Running knows it is doing a fine job in keeping the motivational fires burning while tennis is taking its seasonal break.
Rain lashes the windows, driven by the gusting wind, seemingly without pause this past week. It’s not the weather for tennis outdoors. It’s also no man’s land as far as competition goes, nothing for about two months. Running is keeping my competitive juices flowing and helping with motivation. More precisely the phenomena that is parkrun. Every Saturday at 9am almost everywhere, a free timed 5k run.
Sat 26 November
I find myself in deepest Cornwall on this particular morning at the Penrose parkrun near Helston. The express purpose to run under 23 minutes for 5k. I have been getting closer in recent weeks running at another parkrun at Heartlands. The organisers there repeatedly stress that although flat, it is not a fast course as it has many twists and turns. Penrose by contrast is also virtually flat and is a straight out and back course, just the one turn at the halfway point. I am unusually optimistic, mixed with a bit of realism as running is a particularly unforgiving sport, time is usually hard earned.
I calculate that my best time of the year, last week of 23 minutes and 15 seconds, is in distance terms about 53 metres short. That is, when the watch gets to 23 minutes I am 53 metres from the finish line. The improvement required is just over 1%.
The pre run plan to run for 10 minutes, to get warmed up before the start is out the window as I need a number two. It’s a sure sign that I am geared up for the challenge, as the nerves have kicked in. It’s a short jog to the loo in hat and waterproof, the rain is falling steadily now. A cold damp uninspiring morning, it’s very purpose it seems to fill this end of November slot, without which the month would be a day short. My body seems to be complaining a bit, left knee is hurting. Good idea this?
Back at the car, strip away the raincoat, top, pants and hat, ready to run. I bump into a fellow tennis player, that’s a first. Running seems to be a foreign pursuit for tennis players in my experience. He says he’s here for some speedwork. I think he is a runner come tennis player, whereas I think I am more tennis player come runner.
I catch the end of the first timer briefing as the cold rain starts to penetrate my top with ease. Initial pinpricks of cold rain are uncomfortable, while the body adapts to the elements. Importantly I discover that the start and finish are at the same point and not as per the website which has the finish at some point beyond the start. That will an important fact to know, when straining for the finish in a half hour’s time or so for sure.
With the weather forecast to worsen the race Director does the preliminaries quickly, warning about a fallen tree on the path and wet underfoot. Then in time honoured fashion, repeated at parkruns across the country this morning, the director says “Three, two one, go!” Hundreds of pairs of feet begin their journey, young and old, fast and slow, locals and visitors, first timers, veterans of many hundreds of such runs as well as those seeking a personal best.
Immediately I think I have made the mistake of placing myself too conservatively in the start line up along the narrow path. There is no immediate place to go other than follow the person in front. This pace is too slow, my brain shouts. I have to be a bit patient on the narrow path and then skip round a few people on the grassy verge. It doesn’t seem like much, except that I know that seconds count today. Already I fear that the precious time is lost in the first minute.
Into my stride and feeling pretty good, with open pathway in front of me. Manage to tag onto a group going at my pace for a short while, which is always helpful, though it disperses after a minute or two, some faster some slower and me somewhere in the middle.
Now I check in with myself. Am I giving the 1% extra required? And in response inject a tiny bit more effort, definitely running, rather than jogging. Now into a headwind for a short period. I could not tell you at this point whether it is raining or not. I assume it is, as it was at the start and is later when I finish. For now, all that matters is the running. I’m totally absorbed in the moment, enjoying the effort, the feeling of movement. Breath rythmically, stride easily, relax the arms, enjoy the moment. As I near the turning point the first runners are on their way back. The leader is way in front.
Not knowing the course, the actual turn seems to take an age in coming. A man standing on the path in a High Vis jacket is the turning point. I thank him and as I turn to retrace my outward steps I check my watch. It reads 12 minutes and 4 seconds. This is too slow, my spirits sink slightly.
