Sportsmanship originally appeared in Issue #8 of Like the Wind Magazine
It is a 15km race along the canal towpath. An out-and-back course, flat and fast, but also narrow. Because of the potential lack of elbow room I position myself further up on the start line than I would normally. I don’t fancy getting stuck behind any of the fun-runners I can see starting closer to the front than they probably should. Being impeded by Minnie Mouse and people dressed in full battle regalia is a regular occurrence for me because I’m paranoid that the confidence-exuding proper runners who practise accelerations off the start-line will look at me and wonder what on earth I’m doing amid them.
Such impediments have always naturally kept me in check and ensured that I don’t go off too fast. This time, when the gun fires I shoot off like a rocket and get swept along – not with the lead pack, but certainly with the second wave. The pace feels easy, so when I check my watch and see that I am running 15 seconds per kilometre quicker than my 5km pace I think: “Gosh, I’m on fire today.”
I pass three women and I can see another just ahead. I clocked her in the car park and singled her out as a contender. She is tiny and lean. She had very big hair in the car park and I did wonder about the drag effect but the hair is now slicked back and aerodynamic. She is wearing shiny pink Lycra leggings and a shiny pink Lycra long-sleeved top. I decide to take advantage of the fact that she must surely be far too hot and I start to reel her in. Like a shiny pink salmon.
As I pull alongside her, my initial adrenalin surge wears off and the folly of having gone so far into the red manifests itself in a physical way.
I fear that I might throw up my heart and lungs. We are only into the third kilometre and, without any Minnie Mouse to hold me in check, I have already exploded. I have left chunks of hair, bone and teeth behind me on the towpath. I have slowed to my 10km pace but it feels so hard that I begin hoping I will trip on a root and fall into the canal so I have a legitimate excuse to pull out.
“Hello,” says the girl in pink.
I have to pretend I can still function.
“Hello,” I smile politely. She is friendly so I drop my guard and expose myself. “I don’t think I can maintain this pace!”
“Yes, you can; come on.” So I hang on in there.
We have a very pleasant conversation, although it takes a while to get each sentence out between snatched breaths. We chat about North African cuisine, we learn each other’s children’s names and she tells me the reason for her top-to-toe pinkness is a rare condition that means she can’t expose her skin to the sun. It is all very interesting. I feel a wave of compassion for her having to cover up and never experience the cool freedom of running in a vest and shorts.
We reach the halfway point and a marshal calls out: “First females!” Goodness. This is a bit of a surprise.
“We’re in the lead!” I say.
“Did you not realise?”
“Stop chatting!” chastises a male runner. “You’re wasting so much energy.”
“Chatting to you is really motivating me,” I say.
“Me too,” she replies. “Shall we cross the line together?”
“Hand in hand,” I agree.
Thirteen km down, two to go. I have recovered from my initial Mo Farah moment and perhaps the chatting does mean that I haven’t been trying hard enough so I am feeling pretty fresh again. My new friend starts to slip off the pace. “Come on,” I urge. “Only two k to go.” Her face is set in a grimace and she is no longer talking. I slow down. She slows down more. We start to get overtaken by a few of the men we had passed earlier on. I try again to get her to speed up but she is struggling. The sun has come out and I’m really glad I’m not sweating away in a shiny pink suit. We are approaching the final kilometre. The long, straight towpath enables me to see the finish line and the crowds leading up to it. My husband, children and even my parents are among them. Imagine their surprise and delight if I were to come in first. Imagine posting it on Facebook.
I have never won a race. I have been on the podium but I am always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Winning outright would be rather marvellous. I would so love to stand on the top step, preferably without anyone else diluting the experience. I pick up the pace again and have one last half-hearted attempt to encourage my friend in pink to join me. I can see she has nothing left. The gap is getting wider and wider. I give one last token glance behind me with a final “Come on!”, but thankfully nothing. I look at her anguished expression and I look at that inflatable arch and I push on.
First place is mine for the taking. I adopt a wide, confident race-winners’ smile and acknowledge the cheers from the spectators. I raise my arms as I cross the line. Someone puts a medal around my neck. I graciously pose for a photo and try to look as if I expected and deserve to be there. I see the proud expressions on the faces of my family members. It’s really good fun being the bride.
I walk back to the line and wait, in what could look like sportsmanship but is actually an attempt to assuage my conscience. I make a big show of clapping my rival in and go in for a hug as she crosses the line 40 seconds after me. She pretends I don’t exist.
I expect you don’t like me very much by now. I don’t like this newly discovered dog-eat-dog side of me very much either.
But it’s called a “race” for a reason. If someone wasn’t meant to try hard to come first then it would just be called a “run”. And it’s true what they say: pain is temporary but the glory lasts forever. However, in my case it also seems that friendship is temporary and three years on I’m still hoping that guilt doesn’t last forever.
And that was the end of the story… Or so I thought until I took the start line of a trail race a few weekends ago and noticed a familiar salmon-pink sight. She was whippet-thin and standing right on the front line. I was cowering in the middle, hoping to go incognito after a two-month break from running and three kilos of mince-pie- top bulging over my shorts. I had even considered fancy dress, or a sign on my vest saying “base phase”.
The gun went off and I slid even further towards the back of the pack. I lost sight of her almost immediately. It was minus two degrees and after an unwelcome delay at the start I had gone from being warmed up to chilled down. I had ice hands, mottled purple legs, goosebumps the size of golf balls and muscles that refused to switch on. How I longed for a toasty salmon suit.
She put five minutes on me over 18km, which was pretty conclusive, and on my turf too – the trails. She claimed the last spot on the podium and, to add insult to injury, the prize was something I actually rather coveted: rather than a tacky trophy it was booze, and decent booze at that – a magnum of red wine. The only sour grapes were mine.
Sarah Cameron is an ultra-running vegan who lives on a vineyard in southern France with her husband, two children and far too many pets.