1994: Bronzed in Berlin – Part II

The Brazilians failed to win a medal that day, and thus I did manage to get some sleep that night, four hours or so.  I woke with great expectations safe in the knowledge that I had slept more than the previous night which had been followed by a personal best.  Warm up was easier as there were only six of us, so a massive backlog was not going to be an issue again.  The first two runners went, nothing to worry about there.  The third runner was DC, an Australian who had won the bronze medals in the 200m and 400m at Barcelona.  Despite his credentials, I was still surprised when he improved on his heat time of over 12 secs to run 11.89 secs, but I knew that I could beat that, and I was going to.  The fourth runner went, and his time was again over 12 seconds, so nothing to worry about there.  And then it was my turn.

Blocks were put down, we tested them, and then stripped off.  This was going to be my day.  All I had to do was find a little bit more speed and hope the Russian didn’t do likewise and I’d have it.  We didn’t do that much wrong in the race, a well guided run, but there wasn’t very much in my legs.  Whether I was trying that little bit too hard, or whether I was trying to relax so much that I over did it I don’t know.  Whilst it is impossible to determine the effect the previous night’s lack of sleep had on me, it couldn’t have helped.  My time of 11.94 secs was very disappointing, but at least it was a medal, and as it was my first individual medal at world level I had to be pleased.  For completeness, SS again ran 11.73 secs to take the gold medal.  The Ozzie, presumably so upset with his pathetic silver medal, and the other pathetic non gold medals he won in the 200m and 400m, was never seen, heard or smelled of at a championship again.

Our celebrations were a bit muted, and definitely not as wild as the Brazilians.  The flowers I was presented with on the podium were given to I for all her hard work in the physio tent, and I sank a couple of beers; one to celebrate, one to help me sleep.  It was hard to know if CD celebrated or not, as many beers were sunk and he spent the evening with his lady friend as per his standard non-celebratory behaviour.  One thing was for sure, and that was that I felt like I could tear up the track in the 200m as my training had been going so well and my 100m performance showed that I was in tip top shape for the 200m.

We had a couple of days off before the next race we were to compete in, which was the 4 x 100m relay.  By that time I had started to get some sleep.  It wasn’t that it was getting any cooler or less uncomfortable, but I must have been getting used to it.  CD and I were to run the second leg.  The other members of the team were the infamous RL, BR and CJ.  The heats were little more than a formality, but we soon realised that we were going to have to find a little extra for the final.  A bit more practice was called for.

On the day of the final we turned up to the track early to stretch our changeovers to the maximum so as to save us as much time as was possible.  At that time, the rules required the incoming athlete and the outgoing athlete to be in the 10m changeover box at the same time, but the athletes didn’t need to hand over a baton, or even to touch.  The perfect changeover therefore consisted of the outgoing athlete’s foot leaving the changeover box immediately after the incoming athlete’s foot entered the changeover box.  The first changeover we were to practice was the first one, with me being the out-going athlete.  From what follows, you’ll understand why I’m not naming the first-leg runner.  Whilst I shouldn’t have reacted as I did, given that I had two practice two changeovers, as opposed to the single changeover that he had to practice, if anyone had a right to be a bit tetchy, it was me, or so I thought!

CD and I measured out our check marker and took up our position in the relay changeover box.  The first-leg runner retreated around the bend and set off at full pace towards the changeover box.  This was never meant to be our only practice, it was the first of several.  The first run usually gave us an idea of where our marker should be, and only rarely did we leave it where it had been for the first run.  If we did think the marker should be left at the same point, we would try it again to make sure it was right.  If it wasn’t right on the first run, we would play around with it until we got it spot on; that was always the way relay practice worked.

My teammate charged around the bend.  CD looked back as I waited for his command.  When the flying Brit was 10m away from the mark, CD turned to face forwards and said “ok”, which was the signal for our arms to swing back and await the incoming call.  As our lead-off man sped through the mark, a large cross made with white physio tape in the middle of the lane, he called out my name.  CD and I set off at full blast, but  it immediately became obvious that CD had lined me up facing slightly the wrong direction, resulting  in a shoulder charge which nearly knocked CD off his feet; our arms became tangled and we were at risk of serious injury, one way or another.  I must admit I was slightly miffed with CD lining me up wrongly, and probably more so due to generally being unhappy with his night time activities, but I was prepared to grin and bear it.  However, my teammate’s reaction soon made me lose my cool.

“For fuck’s sake!  What are you pissing about at!  I’m not knackering myself out just because you’re fucking it up!”

