There are many things that can drive an athlete. Things that push him to his absolute limits to make him give it everything he’s got. It can be pride, glory and a yearning for self-fulfilment. In my case this past Sunday, it was that Sky Sports created a logistical nightmare by shifting Middlesbrough’s game to an early Sunday afternoon kick-off, meaning I had to bomb round Redcar sea front as fast as possible if I was to harbour any faint hope of getting to the match on time. Luckily, I thrive on pressure. Wait…no I don’t. I do the opposite of that. Shrivel? Wither? Recede? That makes me sound like a dandelion that’s been hit with a heavy dose of Weedol. Or male genitalia exposed to extreme low temperatures.
Regular running chum Matthew Jones and I rolled into Redcar early on Sunday morning to find that it was quite chilly and very foggy. Clearly it was exactly 100 years to the day since the townsfolk caused a clipper ship of lepers to fatally run aground off the coast of Redcar, and now the sprits of the dead had returned to seek vengeance on the town, their horrific deeds masked by an unearthly fog. Clearly.
On arriving at the starting area we were greeted with a rare sight – an abundance of Portaloos and no queue. What’s more, they were flush with toilet rolls. My bog had four! FOUR! It’s the runners’ equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. I had to fight the urge to celebrate by wrapping myself in one and staggering out like Boris Karloff’s The Mummy for comedic purposes. But I controlled myself, and we instead duly headed indoors to try and keep warm alongside several hundred-thousand-million other people huddled into ‘Tuned In!’ I should clarify; ‘Tuned In!’ is a building. I don’t know what it does (preliminary research indicates youth activities) because it is part of the irritating modern phenomena of giving new buildings stupid and ambiguous names. Like ‘Palace Hub’, also in Redcar. Or indeed, any building called ‘hub’ with its pretentious allusions to collaborative innovation. There’s got to be a better synonym for a creative centre. Let’s have a look at the thesaurus…bull’s eye? YEAH! One ‘undred and eeeeeeeeeeeightyyyyyyyyyyyy! You’ve got the time it takes the board to revolve to come up with a cutting-edge business concept, Pascal.
After a while we again braved the fog and went for a brief warm up jog before heading to the starting pen. Now, I was on a tight schedule here: the race started at 10am and the match kicked-off at 1.15pm. It was, as Paul Daniels used to say, a case of ‘every second counts’. Which made it slightly infuriating when the start was seemingly about as organised as an impromptu ferret orgy. There was a 5k race, a wheelchair race and the half-marathon, all scheduled to start within 5 minutes of each other. Something had to give. Besides my patience. As we waited for the commencement hooter to sound, I did at least have the opportunity to marvel at the hair sprouting from the ear of a fellow participant. Both spectacular and repugnant, frankly, it looked like a sea anemone. I wish I’d had the ability to take a picture. But then, several minutes late and with muttered cries of ‘Is that us?’ and ‘Are we off?’ and ‘It looks like something out of the Sea-Life centre!’, we were off!
Naturally, almost the instant the race started the fog lifted to reveal a still and unseasonably warm day. Although I wasn’t complaining, as Redcar is frequently home to a biting, punishing wind that I had no desire to expose myself to for 13.1 miles. The route breaks up nicely into four ‘quarters’, the first of which heads up and out of Redcar towards the steelworks – a particularly poignant part of the route given the very recent mothballing of the plant and likely loss of some 1,700 jobs. Although I do not pretend to be a Teesside native by birth, nor do I have family who rely on the steelworks for their livelihood, I know what steelmaking means to the people of Teesside. It’s not easy running with a lump in your throat.
The upside of the first few miles being on a gradual incline is that at the first turn, the next four are all downhill. I’d not set off hoping for a new PB, as that seemed highly unlikely given my exploits at last week’s Scottish Half Marathon. But early pace was good. Eerily good. Out-of-body-experience-because-you-actually-collapsed-and-fell-unconscious-at-the-first-mile-marker good. The route causes you to double-back across the start line and head out of Redcar in the opposite direction to how you set off, and as I did so I felt comfortable at around a pace of 7 minutes and 15 seconds per mile. By mile 9 though, I began to flag a bit. The pace was still decent but the doubts began to creep in and the ol’ inner monologue began to chip in with a few negative musings – the words ‘passing out’, ‘chronic dehydration’ and ‘dying by that ice-cream van’ might have been muttered. However, just after the 10th mile the course doubles-back on itself again and I’m heading home. With a slight breeze in my face, I perked up.
Redcar’s Vertical Pier is a somewhat divisive structure, but as it loomed into view to indicate the end was in sight, I could’ve kissed it. But I would add that this is the 4th time I’ve done this particular race, and I flew down the coast road it was easily the best I’d felt at that stage of the course. However, I did almost take a lifeboat to the face. A touch of miscommunication almost led to a large, orange, RNLI dinghy being wheeled out directly in front of me. Only a last-minute, panicked, incomprehensible shout/cry/scream from the one of the lifeboat men prevented it from being rumbled into my path as they sought a gap in the runners to wheel it back into its boat-garage-parking-thing. There must be a name for those… boathouse, Ben, boathouse. Idiot.
A short while later and the finish was in sight. An undignified sprint past a couple running together saw me home in a new half-marathon PB (muh?!) of 1 hour 34 minutes and 58 seconds. Where were you when Taylorson went sub-1:35?!
The first part of Operation: Get To The Footy had gone well. Now to find Jones (check!), grab a goody bag (check!) complete with medal (check!), then a t-shirt (check!) and…an apple (ok?) before heading back to the car, over the wasteland that was the site of the former leisure centre that previously housed the Redcar Half Marathon starting/finishing arrangements, before stupid Tuned In! was constructed. Ah, memories.
And as everyone likes a story with a happy ending: I made it to the football on time in the end. Which was a good job, as Middlesbrough scored in only the 3rd minute of the game before going on to beat Leeds 3-0. To celebrate, I treated myself to a quarter-pounder from a burger van after the match. With cheese and extra fried onions. Or ‘an athlete’s special’ as it’s known. By me.