Stephenmcalpine.com is taking a break from theological/ecclesiological discussion just for one day to have some fun.  Here’s my account of running the HBF Run for  a Reason last Sunday – the second Sunday of my holiday break.

162nd Comes Right After 161st

For one brief moment – just a brief one – I thought I had come 161st in the HBF Run for a Reason 12km race in Perth on Sunday.  I looked again. Dang! It was 162nd.  But 162nd comes right after 161st, right?  For those in the know that is no small achievement for a 45 year old bloke who came to running in early 2012. 162 out of 14830 entrants is no mean feat either, unless of course you are Neil Berry, who came 1st (that’s a whole 161 places in front of Steve – punctilious Sports Ed), who, if he had matched my achievements (as several shared line-crossers actually did), would  even now be reassessing his life goals and booking himself in to see a sports psychologist.  You can read his rather breathless account of the win here. You can read my even more breathless account of the 162nd place, err, here.

Notice the plethora of stats in that first paragraph?  Running – when it’s not about fun – is about stats.  And did I mention my time?  48:23.  That’s right, 24 seconds more than I intended.  I could hear the race caller announcing the 48 minute tick over with about 150m to go on the Gloucester Park race track.  It’s all there in the black and white.  24 seconds!  If only I had run faster.  If only I had worn my other shoes.  If only my Garmin had worked properly.  If only my mother had given me more encouragement that day at the school carnival. If only she had turned up to the school carnival.

But I digress.  For the also-rans at the start of “Wave A” there is that tantalising piece of tarmac between you and the seeded runners on the front line.  Australia an egalitarian country, my foot! In large races like this the class system would do the London landed gentry proud. Way back in “Wave D” you’re lucky if the massive crowd-surfing HBF beach balls – some sort of “break your arm before starting” entertainment – reach you, but up here in “Wave A”, you can almost smell what it might be like to get into that exclusive, elusive seeded zone for those who have a logged sub-45 time.  There they are: prancing and snorting like prized stallions (and mares), pawing the ground and eyeing each other without fear.  We stand and watch, wondering if today might be the day that we bust out a big one and next year get to cross the 30 yard chasm that separates the true athlete from the rest of us.  Surely they don’t look different, do they? Two arms, two lean legs, one head.

Best to get a good look now though, cos the gun goes and they are off like a shot, 3 minutes a km to 3:15 the lot of them.  We see them too, for a kilometre or so, then they inhabit their own world of pain and you settle in to inhabit yours.  Which is exactly what it is like – your own world.  I vaguely remember the St Georges Terrace section before it winds down onto the circular part of the freeway past the Perth Conference Centre.  There is the feeling of elation at springing out of the blocks with the first 200 runners; the empty road, the feeling that a human tsunami is surging on your heels, and then the freshness of the task at hand.  I’d carved the race into sections in my pre-race tactics, poring over the google map of it for a day or so, checking inclines, figuring out distances, looking for landmarks.  It’s all so strange – running on a freeway tends to be either an elusive or a short-lived experience – but so familiar too: I’ve travelled this road in the car so often, even slower in peak hour, yet here I am running in the opposite direction I would be going if I were driving.  Weird and exhilarating.

