Left Us Beg Our Breath to Stop

There are things in the world that seem inevitable: death, taxes, me being wittier over the internet that in person, Donald Trump being a thundercunt both over the internet and in person (sorry Sean), next door’s cat shitting all over our front garden. They are immutable laws of the universe, tenets to be scripted in stone. I have always had my own immutable laws, my own tenets. I see my life moving in cycles, peaks and troughs, as it has done for years.

Let’s talk about running. I am beginning to believe. I am having my Neo the end of The Matrix moment. Even my wayward thought processes, in the last few years, have had to admit that I am a fast runner. A very good mover of legs. If it came to a foot race between me and a cheetah, I would lose, but I would lose with some dignity intact. Or as much dignity as one can salvage while being devoured alive by a large feline that forgot it’s protein shake. Fast, but not shit-hot, never shit-hot.

Yesterday I ran a race that made me think I’m a shit-hot runner.

guuuuurnNo, not that one.

There has been a nice build up over the last month. There was that big 5k PB before Christmas; that was fast. In an effort to give myself an excuse to not mentally assault myself too much for staying in by myself on New Year’s Eve, knowing I could have gone out but knowing psychologically I was too fragile to do so, knowing that I was weak, I snapped up a late entry to the Knacker Cracker: 10k of trails, running down and then up Box Hill 5 different ways. I rolled in at 5th. The race director thought without the shark outfit I would have been on the podium, maybe challenging for something spectacular. I’m happy to take his word for it, moral victories are the sweetest kind. Also if you want a slightly more ‘dignified’ – excluding shark suit – pic you can find it on Instagram, or in the massive lot of photos they posted links to on the race page.

Not content to restrain it to running, I am probably swimming as well as I ever have right now (I really regret writing this paragraph before this evening’s swim), with a new CSS test PB, and I still have 4 months to my next big event to work and refine. Bike wise, well… I dunno. I feel good, but I have no benchmarks. Let just assume I’m smashing it in a restrained manner, it fits the narrative.

Whitest guy I knowCrosscountry (henceforth referred to as XC because I’m a lazy typer) in the Surrey League top division is always a humbling experience – the standard is obscene. In November I managed to break the top 100 for the first time, the month before a 16:38 parkrun. It is a collection of absolute running dorks and I love it.

Like most things I love, I am also a bit shit at it (that is another immutable law of George’s universe). I have a bit of a reputation for going out too hard and blowing up, in maybe not a spectacular but certainly a reliable manner (spoiler alert: no longer immutable). I secretly enjoy puddle-jumping too much and sometimes know I don’t take the racing line because the racing line wouldn’t make me muddy, and getting muddy is part of XC. Of course, when I say a bit shit I mean that comparatively; I’m still fast.

Author’s note: before I continue, it’s worth pointing out that I say ‘love’ because I did really well yesterday, and am on a massive sugar high from a bunch of cookies I ate while writing this and everything is light and beauty. The mardy bits are post shit swim, post resumption of landlord woes, and way post cookies.

Yesterday, I ran what could, for someone of my ability, be a perfect race. I’ve now spent a good 24+ hours dissecting this in my own head – it’s not just that it was a good run. In three runs this season, I have gone from unranked, to just breaking the top 100, to barging my way through into 55th. I felt imperious. Untouchable (if you ignore the 54 people that finished ahead of me). I finished ahead of people that I have no business being anywhere near, whether in a race or in the queue at the supermarket.

XC being a team competition, and the Chasers being once more in a relegation scrap, I will be expected – by others, but let’s be honest, mainly by myself – to do my level best to replicate this in a month’s time, at the final league fixture. I need to know how I did this. I need to know what the perfect storm is. I also need to internet brag about the whole thing. Fuck me, I need something to hold on to right now.

1) Strategy

Actually planning how to race races it not something that’s new to me, but in the last few months I do seem to have gained the ability to actually stick to plans. On a two lap course, the plan was pretty simple: head off thinking nothing other than “a little bit easier than a parkrun”, obviously referring back to Dulwich pre-Xmas. Effort level around 80%, ignore what everyone else is doing you’ll see them later, keep it nice and flowy Artem for the first lap and a half; once that’s done the and the big hill is out the way, push on to 90% towards the finish. Once you’re across the road that’s about 100-200 metres left, kick. Hold on. Try and ignore the weird faces you’re making, hope no-one is taking photos. Cross the line before your projectile vomit does.

