I’m not quite sure what brought it on.
Perhaps it was turning 46 – edging towards a half century and a last chance to cling to a glimmer of youthfulness. The seed was planted by my gorgeous Kiwi friend with the toned, tanned legs and a penchant for Boot Camp.
“Come on, it will be fun!” she enthused. Fun?
I mulled it over for a few days and then an old spark of competitiveness was rekindled. Perhaps this old girl wasn’t so old after all.
We decided five kilometres would not suffice – far more challenging was to commit to 10km in the annual Bridge to Brisbane run.
There is nothing particularly profound about running a 10km race. Seasoned athletes regard the distance as a mere training run — a little jog to get the circulation going.
And it’s not as though I’ve never run the distance before. I am not, what one would call, a complete novice. I have run the distance many, many times. In fact, if I should be so bold, in ‘my running days’ I have run a lot further.
At the peak of my running years, I ran the Two Oceans ultra-marathon in Cape Town — pounded the breathtakingly beautiful (if you had any energy to actually look) scenic route for 56km. Regarded as the most picturesque ultra marathon in the world, the route follows a more or less circular route, starting in Newlands, through Muizenburg, Fish Hoek over Chapman’s Peak and Constantia Nek, eventually finishing at the University of Cape Town campus. I still have the T-shirt to prove I finished and survived to tell the tale.
I ran two marathons prior to that — and countless 10km, 5km and 21km fun runs and Executive Relays. Hardly a weekend went by when I wasn’t participating in some sort of running event. I even did the Capital Climb one year — a gruelling 15km climb from Pietermaritzburg’s City Hall to World’s View — then a fast trot down again.
But then I got married and shortly afterwards, had my first child. The lack of sleep during the ensuing years and children meant that running held about the same appeal as sticking drawing pins into my eyeballs. I still exercised, but now out of a feverish need to get babies to sleep rather than the enjoyment of a morning jog.
Over the years, I gave a half-hearted attempt to rekindle my running flame but it never quite seemed the right time to start again. So I walked instead. I had, in essence hung up my running shoes without much fanfare at all. It was simply time to call it a day.
And yet, here I was, once again, preparing to do my first race since arriving on Australian soil 13 years ago – my first race ever since a fun run some 19 years ago. And so began my haphazard training schedule. I was interested to note that where I once ran come rain or shine, middle age had turned me into a decidedly fair weather runner. Too cold — no, I’ll give it a miss today. Too hot — no way, couldn’t possibly go out in this heatwave … coffee and a chat, you asked? Yes please. I was the princess of excuses.
Weeks went by and I wasn’t exactly clocking up the mileage. But I did have a secret weapon. We live at the end of a cul-de-sac and the only way out is up a hill so steep and long it takes my little Yaris a few gear changes to reach the top. The undulating terrain thereafter means that no run is a walk in the park. There is no reprieve. I figured that running up this hill and the hillocks thereafter meant my output was at least double those training on a flat route. So when I ran 2km, I mentally doubled this distance. My maximum training run was around 3km in length but I convinced myself this was actually 6km in terms of energy expenditure.
The date loomed. I was still not that concerned as I was certain my body would remember it was once an efficient running machine. I was totally optimistic that somehow, my muscles would obligingly snap to attention and carry me the distance with ease. Compared with 56km, 10km was a breeze. This body would surely not let me down.
Apart from the scant training preparation, there was the small matter of running shorts. I hadn’t donned a pair for at least a decade and a half — was I courageous enough?
My decision to apply lashings of fake tanning lotion was partly for reasons of vanity and partly for the good of all in the race — my running partner in particular would be blinded by the reflection of my lily-white freckled pins, I reasoned. There was no way I was going to look like a reflection waiting to happen.
Politically incorrect it may be but there is no getting around it; a tan hides a multitude of sins. I cannot think of a single person who doesn’t look better with a tan other than the porcelain-skinned Nicole and a few other alabaster skinned souls.
There was a slight concern, however. The last time I had attempted to fake a tan, was while camping at Moreton Island. My beauty therapist sister-in-law had offered an all-over spray tan which looked great for approximately 10 minutes until I began to itch. I spent five sleepless nights scratching. There were enough sand flies to carry away the entire campsite but it was not the annoying bugs that were the problem, it was the fake tanning lotion. I was clearly allergic. I don’t find camping exactly comfortable at the best of times but enduring a night of scratching took it to an entirely new level of discomfort.
I had tried several brands thereafter with the same result. As insane as it may sound, I decided to take my chances and lather up. This, in spite of a friend’s rather brutal observation that it wouldn’t really matter anyway because no-one would be watching the middle aged woman with white freckly legs. She was absolutely right but vanity prevailed. I would take my chances and fake tan – and bare the consequences later.
