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The comeback

May 13, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I decided that I’d made enough progress in my recovery to enter a few events. Start with a few unusual distances, get used to a controlled effort under race conditions. And so, my first race back came round – the West London Action for Children 8-mile Fun Run.

8 miles might not be the most sensible distance for a comeback, but I figured it was long enough to avoid any excesses of speed, and the informality of a fun run would take any race-day pressures away. And it was a fiver, so would be rude not to run.

I woke early, brought my girlfriend tea in bed and tried to wedge the Wiggles’ ‘Mashed Potato’ in her head as I left. (Yes, I’m annoying like that.)

The fun run was just the other side of Hammersmith Bridge, so my morning started off with a 10-mile cycle. A proper warm up! All the while, humming ‘Mashed potato mashed potato! Cold spaghetti cold spaghetti!’ Which had irritatingly wedged in my head.

Cycling round Regent’s Park, I temporarily got caught up with a pack of cyclists doing some kind of cycle event. Heading down Baker Street, I parted from the pack, only to catch up with them later when I cut down a few back streets to get to Hyde Park.

After a remarkably event-free cycle (very little getting lost, no bike faults) I arrived at the race HQ, located down a particularly leafy road. Inside, a modest handful of runners and walkers were milling around checking maps of the route. We were shortly ushered outside for a light warm-up in the gardens in the sunshine. I made sure to stretch my calves and ankles carefully, took a few sips of water, and I was as ready as I was going to be.

My plan was to aim for 55 minutes. Not a stellar pace, but respectable enough for a post-cycle run, and crucially unlikely to put my ankle under more stress than a normal training run. But, although I had my Garmin with me, I was running on feel – I had every intention of ignoring my watch for the duration of the run.

Most of my plans went out the window as we set off. A pack of three other runners set out at the front – including the front runner, who knew the course, as was taking the usual role of the lead bike. We set off back towards Hammersmith bridge, turned off and headed right down the dirt track alongside the Thames. Having checked the map earlier, I’d been sure it was a left-turn, so I decided I needed to stick with other people to avoid getting lost.

One of the pack pulled out in front – a guy in a Mornington Chasers vest – and the pace felt comfortable, so I went with him. Dodging around walkers, joggers and several pelotons, we quickly put some distance between us and the run leader.

We were approaching a bridge (Putney, I think). ‘Do we cross here?’ I asked. ‘Thought it was the next one,’ he replied. Unnervingly, there were no marshals on the bridge, so we waited for the lead runner to catch up. He helpfully shouted out a set of comprehensive directions for the rest of the course and left us to get on with the run.

The Thames Towpath is generally well-signed, but it’s very much signed with walkers in mind. While most of the path is directly next to the river, but there are occasional dead ends where it sporadically juts inland around riverside buildings.

We took turns taking the headwind (there’s always a headwind on the Thames – it doesn’t matter which direction you’re running), while both keeping eyes peeled for route signs. We passed our first set of marshals under Hammersmith Bridge, marking something close to the half-way point.

And then came an interminable stretch of river, covering a languorous bend in the river, while we kept eyes peeled for the bridge that would take us back to the south bank and back towards race HQ. Eventually a bridge came into sight, looking distinctly like a railway crossing. Surely this couldn’t be it?

Eventually, we reached it and saw that there was a series of steps for a pedestrian crossing alongside the rails. The guy in the Chasers vest started to gain some distance, but this was the turnaround point.

The route turned from pavement back to trail, but Hammersmith Bridge was still what felt like an age away. But then I came across a cluster of marshals, who called out that there was a right then a left ahead. This was unexpected, but brought me out on to a leafy-looking road that seemed awfully familiar.

Feeling spent, but with no pain, I turned into the driveway of race HQ and stopped my watch. 51:07, and second place overall. Unexpected, to say the least.

While we waited for other runners to return, I had a chat with Thomas (the Chaser who’d finished first) – a 2:44 marathoner coming back from injury. Later, while talking marathon goals, comeback plans, key training sessions, I’d reclaimed my bag. My cycle helmet was dangling from the back, and I was stretching out my quads. In an act of supreme clumsiness, I caught my foot in my helmet and tumbled ungracefully backwards. Smooth.

A restorative cheese sandwich at the impressive-looking barbeque later, I set off back towards Seven Sisters through Hammersmith – smith – smith – smith – no income tax, no VAT, no money back, no guarantee. Unfortunately I didn’t know all the lyrics, and I’m not even sure these are correct, but they were wedged firmly in my head for the best part of the hour-long cycle home in the sunshine.

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