For months I’ve been waxing lyrical about volunteer, marshals, pacers and race directors, all those good sorts who give up their day (and often a lot more besides) to make it possible for us selfish runners to do our thing, and making grand pronouncements about doing my stint one day. So when the call went out to the Clapham Chasers Facebook forum for people to help run our annual race, the Thames Riverside 20, I’d sort of run out of reasons not to.
Since my role at the Monday social runs has gone from struggling backmarker to regular pacer and novice group leader, it seemed like a natural progression to offering my services as a pacer for the 9:30 group. I’ve got to admit, this was another one of those things that I merrily signed up for with my worry-about-the-details later head, and felt fine about, until my details-and-doubt head started to ask questions. Like: Jaz, are you sure you can maintain a steady pace for twenty miles? Your Garmin readouts look like Pinocchio’s lie detector test, and other people are relying on you now. Can you even run twenty miles at 9:30mm? The last time you did that you couldn’t walk for a week. You’ve got a race every single weekend for five weeks. Are you sure you won’t crash at mile 16 like you usually do? It’s an 8am start, the day after QPR v Spurs. Since when have you been a morning person, let alone after a home game?
Thanks, doubt brain. The very definition of a self fulfilling prophecy, I got about four hours’ sleep on the Saturday night, and what little sleep I did get was punctuated with anxiety dreams about waking up late and missing the start or losing all my kit or fucking it all up. The one saving grace was that I would be paired with Cat, stalwart of the trail club and Monday night social run, a lady well used to picking up after me when I fell to pieces.
Mildly surprised to discover that there was more than one six o’clock on a Sunday, I got to Fulham Palace Park just as the birds were waking up and spent some of my nervous energy helping the HQ set-up team, until Sham told me off for getting underfoot and I had to find another way to amuse myself. Eventually we got our briefing – “Run at your pace. Run at exactly your pace. Don’t stop for anything.” – and lined up for the off. The pace groups were set at half minute intervals from sub 7:00mm to 10:00mm and would set off in ascending order with two minutes between each start, so Cat and I had a good twelve minutes to piss around dancing jigs and taking silly photos. Ok, not Cat. Just me.
I never get bored of the riverside, or how lucky I am to live so near the Thames path. When we finally got our starters orders the first half mile took us over Putney Bridge to the south bank, and we all marvelled at the sight of the tranquil river in the hazy spring morning. The first sign of the tireless support we would receive was just on the other side of the bridge, fellow Chasers Alex and Frankie cheering like loons as Sunday morning strollers and Saturday night walk-of-shamers looked wryly on. I’m sure everyone who passed us thought they and they alone were the sane ones.
Our group was only about twenty people to begin with, a mixture of experienced runners and first time marathoners on their last long run before London or Paris. For most people, today’s run was the long run in their training schedule and for some it would be the longest they’d ever run before. For all the pressure that piled on us as pacers, it was actually a huge privilege to be helping someone towards such a significant milestone. To me, the Thames path means spring and summer long runs and marathon prep with my mum, so it’s seen a lot of milestones passed in my running career already; I love that it now has a whole new layer of meaning to me. I loved hearing that mixture of trepidation and resolve in the first timers with us; they all joked that they didn’t know if they’d make the finish, but their eyes said quite the opposite.
Joking about the first timers making it to the end was something of a front for my own worries about being able to finish. I normally run to effort; I’ve never run at such a consistent pace before, not even on flat ground. Only eight days after another attempt at the Moonlight Challenge, my thighs were sore and hamstrings nowhere near loosening up as we saw the front runners pass us going the other way around mile 7 (or mile 13 to them). They looked so strong, and I still didn’t have a rhythm or another gear to move up to if I’d needed it. I mean, the whole point was I wasn’t meant to need it, but I’m not used to running with basically no margin for error. I concentrated on making sure the Garmin stayed happy and tried to pretend I didn’t want to stop and stick my face in a bowl of ice cream.
Then I saw something that was both heartbreaking and which spurred me on. At the third water station in Richmond, just before the 10 mile turnaround point, there was Diana – trail club regular, tough as nails diminutive Latvian lightning streak who has gone from strength to strength this last year – folded up in a sorry looking little bundle on the ground. Having been cruising along in the 8mm pacing group and feeling fresh as a daisy, apparently she had felt her hamstring go twang (luckily not too far from the aid station) and that was that. It was gutting to see her like that, grimacing not so much with pain but with frustration. I had to resist the temptation to dart out and give her a hug, check she was ok, but of course she was already in the safest hands possible. Besides, this was not my race – the most useful thing we could do at this point was keep our group at a steady pace and make sure there weren’t any other blowouts.
Thankfully the next sign of life we saw was the turnaround point, with an exuberant Naomi dancing and singing at the hairpin bend. Seeing her meant that we were past halfway, that there was always less left than we’d already done, and that we were technically on the home straight. Being the second to last group it occurred to me that she must have been keeping up her energetic little jig for AGES. I’d definitely rather run for three hours than dance and be cheerful for three hours. What a ledge.
One thing I always forget about the towpath is just how stony it is in places, even though I think of it as a relatively low impact surface compared with road running or flat compared with trails. It’s hardly time for the Hokas, but around Kew Gardens on the return journey I was starting to feel real soreness in my toe joints and became aware of just how hard I was having to work not to turn an ankle. It’s brilliant for training on, but not as fast a racing course as you might think. I realised that for the first time since Istanbul I was seriously pushing myself just to maintain the pace. I have so much fun when I’m out on trails – no weight of expectation, no sense of chore or effort, beautiful scenery to drift off into – there’s a distinct possibility that I’ve become a lazy bastard.
We had started to lose a couple of our group by now, some because they were gently ramping up the pace and leaving us behind, others unable to keep up. The closer we got to the rowing clubs at Putney, the fewer in number we became. It’s hard to resist the temptation to drop back and keep the stragglers company – as hard as it is not to open up the throttle as Putney Bridge loomed into view – but the reward for consistency soon became obvious as two of the group, first timers who had only ever done eighteen miles before, celebrated their furthest distance at mile 19, high fived us, then asked permission to go on ahead. I’ve never heard anything so charming in a race; someone asking permission to go faster. And as Cat and I reached the bridge, we found ourselves totally alone.
I couldn’t resist challenging her to a sprint finish at the entrance of the park, since it didn’t matter any more, just so I could do my Mo Farah impression. I hit my Garmin as I crossed the line, but I already knew what my time was and straightaway went to find Diana for the hug I’d been saving for her. It felt weird not to have to check for my chip time or placing. It felt weirder still not to have my hear bursting from my ribcage at the end of a race. Is this what consistent pacing feels like?
I learned new metrics for judging success that day: it came in the form of pride in a stranger’s achievements; in joy at seeing our average pace over the twenty miles was 9:29 minutes per mile, bang on target, not too fast; in finishing twenty miles without succumbing once to the temptation to walk, and still feeling like I had a strong final 10k in me; and in knowing I did my best without letting anyone down. It wasn’t a PB, or a podium finish – I didn’t even get a bloody medal. It was just a job well done.