The A Team

On Friday night I arrived home after a meal with the in-laws to find an email message from my running club’s race selector. He needed me to fill in for a sick runner in the Masters Men’s A team for the next day’s Hagley Memorial Relay.

Yikes! I hate stepping up to the next level, and these guys are seriously fast. I replied in the affirmative, promising I would be trying to do my best. We both realised I am in taper mode, one week out from a marathon, but I had always planned to use this 4k lap as a fast sprint shake out.

The A Team. I didn’t sleep well. Worry. Stress. Tension. Pressure.

The day dawned eventually. But I had been awake for two hours already. It grew into a stunner, bright and sunny, warm and still. Hagley was ablaze with colour and bursting with life. A veritable kaleidoscope of autumn leaves, green grass, multi-hued athletes sporting hideous colour combinations, club tents, and spectators and supporters. Plus the usual host of park users walking dogs, cycling, and hitting little white balls into sand bunkers.

The kiddies were already running their relay – 4 x 2k – when I arrived by bike. I jogged the course in reverse for a warm-up. It was changed slightly from our trials two weeks earlier. Rumour said it was longer than the 4k. My Garmin had not been connected to the charger properly so I was running naked. Just short of the start I met the lap one runners of the men’s relay. I shouted encouragement at my fellow clubmates. We had a senior men’s team, two junior boys’, and three masters mens’ teams. The women’s race started five minutes later and we had one junior women’s team. With only two masters women left running this year, we are going to race in men’s teams. (Hint hint, over 35 women residing in Christchurch – we need you!)

I was fourth runner out of a six “man” team. I pinned on my number. Did the next part of my warm-up routine – walking lunges, leg swings, hacky sacks. Guy (lap 1) came in and handed over to Richie. I jogged to the toilet. It was hot. I splashed water all over my face and neck. Chatted to a few people. Richie handed over to Anthony, I was next.

I changed into my spikes. Did a few stride outs. I was told spikes weren’t making a lot of difference, but psychologically they put me in race mode. Plus they are lighter. Andrew told me that if we felt bad today it was a good omen for Rotorua next week.

I could see Anthony round the far bend. A bright orange horizontal stripe is great for spotting your teammate from afar. I lined up.

Anthony came down the straight, tagged my hand and I was off. Legs felt ok, I felt I was keeping it moderately paced. There was a Port Hills runner about 20m ahead of me. Headed towards Carlton bridge. The ground was soft but nothing like the quagmire from a fortnight ago. Grass was long and damp. Leaves were thick and sodden. We came down onto the gravel track but because I was in spikes I kept to the grass verge. Round the trees at the bridge and heading down to Fendalton Road corner. Rosa Flanagan flew past on her way to annihilate the junior women’s record which had stood since 1986. Closely followed by one of our junior men.

I felt slow and sluggish but decided to keep my effort up. It was only going to be 18 minutes of hardship. The course meandered around some trees, across a few tar sealed paths, which are hell on the spikes, and avoided some heavy mud patches which had not yet dried up. There were fewer acorns than previous years. Running across acorns is like running on marbles.

Along past the Chateau to Nancy’s corner and around into Riccarton Ave, evading pedestrians who are bewildered by this group of speedsters. I am overtaking slower runners now but as I do a u-turn at the entrance to the Botanic Gardens I note there is no-one to catch me from behind. I could ease up but my guesstimate is there only 1500m left to race. I kept at it.

I rounded the last bend. Rodger is there warming up. He yells at me to push it, go harder. I mange to retaliate with a “piss off, Rodger”. The final straight. I don’t see a blue and orange singlet waiting but then Andrew steps out from the crowd. I slam my foot hard on the accelerator and tag his hand.

Five minutes later I feel recovered. I drink. Change back into my other shoes. And feel great. I was taking my time off the official clock but I had immediately forgotten my finish time when I walked off the course. I thought I had run about 17:15. That was good. I wrote it down on our team card. And then encouraged the rest of my team mates, choosing to use my bike ride home as a cool down. The sun was hot. I didn’t need an extra layer. I had salt marks on my singlet. I began to cough up the dregs from my lungs, a good indicator I had reached my anaerobic state.

Andrew changed over to John, our final runner. Some teams were finishing, the fast senior men and the four women teams. But slower teams were still sending out their fifth or sixth runner. The first masters men team is in. Papanui Toc H. They have a number of national and regional grade runners in their team. And a healthy lead.

John comes back into view. We are the second team home. I am amazed. I really cannot believe it. Later on when the results come out I see I ran 17:07, a PB over this course by 10 seconds and 30 seconds faster than our trials two weeks ago. I am truly amazed. And pleased.

I joined the A-Team, and deserved to be there. I didn’t let them down and proved to myself that I can still improve. And I still have that killer instinct.

A great confidence booster for the season, and for Rotorua next week.

PS Our junior women won their grade, junior men came first and fourth, and senior men (which is made up of 16-19 year olds) came second. Bodes well for another good season for Christchurch Avon.

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