Monday, 12 May 2008

Happy Cake Day

Today, 12th May, is Cake Day. Cake Day marks the anniversary of the last occasion on which one of my dearest friends cut herself. It's been seven years.

This is the medal I collected at the end of the Lincoln 10k, which I ran with her a few weeks ago.

I am ridiculously proud of this medal. Not for my achievement, but for having been present when this same friend who celebrated cake day today finished the 10k back at the end of March. For much of the last twelve or so years, between the booze and the fags and the self harm (and accidental self-conflagration), she's not exactly been a picture of physical or mental health. So I was thrilled for her when she said she was running the Lincoln 10k. Through choice.

I'd asked if I could run with her, too. I didn't want to impose myself, and knew she'd feel she couldn't say "no", and also knew that she'd probably feel under pressure to complete the run if someone else was going to run with her. I therefore felt a bit of a heel for doing this, which I convinced myself I was doing with the best of intentions, but really I wanted to be there to encourage her when it got tough and, despite the fact that it would be physically uncomfortable, to get through the race to the finish without walking. To have Done It.

Come March, despite preparations not being fantastic, we pitched up in Lincoln for the run. She'd been ill for the last few weeks and hadn't trained for a while, but still made it to the start line. It would be a tough hour or so.

A couple of other friends were running the race, too, but we left them nearer the start line queue in the sub 50:00 block and sub 1:00:00 block, and made our way towards the back of the gathering masses. (Having run a few road races, I'm of the opinion that unless you're one of the elite runners and can get away quickly, starting towards the back makes running far easier than tripping over the heels of tightly bunched runners.)

After a delay at the start for the police to shift a few cars parked on the course, the first couple of kilometers passed uneventfully. We'd barely made it into an unhindered stride as we passed the first marker, and were just beginning to settle into the same pace as those around at the second. 2km down, and 15 minutes had gone. I'd thought before the race that a 1hr 15min time would be a good pace to aim for, and it was with some satisfaction that I checked my watch to find us on pace. It was at this point that my friend decided to tell me she'd never run further than 2.5km.

I reassessed.

"OK, no worries. You're moving nicely - how're you feeling? Does this feel sustainable?" Heck. I was sure she'd mentioned doing 4 miles previously. I guess that must have been a run/walk. Nevertheless, she seemed in reasonable form, she assured me the pace felt fine (how would she know...? We were going to run another three times further than she'd ever done in her life.) Time to put on the smilers:

"Cool, let's get to 3km, feel proud of the achievement, assess how you're feeling, and plan from there.

3 km was a welcome sign. Already in uncharted territory, in many ways, there would be nothing new now until the finish, increasing fatigue, increasing pain, slower speed. But we were still moving nicely. Our pace had slowed once the runners had thinned out and some of the early adrenalin dissipated. Still, I assumed we'd be walking before the end of the race, but not before 5 km if I could help it - at least she'd have a 5 km time to beat in future races, and could take pride in running that distance. She agreed to the plan. 4 km came and went - 4 down, one more to go, and then there would be water, a 5 km time and a re-assessment of the race plan as our rewards.

Halfway. 5 km in 39 minutes and 35 seconds. Twice as far as she'd ever run before. This was time for her to feel proud. I think she was. I know I was. Actually, "amazed" would better sum up my feelings, and my disbelief that I was halfway through a 10k with my friend running alongside. Wow.

Collection of water bottles and an overdue re-lacing later, we were back to a steady jog. The water had evidently done some good as I noticed with some relief that the pace had picked up again to a point where I could lengthen my stride. Spirits had lifted - the talk became more positive, with mention of a half marathon before the end of the year, and an aim to complete this course without any walking.

6 km somehow disappeared without trace. There undoubtedly was a marker, we undoubtedly celebrated having trampled down another km. 7 km was nearly three times further than she'd ever run before, and 8km was time to feel absolutely bloody proud of the achievement, if also a bit knackered and on the verge of breaking.

After about 8km, she said: "Do... hssss...hsss... you think.....hhsss... pouring... hsss... water on... hss... my head... hsss.... like they... hsss..... do... hss.... on telly... hsss.... would... hsss.... help... hssss?" There followed the emptying of a good half bottle of water over her head. "Oh god... hsss... that feels good.... hsss..."

I loved her next comment about now knowing how the marathon runners feel. I had never even considered that I might see the day on which she'd identify with elite marathon runners. Previously, she'd thought they were nutters for pouring water over themselves instead of drinking it. Now she knew the feeling of relief and refreshment first-hand. That was another "Wow" moment. I was notching up quite a few of them that day. I think, and I hope,  she was, too.

Somewhere inbetween 8 and 9 km, her competitive spirit rose to the surface - I'd never known she had one. She'd spotted a couple of victims people ahead of us. A few minutes later, we'd reeled them in, jogging past with an ease that'd disappeared three or four kilometres ago. "C'mon!" For once, it wasn't me saying that. I almost exploded with happiness.

