“Men’s 800m to the start.”
The cold chill of nerves and excitement descends from somewhere at the top of my chest to the stomach. The process from here on is formal, systematic. Officials in red coats and pristine white trousers appear with their starter pistols, symbolic of controlled aggression, that which will be demanded of all very soon. Out of the colourful hi-vis melee of athletes and their supporters, emerges a handful of silent figures, haunted-looking, ready. The enemy.
Stepping onto the track is the point of no return. Warm, brick-red rubber, with its unique fragrance triggering memories of too many nights following its white lines in pursuit of satisfied exhaustion, and thereafter, speed. Grace.
“Tracksuits off gentlemen please”.
Now very little resistance remains as I’m reduced to minimal clothing and the lightest of spiked footwear, ready to claw at the track bend after bend. I’m lighter at this point than at any other point in a winter of training: it’s adrenaline of course, but in cocktail with other elements. This is fight or flight time.
The drawing of lanes, and then out on my own to my personal start line, tunnel vision for the next few minutes. Heart racing, before the rest of the body follows. Watching for the starter. “Why am I doing this?” Thoughts of domestic bliss try to force their way in: I could be in a coffee bar, shopping, relaxing. There’ll be time for that. That has to be earned.
“Take your marks.”
Silence descending, volume being lowered, until you can almost hear your own heart beating out of your chest.
Lean over. Stillness.
And then the alarming explosion of the gun, louder than it’s been all day, as though to frighten you out of your reverie. Men hurl themselves around the first bend, covering the first fifty metres, one hundred metres in a breath, no effort, gliding. Then the elegance of the split from lanes as athletes spot the line of cones across the track and merge in multiple Pythagorean charges, each relative to their own race plan, their own self-belief. Front, middle, rear.
150 metres to 350 is an exercise in controlled flight, sensors providing information to the brain: trust your training, stick to your pace, don’t be blocked, don’t chase. At 200m a voice (a coach?) shouts out a time: ‘Am I on pace? Was that call for someone ahead or behind?’
Approaching 400m, the bell, is where psychology and physiology play malevolent games with each other. Tiredness is exaggerated by the brain, to become fear – fear that you can’t possibly do that all over again - anxiety heightened by the bell and someone shouting “fifty eight, fifty nine, sixty, sixty one …”
This is the loneliest part. Milers say the third lap of a four lap race is the hardest, it’s the one that carries the weight of the previous effort without the promise of the finish line. In the two-lap race, 400m to 600m provides similar barren territory. It’s down the ‘back straight’, 250m from home that the battle truly begins. By now, the targets are locked. The race, if not to win, is on, with whoever lays down the gauntlet. Sounds become audible now. Breathing, straining, the slap-slap-slap-slap of feet on track. Jostle for position. Put in a burst. Fail. Try again. Succeed. And then the inevitable descent of the chainmail suit of lactic acid. Starting in the thighs, it climbs through the stomach to the arms, until I am swimming through thick air.
The final bend. We emerge scattered across the track. Looking for space to conquer. Climbing uphill now, dancing rather than running, knees raised but limbs being thrown around like a puppet on strings.
The relief starts 50m out from the finish line - the end is close. I can endure this if it only lasts seconds … but what long seconds they are.
And through the line, the large digital numbers of the clock flicking over. Euphoria breeds friendliness with the enemy, handshakes, back slaps, ‘well done mate’s.
Then find a quiet place to die.
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