The call room is quiet. Athletes pace nervously, some stretch, others adjust shoes, or check fastenings on numbers for the umpteenth time.
Surreptitious looks at fellow competitors, sizing them up, assessing. The clothing, shoes, appearance, demeanour. Are they relaxed, keyed up, chatting nervously, focused? Whilst examining you try to remain remote, detached, concentrating on your own rhythms. Breathing relaxed and easy, trying not to sweat too much. Nerves will do this, wasting valuable liquid.
The call comes, “Athletes to the track.”
The lady official, clipboard in hand, waits at the door. No way back now. All checks have to be complete, preparation time is over.
So trust. Trust in your training, trust in your form, trust in your experience.
Outside it is blustery and drizzling, a sharp contrast to the air conditioned calm of inside. Not cold though, some crumb of comfort.
You cross the infield, a blazer clad official leading twelve competitors to the back straight. No-one talks, all locked in their own thoughts. Some may glance at the stand for friends or family, whilst for others this would be an unwelcome distraction.
You have five minutes. Use them well. Strip off leggings, exposing bare skin to the elements, the breeze feels refreshing, invigorating. Some strides - short shuttle sprints, designed to raise the heart rate, but equally good to channel the nervous energy plucking at your muscle fibres. Four, maybe six. You can sweat now, you need to sweat, this is where the work begins.
You are summoned forward. Rest of kit removed. Just vest and shorts now, as lightweight as possible. A sheen of rain glistens on your skin. Your number is called, placing you in order behind the start line. Shoulder to shoulder with your competitors. Poised, you are acutely aware of the starter’s voice.
Instinct impells you forward, athletes converge, hunting for the inside line. Legs touch, bumping, jostling, not enough for a recall. You run confidently, elbows thrust out slightly, creating an area of protection.
You find yourself in second place. The wind whips down the home straight, buffeting the leader, but in his slipstream you are sheltered. A near perfect start.
And so it goes on. This is championship racing. You are here to win. No working with other competitors to generate a good time. Here you have to exercise restraint. Forget the clock, an almost alien concept as so much of what you do is time driven.
So you sit in, allowing your keen leader to pull things along, with the bunch doing the same in your wake. Twelve and a half laps.
Although the pace is acceptable, it soon begins to hurt. Try to relax, shoulders, arms, breathing. Even now demeanour is important. With every step you are sending messages to your fellow competitors. All will be getting tired, all will have doubts about their own ability and all will contemplate the possibility that you are feeling better than they.
But of course, what is for them is also for you. How do they look? The leader must be confident to take the race on in these conditions. You can’t see those behind you. Are they tracking you even as you mark the leader? Just relax and stay in touch. One area of confidence, the major weapon in your armoury is your finish. You doubt any can out kick you in the last moments of the race. Maybe this is an entirely erroneous opinion, but it matters not. Your coach, supporters and yourself have instilled this belief. It is integral to your race plan.
A mile in, the rhythm of the race has settled, you are feeling good. Stride alters to avoid clipping the heels of the man you are following so closely. Initial nerves now quelled, you are eager to attack the heart of the race. You step out from the shelter of the lead runner and the wind buffets you. Back inside. The plan. Stick to the plan.
Second mile, four laps to go. You feel tired now, trying to avoid the tension that fatigue will bring. Five minutes of racing remain. Training, good wishes of friends and family, the distance and time you have taken today to reach the start line, all distilled into the next few minutes.
An attack. From the dwindling group behind, someone surges. It’s on. He passes the leader and yourself, a sudden five metre lead as you head down the back straight. The gap sticks but does not extend, not a determined break, one fired by panic. You respond. Ten strides and the two of you are upon him. Twenty and you are past. His race is done.
Three laps. The skirmish has pushed up the pace. You don’t look behind (NEVER look behind) but there is no footfall pursuing. Down to two. The leader eases back. You decide to test him. Your turn to surge, fifteen hard strides. He responds and responds well. As you enter the last kilometre the roles are reversed. Now you are the hare to his greyhound.
Two laps. He has you where he wants you. Instinct tells you the gloves are off, time to race, push on, but he can see everything you do, whilst you nothing of him. It is not yet time, so you dramatically slow and step to the side. Into lane two. Almost without realising he draws level, on your inside. He glances across, uncertain. Excellent. Doubt you can and must feed off. The pace quickens once more. He covered your break, hauled you back, he should take some confidence from that. You still believe, have to believe in your finish, it’s all there is left now.
One lap. The bell. Fight the explosion of adrenalin that courses through your muscles. You run shoulder to shoulder, another upward shift in momentum. His intention is to grind you down. How much have you got left? When you go, you go. It will be with everything. In these last moments he cannot be allowed to get a gap, stick on his shoulder, let him work, attack as late as -
And you go. Instinct and experience combine. There is a headwind in the home straight, this needs to be finished before it comes into play. At two hundred and fifty metres you unleash your sprint. It is everything you have, all in and it has blown your rival away. He may respond, but fatigue has dulled his senses, blunted his reactions.
Last bend. There, ahead, an insignificant white line, one you have already crossed twelve times. Tunnel vision, locked in. Maintain form, arms pumping, stride stretching out as muscles contract, infested with lactic acid. Maintain, maintain, maintain.
Fifty metres. As suddenly as it came, it goes. Your last burst has emptied the well, there is nothing left to draw on and for the first time you break the golden rule and glance behind. The gap is surprisingly large, but also closing. He has recovered from the shock of your instantaneous attack and is giving chase. Hard.
Drive, drive for the line. Beyond the line. Give nothing away. You deserve this. You have earned this. It is rightfully yours. Take it.
Then relief. The overriding emotion. Not jubilation, but relief as you sink to your knees, hands slap against the wet tartan of the track. Great rasping, shuddering breaths.
For a short while victory has quelled the demon, the urge that drives you on, pushes you to continue. For now it is quiet. You have won. And until training rolls around again, that is all that matters.