The final kilometre was a very long, long way. I was certain every corner we rounded would yield sight of the finish. But it didn't. Just another corner. She was suffering, and not for the first time I felt like a complete heel for trying to press the pace a little, just enough for me to take longer strides and relieve some of the tightness in my calves, which had done a lot of work in keeping me bouncing along whilst taking very short strides, and also because we were being overtaken by people who were walking. I wasn't having that. I don't mind being overtaken by race walkers on a mision, but I wasn't going to contemplate my friend, who'd run the whole thing (with the except of a few short paces and a re-lacing at 5 km), finishing behind people who'd jacked in the running and were going to walk across the line. "C'mon - they've given up. You haven't. Show them your pride." Crap - for the first time in the race, as we rounded the corner and caught sight of the finish,  I was having to run. Actually running. Moving with speed.

We had a huge, sweaty hug at the finish. She was in tears. I'd felt that recently, as well. I'd cried after finishing a race in January, racing after having had the norovirus. I felt empty, drained, stripped of any chattels of identity, broken and completely naked. But I'd got through something I thought I wouldn't, thought I couldn't. I'd put doubts aside and proved to myself that the strength of my will was greater than the weakness of my body. When, after finishing, the will disappears, redundant, only the weakness remains. That's why I blubbed my way back to the boathouse, and why she was in a heap, propped up on my shoulders. Empty, drained, and overwhelmed with achievement.

Later on, having collected our medals, T-shirts and thoughts, we found our friends somewhere amongst the gathered masses and made our way to a nearby pub for celebratory shandies and cokes. Our other friends who had run were pleased with their times or with getting round in one piece. I had run well within myself, and was torn between my lack of exuberance at not really having done anything, and my unbridled pride for my friend, who'd just got her first medal for anything, ever, made a massive leap of mindset from "I can't" to "I can", and was looking forward to taking her richly deserved medal into work the next day to show the guy who runs marathons for fun.

I just wish I could adequately describe how proud I am to have been a small part in that.


trousers said...

The pride really does shine through - oh there'll be a gulf between what you're feeling and what I'm getting from this, but I'm still getting plenty. This really did tug at the heart-strings, for all the right reasons.

Wonderful stuff.

Kahless said...

I could feel the pride too.

And congratulations to your friend. I hope she carries that achievement into her everyday life.

And dear But Why?, what a good friend you are.

Casdok said...

Well done!! Good for you!! :)

Rob Clack said...

What a fantastic friend you are! Damn, the screen's gone all blurry!

Random Reflections said...

What an achievement - and so well described. My sister did a 10k run a couple of weeks ago and I'm not sure would choose to do one again!

If I need someone to cheer me on for something, I'll be in touch!

But Why? said...

Thanks. I enjoyed writing this almost as much as I enjoyed the moment at the finish (in as much as you could describe as enjoyment the realisation that you are having one of those "my-friend-is-descending-into-emotional-mush-on-my-shoulder" moments). Still, it was emotional mush, as you have said, for all the right reasons.

Thanks, but I must disabuse you of the notion I'm a great friend - I might have forgotten it was Cake Day yesterday had I not have happened across some photos from that weekend in my inbox. This, after I promised, Promised, PROMISED to remember to celebrate Cake Day. So when I did, I did.

Hi. Nice to see you again. 'Twas a fine day, and good for my friend, too. We'd spent the weekend at our annual-ish reunion of our bunch of schoolmates, hence there being a few of us running. It broke up the journey back to London perfectly.

Rob C,
Again, not really - see my reply to Kahless for the evidence.

Provided you don't run faster than your average rower (read: lumbering, maladapted biped with more familiarity with exercising whilst seated), it'd be my pleasure.

Reading the Signs said...

Great stuff, But Why.

But - but why Cake Day to mark the anniversary of a friend cutting herself? I mean, it isn't usually something one celebrates. Or am I missing something? I often do, you know.

But Why? said...

Why hello, Signs,
I think she rather celebrates the fact that having previously cut herself regularly, she hasn't done so since, rather than celebrating that she previously did cut herself. Does that make any more sense?

titration said...

Wow. You are pretty good at making me read your entire post every time. How do you do that? And as I cutter myself back in my past I really celebrate your friend (and you of course). Damn now I want to run a race!

But Why? said...

I'd love to think that the reason people read my posts had something to do with my wit and charm, but since I don't have that in spades, it's probably something else. Perhaps just a good reason to enjoy the pleasant green background?

What fantastic news that you want to run a race! I suggest you:
1) Find a run.
2) Book a place.
3) Tell everyone you know that you are doing it. (Try to get as many of them to cheer you on as possible).
4) Do the training.
5) Run the race.
6) Enjoy the sense of achievement whilst your adoring fan club buy the drinks after the race.

Bollinger Byrd said...

Oh I'm so glad I'm back to have read this... it's wonderful!
Well done to your friend on achieving so much and you for dealing with short strides on long legs!

But Why? said...

Nice to see you here, and thanks for your kind words (and concern for my legs - most of my friends just laughed...).