After whingeing spectacularly on my blog after my Brighton Half disappointment, I continued to whinge on my private Facebook, and this attracted some interesting comments from my running and non-running friends. Why are times so important? Is it not enough just to run? Why should walking some of it feel like a failure? A half marathon is a half marathon whether you do it in three hours or in one. It’s a particularly good question when you consider that even my “good” times are well below average. Do I sometimes let a “slow time” spoil my enjoyment of a race?
I’m going to start answering that question by taking you back to the Worsley Bridge School sports day in 1985. This horrendous event was seemingly designed to showcase just how poor my physical skills were in front of several hundred seven to eleven year olds and their parents with a series of surreal and pointless tasks such as attempting to transport a hard boiled egg a hundred metres balanced on the end of a plastic utensil or hopping the same distance restrained in a potato sack. It always seemed grossly unfair that so many people were invited to witness this humiliation, where there was no equivalent “Writing Day” or “Science Day” where I could demonstrate that I was not, in fact, a complete waste of space. The culmination of Sports Day was the “Mini Marathon”, a dash of approximately 300 metres (I just went on Google Maps and measured it) around the school field. This felt like the moon and back to eight-year-old me, and I could only watch as the entire rest of the school scooted off into the distance, leaving me so far behind that when I entered the final stretch, the field was empty. A thousand eyes, pupils, teachers, parents, school dinner ladies, Mr Murphy the caretaker, Erol the school hamster, all watching me stumble ungracefully over the grass, not cheering but silently smirking, shaking their heads, wondering how I could possibly be so slow. In an attempt to be kind, Mrs Hollingsworth, the plump dinner lady and her accomplice re-raised the finish line for me so I could pretend to be the winner when really all I wanted was for the ground to swallow me whole.
Watching this spectacle was Sam Beck, a horrid boy who had constant conjunctivitis and who liked to steal my rubbers and call me “Poozi Bent” (a hilarious rhyme of my actual name) and his mother. Sam Beck’s mother turned to Sam Beck and said “Is that girl disabled?”
Of course this made Sam Beck’s day, in fact I don’t doubt that it was the highlight of his entire school career. I never lived it down and was never allowed to forget. So now every single second I take off my parkrun time, every race in which I am not the actual last person, every time I pass the finish line without incident, feels like I am poking Sam Beck in the scabby eye with a knitting needle.
That is, of course, not the only reason times matter. Times are a measure of hard work, and I have put a lot of bloody hard work into running. They are not the only measure, of course, but the only other way I can really quantify my progress is in terms of distance, and distance isn’t so much a measure of physical grit and effort but of bloody mindedness and persistance. My bloody mindedness and persistence were never in doubt. I don’t care much about times when I am training, but race/parkrun day is a chance to measure how well I’m doing.
Then there is the basic fact that slow people get left behind. If you are one of the last finishers, you may find yourself in a battle with a coche de cierre, that the spectators will have got bored and gone home by the time you finish, or even that the finish line is dismantled before you run through it. People nowadays are cheering and encouraging to the final finishers, but I still yearn to just be another average finisher, part of the pack. Even the difference between a sub 35 and sub 40 km is quite apparent – sub 35 and you will have other runners on your tail and there will be a bit of friendly “racing” as you jostle for position – sub 40 and it’s more like you are trying to see how far ahead of you the next runner is and the only time you ever overtake each other is if one of you conks out and thinks they are going to collapse. I have done a couple of 40 min+ parkruns and it’s basically a game of “hide from the tailrunner”. I felt like I might as well have just gone for a run in the park on my own. The thing is that however inclusive and slow person friendly a run is, it’s not going to make lots of slow people appear from thin air. The only way to run at the same speed as other people is to speed up, to catch up with them.
There’s also a reciprocal relationship between speed and enjoyment. When I find a run is not to my liking, my mojo goes, the effort goes, I slow down. Then I see my watch report the diminishing speed, and my mojo declines further, and so on. On the other hand, a lovely run fills me with happiness and adrenaline, I pick my feet up, I fly along, my heart leaps when I see how well I am doing and I keep it up. It’s not simply that I don’t enjoy a race if I don’t do well – if I don’t enjoy the race, I won’t do well. I can think of a couple of examples, though, of races that I have enjoyed despite a crap time. The 2016 Hackney Half is a prime example. It was ridiculously hot (36c at one point) and I ran/walked the whole way, finishing in just under three hours. I stopped to dance under hoses, high fived children, ate jelly babies on the bridge into the Olympic Park. Things were going well in my life at that point, it was a beautiful day and there was so much on the route to enjoy, time didn’t seem to matter. It was very hard to enjoy the Brighton Half last week because it was just absolutely freezing cold and that was all I could think about (that and the worry that I was going to fail at the impending marathon). Would I have been so bothered about my time if it had been a lovely sunny day and I had ambled along enjoying the scenery? Probably not. Let me enter another seaside half marathon on a warmer day, and I’ll tell you the answer to that.