It was like a red rag to a bull.  He only had a couple of runs to do, I had four to do.  All he had to do was get himself around the track on his own, I had to set off from a standing start with a guide runner who was probably still pissed, certainly not sober enough to drive anyway.  As he came back bitching like there was no tomorrow I didn’t have to ask to be guided towards him.  I stormed towards him, grabbed him by his vest and lifted him up onto his tiptoes and explained my feelings to him on this and several other points in no uncertain terms, and explained what the consequences would be if he continued to abuse me in that way.  After venting my spleen for a handful of seconds I was dragged of by a couple of my teammates and coaches who couldn’t believe their eyes and/or ears.

Eventually he went back to his mark, now (probably correctly wining and squealing about my thuggish behaviour).  He did his runs, and just to make sure I made him do a few more runs than I had wanted to do myself, but I was going to make a point.  The rest of the changeovers went well, and we went into the stadium for the call up procedure; perhaps unsurprisingly, the two of us kept our distance!

When the race got underway the adrenalin was obviously still pumping around my colleague, as he ran an absolute stormer!  Our practice had paid dividends as we nailed our changeover and I set off down the back straight fuelled by 100% adrenalin and aggression.  I felt really strong and really quick.  There was none of the lethargy that I had felt in the 100m final.  I knew that my country’s medal chances were in my hands.  The other three lads were all reasonably quick, but I was the fastest by some way (which in itself was unusual as I was the most disabled) and I was the only one in the team who had ever medalled in individual sprints.  If I didn’t do it, we wouldn’t win a medal of any colour.  As I approached the last 30m of my run I knew that I had run to my best, perhaps even faster than I had ever run before.  Rather than tiring in the final 30m as was usual the power just kept on flowing.  My arms kept pumping, my legs kept driving, and the GB medal prospects kept rising.  If I had to point to a time and a place when I was at my fastest, I’d struggle to recall a date when I felt better over the 100m.   However, the continuing theme throughout my athletics career was that when things started to go really well a spanner was usually not too far away from the spokes.

It was probably this extra speed at a continuing intensity combined with the scorching temperatures, and CD’s lack of condition through alcohol and sex fuelled evenings which finally caught up with him.  As I approached the changeover box CD suddenly cried out.  At first I thought he was shouting to our third-leg runner to tell him to set off, or maybe he was just excited and enjoying the ride as much as I was.  But neither of these were true.  CD had suffered a tear of his hamstring and, rather ironically, his groin.  He did still manage to make it into the changeover zone – to be honest, I’d have dragged his lifeless corpse into the changeover zone if necessary – and amidst his screams he shouted at our colleague to set off, but his championships, and with it my chances of medals in the 200m and 400m, were well and truly over.

The out-going athlete must have ran a good leg as RL took over with a definite chance of a silver medal.  I cannot remember if CD put his pain aside to commentate for me, or whether I forced him to commentate to me, but he managed to describe to me the scene as RL started to be reeled in by his pursuers.  As the line approached, RL’s body started to give up on him.  Again, it was probably a combination of a lack of preparation for sprinting and the weather which was his downfall, and down he went, base over apex, hitting the track with an almighty thud.  However, as the best athletes always seem to do, he must have known exactly where the line was as he landed on the other side of it.  As my Grandma L used to say, it’s better to be born lucky than rich.  Although he had been overtaken by one of the chasing duo he had managed to hold one of them off, and another bronze medal was mine.

The post-race scenes were strange and strained.  I was full of despair as CD’s injury meant that my championships were surely over despite me being in probably the best form of my career.  We must have looked a peculiar sight walking off the track, me physically supporting CD whilst he tried to guide me off the track.  Our first-leg runner still wasn’t talking to me, and our third-leg runner was ecstatic to have won his first ever medal.  Meanwhile RL was being stretchered off the track at the end of the home straight.  I was just glad we hadn’t won the gold medal as it would have been a very anti-climactic lap of honour!

