Standing on the Priority Start line of the 2013 City to Surf 12km race, it suddenly struck me that this would be how a Best For Less catalogue model would feel if she were suddenly to find herself stepping onto the catwalk at the Versace swim suit show in Milan next spring.
And I wasn’t wearing much more than she.
In my attempt to bust out a sub-48 Jordan Thyer had graciously agreed to pace me, given that he was; a) not race fit, b) humble, c) needed just over three quarters of an hour to finish that particularly gripping novel he’d been reading on the plane home from Oxford.
So there I was, being sneaked through the barrier to join the names that have had one through ten against their placings in just about every race in Western Australia these past few years. There was Roberto Busi, serious academic at UWA, Turin-educated, all Italian cool and laconic, the epitome of Renaissance man – in long compression socks. And wasn’t that Neil Berry, winner of the HBF Run for A Reason this year after pipping Roberto at the finish? Calves like a Roman centurion. And then the whippets, Jesse (Jordan’s brother), and his doppelganger, Stuart Caulfield, finely tuned young men both of them, the up and comers with deceptively boyish bodies – V8 muscle cars disguised as Minis.
My purple Wave 1A bib betraying me against the bright yellow of the sub-45 priority starters. Except it didn’t. It didn’t need to. The rest of me betrayed me just fine. Jordan eased my nerves by taking me off the line for some pre-race stride-outs, and then when Jesse came up and shook my hand, before the three of us did a quick huddle for a Jordan-led prayer, it felt like I belonged.
Until the gun.
Before I could gather breath, the rest of Priority Starters were up St George’s Terrace already, that first hill a minor blip on the radar. But with Jordan in my ear and by my side, we kept at a steady sub 3:55 pace, not bolting out too fast, as he’d said would be the case if we’d stayed in Wave 1A. True to form a huge surge of that group shot past, only to be reeled in as we made it to the top of Kings Park Road, and started the easier, though still lumpy, kilometres down through West Perth and Subiaco.
It felt good. Legs pain-free for a change. Hundreds of kilometres under my belt these past months, plenty of core strength, and mental strength too, after crawling out of bed to do lonesome intervals all winter. This is what I had trained for. This wasn’t going to be bad. This was going to be good. This was going to be sub-48.
This was going to be sub-47.
3:53, 3:43, 3:54. For some that adds up to disaster and post-race binge-drinking, for others it is a miracle. For me, that’s just where I should be. And with the weather overcast and cool, the wind non-existent, soon the swoosh of blood and swish of air became the metronome that Jordan said it should be.
Now, the thing about having a pacer is that when you start to listen to yourself – your doubts, your worries your “what ifs”, or when you start to see other runners passing you, then your “little Mexican” starts talking to you. By rights that is your role, talking to yourself to stop you listening to yourself. But there is something about that external voice, the calm of it, its locus outside you, but near you, that not only stomps down the dirt all over that internal doubt, but plants flowers in the soil above it. I cannot praise Jordan highly enough.
“Pull the ground forward like you’re on a treadmill.”
“Effort up the hill, not pace.”
“Running really well.”
“See him? We’re reeling him in in the next k.”
And then there’s the Christian side of it. I often run thinking about perseverance, or endurance as our Run Club motto reminds us from the New Testament. Haruki Murakami, the famous Japanese post-modern novelist and marathon junkie, has a lovely book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. In reality, it’s what he thinks about, because the person we most talk to in any given day is ourselves. And we are such avid listeners! In tough runs I think about remaining a Christian through thick and thin, experiencing all sorts of trials and heartaches, yet keeping it going. On rest days I am reminded that God has done the work that makes me acceptable to him, so I don’t need to self-justify by running. And on those lonesome, dark intervals I am reminded that God’s Words are a light to my often lumpy, rock strewn path.
But on days like this – race days – having someone else talk to me, amps it right up. Jordan talked, encouraged, prayed, told me to reset my tightening arms, quoted the Bible, reminded me to pick up my cadence, lean into the hills. It’s as if Steve the runner and Steve the Christian cannot be teased out from each other – a joined up life like it’s supposed to be.
And then we came to the hill.
The first one.
I start to feel the pace, and a slightly rising sense of panic. Not a still small voice, more like a disturbed whisper: “This is gonna get tougher. Tougher.”
Jordan gets me over it in good shape and back into a 3:51. We relax a little, which gives Jordan time to smell the roses, or at least grab a drink, shout out to some mates cheering, thank the brass band, the cheer leader girls, the drinks station crews, anyone actually who we happen to pass. I hang on grimly, selfishly and stoically. There were roses? I feel like I got the thorn.
A young woman pulls up behind us.
Then in front of us.
Then behind us again.
She looks fit and strong. 20-something. And polite! She says sorry for drafting us, and later, after she’s finished some twenty seconds ahead, comes back to apologise again. None required we tell her – just admiration for a great effort.
We’re in the Go-Zone now, or did I miss something and we’re in the Get-Time Zone? Darn you Greg McMillan and your funky race sections! I’m in the Hurt Zone – that’s all I know!