Later I check my pace on my watch and there is an actual albeit slight slowing just after the turn. The mind is a powerful thing. It is as I was told a virtually flat out and back course through this beautiful landscape. What it lacks however to this first timers eyes are distinct landmarks. There is only my watch and my perceived effort to tell me how I am doing. Later I learn that the first marshall is stationed at the 1 km mark, that is useful to know for future reference, both on the way out and the way back. For now concentrate and push on and maintain the current effort. How I would welcome a recognisable landmark to give some indication of how I am doing.
A younger runner is bouncing along in front of me, though the gap is slowly closing between us and as I pass him he loses a little energy, bounces a little less. We’re all working hard now. How well you cope with the transition point from physical to mental effort increasingly counts.
A quick glance at my watch, it moves past the twenty minute mark. The finish must be coming up soon. I decide to invest a bit more of my remaining energy, before I can see the finish. I recall the three minute efforts on the bike in the gym recently and try to mimick that effort. I know it will hurt and I know how it will hurt, so I am ready for the pain and discomfort. This is the sharp end, where you find out. Akin to the ten point match tie break in tennis. Relax – a requirement of both the running and the tennis at this point. Run, just run!
Slowly I increase my effort and ease past two more runners. They are breathing heavily and I can see and feel their effort, hear their breathing, as I am in the same place. The finish comes into view maybe fifty, maybe sixty, maybe seventy, not more than seventy metres away. In truth I don’t really know. All that matters now is to get to the finish as fast as possible. Run, just run!
Behind me now I hear feet slapping hard on the tarmac and fast heavy breaths, from over my right shoulder. Someone is closing. The effort is hard now and my first thought is that they are welcome to pass. Without conscious thought, like a fight or flight response my legs kick on. Run, just run! The breathing behind receeds. Good! Then in a moment it comes again, more persistent this time. My legs order my lungs to give more, like stoking the engine on a steam locomotive, and the pistons – my legs – pump faster. Run, just run! I manage to kick again or at least not to slow down. The feet slapping the tarmac and the breathing remain, but they are not gaining now. We hold that position and cross the line one closely followed by the other.
I check the results later and we are both given the same time. It transpires, two men aged 60 plus battling it out, 100 % hard effort, arms and legs straining for all they are worth, like they were forty years younger. What a peculiar sight we must have been. Inside we were sprinting gazelle like to the finish, to those watching it’s maybe a fast jog! Not quite the eyeballs out efforts I can remember from younger years, but a hard effort nonetheless.
I stop my watch. It reads 13 minutes and 10 seconds. Another year’s best by a few seconds and tantalisingly still short of breaking the 13 minute mark. I calculate that I am now just 36 metres short of breaking 23 minutes. The raggedy breathing at the finish, slowly gives way to more measured breaths. Well done, slaps on backs!
I catch my breath and scan my barcodes, which will later confirm my time officially. Sometimes the official time is a second or two quicker. Hoping.
It is raining heavily now. Stand around for a few minutes and chat to a couple of fellow runners. A drier surface will bring faster times I am told.
A mix of emotions and I tell myself to be pleased with my effort as I make my way back to my car. I take a bit of persuading. Eventually I am satisfied with my effort. It is after all the best I could do today and I should be proud of that. The disappointment doesn’t hang around like it does in tennis.
Sitting in the pushed back passenger seat of my car, windows quickly steam up. Rain runs down the windscreen. I towel down and with a bit of manouvering, get changed into dry cloths. Then it’s off to meet a friend, to catch up and chat. “Running is not for me” he says as we meet, “Never got on with it, good effort though, I am impressed” No further mention of running, it’s not our common bond. We turn instead to our shared love of skiing and over coffee indulge ourselves with memories of years gone by, as well as look forward to the next time we can get on the snow.
We men seem to need our obsessions. Mine is neither skiing or running as much as I really enjoy both. Tennis is where my true obsession lies now. Running knows it is doing a fine job in keeping the motivational fires burning while tennis is taking its seasonal break. It’s good to be alive.