When you go for a run by yourself, and end up sprinting as if your life depended on it because there’s some random guy running next to you.
It’s a miserable day in December, and I really can’t be arsed to run 5K. But I set off anyway, as you do, with the voices of 1000 demons whispering in my ear that it’s OK to stop and walk because my ankle hurts a bit, my ponytail is slipping, my nose is starting to run, I’ve got a slight wedgie, my shoulder feels tight, I didn’t leave enough time for that banana to digest… and so on.
I plod the first 500 metres, staring blankly at the muck-splattered pavement, occasionally lifting my gaze to the shore of the icy lake. A sign outside the cafe says “Come inside and warm up!”
A lone figure comes into view.
A man, I’d say 40ish, quite tall but noticeably hunched, wearing white shorts and a loose t-shirt. Before I’ve even registered the thought, I have formed a mental judgement that his running experience is inferior to my own, based entirely on his clothes and posture. He throws his head back to swig from a fluorescent water bottle and out of NOWHERE a new demon pipes up:
“You can take him”
“WHAT?!” Silently, I ask my legs why they’ve suddenly decided to accelerate.
“OK, we’re running a bit faster. Fine. The sooner I get round the lake, the sooner I can get in the sauna.”
Having closed the gap a little, I can now hear the man as well as see him. The scrape and smack of his trainers on the pavement; the sniff and snort as he collects the phlegm in his mouth; and the slap as it hits the floor.
I wince. Can I put up with another 4k behind this person? Nope. I need to get past him.
A fork appears in the road, and he takes the right. This is my chance! I pick up the pace, feeling the familiar trickle of adrenaline as it enters my system. I’m going to cut him off before the two paths rejoin.
I dodge a couple of terriers and a boy with stabilisers on his bike. Had Spit-Man not inadvertently ruined my run, I would smile pleasantly at my fellow park-goers. Instead I am fuming that I have WASTED precious milliseconds avoiding them!
I push on, up a slight incline, and turn left just metres in front of my opponent.
“OPPONENT?! Oh for God’s sake. We’re racing now are we?” My legs don’t answer because we’ve just turned onto the long straight before the bridge. And what do you do on a straight? You sprint.
By the time I reach the cover of the bridge the Excuse Demons are back.
I could jog a bit now, do some stretching, then go the other way when he’s gone past! Or I could pretend I’m doing interval training. Or I’ve got an injury….
The voices have distracted me and without realising it my pace has dropped. Suddenly I hear him behind me again:
Scrape — Smack — Sniff — Snort — Slap
The race is ON!
Imaginary crowds appear along the verge, cheering me on. 2.5k to go.
I move off the path and run on the grass; conscious that the uneven terrain will make it harder for me to maintain my speed, but desperately wanting to slip into my comfort zone: trails.
I try hard to block out the sound of his breath, his feet, that awful snorting!
I synchronise my own inhalation and exhalation with every stride, feeling the cold damp soil push back against my shoe each time I land.
Dammit, he’s not giving up. I realise I have no idea whether this is his first lap, or his fourth. He’s fitter than he looks, and he’s determined. But so, apparently, am I.
Another straight, this time with a single yellow bollard at the end of it. That ugly yellow beacon lights a fire inside me and I speed up again. There’s still 1k to go but if I can just beat him to the bollard…
I make it, and his footsteps are fainter.
Rounding the bend towards the carpark I steal a glance over my shoulder. Where’s he gone? Did he stop? Has that bastard gone to warm up in the cafe?!
The race is over. I have won, but there is no cheering. No one is watching. I feel foolish and alone.
Then I look at my watch. I want to go and find Spit-Man and thank him for pushing me to run my fastest 5k in months. But of course he couldn’t take the credit, because he didn’t know he was in a race. He was just going for a run by himself.