How not to finish a race

Last weekend I completed my ninth half-marathon on what was probably the hottest day of the year so far. Usually after big organised races there is the long wait for the race photos. There’s the secret hope that instead of the disappointing sight of someone looking very much like yourself, gurning and coated in salty deposits, the photographer will have finally have caught you looking as awesome as you felt for at least 5% of the race.

Well last Sunday was different – my race photo was quickly uploaded onto the official race Facebook page and I was immediately receiving tip-offs from friends, both real and virtual: “Have you seen that photo – is it you?”.

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It was simultaneously a great and awful photo.

Great, because it captured the selfless things that runners sometimes do for each other when suffering towards the end of a race on a sweltering morning. It showed two strangers who had spotted a fellow runner on the last 200 metres of the finishing strait, staggering about as if he was not long for this world. They had grabbed him, held him up and made sure that he crossed the finishing line, dashing any thoughts of a sprint finish or super-fast time for them.

Awful, because that staggering runner was me. Despite the heat, I’d felt as per usual for the first 10 miles before we we marshalled into the vast unsheltered spaces of London’s recently opened Olympic Park. Then I think bad water planning on the part of both myself and the race organisers combined with June sunshine started to take its toll. If I had a fuel gauge then it probably would have started flashing wildly and a red alert siren would have started to wail.

“Just a parkrun, just a parkrun left”, I kept reassuring myself with three miles to go, but it felt increasingly like a parkrun in a desert, with mile markers that seemed to go up and down in value and constant switchbacks adding to my disorientation. I kept on running, or rather not walking, until what might have been a finishing line mirage loomed in the distance.

I’m not exactly sure what I was doing, but this was when I must have really started drawing attention to myself and was suddenly adopted by my two running Good Samaritans. I’m not sure what would have happened if they hadn’t come to the rescue – I might well have ended up face down, out cold (and very hot) yards away from the big pink mirage of the finishing arch. The photo makes me look as though I have a huge speech bubble coming out of my mouth saying “Vitality” which couldn’t have been further from the truth.

At long last I (or we) “finished”.

So it was time to say goodbye and give heartfelt thanks to my two unsung heroes for their intervention (at least I very much hope I thanked them, everything was very hazy at that point). I then paid my second ever visit to the mysterious world of the medical tent, full of similar casualties who’d made it to the end but were unable to walk any further, as opposed to the many others we’d seen slumped on the roadside at various points along the route. The only treatment I needed was a twenty minute sit-down, a pep-talk from a fellow sufferer and a bottle of water and I was on my way, hoping I could slip away quietly.

That final 200 metres seemed to go on forever but I suspect that photo will ensure I’ll never forget it.