Stickless at the White Peak Marathon.
Picture by Margaret Ehrenberg
"If you'd like, you could try my kit."
I fiddled with a cooling mug of tea.
"Go on, it might be interesting."
It was very kind of her to take me under her wing. I would never have managed the race that summer without her expert help. It was also preposterous. Heart rate monitors and speed and distance monitors were things that happened to other people. It was also hard to say no.
"Ok, yes then, lets give it a try."
She bounced upstairs to find the hardware. After the race last summer she had invited me over, offered to give me some tips. It was very kind of her to bother with me at all. It was absurd. She was an excellent runner of many years' experience. I never would be. But to say no would be ungrateful after all her encouragement.
I watched as she explained the equipment, taking in nothing. As a life member of the baggy shorts and T-shirt brigade, I don't do heart-rate monitors. Explanations concluded and not understood, she strapped it on. I stood feeling like a horse unused to the cinch while she pulled it tight. "There, that should do, can you still breathe?"
My heart did a few loops and rolls and then steadied. Yes, I was still breathing, and, as recorded, my heart was still beating too. Quite fast, considering I was standing still.
We trotted to the park talking about the race that summer and what I might undertake as an encore. She would help me a bit with technique, and introduce me to the basics of speedwork. Speedwork. That is against the principles of the baggy shorts brigade. We don't do speedwork. Never mind, it will do no harm to learn about it.
We got to the park, and the lesson began. On a 50-metre stretch, just practising the basics.
"Lean forward a bit, that's it. Try it again." "Think about your arms. Don't tense up." Each separate suggestion was rehearsed several times. Those 50-metre stretches began to add up, particularly as most were run at a pace I hadn't even thought about since secondary school. Finally we stopped to rest before starting the speedwork. My legs were already shaking.
The proposed course was the perimeter of the cricket pitch. It didn't look too intimidating. Even shaking legs could get round it. I felt confident of that. She explained it to me: we were going to do five intervals, with three-minute recoveries. The aim was to run it exactly the same all five times.
5-4-3-2-1 go! This isn't hard. I can do this. Well, maybe it's not so easy. Well, maybe I shouldn't have started so fast. Slow a bit. That's better.
Rest. I can do this.
Go! This time I set off more conservatively but even so, by the end I am very glad it is the end!
Go! Even the more conservative pace is evidently rash. Wayward legs require deliberate attention.
Go! Muscles refuse, the ground bucks and the grass and the sky merge. Just keep going, and don't forget to press the button at the end.
That would have to do. The world only slowly came back into focus. We trotted slowly back through the park. Even that did not feel easy. I noted with academic interest that my heart rate, having scaled the heights, was reluctant to come down.
Unstrapped, jug of squash in hand, I sat at the table. She settled to her calculations. "Would you like to see the print-out?" Yes. Curiosity seeped past my defences.
"There. That's the first rep. Average speed 7:38 minute miling."
Well that's very nice, I thought, that's... very...
She continued to explain but I wasn't listening.
I was standing on the edge of a precipice, watching my excuses crumble, fall away beneath my feet to unseen depths below. These old and tangled legs have 7:38-minute miling in them, with hardly a stroke of real training. I've not given them a chance. I've not given me a chance. What am I not going to achieve simply because I haven't tried?
7:38 minute miling. It was a gauntlet thrown down. I could turn my back on the evidence, tell myself very loudly that I was doing very well to be running at all. Or I could pick it up and accept the challenge. What would happen if I tried? The excuses stood exposed as excuses. I could choose to try or not, but it would be a choice. Throughout the long train ride home I stared at the countryside unseeing. Did I dare try? Did I dare not try?
I tried. I am still trying. Speedwork is now a regular feature, mileage has increased, I enjoy splashing through the woods in my best lycra. Have I achieved steady 8-minute miling? No, not even 9-minute miling. Too much of the rough and unpredictable in life comes between my trainers and me.
But I try. Therein lies strong magic, strong enough to enable a middle-aged lady to look in the mirror and see an athlete. The transformation is in the effort. That's enduring triumph.
Stickless's story is one of an occasional series of real-life success stories that we are publishing on the website. If you have a story to share that could inspire others, why not read our guidelines for submission, and get in touch?