To be honest, I'm a complete basket-case before a race, prone to catastrophising, introspection and a whack-load of good old-fashioned performance anxiety. These feelings were heightened by the circumstances of the relay. In a full-strength RNS event over this kind of distance, such as Enfield, Natal Day or Berwick, a top ten position would be expected, maybe top five. The nature of the event, a ten-person relay team, meant that most of the guys and gals who usually put the boot to me every other Sunday were on my team. Furthermore, in this ten-leg relay, the probability of the other guys and gals who put the boot in me, running the same leg was also substantially reduced. This left the uncomfortable feeling that I could win the leg. There's nothing wrong with winning, but it's nice to come as a surprise, for me at least. Going in as the odds-on favourite (even if it is only in your own mind) is a bit too much pressure. Of course, you always tell yourself that it's not the win that counts, its the time. After all, one's placing is an artifact of who turns up (an unknown quantity) whereas one's time is more of an absolute (known) quantity and at least it is one you can control. Plus, with the Barrel at stake it only mattered if I put time into (or at least didn't concede too much time to) the Oxfool! But who doesn't want the win eh?
I got to the start at 05:45, a bit too early for a runner and having chivied la belle out of the apartment at 05:15 for the relatively short drive to the start I rather suspect I'll be hearing about this for a while! I tried to kid myself this was to check in with the Gonzo Tech Crew (even more so as it was her first time on the crew) but in reality it was to keep my anxiety levels down to the size of a small Easter-egg basket rather than a fully fledged picnic hamper. I missed all the early excitement, a two-car fender-bender at the car-park entrance as I was out warming up. I saw it and remember thinking, hoping, that a relay-associated accident before the event had even started wasn't a bad omen. I tried not to think about that, or the competition, and used my iPod to keep my focus on my personal performance, the performace of others is out of your control and to a point, not worth worrying about (but who doesn't get a bit Tonya Harding at times like this?). I picked up my dossard from team captain Jeff Courish, who didn't know who the Oxfools were running in this leg. I was hoping it wasn't team captain Harry Neynens.
Once at the start-line, I took a place in the front row and looked around. No Harry! Shawn Delu looked at me and said "oh no, I've got to chase you again"; you know, it's nice to be seen as a bit of a nemesis! Perhaps its because one is seen as an animator in the event, someone who makes the racing rather than follows it? I remember doing a road-race back in the UK and I managed to sneak into the winning break, from which I was spectacularly dropped on the last lap when I blew up so hard I think there are still bits of me in trees near Ipswitch. Anyway, far from being disconsolate at going from lead break to lanterne rouge in about three minutes I was pleased at having been part of the pointy end of the race for a while, rather than grinding around eastern Essex in the peleton for two hours for no apparent reason and to no avail.
Enough navel-gazing. Seconds before the off a semi-familiar face introduced himself; it was Derek Estabrooks, with whom I'd had quite the duel with at Cole Harbour. We'd pushed each other all the way for six miles at CH and two weeks later here we were again, with an extra two miles this time. And he was the Oxfool. Ah-ha, here's the competition, the game is afoot!
At 06:30 Mark Stein released the 60 of us from the start-line. I took a few strong strides to get off the front and looked around after 100m or so to see who had come with me; Shawn and Derek. Given that we were obviously together for the long-haul (well 13 km) I asked Shawn and Derek if they knew each other. They did not. When Derek introduced himself Shawn asked "oh, don't you still own a couple of junior records?". Uh-oh, this didn't sound good. Apparently Derek was quite the junior trackie, 1000 and 1500m kind of thing. Oh crap, I thought; here is a guy with track-smarts and I definitely didn't need to get into a sprint with him! So it was Plan A then; take a flier and don't get involved in a finish-line scrap.
Unfortunately Plan A did not go to plan, as Derek and I matched each other stride for stride on the rolling and seemingly trending uphill course. Fortunately it was still dark and I couldn't see the Garmin, but you know, who needs it? This was a race, a duel, and what mattered was not getting dropped by Derek, not the numbers on the idiot box. We were both racing as hard as we could and what did it matter of we were doing 4:30 or 3:30 kilometres, if my HR was at 80 or 180 bpm, as long as I was on his heels?
We kept the pace up hill and down dale, but it seemed to be more hill than dale, and Shawn was dropped after 5 kms or so, leaving the two of us in front. I still had no idea of the pace but was feeling good and that's what counts in these situations. It wasn't an easy pace but it was in my limits. I tried to run smart, maybe force the pace a bit on the uphills to see how Derek ran them (Cole Harbour was a pretty flat course) and tried to cruise whatever downhills there were. The team showed up at the side of the road too to cheer not too long after the start, and I saw them every kilometre or so. Big thanks to Rami, Denise, Minh, Louis, Ray, Jeff, Charles, Randall and Nick who all showed up at oh-dark-thirty and cheered their guts out. Poor Derek didn't get a cheer until 10 kms and even then it was a pretty restrained "Looking good man" floating out from the drivers' window of a passing truck.
