1993 Part IV: why didn’t he keep his mouth shut!

Celebrations after the 100m had to be put on hold for at least a couple of days as I still had loads more races to get through, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to throw away my chances of more medals just for a quick hit of alcohol.

The 200m was going to involve the same athletes as had competed in the 100m, plus a couple of 400m guys who had dropped back in distance to the 200m as well.  As a general rule, because the 200m was made up of both 100m and 400m runners it was always more competitive, so it was going to be tough.  I cruised through the heats in about 25.1 secs.  Although this time was nothing out of the ordinary it was the way that I did it that started people talking.  I blasted around the bend in lane 7, and after easing off a bit for 20m down the straight I basically jogged for the last 60m or so, chatting with CS about how far clear I was.  My team mates were buzzing with how easy it looked, and predictions were being made about how low they thought I could and would go in the next round and the final.  The main inquisitor was RL, and knowing what I know now he was probably trying to get inside information in order to win himself some money by betting on me.

I had been drawn in lane 1 for the semi-final, and the heat looked like a good one for me.  If I had run a bit faster in the heats I would have got a better lane draw, but that’s always the problem: a balance must be struck between conserving energy and securing a good lane draw.  Warm up had gone as well as could be expected; I was soaked to the skin, but I had managed to get my muscles warm so I couldn’t really complain.  CS set up my blocks and we tried them out to make sure they were in the correct position.  We didn’t do a practice start, but I was happy with my settings.  The starter called us to our marks, and we settled down on our blocks.  The gun went, and CS and I flew out of our blocks in perfect unison, but unfortunately we did not fly out in the same direction.  CS took the correct direction, just running on the outside of the line between lane 1 and lane 2, whilst I tried to take a short cut across the infield.  The feel of grass under my feet provoked a rather rude enquiry as to just what exactly was going on, and CS to nearly suffer a dislocated shoulder.  My initial reaction had been to slow down just in case I was going to crash into someone or something, but my competitive instinct kicked in almost immediately and I jumped back onto the track.  As I attempted to accelerate back up to speed and catch up with the quickly disappearing competitors CS had to crudely barge me to keep me in my lane as by this time I had lost all sense of direction.  After 30m or so I had regained my directional sense and was starting to get up to full speed.  Adrenalin must have been blasting through my veins as I flew down the home straight, for once hardly tiring at all.  I had picked off one of my fellow competitors, but I hadn’t managed to make it into the single automatic qualifying place for the final.  It would all depend on my time.    24.85 secs was at that time my fastest ever 200m as a blind athlete, but as it was the fifth fastest time overall I would not be running in the final.  I had missed out by just 0.01 secs.  If I had managed to scrape through to the final, and if I had managed to take the correct route, I’m sure I would have won a medal, but it was quite clearly not meant to be at that time.  I would have to wait for another day until I would win a 200m medal and do myself justice in the process.

At least not qualifying for the final gave me a bit of a rest, and I was extremely grateful for that small mercy as the next event looming large on the horizon was the 400m.  I had prepared reasonably well for the event, although nothing like how prepared I would be in later life, but it was a daunting prospect due to the horrors of the timetable.  The programme had set the heats for the morning, with a semi-final straight after lunch, and the final only an hour or two later.  I wasn’t really that bothered about how close the final was to the semi as there was little or no chance of me getting through, as a flat out heat would mean that 3 hours recovery would probably not be enough for me to perform to my optimum in the semi.  Nevertheless, I was willing to give it a go.  Yorkshire men are not renowned as giving up easily, and I wasn’t about to break tradition.

On the day of the 400m the weather changed.  Driving winds were added to the steady downpour to make pace judgment vital.  I found it very difficult to judge the pace correctly, as the howling wind blew directly into our faces down the back straight, which meant that by half way round the final bend in my heart I was completely knackered.  I struggled down the home straight with the wind pushing me onwards to scramble over the finishing line in a time of 56.5 secs.

I was disappointed with the time, but I drew consolation from the fact that I had given my all, as could be judged by the fact that I laid flat out on the track for a good five minutes before I could scramble to the side for my usual 40 minutes of trying my hardest not to vomit.  The only thing that can possibly make feeling that ill any worse is being told that you have to do it all again in just a couple of hours’ time, and that is what happened as I had just scraped into the semi-finals as the second slowest qualifier.