Of note this is one of the few times I’ve ever properly run a negative split in a race – negative being desirable in running terms. No wonder it appeals to me.

2) Surroundings

100% nailing the above was key. Sticking to a plan in XC is always hard, mostly at the start (hence the blowing up late-race). Often downhill or at best flat, too many runners with too many egos trying to outdo each other, or trying to get a good position before the course narrows. The first mile of the course yesterday looked horrible pre-race but worked in my favour; uphill, so it was easier to not hare off over-enthusiastically, and the whole course in general was never claustrophobic so no need for jostling there.

In general, for a not particularly powerful guy, the longer draggier climbs worked in my favour, compared to other courses with shorter but much harder hills. A lack of wind was also a bonus. I would not say it’s a perfect course for me, but it played some part.

3) Targets

Hooookay, now we’re getting on to the one I’m less proud of. Being a perennially relegation-threatened club in a league that works off placings rather than times, you go into each race having target vests that are like red flags and frilly suits to a Spanish bull. You know that if you catch site of one of those vests, you go hell for leather. You have to beat them. This is a matter of honour for manly men in skimpy vests and short shorts.

Naturally with a break between the last fixture and this one I’d completely forgot who we were meant to be beating. Which is a bit of an issue, when I know I’m at my best with a fixed target in front of me to slowly claw away at. So I kinda decided I’d run at the targets I knew best… other Chasers.

It feels kinda dirty, doing that, but I needed my milestones. When those milestones started becoming the runners who usually have had time to have afternoon tea at the Ritz in between their finishing and mine, that feels good. Actually, that’s a lie. For the first half of the race it felt utterly terrifying, because usually running with those people equals an impending disaster and another clumsy embarrassment.

4) Mental

Reading about the Brownlees in the Brownlees’ own words is pretty interesting. Obviously, them being typically self-deprecating Yorkshiremen, I find it very amusing. But they’re also very ready to admit to their own fuckups, which I guess becomes a lot easier when one has a few olympic medals in the bag. One thing they’re both guilty of at various points in their careers (and quite famously so) is pushing waaaaaaaay too hard in races and discovering the hard way what their limits are. Notably, Alistair did this a lot more than Jonny when he was younger (or so it seems from the book), which probably goes a bit of the way to explain that debacle in Cozumel. It speaks to me on, like, a spiritual level.

There’s something very comforting about that; as someone whose usual approach to race strategy is somewhere between moronic and suicidal. Yes, counting off some of the top runners in the club was in part terrifying, but at the same time the other part of me felt weirdly zen about the whole experience. I know what blowing up in XC feels like, having done it time and time again, and this didn’t feel like that. This was what I told myself every time lizard brain tried to put the brakes on.

5) Tactics

Okay, so this is a minor one, but I finally learnt how to properly attack another runner in a race. It’s not throwing the big haymaker and trying to overtake in one grand swoop each time. It’s nipping at their heels, putting on a burst once, twice, three times just to get them to respond, because you can hear from their breathing that it’s hurting them more when they aren’t accounting for the effort 5 seconds in advance. Then when the course slopes down and around, using the momentum to slingshot around the poor bugger who’s half dead at this point. Ruthless. Glad that one wasn’t a club mate, that would have been super awks.

6) Psychological

Probably the biggest point other than numero uno. There’s been a recurring theme that life has gone to shit over the last few posts, and that has not changed much. Like my therapist says, I hold all the anger, which is a pretty miserable thing. Anger, though, is still a potent energy all of its own, and most of my top athletic endeavours have come at times of duress. I have already privately touted the idea that maybe, just maybe, someone needs to lamp me in the face a couple of minutes before the start of the final fixture, just to get me in the mood. Oh, yeah. Hurt me baby. Or, y’know, have my dick of a landlord make my attempt to find another flat nearly fall through because he can’t be arsed to respond/has had a heart attack. I hope for the latter.

Okay, so for someone who claims to be entirely vapid when exercising, clearly a lot was going on. That started as three points and just kinda snowballed. Now, what the hell can I go and over-analyse to death next? Please don’t say swimming, I’m not in the mood.

Listening: La Dispute – Woman (Reading); the perfect tune for someone in the middle of both moving house, and a psychological episode that is making him doubt everything he thought he knew.

Reading: My cunt of a landlord has finally just responded to my emails regarding a referencing request. So late that the referencing has already failed, and with a new list of fucking ridiculous demands and clear evidence that he’s not paid any attention to the email I’d written him. Seriously, is anyone reading this a housing lawyer? Interminable little shit.

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