The Week of Excessive Sport, oh how it went on. Just two days after my Eventing challenge, I’d reached my penultimate Olympic discipline – the Olympics’ sexy discipline and probably not coincidentally, that of my teenage self’s nightmares – Athletics.
You’ll remember of course how I should have struck this discipline off the list back in April, but had suffered my very own Paula Radcliffe moment. No, not defecating in public – I refer to the shattering of my own Olympic dreams and quite possibly part of my right leg, causing me to pull out of the London Marathon.
The irony here is that I was the fittest I’d ever been in my life and probably as well placed as I’ll ever be to run a marathon, in April. But by this point in late August, I was nervous about Athletics because of the running element, and the degree of fitness required. Given how demob happy I was, by this stage, and the increasing amount of time I’d been spending in pubs/not training for my triathlon, I feared I wouldn’t be up to much.
At the time, I think I said something stupid like I’d run a marathon in 2014, but I must be honest with you, the chances of this seem slim, now. My reasons for this are twofold: 1. The Virgin London Marathon won’t let me have my deferred place because I missed their deadline. 2. I really don’t like running.
I’d had other plans, along the way. I’d wanted to participate in a sports day being held by SPAT, a truly awesome charity which uses sport to enhance the physical and mental wellbeing of homeless and disadvantaged young people. Alas the stars didn’t align and I’d had to get on with it in order to meet my arbitrary deadline. It’s a shame really, as I’d felt some affinity with what they were doing. No, I’m neither young, nor homeless or disadvantaged, but I could relate to using sport as a means of empowering oneself.
To be honest, I was in a bit of a funny place, going into this project. About to turn 30, knocking around with some self-involved ne’erdowell of an object of my affections, stuck in a job I felt increasingly frustrated by and generally speaking, not facing up to the reality of some life events that had left me a bit battered. The general sense of malaise was probably one of the major reasons for actually bothering with all this, in the first place. Sure, there have been other variables at play over the last year, but by this point in the project I was quite literally transformed. For the first time in my adult life I felt confident about my body, about putting myself out of my comfort zone and trying new things and the sense of achievement was incredible.
But it wasn’t just all of that stuff that you get from taking on a challenge or my, at best, tenuous assertions about being Sasha Fierce; it’s those ruddy endorphins – an actual proper scientific thing. I felt, you know, happy, for the first time in a long while. Another way sport can genuinely change lives and why I’m actually still doing it, two months on.
So with I’m Every Woman ringing in my ears and a tear of joy in my eye (neither of these things actually happened) I dragged medal table alumna, Nicola, along with me to Newham & Essex Beagles Athletics Club, a play date kindly arranged for me by sprints coach Coral Nourrice, of the Newham Athletics Network.
Unbeknownst to me, Newham Beagles has some pedigree, having spawned athletics stars such as Mo Farrah, Christine Ohuruogu and Robbie Grabarz, to name a few. Whilst these guys don’t train at the club much any more, there’s no shortage of membership in the local teenagers – the club is heaving on this sunny evening, during the summer holidays no less. Nicola and I take a moment to ponder this productive use of time and I concede that there is absolutely no way I would have been persuaded to participate in such healthy pursuits outside of school, at this age. “No love”, Nicola agrees, “We made different life choices – choices that involved cider”.
To start off with, Coral sends us off for a quick jog around the track, and neither of us cough up any vital organs, which is a reassuring start. Then there’s some fairly serious stretching (she’s very strict about this, and with good reason it seems, two days later when I can’t move my limbs) before we join some of the kids doing a sprint relay. Technically, I think Nicola’s team wins this, but I don’t necessarily think that’s because Nicola herself was faster than me, though maybe her team is a little better than mine. We stay with the group for some circuit training, which I secretly think will be easy, on the strength that Nicola and I used to attend a circuits class about two years ago. Suffice to say, it isn’t.
I ask Coral about the chances of success among these kids – are there any future Mo Farrahs here this evening? Some of them have got a good shot, she says, but clearly not everyone can reach that level. So why do they keep coming, I wonder? Quite simply, she tells me, because they believe they will.
The London Borough of Newham was the home to the London 2012 Olympics, really, hosting the Olympic Park and the Stadium itself. It is also, according to some definitions, the second most deprived local authority area in the country, which, as I touched on in my post about BMX racing, led to some cynicism about investment in the Olympics. It’s almost certainly quite reasonable to be cynical about these things, but it’s also worth bearing in mind that there are considerably worse things for a teenager in Newham, as in many other places, to be getting up to of an evening. So it’s hard to feel cynical about something that may have inspired these kids to spend their time here, instead.
Nicola and I head across the track to have a crack at the long jump. As I recall, this is the only athletics event I was even remotely good at, as a child. We have a couple of tries each, and it’s fair to say that I am consistently better than Nicola, who I am also a good four inches taller than. Though at one stage she lands in my footprints and on her last attempt she comes very close to matching my personal best, scientifically marked by a stray Snickers’ wrapper, but she falls back on her hands rendering it useless. I’ll be honest, I take some pleasure in beating her in this event, but it’s fair to say we’re some way off the seven metres or so that an ACTUAL OLYMPIAN would manage.
Our final event is the 100m sprint and I feel quietly confident now, but Nicola is outrunning me, at least for the first 50m. 100m seems longer to me than it probably ought to, and it take us double the amount of time it would take world record holder and all round-irritant, Usain Bolt (that thing he does with his arms – it’s not even cool when he does it, it’s CERTAINLY not cool when you do it) to cross the finish line. In this time, I catch Nicola up and the result is what can only really be described as a thrilling, photo finish. It’s thrilling in an underwhelming way, given the time, and I fear we may both be sick, but it’s absolutely impossible to call it.
What is more surprising about the fact that I could challenge for the Gold medal in this discipline, is that we genuinely had a laugh participating in this (it’s those endorphins, you know). But I’m not going to challenge for it, I’m just going to share it with my dear pal Nicola, who really has been a ruddy good sport over the course of this project, and fully deserving of her place riding high (though controversially one place behind Uncle Becky) on the medal table.
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