The crowd surges ahead of me, rippling out as far as the eye can see, like the hide of some great beast, stretching out, flexing, testing its strength as if preparing for battle. The air ripples, charged with nervous excitement as we gather here in our thousands on this dull, grey, unspecial October morning.
All around me people are tense, waiting. Some stretch their limbs, some talk in quick, machine-gun bursts, eyes casting out over the crowd ahead. I stand silent and still trying to quell the snakes churning in my belly, trying to tell myself that I can do this. I will do it.
Somewhere in the noise, within the blaring music, the babbling commentator, the cheering crowd, I can hear the quiet rustling of the race numbers pinned to our chests like shields.
Then, quite suddenly, we are moving. A slow, shambling, shuffling towards the start. It is a sliver of orange electric light in the distance that grows and grows until suddenly it is looming overhead, roaring its terrible, thundering music over the bellowing onlookers and we are running.
The start is strong. People laugh and talk and shout words of encouragement. The pace is steady, the mood is bright. There is a man dressed as a bee and another as a hotdog. A group of women in matching charity t-shirts power together through the crowds. The world is awash with greens and reds and oranges. Fluorescent stripes and flicking ponytails, peaked caps and foreheads just beginning to prickle with sweat.
It is only later that things begin to sour. At the 9th mile no-one is laughing. I am surrounded by a sea of clenched jaws and sour sweat, determined grimaces, eyes down, one foot heavy, leaden in front of the other, again and again and again.
My mind wanders, spinning away from the cheering people and their children handing out sugary sweets, leaving behind the pain of my thighs and the burning in my chest. My thoughts flit among the mundane: last night’s meal of pasta and sauce, how soft my duvet had felt before I left it, the shower plughole clogged with strings of my housemate’s long brown hair. Anything that isn’t this road, this pain, this terrible, relentless beast that will not be beaten.
But then comes mile twelve. We pass the brass band and the end is in sight. Someone pats me encouragingly on the back and we share a quick smile that carries worlds within it. The last push over the last hill, through the straggling remains of the crowd who still clap and cheer. As one we round the corner and pour, like water, across the finish.
Fire rages through every muscle, my throat burns and my fist clenches over the medal they press into my clammy palm. Nausea rises in my belly, pain swims in my eyes. Even stopping running doesn’t stop the painMy back is drenched in sweat and my feet are sore to bleeding. I lean heavily against the wall, waiting for it all to be over.
Until next year.