I get to the famed Graham Farmer Freeway tunnel – the underground section that gives this race its popularity.  And that’s when the Garmin, already having let me down once, fails. I have no idea how fast I am going, but having set 3:55-4 minutes per km as my goal, I am trying to feel that.  The heat of the tunnel, the  stale air – the Ghost of Traffic Past – makes it breathy and humid, probably like running in Singapore. I have no idea of my pace, and I’m not feeling great.  And then the bum pat!  Someone speeds past me, pats me on the bum and yells “Go Steve!”  It is Lachie, BT Run Club regular, solid lad, and running like the clappers. He disappears in a smooth flow of legs and arms. Lachie ends up with a sub 45 and a guaranteed seeded spot for next year.  And then another friendly voice. Ben!  Ben pulls ahead of me too, sitting in behind a few others a hundred yards or so further up.  Good.  I generally measure my times by Ben.  If I end up a minute behind him in races I’m doing ok.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel.  And a bit of an incline. And, for some reason, a rag-time music band.  I see the six kilometre marker coming up.  I am not feeling that amazing.  I have this to go again – it won’t be as good as I thought.  I enter what is called the Go Zone; kilometres 7-10 in which I have to keep the pain levels up even as everything in my body is yelling “Go take a jump in the lake Zone”.  I cross the bridge and off the freeway onto Victoria Park Drive.  A couple of younger women – lithe like marathoners – pull ahead of me.  I pick them back, only to be picked off again.  It is then that I notice my arms. Instead of the low easy swing, open hands, and low elbows, they have started to bunch up to my chest, my fists tightening as if I am in round nine with Mike Tyson.  I feel my head lean back too, another bad sign.  “Shape Stephen, shape.”  It’s my line to myself whenever I feel I’m losing that loping gait that tells me I am doing ok.

It’s too late to do anything about it now though.  I’ve got to get through. At least we’ve crossed down onto familiar territory, the track around the river that we at the club have run countless times on Saturday mornings. I’m still around four minutes a km, but I really want that finish line to come to the party and at least meet me half way.  I see the 9 kilometre mark and then a friendly voice. Simon the head of our club, watching and taking photos from the club marquee he has set up.  “Lower your arms Steve, lower your arms!”  I thought I did, though the forensic evidence is in: the club photo shows otherwise.  The prosecution rests its case.

And then we are running past the WACA – the home of cricket in Western Australia, and I know, even though I’ve never been to it, that Gloucester Park is just around the corner.  Never been to a horse race in my life, but I’m about to hit the cinders like an old nag staving off the knackers yard with one final hell-for-leather gallop.  I am passing some people, some people are passing me. I pass some more. Some more pass me.  Who cares!  Just get me to the line under 48!  And then I hear the bright breezy FM radio voice of goodness-knows-who dashing my dreams, killing my hopes, shattering my illusions, and all with the dulcet tones of a man advertising soap powder. 48:23 as I pass under the finish line, hoping against hope that the Start/Finish chip timing will grant me some race grace and readjust me some 24 seconds. Alas it is not to be.

I cross the line, and cling to the rails like a boxed in favourite, heaving for breath.  But, while I may not be fast, running has certainly made me fit.  Within three minutes I’m feeling back to normal, and trotting into the still fairly empty finishing zone, to grab a tooth-rotting Gatorade.  I see Lachie, Ben, the other Ben too, and gradually the other BT-ers filter in, all smiles, stories and laughter.  This is the bit I love.  I give it fifteen minutes then push my way through the gathering crowd to the finish line to wait for my wife Jill to arrive.  Julie is on look-out.  I’ve given her a description and we watch anxiously, calculating the time Jill’s zone would have taken to cross the start line.  I am nervous.  What if something went wrong. And then Julie yells “There she is!”  We whoop and holler and scream as Jill resolutely refuses to look over at us, her earbuds planted firm as she sings herself to the line.  She raises her arms and yells as she crosses – her race an even bigger achievement for her than mine was for me. She’s stripped minutes off her times these past few months, and I can’t find a lousy 24 seconds!

A bunch of us walk through the traffic jam of the post-race city to Simon’s house for the club brunch.  We’ve just run 12, what’s another 5km walk? The weather is perfect, the sun is shining, the river is glassy.  We arrive at Simon’s and it’s food and drinks and music and laughter.  No one boasting, no one moaning.  Just joy in each others achievements.

The euphoria of a race lasts a week I reckon.  Our motto at BT Run Club is “Run with Endurance” taken from the book of Hebrews in the Bible’s New Testament.  Simon, the club leader, likes to say that running is a great servant, but a terrible master.  His use of that motto highlights both his and my understanding of the one race that truly matters – the one towards a finish line where the announcement will not be how fast you were, but how faithful. For me that’s the finish line that really counts.