On my parents’ mantelpiece, among the pictures of smiling grandchildren, lopsided graduation hats, old sports cars and a young soldier in smart uniform, is a picture of heroic athletic endeavour. In a little silver frame is a small blond boy in a white vest straining every sinew as he belts around the corner of a grassy athletic field, the parallel lines of the track marked out in white chalk stretching into the distance. He seems to be so far ahead of the pack that he’s almost on his own. He’s a champion in the making! Is the podium ready? Is that the music from Chariots of Fire you can hear?
The sad truth is that the little boy is me and I was so far off the pace everyone else that my dad was able to step out on the track to take the picture. “You were miles behind. It was almost as if you were running in slow motion,” he says now, with a laugh.
I must have been about eight years old. I remember the day so clearly. My teeth aren’t clenched with the exertion of the race, but because I was terrified I was about to burst into tears. My cheeks burned more than my thighs did, but all for nothing. I can still recall the journey home, gazing enviously at the brace of medals my brother had picked up – as he always did. “Speedy Pete” we called him.
Today, I have a shoebox full of medals tucked under my bed. My hidden vice is that even now, at the boyish age of 56, I like to get them out and jangle them across my palms, let them swing around my neck. But thinking back, it’s that little photo that captures one of the most inspiring moments of my sporting life. I didn’t give up. I was last, but I finished the race. And I’ve never stopped – until now.
Today, I still love running. Exercise plays a huge part in my life, both physically and mentally. Exertion keeps me ticking over and helps me tackle the mundanities of the daily grind. It keeps me up when I feel down. It’s the wellspring of my wellbeing. Running, swimming, cycling… I’m like a wild-eyed hamster on speed, spinning away on my various wheels, mostly getting nowhere. But through my perpetual motion I get to stay balanced in one place.
I’ve run dozens of marathons (38 to be precise – marathon runners never lose count, they always know), I’ve cycled the length and breadth of Britain (and France, and Spain, and a bit of Holland), I’ve never passed a body of water without an overwhelming urge to strip off and dive in… So why then, as the pandemic took hold of the country, did I come to a shuddering stop? As others got started, I ground to …….