Tonky Talk

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents - BY PAUL TONKINSON

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!’

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