After the walking wounded had collected their medals, and the two combatants started to withdraw hostilities, the physios got to work on RL and CD.  RL’s hamstring tear was a bad one, and he spent the rest of the championships with little or no mobility, so the celebrations and libations had to be brought to him.  CD was also badly injured, and there was no way he would be able to guide me again.  CD was very very upset when the consequences of his injury finally dawned upon him.  He sat on the edge of his bed and burst into tears with the realisation that I was in the best shape of my life and now I wouldn’t get the chance to compete in the 200m, the 400m or the 4 x 400m relay.  I sat next to him, put my arm around him, and told him not to worry, after all, he had saved me from 4 rounds of the 200m, three rounds of the 400m, and two rounds of the 4 x 400m relay, so he’d done me a favour really.  But he knew that I didn’t really mean it, if truth be told I was fuming with him, but maybe not in the way that he would have thought I would be fuming with him.  I wasn’t fuming because he had injured himself, as after all, we all get injured from time to time.  The fact was that I was fuming because if he had thought then he would have known that this was the inevitable outcome of his behaviour.  There is just no way that you can treat a major championships like a week on the lash with the lads and expect to compete in 44 degrees centigrade with little or no sleep and do it to the best of your abilities.  If he hadn’t suffered a major injury he was highly likely to have let me down in some other way; a slow start here, a missed call there, a misjudgement in a heat, or just cramp.  In the long run it doesn’t really matter to me now, and now when I think of CD I do so very fondly and with a great deal of gratitude for the job that he did.  He was only 17, he had a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, and I could have handled it differently.  However, if I was in the same situation I would still have been left with the same dilemma.  I could have told him his behaviour was not on, which would probably have led to him curbing his behaviour a bit, but he would probably then not have guided me again in the future.  A stronger management would not have gone amiss, but this was pre professionalism.  The balance of power was most definitely with the guides: I needed them much more than they needed me.  At the forefront of my mind from my first run as a blind athlete to my last I was always afraid that my guide would quit and leave me up a certain tributary without a certain implement.

For the next couple of days my mind turned towards socialising as there seemed no chance that I would compete again.  Team meetings were always good fun, but the usual jokes were supplemented by regular intrusions by one of the GB athletes with a learning disability; let’s call him X.  It wasn’t that we made fun of X, it was just the things he came out with were so off the wall that it was difficult not to be amused.  At no time did I feel that he was being abused by anyone in the team, and we all liked him very much.  One particular incident was when X came along to our team meeting to ask one of the guides if he could borrow his Walkman.  G, TH’s guide runner, asked him if he would be safe with it as it was an expensive one.  X said that he was.  G made sure that he knew that he would be very cross if he didn’t look after it, and X said that he was ok with that.  Five minutes later X returned to the team meeting with the Walkman in pieces saying “why did you lend me this Walkman man, its rubbish and doesn’t work.”  No matter what any of us said X swore that he hadn’t touched it and that G must have given it to him like that.

Meal times were also fun.  Being in no rush to go anywhere if you weren’t competing, they often turned into long chats over coffee and much hilarity.  One such occasion was when one of our new athletes, SC, asked us about the drug testing procedure.  This was his first championship, and it was clear that he was exceptionally nervous about drug testing.

“What happens when you are asked to do a drug test?”

NT was the first to answer.  “You get asked to go into a room, you’re given a bottle and asked to pee in it, quite simple really”.

“What if you can’t go” asked SC.

RL saw his opportunity.  “You have to shit in an ice cream tub”.

JW chimed in.  “They can even get you to do that if your pee is a bit cloudy as well”.

“What if you can’t do that either” asked a shocked SC.

The goal was open, the keeper was out of the area and all I had to do was to smack it into the back of the net.  “Well S, you know those knickerbocker-glory spoons…..”

“Bloody hell” exclaimed an astounded SC.  “There’s no way I’m going to win a medal now”, and you know what, he was spot on.

Pretty soon the management realised that they needed me to compete in the 4 x 400m relay as I was the only fit B1 athlete, thanks to RM being injured.  Without me, due to the requirement to have at least one B1 athlete in the team, they would not have a team at all.  Every stone was overturned in search of a guide runner.  The first guide they suggested was probably the fastest 100m runner in the GB squad, let’s call him Y.  However, there was one major drawback with this plan; Y was competing himself in the championships in the 100m in the learning disabled category.  There wasn’t even a chance of me letting him guide me to breakfast, never mind down an athletics track at 20m an hour plus.  He and his fellow learning disabled athletes of that era simply didn’t understand what being blind meant, and I felt sure that he would not be able to undertake what was after all a highly skilled activity.

As a post-script, as I was told by numerous teammates, at a later Paralympics, Y spent a lot of time laid under a caravan pretending to be a cheetah …..

The management didn’t see it my way and continued to try and get me to have a go with him, despite my forthright expressions of fear.  This attitude was all the more disheartening as it was coming from management who themselves were visually impaired.  The attitude seemed basically to be that anyone can guide, it’s a piece of cake.  But this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Eventually they realised that I wouldn’t put my health and safety at risk for their entertainment, and so the backup plan was put into action.