Once I was able to stand up, I staggered to the dining hall where I sat and pushed some rice around my plate, knowing that whatever I did manage to swallow would surely re visit me shortly.  Of all the things that I miss about athletics two things clearly stand out that I do not miss even slightly:  warming up, especially stretching, and trying to eat a meal prior to running a 400m.  You know that you need the energy, but it’s just so difficult to force anything down due to feeling so sick.  As usual, myself and CS analysed my chances of getting through to the final.  I thought I had absolutely no chance, but CS, as all good guide runners do, spent the meal time trying to convince me that I was in with a chance of winning the event, never mind just getting through to the final.  This kind of attitude of my guides always rubbed me up the wrong way.  Why couldn’t they just let me wallow in self-pity, and why did they always have to be so enthusiastic?  All I wanted to do was go back to bed with a couple of pain killers for my aching back and legs.

Having managed to swallow a couple of grains of rice, a drink or two and some bread, we wandered off back to the muddy field to warm up for the next round of torture.  I say warm up, but basically it was just a matter of trying to get used to the pain from my hamstrings.  It was always the case by this stage of a championships, hamstrings so tight that touching toes was possible but it hurt like never before, so it was avoided at all costs.  I had convinced myself that I only had this one 400m left to go on the day as I was only faster than one of the other qualifiers for the semi’s, and thus 6 others were faster than me.

Whatever my motivation or thought processes which led me to concentrate on such negative facts it always had the effect of relaxing me.  Despite weeks and months of training where my focus was always on giving every last bit of effort to help me secure my dreams of gold medals when it came to the races themselves I always reverted to the same thought processes:  it didn’t really matter, who cares if I don’t win, I’ve always got next year and the year after that.  I don’t think that at that stage in my career I would ever have been positive about my chances unless I had the best time by a mile, enough to cope with a bad run or a massive improvement from my competitors.  Even though this mental approach would not have been recommended by any professional psychologist, the fact was that I always performed at or near to my best at championships, which to me meant that I wasn’t doing too much wrong.  What I could have achieved with a positive attitude prior to stripping off my track suit who knows.  But one thing was for sure: as soon as my track suit came off and I got ready to start the race the vast majority of my negative thoughts left my mind and I became the ultra-competitive running machine.  Maybe it was this balance between being very negative whilst warming up and then suddenly switching to ultra-positive which protected me from burning up too much energy before it was necessary but still allowed me to perform when push came to shove.

It was still very windy and wet when we were called on to our marks for the semi-final.  We set off as one, as was now becoming the norm, and as we ran I could hear the footfall of my competitors around me and knew that we were not doing too badly.  However, by the time we reached half distance I was beginning to struggle.  No matter how much I was hoping that I would not make it through to the final so that I could get out of this painful activity the competitive side of my mind wouldn’t allow such feelings to stop it from pushing me on.  I struggled and worked as hard as was possible for my aching limbs, but as my legs and arms got progressively heavier I started to slow.  The crowd, again made up purely of my brilliant team mates and supporters who braved the conditions, tried their best to cheer me on, but I had nothing left in my legs.  I could tell that at least one athlete was in front of me, and by some way I thought, and knew it was close between myself and the other guys.  As I crossed the line I knew I had not made the automatic qualifying position, and presumed that that was the end of the 400m for me this time round.  I bent over, hands on knees, and then managed to make it to the edge of the track where I laid flat out on my back, eyes tight shut, gasping for breath.  CS knew I had given my everything as usual, and was pleased but disappointed as like me he felt we hadn’t made it through to the final.  Several of my team mates eventually wandered over to commiserate with me, and found it highly amusing that my face was exactly the same colour as the running track.  I laid there, in a little puddle (not created by me!), in just my shorts and vest for 20 minutes or so, not caring what time I had run, just looking forward to a shower and a lay down on a comfortable bed.

I could hear a bit of a commotion near to the finishing line and I hoped that it wasn’t news of a competitor being disqualified, thus elevating me into one of the final positions.  There was no way on earth I would be able to do that again in less than 90 minutes time.  I heard MW dashing over to us to convey the news.  No athletes had in fact been disqualified, but it didn’t matter, as my time of 55.5 secs meant that I had qualified for the final.  When would this pleasure ever end?  I had the energy to swear, and to get up onto my hands and knees and throw up.  Then I laid back down and cursed my luck.  The slowest qualifier: someone up there really didn’t like me.  I would have to give my all again and would probably still come last and finish up with nothing for all my efforts.  Why couldn’t I just give up now?

