Racing Hearts Go!

Entry by: Alex Fleet

13th February 2015
I was beating them! They were somewhere behind me – but I couldn’t hear their footfalls.

I must not look behind, break my stride, I must only concentrate on forcing my limbs to keep going, my piston legs at their maximum stride, maximum speed, stick-arms flailing as powerfully as possible, lungs gulping mouthfuls of air, my racing heart feeling as if it was going to eject out of my throat if I gasped any harder.

This was the 440 metre heat for the house competition on the school field; this was to decide who would represent our house. And, it was hot; blue sky, green grass; the tall trees surrounding the field making the running oval a sun-trap.

As I walked to my starting line, my bare feet stroked the soft grass and the sun baked my head and shoulders.

Being on the oval, we were spread out in handicapped positions, otherwise the outside runner had further to run. I was in the outside lane of the six, so was at the front; the other two guys had opted for the two inner lanes, so were well back behind me.

I had the psychological advantage of being the leader. I had never been the leader before, especially of these two other guys who were the fastest in our year.

I didn’t really want to represent the house in running, but it would be fantastic to be able to beat these guys for once. If only I could keep my lead. The teacher, ex-drill sergeant, bellowed the start and I was off, lungs bursting, legs, arms protesting at this sudden shock of physical activity. I really didn’t like school sports, could not see the point of rugby, was the only one who came back clean after cross country having gingerly tiptoed round all the muddy bits. But for some strange reason I wanted to beat these guys.

Where were they? I had been thrashing along for ages and had expected them to come up alongside any moment, but there was no sign. Perhaps I was in with a chance. Perhaps I could run after all. I was in bare feet, but so were they. That fella – who as it? – the first man to break the four minute mile – he did that in bare feet didn’t he?

I wondered if the other guys were winding me up. Surely they would come past in a minute. I forced myself to keep going. The finish line was in sight.

They came past then, talking. Not out of breath at all, just chatting as they pattered past me and bore down on the finish line. They passed the line, then just ambled off still talking. I collapsed, lungs bursting, legs aching, wondering where I would get the strength for my next breath. No, I definitely was not cut out for this sporty stuff.

Cut to several years – well, decades in fact – later. A life of sedentary desk work. The realisation I was in a rut. Eventually I had to make a break.

I needed to get out my comfort zone. I signed up for this outdoor fitness class. It was going to be muddy. They did press ups anywhere – on the cut grass of the open area where kids kicked footballs at the weekend; in the long grass in hidden clearings amongst the trees. The weekday sessions were held in the evenings. In the dark. So we would be running to and fro on the dark field, shuttle runs then sits ups, pull ups, all the tortuous exercises you could think of. In the dark, in all weathers. In the snow. In the slush after the snow had melted, slightly. A communal gasp as we all lay down to do sit-ups. This was definitely out of my comfort zone.

They also organised assault course-type adventure runs. That was way too out of my comfort zone. So I went in for that too. Two weeks before, I still had never run 10k, which the event was going to be. I ran around the local park five times and almost expired. That was on the flat. The event was going to be up and down, through trees, through mud. Lots of it.

At the start line, I was in the second wave to leave. I watched the first wave as they ran off. They ran. And ran. Got smaller and smaller in the distance before they disappeared into the trees. This was going to be embarrassing. I would not even be able to run that far. The third wave would see me slow to a walk and catch me up, even before I reached the trees.

We started. I ran with the crowd, dodging holes and other bodies as they dodged their other holes. I realised that, handily, we were running downhill. I managed to make it to the trees, then we were going uphill. I was walking already. But it was fun. Fun! There were roots to trip and break a leg on, twigs to take my eye out, branches to impale myself upon. But somehow I kept going. I even overtook some people. Got into the swing of it. Waded through waist deep cold water, thigh deep clinging mud, scrambled under barbed wire. Tripped, rolled, carried on. Paced myself for the long run.

One of my friends was marshalling. “Not long now” she said. Liar. She confessed afterwards that she didn’t want to tell me that the worst was yet to come. Actually, it wasn’t too bad. Just a couple of great piles of haybales to scramble over and a water slide.

The finish line was at the top of a long, long drag uphill, in an exposed part of the course. The wind blew cold. Freezing in fact. I was in a weird state of being warm and freezing at the same time. Finally, my poor racing heart could relax.

Through the finish line, pick up the goody bag. My hands were so cold I couldn’t force my thumb to press the remote to unlock the car. But I had finished! I had run the course. Next time I would be fitter so that I could enjoy it more.

A few days later the results came through. I was 632nd. Not too near the front then. But that was in a field of 920 runners. There had been nearly 300 runners slower than me! Maybe I wasn’t so bad at sports after all. I wondered if I might be able to beat those two guys on the school sports field now . . .