optimistic about the whole affair, and then sat on the sofa with some paté on toast (which according to a gym-going friend of mine, has the same nutritional value lard-flavoured Ben & Jerry's) and the concluding missions of Grand Theft Auto 5. The sense of achievement I gained from finishing the game was quickly diminished by the realisation that I was very much on my own, in my freezing cold house, and nothing could save me from my fate tomorrow. Nothing.
Later, I lie in bed, holding Boris tightly. It's probably worth pointing out that Boris is a Moomin-branded hot water bottle, named after the Mayor of London who bought it for the missus when she was working at City Hall. It's impossible to sleep... What if I take ages to finish tomorrow? What if I round the final corner, only to see a load of roadies taking down the stage and the arch over the finish line? What if there is no finish line? What if they already took that bit away, and there's nowhere for me to stop, and I'm forever lost in a legless limbo? Or worse, what if everybody is there to watch me stumble to the line in last place and a decorated, and devastated, war hero hands me a wooden spoon with just the C-word etched into the handle, to forever remind me of my failure?
Eventually, after multiple reassurances from Boris that he would protect me from long-distance running monsters, I drifted to sleep, and in no time at all, my alarm went off again. Shit, that was fast.
Once again, I polished off a delicious and nutritious meal (2 mountains of Nutella on barely-visible toast), got dressed (which I believe is quite conventional for leaving the house), and set off.
Lydiard Park had been transformed from a quaint landscape of tranquility to a gauntlet of mud and military officials. Gone were the sights of balmy afternoon picnics and children running amok with a football. In its place, a dreary, grey sky shedding very little light on a quagmire marked out loosely to resemble a running track. In my eyes, the desolate view before me was more of a tribute to the First World War than any poem or painting could manage, made all the more fitting by the 'volunteers' who had signed up to run in these conditions. Up on the stage, the Military Wives Choir were in full voice, and a gentleman from the Navy (whose name and rank eluded me, I was too focused on planning my desertion to be interested) took everyone through a muddy, slippery warm up. Well, I say everyone, I spent most of the warm up chuckling at a woman standing a few feet away from me who was smoking like there was no tomorrow; as if the fire in her cigarette was the last hope of warmth she had before her tar-filled body eventually succumbed to the weather.
Shattered from the warm up, I slip over to the start line. Just before we started, there was a moments silence to remember why we were running, and who we were running for. I could see men murmuring their best wishes to their fallen friends, and women hushing their children excited to start. People more religious than me put their hands together, others shaking legs and arms as they tried to keep warm.
The race begins.
A thousand or so people lurch forward and, on the soggy field, begin their Run2Remember. Instantly, two of my colleagues shoot ahead of me. Supporting friends and families are cheering their heroes on, but it's just moving mouths to me, as I slot my earplugs in and listen to some loud, harassingly upbeat music. Nobody should be this upbeat in the rain on a cold Saturday in November. Nobody.
Eventually, I begin to start passing people. This feels quite good. I had forgotten what it feels like to actually be better at people than. At school, our rugby team were horrendously below par- every season was a losing one, particularly on a personal level. Due to my going straight from the same junior to senior school, I had racked up around 125 games in a wide, adolescence-dependent positions, and scored just three tries. Three. There were props in the school who had scored more in just one season, and I had three in my entire career, the first of which came when I was 17. Each game began with bright, controlled-aggressive optimism, and finished with humiliating impotency. Before you start saying "Yes, but there are other sports boys play at school!", you are correct, but nobody cares. Rugby is where credibility is won and lost. If I had just tried to be a little bit better at rugby, maybe I wouldn't have had to put peroxide blonde highlights in my hair when I was 15...
Anyway, the run. How to convey how it felt accurately to you... Well, look down at the floor, put one of your feet in front of the other, and keep doing that. Now, look up and see who's in front of you. Can you pass them? Nope. Stay where you are. Now look behind you. Can you see your colleagues? Nope, because they're all in front of you. Better turn back around before you bump into someone. Keep looking at your feet. Don't look up, that will only break your morale as you see how far you have to go, and how many people are in front of you. And repeat step 1.
Keep doing that for 56 minutes and 50 seconds...
I don't believe you.
Eventually, after a lot of panting and sweating, it was over. I crossed the line about as gloriously as a fish which has been taken out of the sea and dropped onto the boat deck. Flopping about, soaking, and wishing he was somewhere else completely. It wasn't exactly like Mo Farah finishing in London 2012. In fact, it seemed to go eerily quiet when I crossed the line, as if people made a distinct effort to not applaud me. All I could hear was my own sweat sloshing in my ear and gasps for a suspiciously little amount of air, like I had just ran underwater for an hour.
But I didn't care. It was over.
The victor of our inter-office battle was standing at the finishing line, chatting to a few other race-goers.
"Wow, well done! How do you feel?!"
Whatever I said to him wasn't constructive or very family friendly. But can be summed up in one word beginning with the letter F.
"How fast did you go?"
56;50 seems so cumbersome to say when air is a luxury you cannot afford.
"Oh, about 56 minutes"
He barely looked like he had broken a sweat. The bastard.
I was just glad I had finished, and now, I had one thing on my mind.
I had had enough of my alcoholic abstention. It had been far too long without the sweet elixir of hops. I immediately went over to a good friend of mine's (Ieuan....Ieuan...No, with an I... Ieuan. I-E-U-A-N, Ieuan!) house, in need of some adulation for my efforts, and a pint bought by somebody else. Except, like the men we both are, adulation is pretty hard to come by.
"So, how did it go?" he asked, amidst the background of pool balls clattering and England's attempt at playing some 'rugby'.
"Yeah, went alright"
"How fast did you go?"
56 minutes seems such a long-winded phrase when you're thinking in pub-speak.
"Oh, about 55 minutes"
"How far did you run again?" I never said he was a supportive friend.
"How long's that?"
"About 6 miles"
"So, it's like a quarter of a marathon?"
"What?! That's nothing!"
"I guess! But I did it in about 54 minutes, so it wasn't so bad."
"No, I guess not. You did quite well. How much did you raise?"
"That's not so bad for a quarter marathon."
What had started as an inescapable, but still incredible journey by saying 'yes' to everyone had finished with my achievements being belittled by my best friend over a game of pool, completely neglecting the fact that I was beating him at it.
We're soon joined by a good mutual friend a few moments later after I seal a historic win, who buys his own drink (he doesn't do rounds with me since I ordered a glass of water when it was my turn, and made him get me a Guinness on his), and steps up to the pool table to play against me.
Our conversation meandered into the usual topics that three young men who haven't seen each other for a while talk about. We chat mindlessly about women, University and rugby as we play, then he thunders the black into the corner pocket after a four-pot streak, pauses, looks up and says, "By the way, how did that really fucking tiny run you were supposed to be doing go?"
I just shrugged and offered to get another round in.
They don't know, man. They weren't there.