CS was ecstatic, partly at the thought of a potential medal, and partly at the thought of putting me through it all over again.  Everybody in the team was also pleased, especially MW who knew how I reacted to running 400’s, and he found it highly amusing.  He just kept on giggling as I laid there in my puddle which was getting quite warm now, and he kept patting me on my head and shoulders, content that it was someone else who was suffering and not him.  This is the kind of camaraderie which exists between those who find 400m just beyond their bodily limits.

As the slowest qualifier for the final I was given lane 1.  This would mean that if as I predicted I finished last I wouldn’t hear any of my competitors at all, so at least I wouldn’t know just how far I had been beaten by.  Warm up was non-existent, just a couple of jogs and strides and I was as ready as I would ever be.  By that time the wind had really picked up.  It was blowing an absolute gale so after the first 50m or so the wind would hit me until we had got to 250m.  Trying to battle against the wind was futile, the only thing to do was to relax into it and save as much energy as was possible.  However, I was so tired and apprehensive about having to put my body through that pain again that I didn’t care about tactics.  I could hardly get out of a jog in my warm up, so worrying about tactics was the last thing on my mind.  If I made it to the finishing line that would be an achievement.  Everything is relative, and for me running three 400m races within 4 hours was something I had never done, and just finishing them all in reasonably good times would be something to draw upon in the future.

I vaguely recall being introduced to the crowd, all 12 or so who knew me personally anyway as it happened, and then limping to my blocks.  The gun went and CS and I ambled out of our blocks and started around the bend.  Forget setting off fast, I wanted to finish the race after all.  I couldn’t do with the embarrassment of slowing to a walk in the home straight, that would be too much to bear, especially if I was miles behind the others.  So damage limitation was most definitely the order of the day.

The wind hit us as expected half way round the bend.  It was really disorienting: not only could I see nothing but now I could only hear the wind screaming in my ears.  Occasionally I could hear CS trying to encourage me on, but at that time I didn’t care how fast he wanted me to go, I was just interested in getting around.  There was no way I was going to put any more effort in, I was going along quite nicely and that was all I cared about.  By the time we had hit the end of the back straight I had heard no other footfall apart from our own, and I quite vividly recall feeling that this was potentially going to be very embarrassing as I was surely miles behind.  Maybe I had been taking it far too steadily in an attempt to ensure I completed the course, and maybe that was why CS had been shouting at me.  I decided that I’d better put in a bit of effort, so from about 190m from the finish I tried to accelerate.  My legs responded as best as they could, but there was no immediate response, so after 20m or 30m I eased off the extra effort and just settled for relaxing through to the finish line.  Who cared how far I was beaten by, I had given my best and it just wasn’t good enough.  There would be other championships and hopefully I’d be fitter by then.  As long as I didn’t get beaten that far I truly didn’t care where I finished, or in what time.

I could tell that we were approaching the straight as the wind had started to get behind us, and I started to hear things other than myself and CS again.  The first noise that registered with me as we hit the straight was the vast amount of noise that the crowd were making.  It must be a really close exciting race up ahead I thought, and just kept on working hard but relaxing through to the line.  Milliseconds later a thought hit me: it was horrible weather, so the only people in the crowd would be the GB team, and it wasn’t like my team mates to get that excited about other countries’ athletes, which obviously meant that the other three athletes were line abreast across the track with little old me bringing up the rear.  I recall thinking that I couldn’t wait to hear a description of the race from someone as it was typically my luck to miss out on what was going on in the most exciting race of the championships.

A further millisecond later another thought hit me: perhaps, just perhaps, the crowd may be getting excited because I was in with a chance of a medal, but surely not.  I decided that my original thought was the correct one: it must be really close as they were going absolutely mental.  A second or two later CS seemed to be getting a bit excited as well.  “come on, come on” he started shouting out.  I must admit I was a bit annoyed that he was concentrating on the race up front when he should be concentrating on me, but as long as he was enjoying himself I didn’t care.  I just kept focusing on working as hard as I could without busting a gut and tried to relax through to the finishing line, and it seemed to be working quite well as I didn’t feel like I was slowing or tiring that badly.