We’ve done one hill and it’s 4:23. All that good work for nothing. How am I going to make that up? My shape is starting to crumble and I can hear myself huffing and puffing. Metronome has given way to free-form jazz. Jordan had told me pre-race to think of it as an 11km race with a down-hill sprint to the finish. Anyone can do that, right? Maybe, but not today, and not me. For a brief moment I actually want to stop.
“People actually stopped here for good last year when I did 44,” says Jordan as we pass the 10km flag, not so much reading my mind, but my whole demeanour. “One more hill and you’ve got this.” Murakami springs to mind: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional, Pain is….shoot! Let’s just truncate it to “Pain and Suffering” and get it over with!
The final hill
And what a hill.
The Oceanic Drive hill was there last year when I did the Half. It is there this year. It will be there next year. It was there two hundred and fifty years ago as a sand dune traversed by the Noongar on their way to and from the sea. All we did was slap a bit of tarmac on top of it.
And a speed limit, which I am in no danger of breaking.
It did for me again.
Like last year.
But not next year – no way. Not next year.
And then we can see it – the sea! Not so much surf as a thin grey-blue line. Thin, grey and blue maybe, but I suddenly feel like the post-war English city school-kid as the train rounds the bend on the annual trip to the seaside.
One kilometre to go and Jordan is dragging me in his wake. It’s now or never and I have a few seconds to make up. He’s ramped up the talking. I’ve ramped up the cadence. One other young gun passes me, but it’s no one else. This is mine for the taking. It’s gonna have to be a super-quick final kilometre for sub-48, but I’m past caring, it’s just that line that I want.
And I can see the timer, bright red and full of warning!
And it’s 100 metres away!
And it’s ticking over!
My mind is a jumble of conflicting thoughts and emotions as I cross the line and lean gasping against the cyclone fencing, imprisoned by sheer pain, joy at finishing, and the need to empty my bladder very very soon. Jordan is at my shoulder again, congratulating, breathing heavy himself even! That last km – 3:39! I could not have given more, not one second, not on the hills, not on the downhills.
“Gotta be top 150 for sure!” says Jordan, and for once, we’re way off the mark. 81st overall and 5th in my category I find out later. Jordan’s getting half my prize money for this one! He finished a lowly 79th in 48:16 and it didn’t read “Pacing an Old Bloke” next to his name when I looked up the race website. What does it say in John L Parker Jnr’s classic Once a Runner?
It’s all there in black and white. Lots of people can’t take that kind of pressure; the ego withers in the face of evidence.
Your ego can only wither if something else hasn’t killed it off already, and as a Jesus-follower, Jordan had that one sorted out long before race day. It struck me all the more forcefully in the post-race catch ups as, once again, I found myself among the Priority Starters who all know Jordan well enough to chat about his recent travels. And it struck me too when my run club mates started streaming in from their events, a good seven or eight of them simply doing for others what Jordan had done for me. The head of our club says that running is a great servant and a terrible master, and he’s truly built a club culture to reflect that.
I’m 47 next year.
47 at 47.
Oceanic Drive hill – you are mine.
Great piece, Steve. I can’t believe I’m saying this about something where the McGuffin is running.
Thanks Stu. It is probably more florid than the event itself. But Hemingway did say that if you want to write truthfully fiction is the way to do it! (My finishing time and pace ARE correct!) And McGuffin? A mystery that shall be revealed?
However this post might stack up to the event factually, I’m sure it’s superior olfactorily.
I thought of running as a McGuffin here because what’s interesting and appealing in the post (at least to me) has little to do with running: the running is just the occasion for unlocking our imagination. In the same way as Kiss Me Deadly isn’t really about the suitcase.
I said I was surprised, because normally I find reflections framed around running to be fairly tedious: almost as tedious, perhaps as actual running. Of course, writing about running is never really about running: what could you possibly say? For much of humanoid history, I assume it’s mainly been a fairly painful means of locomotion. Since we don’t need that any more, we have to make running up to be about other things. (“It’s mental, man.” I couldn’t agree more.)
(Perhaps this is naïve, and our paleolithic ancestors cut their philosophical teeth while pounding the veldt?)
And while I’m a huge fan of Romanticism — give me Wordsworth over actual daffodils or Londons any day, and Debussy’s Sturm and Drang before the nauseating putrescence of the actual seaside — I have little patience for Romanticizing running. Part of the beauty in Romanticism is the fact that nature really could kill you. The tedium in ‘running Romanticism’ is that there’s nothing left to actually kill you. Except perhaps the road trains.
‘Composèd in the cabin of a Mack’: now there’s a sonnet I’d read.
P.S. I am genuinely impressed with your time
Ha! Great first line! Running not being about running is probably why I run, though I think that my reasons for running have changed in the 20 or so months that I have been. Yes, I do wonder about romanticizing (and Romananticizing) running, although I have read some fairly decent books on running. The tendency to put running on a spiritual plane may well be because it gives you permission to speak about spiritual matters since it is such an earthbound pursuit.
And thanks for the kudos regarding the time. I am still surprising myself!
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