Recently, my ‘racing CV’ has seen the addition of some very hard races run at a very slow pace.
So, with a need to stretch my legs/prove I’m still capable of finishing a running event without having an existential crisis, I begin a bracing first Saturday of December by making my way to the Victoria Park 10K.
Sandwiched between a 5K and half marathon, the 10K makes up a morning of racing hosted by one of London’s premier race organisers, RunThrough, which has events across the capital.
In terms of location, though, Victoria Park’s hard to beat: bordering Bethnal Green and South Hackney — with the entire south side running adjacent to the Hertford Union Canal — it’s pancake-flat, with wide, open paths and the unspoiled leafiness you’d expect from one of the capital’s big, green spaces.
With an unfamiliar enthusiasm for an early-morning race, I decide to jog the three miles from my front door to the startline, and arrive with an annoying amount of time to kill.
Rarely enamoured by a group warm-up, I collect my race number and instead opt for a series of half-hearted stretches just far enough away from the main gaggle of runners to enjoy a spot of people watching.
There’s a familiar mix of runners: the bleary-eyed and regretful, the admirably jolly, and the far-too-serious, including one man whose steely-gaze and comprehensive warm-up tells of a life unfulfilled. Of missed chances and unjust setbacks. Of heartache and fading hope.
Now he’s here to right those wrongs. Because if today is not the day, when — oh when?! — will he shave that one second off his PB?
Quick out the blocks
Eventually, the 10K runners are called to the start and I’m excited by the prospect of being able to feel my fingers again.
There’s a short wait for the ‘lead cyclist’ to take his position — a little unnecessary, perhaps, for a three-lap run round a park — and then I’m off, with all the restraint and self-control of an excitable greyhound.
Having spent much of the morning convincing myself I would take it easy, after a few minutes — in which the course cuts across the park from south to north, then continues clockwise around the outer edge — I’m spluttering like a mad man and any thoughts of slowing down are crushed by Mr Running Ego.
This is a problem confounded by the fact that I’m without a watch; the pace feels quick, but with no wrist-based numbers for confirmation, I’ll just have to presume it’s not.
Around 10 minutes on, I’m surprised to still be running at a relatively good clip as I complete lap one. The route, winding in places but well-marked and easy to follow, has a good amount of tree cover and distant views are hard to come by.
As a result, it’s difficult to gauge how far you’ve got to run and the first few kilometres pass by without a great deal of pain.
Midway through the second lap, the 10K and half marathon runners converge, much to the alarm of several local dog walkers ambling in the opposite direction.
It’s also around this point that something remarkable happens…
The horse has bolted
I’ve had my eyes on a short chap ahead for the last five minutes. He seems to be struggling and, with just under 5K to go, I’m still doing OK.
As I narrow the gap, however, he senses the need to pull something out the bag and, in a never-before-seen act of self-motivation/flagellation, he slaps both bum cheeks, roars a desperate, “COME ON!” and speeds off.
Deeply confused, quietly impressed and a little afraid, I back off. Any man willing to spank himself in search ofa PB should be given a wide berth.
Another 2K pass without incident. And another…and before long I’m breaking into something akin to a sprint — my relative comfort the result of either uncharacteristically good pacing or very slow running.
And as I cross the low-key finish line, I’m happy to say it was the former. I’ve gone quicker, but rarely have I felt so in control — and, for the first time in months, I’ve actually run an entire race.