My second thought began to re-surface: maybe he was getting excited because I was in with a chance of a medal after all, but that can’t be what’s happening, can it?  Then, one of those pivotal moments in an athletes career happened.  It will stay with me forever, and how I wish that it had never happened.  CS shouted out, at the top of his voice, and most excitedly “come on, come on, you’re going to win!”  It was like one of those cartoon moments where the character’s eyes pop out of their head with surprise.  You could quite literally have knocked me over with a feather.  Surely this couldn’t be happening, CS must be mad.  But then my ears searched the surroundings for supporting evidence, and suddenly loud shouting in foreign voices came into focus just behind me.  I could hear no noise coming from in front of me.  Bloody hell, he was right!  Within two strides I went from a laid back relaxed athlete who was not feeling particularly tired to the exact opposite.  My arms and shoulders became tight and difficult to move, and my legs became heavy and stuck to the track.  My fairly flowing stride quickly became short and quicker.  All I had to do was get to the line, but suddenly it seemed an impossible task to make it to the end of the race.  My stride shortened drastically, and in an attempt to keep my forward momentum I started to lean, desperately in need of the finishing line.  As the line refused to come to me, my lean became more pronounced and my form more erratic.  It was a close run thing, but eventually Mr Newton and his gravity won the battle and I crashed to the ground.  So much for doing everything to avoid embarrassment!

CS had bravely tried to keep me on my feet by taking my weight through the guide rope.  The effect of this made me go down left shoulder first as my right hand was held in the air.  As my weight became too much for CS to bear, my hand slipped from the rope as my back slapped onto the soddened track.  My right arm smacked with great force onto the concrete path which surrounded the inside of the track, and for a couple of seconds all I could focus on was the pain in that wrist.  I had broken that wrist when I was 13 playing rugby, so I was concerned that I might have broken it again.  Once I realised it was not broken I returned to my current predicament.  Yet again I was laid flat out on my back, in a puddle, feeling like immediate euthanasia would be a blessing.  The only thing different from usual was that this time I had adopted this position before the race had finished.  I knew this was the last race of the day, so I was blown if I was going to move in any great hurry, after all, if I did move, I would only adopt this same position a few yards further down the track, so why bother?

I heard a set of feet walk over to where I lay.  It was the Irish track referee, who was well known to our team.  He asked me if I was alright, and I replied that I thought I was.  Just as I was expecting him to ask if I didn’t mind getting up and finishing the race he said “at least you’ve won the bronze”.  CS and I couldn’t believe it, and I think I almost broke out into a smile.

CS deserved a rest and so KA, who was at the championships as one of the coaches, took me on my warm down, which basically involved slowly walking two laps on the track and discussing my performance and how I could improve.  The next time I would come across KA in a coaching sense would be in 2002.  If only I had realised in 1993 the knowledge that this man carried around with him I am sure my performances throughout the nineties would have been greatly improved.  By 2003, when he influenced how I trained, prepared and even ran my races, although I was willing to listen and do everything which he asked of me, my body was not able to give KA everything which he asked and which I tried to deliver.  This is one of the few regrets I have from my athletics career.

The medal ceremony, although very damp and miserable in one sense, was a very pleasurable experience.  I ached from head to toe, and my sprained wrist was heavily bandaged, but I didn’t care.  It was now all worth it.  The bronze medal in the hardest of events for me meant so much.  I would learn many a lesson from the experience, especially the benefits of relaxing and taking no notice of what is going on around you.  I would also learn to warn my guides not to come out with such outbursts in the future, and let them know that if I was going to win I could wait until after the finishing line to find that out.  The Guinness flowed that night, but only to reasonable levels as we still had the relays to take care of on the last day.

The last day arrived and the weather finally relented and mild and dry was the order of the day.  It didn’t really matter though as my kit was soaking wet, and my spikes had retained most of the water from the previous day as well.  Whilst we had both the relays to compete in, others in our team also had finals to deal with.  The marathon lads were out in force.  Due to the predicted scorching temperatures of 15 degrees centigrade the marathon was to be run at the ridiculously early hour of 9:00 am.  Two of our apartment mates were competing in the race, so they had to rise at 4:30 am in order to get their pre-race meals down and digested by race time.  They were up and off down to the track before I had even started my daily routine of waking CS from his drunken stupor.  Our pre-race routine was exactly the same as usual with one slight difference.  On the way to the track we took our usual short cut through a copse of trees, but whereas normally this passed without incident I managed to stand in a massive pile of poo.  No amount of dragging my feet along the grass could get rid of it from my trainers, and the smell followed me around all day, much to my great annoyance.

