What a difference a day makes… 24 little hours…

26 and 27 May 2018

Wow, wow and wow.  What an epic 30+ hours this has been!

We had allowed ourselves a bit of a lie in, as the race didn’t start until 10:00, but before I knew it, it was time for me to get to the park for the start.  If only I’d checked out the route there from our apartment!  Ian had given me pretty simple directions and in my haste, I turned off too early and ended up sprinting to the start line, just in time to hear the gun go off, and see the runners start.  Thank God!!  I rushed to the other side of the track, and saw Steve running with Pat Robbins, and it was a good easy pace for them both, so I managed to say “hi” and wish them luck.

Ian and Cornelia arrived and were in the play park, so after spending some time with Craig’s Dad, Gary (who had found a great spot on a bench in the shade and said that’s where he was going to be for the next 24 hours!) I went off to find them both.  I popped my bag down by a large wooden seesaw, about two-thirds of the way around the track, to cheer on the runners as they passed.  Little did I know that this would become the spot at which I would stay for the next 24 hours!

Wow, who knew standing in the same spot for 24 hours would be so utterly extraordinary and life-changingly inspiring?!  Hour after hour after hour, I watched Team GB running past, cheering them on and trying to come up with new words of encouragement that might be of some help, rather than churning out the same (but nonetheless heartfelt) “You’re amazing!”

I don’t really know where to begin in terms of describing it all, so I’ll just blurb it all out and see how it goes…

First, the team: Steve, obviously, who we were there to support.  He got into the zone straightaway and although he was waving and smiling for the first couple of hours, he was soon in the zone and just churning out lap after lap in his usual steady way.  John (the team manager) and I were crying with laughter at about 3am, as we realised that all that goes on in Steve’s head when he runs must be “dum di dum di dum”…

Pat was running with Steve for the first bit, and waved and said hello to Cornelia every time he passed her, but was clearly having a hard time and struggled to keep going.  His vast experience of these events means that he had the wisdom to know when to call it a day, and eventually retired from the race.  More about Pat as the most generous man tomorrow.

Tracy was a machine.  She is lean and speedy and LOVED the race.  She didn’t just run her way around, she positively leapt and bounded and skipped her way around, only tiring towards the end, when she admitted to having a tough patch (which was the only time for the whole 24 hours that her spirits were dampened).   It amazed me that someone so lean could find the energy that would be needed to keep going at such a pace for such a long time, but she just did!  I loved that she was concerned that I was getting wet when we had a thunderstorm – despite all the mindgames she had to contend with, she spent some of that vital mind-energy thinking about others, which no doubt is reflected in her day-to-day life.

Ali was warm and friendly from the outset.  She smiled and double-thumbed-up every lap until she became concerned about the effect of the heat on her body.  She felt as if she couldn’t cool her core temperature, and then was needing to go to the loo loads, which consequently put her off drinking.  I can only imagine how one has to battle those demons.  Her determination to continue fighting was inspirational.  She never appeared to even think about giving up.  It was all about working out how she was going to keep going.  The heat of the day started to subside in the early evening, much to everyone’s relief, and Ali found her stride again, powering on through into the night.

Wendy was brilliant.  She is so bloody normal!  And I mean that in the most wonderful way.  Not at all self-obsessed or anything like that, that you might expect someone competing at this level to be.  She is the one I could most identify with – just a normal person who has worked her arse off to be representing Team GB.  She was really focused throughout the race, but she smiled and acknowledged us whenever she had the energy too, and seeing her smile when the daylight came around again and when she was counting down those last few hours was a highlight for me.

James Stewart is a complete legend.  Apparently, he was throwing up lap after lap after lap, but I never had any idea (until John told me much later during the race).  He smiled – no in fact, it was more than a smile – he grinned from ear to ear – every single lap I saw him.  And that is a LOT of laps!  He even started setting me questions: Is that Jupiter next to the Moon (yes, it was, as it happens)?  Which book contains the words “I hate purity / I hate goodness / I don’t want virtue to exist anywhere / I want everyone corrupt”? (1984 George Orwell, also lyrics in “Faster” by Manic Street Preachers).  Which was the first band from Liverpool to reach number one with their first three singles? (Gerry and the Pacemakers – well done John for knowing this!)  I mean, who the hell else could come up with this at 2 o’clock in the morning?!

Dan Lawson is the bloody king of these events. He sprints around at top speed, while taking the time to ask after the well-being of everyone on his team, waving furiously at Cornelia and sending his love to her, making sure she was okay.  And when he didn’t see her, he asked where she was, when was she coming back etc?  Cornelia was on epic good form, high-fiving the runners, shouting words of toddler encouragement “You look as cool as a cucumber!” “You’re amazing, keep going”, and the inevitable “Run faster!” (although that would be terrible advice, given the heat!!)  Anyway, Dan is one of the kindest and calmest souls I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.

I didn’t get to share much with James Elson or Craig Holgate, largely because they were very focused from the outset.  It wasn’t James’s day, and he pulled out after 14 hours.  Gary (Craig’s Dad) had mentioned earlier that he just gets his head down and never moves from that – just runs and runs and runs.  And he was amazing – he was clearly suffering enormously, but despite that, and despite knowing that his overall distance would not be counting towards the Team GB rankings, he battled and fought, and he bloody finished it.  He suffered the most, so far as I saw, yet he was the most inspiring example of always, always, always keep going.