Around 8 kms, with 5 km to go, the coach in Louis came out and in addition to the "you go"and "looking strong" I started to hear "be patient". Louis was reading my mind and despite having a serious case of runners' brain going on the message finally sunk in. Plan A, the "gun-to-tape" looooooong flier (a la RRR Leg #4 2007), was gone and Louis obviously knew I was contemplating Plan B, the long flier from several miles out (a la 2007 Moose). To be honest I couldn't shake Derek (or he couldn't shake me) and not wanting to get involved in the sprint, Plan B was looking attractive. Even if I wasn't sure I had the legs I thought I had to go for it. Coach L convinced me to stay. So we cruised down the long downhill past Exhibition Park to the left-hand turn and with 3 km to go immediately started to climb again. I had entertained thoughts that I'd be able to drop Derek here by doing nothing but keeping my tempo but the climb was deceptively tough and it was still gruppo compacto at the Timmies at the top. Last year the Tech Crew stopped here for breakfast on the way to set up the Leg#1 finish but I was somewhat distracted this year; the thought of a coffee and a breakfast sandwich (sausage on a sesame bagel) didn't even cross my mind (and that should tell you something).
So, two kilometres to go and I had an ex-junior trackie on my heels who like all good record-holding trackies was probably visualising his sprint. I, however, was visualising my breakfast, but more in a déjà mangé kinda way. Now granted, Derek is in the age-group above mine but two weeks before we'd really taken it to each other and I was entertaining no illusions about his ability to win the sprint. Unfortunately it was looking like Plan C (go hard with less than a 1000 metres to go) or Plan D (elbows out, head down, sprint and may the best man win), neither of which I had experience with and neither of which suit my temperament. I racked my brains as to how the road went, trying to find some element of local knowledge that could help but unfortunately I always ride this road the other way, so that was no good!
For the first time that morning I checked the Garmin. I'd been told the leg was 13.1 km so I bided my time through 11 and 12 kilometres, waiting, waiting, waiting. It seemed like forever but it must have been only five or six minutes (tops). At 12.6 km the road went up again (quelle surprise) and I thought this was it; 13.1 km leg, 500 m to go, hill, GO! So I booted it. The merest of shoulder-checks said the gap was there so as I crested the hill I scanned the scene in front of me and ........
....... nothing. No school, no cones, no marshals in reflective vests , no Mark Stein music, no lit-up lead-car. NOTHING. Saint ciboire de crisse de sacrement de TABARNAK!! Had I gone too early? I had gone too early! The leg clearly wasn't 13.1 kilometres so what was it? 13.2, 13.3, 13.7? If you are mid-pack wanting to finish, the difference between 13.1 and 13.7 is a couple of minutes but kinda academic and unlikely to ruin your day (unless a PB is in the cards) but in a tight finish and having just fired your finishing kick (evidently too early) every 100 m counted now. Could Derek close that gap? How long could I keep that pace. What did Derek have in the tank? What was his finishing kick like?
The guys were still at the side of the road cheering; I don't know why but I looked around. It's finish line ettiquette 101; "no point looking back once you've gone for the line, 'cos you're committed (like the pig)". Now I think about it there are a few more finish line rules like "there is nothing uncooler than sprinting for 20th place" or "only a cad and a bounder outsprints a woman if she's paced you all the way". Both rules would be broken many, many times this day but unfortunately the Gonzos don't have rules for this yet. Anyway, back to that half-assed sprint. Maybe there was change in their tone, perhaps even panic. The shoulder-check showed the one sight I didn't want to see: Derek was on a charge and closing the gap. I could see the finishing chute now, in fact everything I looked for a minute earlier was there now; the marshals, the cones, the flashing cars and, God bless him, Mark Stein (but the music was off in deference to being in a residential nieghbourhood at 07:20 but what wouldn't I have given for a blast of "Gonna Fly Now"?). I squeezed out another few metres per second, Derek wasn't coming back now but it was still too early to ease up. Meanwhile Louis was shouting like a Lamzes coach (push push, its time its time be strong mazel tov, it's a boy!).
I dug in for the final few metres and blew through the finishing line at full tilt, with my arms in the air, knowing I had squeezed a victory by the merest of margins (two seconds was the official gap). In the grand scheme of things, a two second gap over the Oxfools with only 13.7 kms of racing down and another 97 km to go, two seconds in a race which would be 6.5 hrs long was not a lot. It did, however, give us the pyschological edge and perhaps this early in the relay being on the ascendancy was a good thing. Or perhaps being on the back foot would spur the Oxfools on. Who knew?
After spending the traditional two minutes on the floor, I went to get changed, only stopping for Tom Rogers who wanted to get photographic evidence of a huge fashion faux pas. The socks were white, don't worry, but I'd done something much, much worse. That story and more later....
Thanks for reading