Monday, May 31, 2004

Running in circles

A few months ago, Matthew emailed me with the news that his firm was entering the Mayor of London’s 3.5 mile Road Run – and he was one of the runners. In a moment of ‘Gee honey, I love spending time with you, so why don’t I share this activity too?’ I told him I was going to run as well.

So far, so bland you may think.

Lemme give you a little background on my athletic non-career. Flash back to being several heads taller than any of the boys in my grade in primary school and being rather pudgy. Flash forward a little to the tortures of high school as a very tall, awkward and fat teen. Flash forward even further to waddling my way through my university degree.

Step into the DeLorian and zoom toward last Thursday when I stood in amongst 6000 of the fittest people in London waiting to be let out of the corral for a 3.5 mile run.

I have shed the worst of the excess girth and have been running for close to 9 months now – but just as much as a run itself is a balance between physical and mental fitness, one’s self image is a balance between what one can see in the mirror and one’s self-perception. I had the distinct image that I wasn’t one of these people. I wasn’t one of these lithe athletes limbering up and shimmying in frustration at being penned in like livestock.

Then I caught sight of my reflection in the glass of an office building and I stopped. Taller than most people and definitely curvy – but a feminine set of curves, not those of a butterball. In short, it no longer looked like a litter of puppies wanted to desperately be freed from under my clothes every time I moved.

I wound my way through the crowd, conspicuously not wearing a law or finance firm t-shirt but bearing a runner’s number which allowed me past security. I found Matthew easily – 6’6” and sporting a mane of copper hair – the man is a veritable beacon in a crowd. We wished each-other luck even though neither of us believes in such frippery and eased toward the front of the crowd to get a better start whilst someone brought an old Olympic medal winner onto the stage.

You can generally gauge how important an event is by the token celebrity hauled out to attend. In this case, the ‘celebrity’ must have been aired out for a few days to get rid of that mothbally smell. It mustn’t have been too important a race if they could only muster up a bronze medal winner from the mid 70’s. A ripple of impatience surged through the crowd at this hideously boring and unnecessary fluff. From my vantage point, it reminded me of watching wildlife documentaries and the way alarm registers in a herd of gazelles as a wave of almost imperceptible muscle movement starting at one end and going through each animal.

It seemed they were ready to release us and I realised just how tense I was by my reaction to the brass band. Yes, brass band, folks. A dozen men in tails playing the kind of music that must have inspired our chaps during the Boer War. I found it terribly hard to stop giggling, the music was simply preposterous, especially after Britney had so entertained us in the warm-up.

Before I knew it, we were moving. Shuffling at first – then some heads in front of me began to bob in the familiar rhythm of a jog. It was soon my turn and I began to run.

I was just beginning to get used to the strange sensation of running in a massive group of people when I registered the roar of a crowd. Looking up, I saw spectators crammed along the closed off streets, hanging out of second and third storey windows, poking their heads out of pubs. Of all the things I had imagined might happen along the route (death from dehydration, collapsing in exhaustion, tripping and flailing around before becoming a lumpy speedbump) being cheered by a crowd was really never really on the list.

And so we ran. Onward and around corners, down ancient alleyways of the Square Mile, past buildings of varying ages that had seen some of the bloodiest and most fascinating history in the world unfold, on top of the ancient Roman ruins that had founded Londinium. As we made our way across Blackfriar’s bridge, I thought I’d had it. I started to resign myself to the ‘fact’ that I was right to doubt myself in the first place – this was sheer madness, I couldn’t do it. Then another thought entered my mind, I imagined facing Matthew at the end of the race and telling him I had not finished. I imagined going home on the tube and what I would think of myself. Somehow, my feet managed to keep pounding cobblestone and pavement.

One of the other things that kept me going were the spectators that (to my amazement) didn’t peter out after the first few hundred metres. They were everywhere, fresh oglers around every corner. It wasn’t the fact that people were watching that made me keep going – it was the type of people watching, the looks they gave, and the silent body language some of them gave off.

I remember two distinctly.

One was a man in a suit, beer gut pulling his shirt taut, standing on the closed road outside a pub, holding a glass of beer. The setting sun hit the glass so that the fluid glowed amber and the rim of the glass glittered. I remember running towards the glass before having to suddenly whip to the side and change direction right in front of him. Just before I did, I made eye contact with the man. I did, he didn’t. He was watching me, watching the others, watching the race with the glazed-eye that one reserves for the second hour of TV. We weren’t really there for him as people, we weren’t the same species separated by a few metres of pavement – we were entertainment, something else, something ‘other’, something that he had resigned himself to not being.

The other was a man walking out of a stairwell to be faced with a wall of runners. He was very well dressed and with a woman. There was something about the way he looked on, it seemed to be almost a longing to be a part of it. Then he turned to the woman and made a witty comment, she laughed and he turned to the racers once again, this time with a haughty, derisive look just as I was running past.

The reason that they stuck in my mind for so long after I had seen them is that they – like the hundreds peering out of pubs, lining the route, casually glancing up from a meal – were where I was not so very long ago. It was as if I had crossed an invisible barrier between the unfit and the fit. Moreover, I was willing to do something that few dare – I was running a race in public – I was willing to stick my neck out to say ‘I can do this’ and be humiliated if I were wrong.

Looking around at those running with me, I realised that here were the ones who chose the salad, here were the ones who didn’t have a second helping, here were the ones who drank in moderation, here were the ones who pushed themselves on a daily run, here were the ones who valued the wonderful feeling of a functioning body brimming with energy. Here were the ones, then, amongst whom I most definitely belonged.

Near the end, a girl ran past me with a t-shirt whose back bore the words:

Chance of finishing: 76.9%
Chance of not trying: 0%
Resignation is nothing.

You know, there was a time when I would have made some cynical comment or snide remark – but not that day and not in that context. I read it a few times whilst she was in front of me and it reminded me of the determination required to be one of those in the moving stream rather than those on the sidewalk.

So now the race is over, the results in (Matthew had the best time of anyone in his firm, it caused a few ripples amongst the gym-junkies that someone so casual about his exercise could whip them so nicely). I’ve had a couple of days of wearing the dual high of finishing and finishing with a pretty good time.

Now there’s only an itch left. The itch of the next challenge – I wonder what it will be? :)

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