Paul basks in another summer of love
What an incredible summer it’s been. The sun beat down as if it had a personal beef with everyone it shone on. From open windows came gasps and groans as the England football team reached the semi-final of the World Cup. Flags fluttered as the English among us gradually lost our hearts to those happy warriors and the waistcoated wizard who led them – Southgate! We marvelled as he invited us to ‘own the process’. We listened carefully as he urged us to ‘ write a new story’. We gathered in pubs, front rooms and gardens around the country, transfixed by the tantalising possibility of reaching only a second World Cup final. After five minutes, Trippier scored and the country roared. But as the match went on, our control and our lead slipped away. The next day, as if in mourning, the sun retreated behind the clouds. Had it come, like Trippier’s goal, too early? Turns out, no. A week later it was back.
Politically, there was mischief afoot. We had been let down by the powers that be, our entreaties ignored. Last-minute appeals to a distant authority were rebuffed. A no-deal scenario seemed inevitable. I’m referring, of course, to the London Heathside Club Handicap, in Highgate Woods.
The idea of a handicap race is that all participants set off at different times based on their projected ability – slower runners first, fastest last – so that if everyone is honest about their potential, all runners should finish at roughly the same time. When I submitted my projected finish I gave my time from my most recent 5K, almost two minutes shy of my PB. This put me halfway down the field, setting off about nine minutes after the first runners. As I chatted to volunteers on race evening, it turned out the dropout rate had been high – a suspicious number of entrants seemed to have a hamstring strain. And there were mutterings about people lying on the form and how the handicap favoured the slower runners.
There were glitches. Trevor, for instance, is faster than I am at the moment but set off 30 seconds before me. Another runner approached me, wild-eyed. He’s a good minute slower than I am over 5K and yet was setting off after me. There’d been a terrible mistake, but it was too late. I was summoned to the start and, with a wave at the runners who’d be chasing me, off I went.
The start was fine. I invariably surge off idiotically fast. I run here all the time, I know every nook and cranny and so I strode fairly lightly as I eyed the runners ahead. After only a couple of minutes it became apparent that the gap between me and the runners in front was stubbornly static, if not extending slightly. Half a minute later came the pitter-patter of steps behind me and – whoosh! – I was overtaken. I drove my arms, shortened my steps, tried to focus on the vest of the runner in front of me, but the vest kept changing. A steady stream of runners seemed to be passing me.
I realised I’ve lost the desire to really push myself. I managed to catch a few runners in the second lap and even summoned a sprint finish, but my time was woeful.
But it was only when I saw the event photos on Facebook that I saw the evening for what it was. It’s a social, really; it’s about seeing people and running in the woods. My favourite photo was of the runner who’d been worried before starting. He didn’t overtake me and so I assume he finished down the field. But he didn’t seem bothered by it all – in his photo he seemed to be leaping into the air in a posture of defiant fun. As Southgate said, ‘ Let’s remember to enjoy this!’