Survival of the fastest

It was a bit of a sporty weekend in our household recently with the Rugby World Cup kicking off and there have already been some big surprises. What a comeback for Japan to narrowly beat two-times champion, South Africa, and one of the favourites of the tournament! The fact that Japan had not won a World Cup game since beating Zimbabwe in 1991 and were only ranked 13th out of the 20 teams taking part in this year’s World Cup is a measure of just how far they have come. The game was especially inspiring to watch, I think, because there is nothing more satisfying than witnessing an underdog triumph against all odds. After all, most of us have experienced being an underdog at some point in our lives…

In fact, the very next morning after that big rugby match, I was the underdog once again when I took part in the Leighton 10 race. This 10 mile race was organised by the Leighton Buzzard Athletics Club but despite this, it never occurred to me that the vast majority of participants would also come from many other well-established athletics and running clubs. As I had taken part in several 5km and 10km fun runs over the years and even had a couple of half-marathons under my belt, I assumed that the Leighton 10 was just another race, albeit, one that was a funny distance. So I had expected my fellow participants to range from ‘just trying to finish it’ to ‘going to kill my PB’ with the large majority being the usual very fit but not very Olympian runners. I had enjoyed these different races mainly because of the great atmosphere and camaraderie of the spectators and participants, alike, who encouraged everybody to finish in a mass survival of the fittest.  Therefore, it was only when I strolled up to the Leighton 10 start that it began to dawn on me that this was going to be different.

I looked around me at the crowd and quickly realised that I was virtually the only person not running for a club and wearing their club t-shirt. As I scanned the names of the different clubs, it began to sink in that some of these people had travelled pretty far to do the Leighton 10. Where were the novelty costumes? The funny wigs? Face paint, anyone? Everyone just looked really serious and to be honest, slightly fierce. I finally managed to spot a single person wearing a hat with a small stuffed turtle attached to it but the club singlet he was wearing and his look of concentration revealed that he was less of a tortoise and more of a hare. I knew then that I had entered a survival of the fastest.

As my husband and daughter said goodbye before the start, I realised that it was too late to bolt. Upon hearing my daughter’s final words of advice and instructions to beat a teacher that she had just spotted in the crowd, I continued forward with the rest to listen to the race briefing. Like the safety demos performed by all airlines, I felt my eyes glaze over as I watched the Race Marshal speak and so I didn’t take much in other than that the course was ‘undulating’ and there was a hill at mile 9.

Off we went suddenly, without delay, and with a massive surge forward, all of the arms were pumping and elbows were out. I couldn’t feel my legs but I seemed to be moving ahead with the rest and so I tried to carry on until I realised that I had forgotten to breathe. I attempted to gear down a notch to more breathable pace and tried to ignore the passing turtle man who seemed so calm. This was already becoming a serious race without talking or running banter and the course was sprinted in silence apart from the pounding sound of many feet hitting the pavement. I continued at my steady pace as more people passed me and slowly, the miles started to clock up.

The course began to climb and it was quite steep in places, in fact, there were some definite hills. What was that they said about it being undulating? Strictly speaking, I guess it was true but as I ran past more and more cycling teams who were training on the same roads and struggling up the same ascents, I knew it was turning out to be the hilliest race that I had ever run. I was also beginning to dread the hill that they admitted was coming at mile 9.

I carried on and passed mile markers 5, 6 and 7 and as I did, I began to notice that the crowds had thinned out to a trickle and now we were running in 1s and 2s. I realised that no one was passing me anymore and now I was even passing a couple, myself. I couldn’t understand it because I was only running at the same pace I had started with. My mind wandered back to the rugby match and I thought, maybe I am Japan? I passed several more people, especially on the hills, and soon I was at mile 8 with the turtle man in my sight. I got closer and closer without even trying and I could hardly believe it when I passed him and carried on to pass even more.

Before I knew it, I saw a mammoth hill in the distance with a long line of runners slowing right down. Some of them were walking and as I got closer, I understood why. I thought of my daughter’s advice which was to count kittens to get through the tough parts of the race. This worked at first but by halfway up the hill, it only made me sleepy.  I tried to think of Japan again and the mountain they had to climb against South Africa. By now my legs were burning and I was feeling quite sick but I more determined to get to the top. I shuffled along and kept moving upward until finally, I made it. And with no time to recover, I had to carry on, a bit breathless, down the much deserved descent.

I was now past the 9 mile mark and the end was in sight. Feeling slightly more confident, I wondered, could I catch a couple more runners before the finish? Remembering my daughter, again, I tried to recall what that teacher looked like. I was really tiring by now but like Japan, and perhaps countless angry kittens, I gritted my teeth and dug deep. I attempted to up my pace, just a little, and ruthlessly, I began to focus on the next person I aimed to overtake. I ran faster and began to pass people who had been miles ahead of me earlier. Incredibly, I began to pass people I had never seen before. I soon saw the finish line in the distance and thought I had just a tiny bit of energy left. I ramped up my pace to full power and despite the growing sound of thundering feet behind me of like-minded runners, I sprinted to the finish, triumphant.

Of course, unlike Japan (and many kittens) I hadn’t really won but I felt invincible. I don’t think it was simply because I had beaten turtle man or anybody else but because I had succeeded to stay in the race running as an underdog among so many top dogs. And ultimately, doing anything as a true underdog is a good reminder of the importance of doing things outside your comfort zone, especially when you do not know if you will succeed or not. In other words, unless we are pushed to our limits, we will never know our capabilities. Isn’t that one of those things we are supposed to tell our children? But how often do we take our own advice?

Unfortunately, Japan was pushed to their own limits yesterday when they were defeated in their following World Cup match by the mighty Scotland. But they still showed true spirit throughout the match and despite their loss, they remain a truly inspirational team. Let’s see what happens in their upcoming matches. Perhaps a little help from some kittens will do the trick…Watch out Samoa and USA!

Now for the recipe: Under the circumstances, perhaps some porridge was in order but I still wanted to make something Japanese inspired so I made some Japanese noodles with tofu and vegetables. They really hit the spot after a big run or workout.

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