It was not like it used to be in the old days. I couldn't find any safety pins. I wasn't sure what to wear. I'd been drinking the night before. I couldn't find my drinks bottle, and my energy drink powder was musty anyway. I almost forgot to put my contact lenses in. I forgot everything. The deceptively effortless suavity of the race morning routine had disappeared without trace.
Sean was impatient. That much was just like the old days. "Just how slow are we going to do this?" I asked him, aware that I could barely run. "I'd be happy averaging between 7'45"s and 8'00"s." Fair enough: 8'00"s I could probably manage. But these days running for more than an hour would be running into the unknown. "Nothing silly," says Sean, "you're not going to go haring off?" "Unlikely," I say, "you?"
It was my first race since the Edinburgh Marathon in May 2009, when I tore my hamstring. I've yet to recover: I can run, but very, very slowly, and always with discomfort. I've lost endurance, of course, and my speed has entirely disappeared. And I've put on about a stone. I've been working harder at it over the past few weeks, and have gone out maybe three times a week, running up and down the hill in Swaffham Prior in the dark, past the mobile fish and chip van that parks at the bottom of Cage Hill.
I used to think that in order to be a runner, a real runner, you needed to race. Whether or not you were in the top 2% or the top 50%, you needed to experience the excitement of a start, the logistics of bodily functions, and you needed to confront the gravityless moment when you push beyond the boundaries of comfort or even common sense, and enter the vertiginous clouds of the darkness.
I used to think that. These days it seems I manage to race without even really running.
So, on Sunday 7 March Sean and I eventually made it to the start of this year's Cambridge Boundary Run, hosted by Cambridge University Hare and Hounds. We did it last year, when we were actually fit. I saw some of the old chaps there: Simon, Fergie, Andy. They're training for London and were planning to run the whole thing. I muttered something about jogging the half.
"Text Meike for me, tell her everything's fine," said Sean. "You do it," I said. "No you, just do it quickly."
I was doing it of course when the horn sounded, and spent the first few seconds of the race trying to text Sean's Mrs, while forgetting to start my watch.
And actually it feels ok. It feels fine to be surrounded by these back-of-the-pack types, all enjoying themselves. And it's a glorious beautiful, sunny day, the perfect day to follow the notional boundary of the City of Cambridge, starting at the David Lloyd gym on Coldham's Lane, and finishing near Coton, in a field at the Park Farm. Real runners carry on and finish where they start. But I think I can finish a half, and it's all feeling just fine. I like running. I like races. I remember how to do this.
We're running towards the Victorian silhouette of the mental hospital when Sean says "I need to pee". I'm overwhelmed by nostalgia. "Ok, catch me up." And I add as an afterthought, "we'll always have Milan," alluding to a former occasion when we ran slowly owing to injury and stupor. That was the only race I've ever heard of someone throwing up before, during and after a race (not me). I slowed down, and waited. And waited. I stopped to pee myself. I carried on running slowly, and waited. And waited. So after a while I decide to just carry on, and catch up with the Cambridge & Coleridge chaps, chatting with greater facility than I can manage. But then they take off (they're running the full distance, remember), and I'm alone again, plodding away at a jogging pace, though I'm slowly and surely passing people, and it could almost be old days.
The course at first follows pavements and roads, but the real joy comes in the fields around Addenbrooke's Hospital.
Here, if you squint, you can just see the runners ahead, circumnavigating a large field. It really brings out the pointless joy of running, I think.
I finished without seeing Sean again, averaging a little under eight-minute miles, and taking about 23 minutes more than it used to take me to run this distance. By the end my hamstring hurts like hell.
Sean shows up a couple of minutes later, puffing. We eat some pieces of banana and chunks of a peculiar chocolate bar. It's no surprise when, instead of jogging the five or six miles across town to the start, as we had planned, he proposes catching the bus; and I don't object because it's hurting, and another few miles might be imprudent.
The bus is abuzz with talkative runners, talking numbers, talking clothing, talking the next race.
It's good to be back on the road again. But it's a slow road, and London is five or six weeks away (it's in my diary somewhere), and I've yet to do a 20 mile training run.
Meanwhile there are rumours up north of Chanti having run a 1:19.04 half, and he has London in his sights. It's like Jacob and Esau: one has to be damned for the other to be elect. We are locked in a seesaw. I'd be happy just to eat with the angels.
We drive home from the gym with the roof down, and go to the pub. Sean recovers with sausages and beer, and I do something similar.