I wanted to rip my clothes off. I wanted to scream at the people lounging in their garden chairs to stop staring and do something about it, couldn't they see I was in agony? That garden hose is not going to turn itself on, you know.
But more about that later.
True to character, I didn't enter Luleå Stadsmara until the last minute. Or a day in advance, anyway. J had offered to drive up with me and have a look around town while I ran, but it felt wrong to drag him all the way up there so I could run a race. Still, we packed up our things and headed North. Four young reindeer who seemed to be far away from home were munching on some leaves by the E4. They were still there when we drove back later that night.
Being the time pessimist that I am, I was quite stressed when we finally arrived with only 5 minutes to spare to pick up my bib. The atmosphere around the race was festive, the volunteers were cheerful and the day was so incredibly beautiful that my stress lasted no more than 2 seconds. I walked away with my bib and the race's functional T-shirt in my hand, and met up with J and some guys from the club.
After a quick warm-up, I went to the start. Third row from the start, to be exact. Because, for the first time in my life, I belonged to a club and thus had the right to compete. For real. With only a couple of minutes left, I looked at all the sinewy, strong runners around me and wondered what the hell I was doing there. Shouldn't I be standing right at the back of the crowd? But a boxing match was taking place inside my brain, and the competitive side had just knocked out common sense and humility. ”Screw this”, I thought, ”so what if these are real professional super-elite runners and I'm not? I'll give them a run for their money. At least for the first 10 meters, right before I collapse from heat exhaustion and die”.
Before I had time to think more such petulant thoughts, the starting gun went off and I remember marvelling at how it suddenly had a different meaning now that I was competing. The chip runners usually get at such races allows them to get an official time from the moment they pass the starting line and not from when the gun goes off. For competitive runners, that is not the case. Their official time starts counting as soon as the gun goes off, so every second counts. For me, it wasn't as important, because I doubted that mere seconds would make a difference in the results. I'm nowhere fast enough to compete on such a level.
|Photo by Norrbottenskuriren|
I was a balloon that had been expanding with each passing minute, a balloon filled with anticipation and nerves, and when the gun finally went off the balloon exploded. All the pent-up energy found its way into my legs and, almost against my will, they moved forward much faster than I had planned on. The plan was to keep an even 5:15 pace, which would allow me to break 1.50 for the first time, but now I was doing 4:20 and it felt good. Until it didn't, that is to say, which was just a few hundred meters later. My speed dropped to just below 5:00, but I was nowhere near enough psychologically to calming down and following my plan.
It was a really hot day. Well, by Swedish standards, anyway. There were almost no clouds in the sky, and no trees to cast a shadow during the first kilometres that went through an industrial area. The wind that should have served as a cooling factor was just in the way. I felt my head turning red. I had my water belt on me, and it kept jumping up and down with each step. I must have wasted an entire pizza's worth of energy on moving it back into place. After only a couple of kilometres, I was ready to throw in the towel. What the hell was I doing here? I thought for the second time. Why do I put myself in situations I know I can't handle mentally? I can't enter a race and run conservatively. This has been proved many times in the last couple of months, when I said I would take it easy during a race, yet I still ended up running so fast I had a near-death experience. Granted, it also resulted in me breaking every personal record in the distances between 5K and the half marathon, but was it worth it?
I tried to relax. Thought about my shoulders. My facial muscles. My feet. Was I tense? Was I wasting energy somewhere in my body? The greatest energy waster was my brain, that was so incredibly focused on how damn miserable I was feeling that it almost failed to noticed what a beautiful town Luleå is. People were sitting on benches with ice-cream in their hands, enjoying the same heat that was now torturing me, feeling the same sea breeze on their faces that acted as a wall against me. Others were standing by cheering us on, and I tried to smile, or raise my hand in thanks, or -if I was running downhill- even make an effort to actually say ”thank you”. The public was truly amazing. A sign that said ”stop jogging, start drinking beer” was a bit more dubious in its ability to cheer, but it did put a smile on my face, and the long-haired, bare-breasted guy sitting beside it getting a tan got the thumbs up from me.
The first 10K went really fast, and I broke my personal record by a few seconds. That in itself should have served as a warning that the second half was going to be even more of a nightmare. I have been injured and/or ill throughout spring, which meant that I haven't had the chance to run as many long runs as I usually do. There was no way I could keep running at the same pace, no way I would have the endurance for it. All I could hope for was to finish the race. Alive.
My legs were starting to consider jumping ship. My brain, the captain, had abandoned the ship before the women and children ages ago, but my heart was still there, dreaming about the possibility that I might break yet another personal record. The heat was draining every last drop of fluid from my body. My lips were dry, my mouth was dry, and the water stations seemed to be moving further and further away from me. Meanwhile, J had been walking around the course and I was so grateful to see him after 12 km that I almost threw my water belt at him. I hadn't used it at all and it was only weighing me down. The water I got at the stations was used 10% for drinking and 90% for showering myself with, offering some much needed, if a bit short-lived, relief from the heat.
I wanted to rip my clothes off. I wanted to scream at the people sitting in their gardens to turn their hoses on and spray me already. I'd even consider accepting an ice-cold beer by the long-haired guy at this point. To shower with.
I tried to do some quick calculations in my head. The first half of the race had given me a good margin to break my record, which I now needed as I was losing speed fast. But my brain was non-responsive and my ability to do maths (limited as it already was) was next to none. Once again, I focused on the tense areas in my body, relaxing where I felt it was needed. My thoughts drifted to other times, happier times, when I ran at an easier pace. Times when I ran longer distances, but when I could take a break, drink some water, maybe buy something to eat, run on. When I ran all day just to explore. I longed for those times. The battle between the competitive side and the life enjoying side was raging on, but the latter was now winning. I eased my pace even more, but it did nothing. It was already too late, and my energy was already depleted.
I ignored the signals my body was sending that all it wanted was to jump in a nearby fountain and then lay down on the grass and just look at the gathering clouds for hours. I put one foot in front of the other, despite its protests. The finish line was within sight and I made a final effort to pick up some speed. I crossed the line with the feeling that my stomach was crawling out of my mouth, the fact that I had broken yet another personal record registered somewhere in my brain but stored for later use. Right now the focus was on recovering my senses, finding J so that I could just lean against him and not have to spend any more energy keeping my body upright. And I was so thirsty. So thirsty.
Despite the fact that the life-enjoying side had won over the competitive side in the end, a little bit of coal was still burning in my heart. I went to look at the results on the big screen. Sure enough, I hadn't struggled for nothing. I had managed to grab second place in my age division, despite my relatively modest time. After getting something to eat, we waited for the awards ceremony. When it was my turn, I went up on the podium feeling slightly self-conscious. What the hell was I doing here? I thought for the third and final time.
|One of the churches in Luleå. Photo by J|
With the prizes I had won in hand, we walked back to our car. We drove into town for a quick bite and to walk around a bit, and promised ourselves we would come back. Next time there will not be a race. I have had enough of racing. At least until next time the competitive side takes over.