Tonky is back in the club
When I was a kid, in my first
incarnation as a runner I was a member of Scarborough Harriers AC. I would don the blue vest with pride in races up and down the coast. It felt great to be in a club. Now, aged 47 and well into my running rebirth, I find myself in a club again, paying the fees, wearing the vest – and loving it.
Upon googling, it seemed the club offered everything a runner could possibly want: fell running, ultras, midweek slow runs, hill sessions, long weekend runs for various abilities, track races and, of course, the company of like-minded souls.
For me, signing up is primarily an opportunity for improvement. The first thing to say about joining a running club is there’s a decent chance it will make you faster. The simple fact is that you run harder in company. I’ve always found lone intervals a dispiriting business, often descending into a vague fartlek. But club track sessions are inescapably brutal. On a recent Tuesday night I turned up to mingle and stretch as the coach read out the scheduled session: 8 x 400m, with short recoveries; 3 minutes’ rest, then another 8 x 400m. All at 5K pace. There’s no way on God’s green earth I’d even conceive of this on my own. But on club night, with that heady mix of resignation and fortitude, I launch into the first rep. An early lesson I learned in my new club life is to not set off too fast, to pace myself throughout the session. But the group dynamic is such that I suspect everyone is running faster than their 5K pace. I certainly am, but I’m just about holding up in the middle of the B group. There’s a glorious simplicity to it, lapping away under the floodlights, fixing my eyes on the vest in front. It hurts, but there’s a feeling of drama every time you flow into the home straight for the last 100m, finishing those mini races that spring up within reps. By the last of the first set my pace is fading, my legs are heavy and my breathing laboured as we begin the recovery lap between sets.
Everyone is fairly chatty, talking about the dangers of starting too fast, laughing at the fact that everyone is running harder than their 5K pace. Most of my group are gnarly veteran blokes, but there are some younger women, too. I confess to fantasising that I’m in Oslo’s Bislett Stadium, under the lights, as the crowd slaps the hoardings. Like me, a lot of the people here are training for an autumn marathon. They all agree these sessions are like gold dust. I am often humbled by how hard other people work – one lad with a lovely, smooth style tells me he initially found sessions so hard he used to get physically sick with nerves before them. On another evening, a runner in the group pulled up midway through a tough session; he decided this was necessary because he was losing his vision mid-rep!
The second set is a struggle through cumulative fatigue. This is the real work right here. I’m fading, slipping to the back of the group. Runners I spent the first set motoring past are disappearing into the distance. I reckon it’s the years of long intervals and hills and cross-country they have in their legs. To me, any session like this is still a novelty. My laps, endured in 100m segments in my mind, are slowing. After each rep I career into the infield, my breathing short, sharp and greedy.
There’s an air of giggly anticipation before the last lap and everyone sprints off into an unashamed tearup. I’m near the back and amazed how quickly some of the older fellas are going. It’s inspiring, fun and tough. By the end I’ve covered around four miles at approximately 5:40min/mile pace and the pain has rinsed my psyche clean. I feel light, fantastic. I even join the Pilates warm-down. Unprecedented behaviour. Further proof that joining a club will stretch you in ways you never thought possible.