When we reached the track the talk was all about the finish to the marathon.  My good friend MF had been leading all the way and was a minute or so clear of the second placed athlete when he followed the lead motorcycle into the college campus for the final few hundred metres.  A turn left, then a turn right, then another right and the bike stopped.  MF stopped alongside and asked what was going on.  The driver told him that he was lost and didn’t have a clue where the finishing line was.  As MF had got to know the area fairly well through his early morning runs he set off on his own to try and find the finish.  It didn’t take him long to find it, but unfortunately for him several of the other athletes had found it before he had.  Luckily, unlike many other sporting events around the world, common sense prevailed and he was in fact awarded the gold medal.  Any other decision would have been to make a mockery of the event.

Other problems occurred on that day, notably the women’s 3000m race.  The red hot favourite was RP from Russia.  RP always won, whatever the distance, and so interest in the event was the kind where you kept asking how far is RP clear, etc.  However, there was a twist in the tail.  After 7 laps of the race RP took up the lead and committed to a blistering sprint finish for the final 200m of the race.  This took her 30m clear of the other girls, and as she crossed the line she raised her arms into the air to be greeted by the clanging of the bell.  The only people in the stadium who thought that she had a lap to go were the officials.  The other athletes, although knowing it to be a mistake, had the benefit of hearing the bell whilst they were approaching the finishing line and so carried on.  RP, after arguing with the officials, set off after them once it became clear that they were not going to change their minds.  She caught them up and was back challenging.  Despite her heroics, the efforts of winning the 3000m race meant that she was forced to settle for minor honours in the 3,400m race.

The relays went well for us, a bronze in the 100m relay and a silver in the 400m relay.  Although we were hoping for a gold in the 400m relay we were without NT who had competed in the marathon, so we were quite happy to settle for silver behind the very strong Spanish team.  I was personally pleased with my haul of two silvers and two bronzes.  I would definitely have settled for that prior to the championships.

While some of us were busy winning medals in the relays, RL had been busy borrowing money and placing a bet on the St Leger.  As a keen racing fan RL borrowed a small fortune to place on Bob’s Return which duly won the final classic of the season at 7-2, thus giving him a fair amount to blow on the final night.  The rest of us had to make do with copious amounts of beer, RL treated himself to a skin full.  It was probably well deserved, as his body had taken the usual battering from his jumping exploits.  He managed to do his usual of jumping too early and landing on the run way and suffered the associated injuries, and also gave one of the judges the shock of his life by taking off at a funny angle and landing with his legs either side of the judges waist.  It was probably the case that RL had heard a lovely Irish voice and was aiming for that person but got his take off angle wrong.  It was at least an original chat up line though.

During the last night I met up with MF and caught up on his marathon experience.  He descried his misfortune in great depth, and I for my part threw in my misfortune at stepping in the pile of poo on my way to the track.  MF seemed to take a great deal of interest in this event, and asked where exactly I had stepped in it.  I described the route we had taken, and the trees where I had stepped in it.  He burst out laughing and confessed that he had been taken short whilst waiting to start the race and those trees were the only reasonable hiding place as the toilets at the track were not open at the time.  He didn’t even offer to clean my trainers for me.

One of our number, who shall remain nameless, had an interesting last night.  Having danced himself to a standstill he took a Russian girl up on her offer of returning to her room.  Activities of a certain nature were entered into, but the poor Brit thought that something wasn’t quite right, but couldn’t quite put his somewhat drunken poorly coordinated finger on exactly what.  Eventually he sussed it out, there were two girls in the room with him, and double the enjoyment.  I think he may have enjoyed it more if he had realised earlier, but he didn’t complain.  Whilst the rest of us sat on the coach waiting to go to the airport and tried to piece together the vague recollections of the night before, the Brit in question was found wandering around outside the Russian quarters, stickless and clueless, with a large smile on his face!