On the kindness of a stranger

Half MarathonAs anyone who has been in my presence either physically or virtually over the past few weeks will be only too aware, I ran the Brighton Half Marathon at the end of February. I signed up in November and had been steadily working my way through a Runkeeper training plan, kicking myself out of bed at various ungodly times several times a week to run either east or west down Brighton seafront. Often, it was cold and dark and wet. Sometimes, I was rewarded with a spectacular sunrise over the sea, or the murmuration of the starlings above the West Pier. Most of the time, I was glad I’d gone out and subsequently able to coast on a wave of smugness for the rest of the day.

Before signing up for the race, I had run with various levels of dedication and frequency for a few years, but only as far as 5-10k. Running seemed the most appropriate form of exercise for me because it requires no skill whatsoever other than putting one foot in front of the other. I was never hugely bothered about my pace as long as I came home sweaty. But then I started getting a little bit better at the distances, and paying a little more attention to the American Runkeeper lady telling me my average pace per kilometre. In short, I became one of those people. And by the end of January I was pretty confident I could do the half in under two hours.

Then several crap things happened, by far the crappest of which was the sudden death of a very dear friend. The Runkeeper plan took a bit of a knock for a week or so. So did my liver. But exercise is a good way to lift yourself out of a slump, so one Saturday morning (a particularly grey and cold one) I gave myself a stern talking to, put my trainers on, stuffed a few energy gels in my pockets and started on a big 14-mile loop along the seafront. I ran the first 10 miles without pausing, whilst the American lady reported a pretty respectable pace of around 5:20 per kilometre. And then pretty much out of the blue, without doing anything out of the ordinary, I started feeling my right glute more than usual, and within a few minutes it was so painful I had to admit defeat and limp onto the bus home. An actual sports injury!

The next two weeks featured a lot of anxious obsessing over whether or not I’d be able to run the race, visiting an expensive physiotherapist and discussing the state of my backside with anybody who was kind enough to indulge my sudden metamorphosis into a bona fide sports wanker. The expensive physiotherapist asked me if I had been under emotional stress lately – apparently injuries often occur that way. I sacked off the American lady from Runkeeper altogether and reluctantly substituted my sub-two-hour goal with a more modest one of just making it to the finish line one way or another.

On race day I rubbed half a tube of Ibulieve into myself, popped some caffeine-laced paracetamol, queued up my playlist and waited for the start signal. I’d never run an organised race before, and the atmosphere was brilliant: 13,000 runners, lots of lovely volunteers out early on a cold Sunday in February, a great route, crowds of people cheering you on. But after about eight miles the pain nudged itself into the foreground in a nasty stabby kind of way and, not being a hugely stoical type at the best of times, I soon found myself limping along near the kerb entirely unable to envisage how I’d get through the remaining five miles. Despite kind spectators saying ‘come on love, keep going’ and other runners tapping me on the shoulder asking if I was ok, I was pretty much ready to give up.

Then out of nowhere I noticed an arm extended towards me, at the end of which was a woman who said, in a way that made it clear that ‘no thanks, I’m ok’ was not an acceptable answer, ‘come on, let’s run together’. So I switched off my playlist and started running again, beside her. Her name was Jo, she was an English teacher from Bracknell and a seasoned runner of marathons and half marathons and cross-country races both in the UK and abroad. She was running the half that day just to enjoy herself, not to get a PB, and she seemed quite happy chatting to a complete stranger. We talked pretty much non-stop for the rest of the course, with me saying at regular intervals how I could not believe that I was actually running. I was still in pain, but she somehow took my mind off it and we ran at a steady pace all the way to the end. As soon as I was over the finish line (2:07, by the way) I burst into tears. Because of her act of kindness, and the general loveliness of the other runners and people watching, and because I acutely missed my friend Hayley who would have absolutely been there cheering us on and getting drunk with us in the pub after.

If it hadn’t been for Jo’s generosity and kindness, there is no way I would have made it to the finish. I gave her a big sweaty hug after the race but forgot to take her phone number or even ask her surname. I can’t even remember which secondary school in Brighton she teaches at. If anyone knows who she is, please let me know because I would like to buy her a pint!

Oh, and my ass is a little better now thanks. I am still resting it before getting back into my running gear. Hopefully soon, because I’ve decided to go for the full marathon next year. Sub-four hours, ideally.