I spent most of the night with a super lady, Alison Young, who is in the sister-in-law of Ali.  She had popped over to say hi, from the Team GB tent (which was about 600 metres away on the opposite side of the track to me and my seesaw!) and then she basically stayed with me and kept me company the whole time, occasionally popping off to get us coffee and snacks, and we giggled like ridiculous children half the night, as well as sharing tearful stories of loss and difficult times.  Isn’t it funny how sharing something like this creates unexpected friendships, and you open up to complete strangers?  That’s what I’ve always loved about running, and now I’ve found it again on the endurance supporting side of things, which I’ve not done before (being the supporter, as opposed to the runner!).  And drinking coffee and eating cafe biscuits at 2am felt hilariously naughty.  How things have changed!!!

In the meantime, Ian and Cornelia had headed back to the apartment, and Ian had agreed that I could stay out all night, rather than swap halfway through with him.  I was delighted with that – it had really been my hope that I would be able to do the full race from start to finish.  I met so many brilliant runners.  You end up not just cheering on your own team, but I quickly picked up several people who recognised me in the same spot, and eventually relied on me being there.  Calls of “You’re my energy” and “Please stay all night – don’t go!” made me realise how important my insignificant role was, and actually, it made me feel pretty damn good.

Other things I recall are the massive thunderstorm we had at 18:00 which was accompanied by torrential rain.  Luckily, I’d packed a raincoat.  Unluckily it turned out to be not entirely waterproof… I’d also packed a waterproof picnic mat, but it got soaked anyway, then didn’t dry overnight.  I’d also failed to pack warm clothes for the night shift, so Alison took my post for 20 minutes while I ran back to the apartment for some dry, warmer clothes for me and her.  It was surprisingly chilly during the night, and I regretted not bringing another couple of layers.  But the best way to warm up is always exercise, so I was doing squat jumps and running drills at silly o’clock, while Alison bounced on the trampoline.

Then there were the steps… oh, those terrible things!  A bridge had been built over the race track, so that children could still access the playpark in the middle.  But there was one step that was deeper than the other, and virtually every single person tripped on it.  One man fell down the steps holding his pushchair, which I thought was empty, but when I’d raced over there to try and break his fall (at least I think that’s what I thought I would do!), his baby was actually in the pram.  Oh my God, it made my blood run cold! Luckily, he recovered from his fall and didn’t topple down the stairs, but after the second time when a woman fell right down them, it became a slight obsession, watching out for old people and parents carrying children, in particular.  Thankfully, one of the race volunteers had also seen this and shared my concerns, so she stood right by the bridge, warning people of the danger.

Having the kids’ park in the middle of the track was brilliant for me, because it meant that I could see Bugsy, as she explored the maze etc with Daddy, but there were some really difficult moments, when I regretted not knowing enough Romanian to shout at the not-so-well-behaved kids.  One pair of kids were kicking a football around, and on several occasions, kicked it onto the track.  I yelled at them a couple of times, as their parents looked at me menacingly, and they eventually moved away.  But it gets worse.  The most worrying of all were two young girls who were squealing in delight as they ran from one (taped-off) side of the track to the other, missing the runners by cms.  The official tried to stop them, but they wriggled out his grasp and carried on anyway.  Then they went up on the bridge and threw their flip flops down onto the track.  How they missed the athletes, I will never know.  The official yelled at them again, and this time their mother finally came over to shout at them.  They just shrugged and laughed at her, but they did at least then leave.  Thank goodness.

I don’t know where the time went, but as is inevitable, it passed, and soon we were through the dark night and into the breaking dawn.  The birds were tweeting and Tracy was singing along with them.  The idea of daylight was enough to boost everyone’s mood, as we hit the last few hours of racing.  The morning sunlight was beautiful and for only the second time in the race, I left my seesaw spot to dash to the other side of the track for some photos through the trees.  It was really quite beautiful, and strangely peaceful.

Ian and Cornelia made it back for the last half an hour, and again, everyone seemed delighted to see her.  She was still very excited to be cheering them all on, in between climbing on the massive rope tower and jumping around.  And then suddenly, just like that, it was over.  The final gun went, the beanbags were dropped into place, and the measuring started.  I totally welled up at this point – I  was torn between just not wanting it to end, and feeling completely exhilarated and exhausted all at once.

Ian, Cornelia and I went off to the Team GB tent to catch up with Steve et al.  It was a crazy time of getting changed, getting recovery food, trying to find blisters and chafing, and packing up as quickly as possible to get back to the hotel to shower and change for the closing ceremony.  Ian legged it back to our apartment to collect Bluebell, so we could take a couple of runners and supporters, and some of the bigger bags and table.  It was good to be useful on a practical level at last!

We weren’t really sure of the afternoon plans, and didn’t want to intrude too much, but we managed to get to the closing ceremony (which frustratingly for everyone, I think) was running over half an hour late.  We were all in a hot and airless auditorium.  Poor Dan was rather unwell, and various other athletes had to leave for some fresh air.

But oh my!  The joy and pride you feel watching those incredible individuals go up on to the stage to collect their bronze (women’s team) and silver (men’s team) medals was overwhelming.  I had to stop myself from whooping at the top of my lungs.  Inside, that’s exactly what was going on!

After the ceremony, everyone (including me) was keen to get back to their rooms for a sleep.  I just about managed the walk back to our apartment, and curled up for an hour on our bed.  Cornelia was clearly exhausted by it all as she fell asleep on the kitchen sofa – something she hasn’t done for a really long time!  When I woke, I showered, and we went out to eat at a little restaurant just around the corner from Steve’s hotel, before meeting up with him and the rest of the team for a couple of beers.  Cornelia, once again, was just delightful, and she kept making new friends, having them chase her around screaming with laughter, and getting Rob doing forward rolls.  It was hilarious.  But soon it was time to stop being selfish and let her get to bed before she had a meltdown.

I must just finish by saying that the welcome and acceptance we were shown, together with the laughter and team spirit throughout was exceptional.  It feels like such a gift to have shared this time with these extraordinary people.  What a most glorious day.

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