The day dawned after a rather restless night of imagined itches and panic at not waking on time. I had forgotten how early one had to rise to get to a 6.25am start – particularly to a race attracting 45,000 runners! I had set my alarm for a ruthless 4.15am, allowing plenty of time to rendezvous with my running partner whose gracious husband had agreed to drive us to the start.
I left behind three sleeping children and a husband groaning with the body-aching effects of flu.
“Do my legs look orange?’ I asked as he raised his throbbing head to whisper goodbye. Had running turned me into a ruthless narcissist? I would address that later. Right now, there was a race to run.
Traffic was sparse as we drove through a sleepy city until we reached the outskirts and approached the start. It soon became snail pace as a steady stream of cars merged. Most carried eager beaver runners and there were the occasional bleary-eyed, bemused party goers befuddled by the uncharacteristically large flow of Sunday morning traffic.
We finally reached a point close enough to walk to the start and joined a sea of fellow runners in an assortment of outfits and sporting a variety of body types. There were plenty of freckly white legs, I noted. And they were not being herded into their own category.
Runners stretched as far as the eye could see and I noticed with some panic that the toilets had a 200m queue of runners both ways. I would take my chances and ‘knuyp’. Weak bladder would have to be disciplined. There was another rather worrying condition I had to contend with. In the past few weeks I had been grappling with the pesky remains of Guardia, a stomach bug that caused running of a different kind. I was slightly panic stricken at the thought of having to find a loo in the middle of industrial Brisbane.
Entering a race of such magnitude can be rather a let down, I discovered. There we were all dressed up (some of us tanned) and with nowhere to go, yet. We shuffled for half an hour before finally being able to break into a reasonable trot. Some new technology since I last entered a race meant that our little magnetic disk we had tied to our running shoes only activated our time as we crossed the start line.
The first few kilometres went rather smoothly, in spite of being passed by a woman at least 20 years our senior.
“She probably has the time to train,” my partner in crime reassured.
Not so assuring were the comments she relayed from a passing motor cyclist heading in the opposite direction.
“I’m sure he said ‘Go fat bottomed girls!’” exclaimed my friend breathlessly, within earshot of a passing male jogger. Perhaps he was deflecting the sexist remark or was simply a quick thinker – or perhaps my friend did indeed hear incorrectly but as he passed, the fellow runner said, “the guy on the Harley? No, he said follow the yellow brick road.”
Now I don’t know which story is correct, but someone is telling a tall story. “Fat bottomed girls” sounds nothing like “follow the yellow brick road” if you ask me.
As both of us should be so lucky to be fat bottomed girls, we ignored the comment and passed a batman lookalike and two nubile fairies complete with pink wings. We waved to a troupe of beaming women on bongo drums. A kilometre later and we encountered a group of vegetarians with a placard encouraging us all to become vegetarians – ‘It’s easier than you think. Become a vegetarian’ read one innocuous sign. I felt honoured they’d decided we were healthy candidates for their cause.
We were both faring well. So far so good. No need to walk yet. And no gurgling stomach. At the outset, we’d given ourselves the option of bailing. Well, not actually stopping, but walking. This was a fun run and we would only run as far as we were able. No more. If that meant walking the last five kilometres, so be it. We were passed the age of worrying about what others thought, weren’t we? But there was no harm in trying, was there? “Remember, if we can do five, we can do ten, I muttered breathlessly as we edged over the 5km mark.
Competitiveness prevailed and we didn’t walk, save for a few short stops at the water tables and yours truly for a few squirts of sunblock at the sunblock station – oh and a few strides up a particularly nasty incline. I commented that there were not crowds of people to cheer us on – and the area was rather industrial, save for the small stretch along the river. I noted that apart from being a fair weather runner, I had also become a fair scenery runner. My next run if there was one, would perhaps be through a forest, or a dappled glen….
We reached the 9km mark and all was well apart from increasingly painful legs. Yes, my limbs had remembered they once ran 56km at one stretch, but they were also recalling the pain. We heroically ran the last kilometre, crossing the finish line with rather little fanfare. No strains of Chariots of Fire, simply a loudspeaker voice telling us to keep moving as there were thousands others filing into the stadium behind us. But we had made it.
Later that day, showered and sated, comforting cup of tea in hand and ensconced in a comfy armchair, family fed and watered, I sent a text message to my running partner:
“Can’t walk. Legs itchy. How r you?”
She replied: “Stiff as a board but satisfied and proud we did it!”
© Lois Nicholls