"How’s the training going?"
It’s the first thing they ask me, nowadays. That’ll teach me to shoot my mouth off in pubs about the Trans 333.
Fordham has the right idea. He refuses to disclose whether or not he’s doing a race until he turns up at the start. In fact, he ran the first 10 miles of the Sierre-Zinal mountain race under provisional plates, before formally ‘coming out’ as a competitor.
Some might say his circumspection borders on the psychotic. I might have said so myself, six months ago. But the non-returnable air tickets to Niger arrived this week, and the Trans 333 suddenly seems horribly real. I just wish that, like Fordham, I could play my cards so close to my chest I’d risk severing my spinal cord.
But I can’t. I’m a natural braggart. I can’t resist boring friends, family and colleagues for months about my forthcoming escapades. Like Mister Toad, you’ll find me leaning against the bar in some smoky hostelry, my burgeoning belly straining the buttons on my (metaphorical) canary-coloured waistcoat while I hold forth upon the agonies of running up and down sand dunes and the dangers posed by scorpions.
Why do I do it? Well, partly because I have an unquenchable curiosity as to the extent of my own folly. Am I really about to embark upon a 333-kilometre non-stop race across the Sahara? I who was once voted by his peers ‘Man Least Likely To Make 30’?
But it’s also because the more I show off, the less feasible it becomes for me to bottle out. Every drunken monologue, every verbally-incontinent e-mail, every column in RUNNER’S WORLD, commits me more deeply to this unthinkable madness. All that can save me now is a Blighty – a running injury so persistent and deep-seated that the Trans 333 would be entirely out of the question.
Such an injury would have to be almost too ghastly to contemplate – you may recall that I ran the Marathon des Sables with three broken ribs.
However, this week I really thought I’d hit pay dirt. On Sunday, I clambered arthritically aboard a docile old horse with a Roman nose and a marked disinclination to move at any pace more taxing than a ruminative stroll.
The second my generous backside connected with his saddle, he was transformed into a wild, unbroken stallion of the type mounted by cowboys for prize money in Wild West rodeos. I was catapulted in a soaring parabola, and connected with the ground with a bone-crushing finality.
Eventually I realised that I wasn’t dead. But I’d juggled my vertebrae like the black-cat bones in a shaman’s pouch and wrenched every muscle in my body.
Eerily, I was able to run the seven miles into work the next day. But on Tuesday I was virtually fossilised. Result! One of the handful of honourable excuses the gods dole out had miraculously landed in my lap.
On Wednesday, it was abruptly snatched away from me. I woke with the lark to find myself in perfect working order. I sprang out of bed, performed some desultory stretches – and set off for Goodwood on the Ducati that is attached by bonds of titanium to my soul.
Later, as I thundered down the back straight at 125mph, the front wheel bearings collapsed. The wheel might so easily have seized, hurling me over the bars in the Hollywood version of my horse-riding mishap. No such luck. I clattered to a dignified halt, and walked unscathed back to the pits.
"Someone’s trying to tell you something," my wife observed, darkly. You bet they bloody are, thought I.
They’re telling me that, try as I might, they’re not going to let me wriggle out of the sodding Trans 333.