Although I often say that I started running in 2011, that’s not strictly true. Not in the sense that I never ran ever before in my life before then; in the sense that I did almost have a running career that for one reason or another stalled, before becoming the lean mean long-distance waddling machine I am now.
My first memory of running is a cross country race in my first year at primary school. I remember being dead excited about the race for weeks, right up until the day before when my teacher explained that we would have our numbers pinned to our chests. Don’t ask me why, but my charmingly literal and slightly morbid five year old brain assumed that meant drawing pins, and that they intended to push the pin straight into our skin. Nightmares about gasping for breath with drawing pins embedded in my lungs, blood spurting all over the field and children dropping dead before they reach the finish line punctuated the night before the race. Still though, I didn’t feel as bad then as I did the next morning, when they safety-pinned numbers to our vests and nobody died and I felt like a div. I think I must have seen the video for The Wall a few too many times.
Fast forward about eight years, and I ended up somehow representing my school in a national athletics tournament. We’d moved to Northern Cyprus by this stage so this wasn’t as prestigious a moment as it might sound, but it was still the only thing I really enjoyed about that school and I threw myself into it headlong, trying out for literally every athletics event. I regularly aced the practice sessions for track, comfortably leading the long runs if for no other reason than I was the only student who took it seriously, but it became clear that I suffered crippling stage fright whenever anyone was watching me (not to mention collapsing from heatstroke pretty much once a week). So, with the national schools athletics meet coming up I was picked only as an honorary third choice entry for the 800m, knowing that there was almost no chance of me competing.
That is, until about 5 minutes before the event when I was sulking at the far end of the stadium watching everyone else having fun, and I heard my name crackling over the tannoy. I sprinted round to the start, heart pounding in my ears, just in time to line up and wearing only a cotton t-shirt and shorts. The gun fired, the heavens opened in biblical proportions, I wobbled around one lap and blacked out, drenched. I was not popular.
So having decided I would never never run again, I eventually ended up in one of the least active jobs I could find manning the stage door of a theatre (read: sitting on your arse for 8 hours a day without even a break for lunch to get up and walk around). By the age of 20 I’d put on about three stone and cut my hair short. My dad started calling me Liza Minelli.
Living back in Bromley by this stage, I started rifling through my mum’s old 80s exercise tapes which I could do when everyone was out. They didn’t seem to be making any difference and I felt like a massive twat even without the leotard. So one October day I decided I might as well walk the mile to the supermarket and combine a bit of exercise with a practical achievement.
Walking up the steep hill to Locksbottom, I passed what appeared to be a man of retirement age running down the hill. I had to stop and watch him. Although he wasn’t fast, his form was effortless, easygoing and he didn’t seem to be panting or straining. Most remarkably though, he was wearing just an old pair of running shoes and some shorts that Kevin Keegan would have been proud of, and that was it.
It turns out this was Dr James Gilson, who would later (unwittingly) become a local hero dubbed the Running Man. He regularly ran between 3-5 miles, always in his shorts and nothing else. I made a habit of my walks, finding the running man all over Bromley and Petts Wood, gliding over the ground like a wizard. Inspired by him to upgrade my stroll to a jog, soon enough I was less Liza Minelli and more Liz McColgan. Well, sort of.
So finding a Facebook page dedicated to him nearly ten years later was both a little surreal and completely brilliant at the same time. All the messages from people who he had similarly inspired, all the sightings keenly reported like a celebrity gossip column, a guest spot starting the 2013 Petts Wood 10k: it was obvious that he was loved. And when he sadly passed away earlier this year, it took almost no time for rumours about a memorial race to circulate and gather pace, and an incredible 2 months to turn those rumours into a race.
That’s how Mum and I found ourselves at the Petts Wood Royal British Legion at 9am on Sunday 29th June, not fully sure of the distance or the course, whether the race would be a one off or a regular fixture, but knowing this was the sort of race where details like that wouldn’t matter. The organisers, headed up by Petts Wood Runners’ indomitable Donna Carroll, had done a cracking job in pulling together race numbers, engraved finishers medals, volunteer marshals and refreshments, not to mention an Aladdin’s cave of raffle prizes donated by local businesses – all through the power of social media and a supportive running community. The £5 entry fee, donations and proceeds from the raffle and refreshment sales would all go to St Johns Ambulance and Cancer Research UK, and with photos of James everywhere and his family at the starting line there was no doubt as to why we were all here – to say thank you.
The course was based on one of his training routes – starting on Frankswood Green (ironically next to St James’ Church), we heard a few words of tribute from his daughters, who explained with amusement that he wasn’t even aware of his celebrity status, before the starting pistol fired and off we went down Southborough Lane. I decided to run at my own pace rather than run together with mum this time; a decision I was uneasy about to begin with but I had lost a stone and a half since my last race and wanted to find I just how much I had improved. Turning left at Parkfield Way, the first mile or so of road turned into the Parkfield Rec and Richmal Crompton Fields, a beautiful and knee-friendly cross country stretch which took us around the golf course and past two schools. By this time the sun was high, the sky was clear and with such a relaxed atmosphere I couldn’t help but smile all the way round.
As we turned back onto the roads and into PWR territory I started to recognise more of the marshals, including the marvellous Anne Dunstan who has been so helpful to my mum and the beginner runners and kept our spirits high during the washed out Petts Wood 10k last October. The route wound around the residential streets, silent but for the sound of feet rhythmically hitting the ground on a sleepy Sunday morning, until the curve of Crescent Drive led us back to Queensway and the finishing straight back to the British Legion. The eggiest moment was a couple of hundred yards from the end, where we had to cross the busy high street to get to the finishing line, but with the help of the marshals and the throng of supporters I was over the line with a medal round my neck before I could even say green cross code.
Selfish as it is, I’m glad I decided to run at my own pace. For the first time in two years, I comfortably averaged a pace of 8:34 to finish the 3.4 miles in 28:51, and suddenly I realised quite how much I’d improved since April’s Brighton Marathon. Obviously the races themselves aren’t really comparable, but having not timed myself since then or had much opportunity to train due to work commitments, I’d lost a minute per mile average pace over the distance simply by losing weight and drinking a few less gins. How could that have so much effect? Try running with 18 pounds in a backpack, then imagine that weight not safely strapped to your back but instead wrapped around your thighs, belly and chest. All because of the football season summer break. Damn you, QPR.
In fact I was feeling so good I ran back along the course until I found mum just 5 minutes behind me, and together we ran the last stretch eyeballs out. Both proudly showing off our medals, we went to the finishing straight to cheer in the remaining finishers including two of James’ daughters and all manner of people aged between 6 and 60, all having immense fun. There was no competition involved (apart from the Lookalike Award, which sadly I did not win), just a fitting tribute to an inspirational man. Donna and the organising team had nailed it.
Mum and I hung around for the raffle giveaway at the end, but half an hour later Donna was still handing out spot prizes (an indication of just how many prizes had been donated) and we had to give up and go home. To all intents and purposes the race was knocked together as a tribute and not expected to be anything more than a one-off, but the prevailing feeling was “we’re doing this again next year, right?”. God I hope so.