The second victim was RM’s guide called G.  G was a really nice bloke, but he guided RM in the 5,000m and 10,000m and was not known for his sprinting abilities.  I knew that it was a nonstarter but the management thought they knew best.  Therefore, I had to prove to them that I was correct.  G met me at the warm up track and after we went through a full warm up we attempted to do a 400m at my pace.  After about 20m it was obvious that G simply had no speed at all.  I ran very slowly for 200m with him attached to me, and although he could have run it faster on his own he simply couldn’t do it with me attached to him.  This again proved that just by holding a guide rope and having to run at someone else’s stride length made you run slower.  G dropped the rope, totally exhausted at trying to sprint with me for 200m only.  He admitted that there was no chance that he would be able to guide me in a race.

This left us with only one option.  The call went out to the organising committee for a stand in guide runner.  Each organising committee had to provide a squad of guides for those athletes from the less developed countries who turned up without a guide.  The athlete I was introduced to was called Mario, Super Mario to me and my teammates.  He was about 5 feet 8 tall, but built like a brick outhouse.  His English was very good, but his overly excited continental enthusiasm at being given the chance of a lifetime to run with an athlete of my calibre was, to say the least, slightly unnerving.  If I had to pick an actor to play him in the story of my life, I would have no hesitation in casting Sacha Baron Cohen!  Nevertheless, he was my only chance to compete in the 4 x 400m relay.  I hadn’t bothered to look for a spare guide runner for the 200m or the 400m as I knew that it was pointless.  In events where performance is measured in hundredths of seconds, and where the difference between first and nowhere is usually less than 0.2 secs, it would need a miracle for even an experienced guide runner to enable me to run to my full potential.  However, the relay was a different matter.  A 400m of 56 or 57 seconds by a B1 athlete wouldn’t be good enough to get through the first round heats of the individual event, but it just might be good enough to allow my teammates to challenge for medals in the relay.  In short, it was worth a try.

Super Mario and I, along with some of the coaches and management, went down to the warm-up track at the Olympic Stadium and, after a prolonged warm-up, we gave it a go.  After a couple of runs during which Mario became accustomed to my stride length and running action, we turned up the speed and the length of the runs.  By the end of the session, I was able to run at about 95% full speed without losing synchronisation, and we had even safely navigated our way around a full bend, coping well with both the entry to and exit from the curve.  Flat out speed still resulted in a loss of synchronisation, but setting off at 95% in a 400m was perfectly acceptable.  More than that, it was so leisurely that it was enjoyable.

In fact, it all went so well that we agreed to take part in a 100m demonstration race.  The movers and shakers in blind athletics had been ramping up the pressure on the powers that be to take a quantum leap into the modern era and dispense with 100m runners having to race one at a time.  I was asked to take part in this race to show that blind athletes could do the 100m as a normal race, as was the case with the 200m and the 400m.  It was obvious to me and to those who supported the proposition, that if we could run the 200m and 400m as a normal race with bends to negotiate, then why not the straight 100m?

Mario and I practiced a couple of block starts, and everything seemed fine, as long as I didn’t really go for it we seemed to keep synchronisation perfectly well.  The athletes we were to compete against were a couple of Yanks and one of the lesser-known Spaniards.  We ran this race about an hour before the relay, so it was good race practice for us as a pair and good call-up practice for Mario who had no experience of such procedures.

Being a demonstration race, Mario was given a bit more time than usual to set up the blocks, which was useful as he hadn’t done that before either.  Our starts in our warm-up paid dividends, as Mario and I got a good steady start, both reacting in perfect unison at the sound of the gun.  After a steady relaxed acceleration phase, all I did was to stride out steadily, nice and relaxed all the way, just concentrating on keeping synchronised with Mario.  We crossed the line well clear in a shade over 12.0 secs.  All in all, it was a thoroughly satisfying experience.  It meant that we should hopefully have no problems in the 400m relay, and it reinforced my view that I was in brilliant shape, as the time was less than 0.1 secs slower than I had run in the 100m final, and I had hardly broken sweat.

However, as a marketing exercise, the demonstration race fell flat on its face.  One of the American athletes had let go of the guide rope and, rather than pull up as one would have expected, he continued to run, darting erratically from lane to lane, causing havoc to those who were trailing in my wake.  Another of the Yanks had pulled a hamstring amidst the chaos, and the fourth runner was completely out of his depth and thus finished a long way behind me.  All in all, the finish resembled a long distance race rather than the hoped for spectacle of four athletes and guides crossing the line within milliseconds of each other. But at least I looked good and Super Mario took his overly excited nature to a whole new level!

Our confidence buoyed by our victory, Mario and I reported to the rest of our 4x400m team in the call up area, enthused about our collective chances of winning a medal.  Mario and I were to do the first leg as it would be easier for me to do the full lap completely in lanes like a normal race, thus avoiding any need for sudden lane changes to overtake slower athletes.  As we entered the arena, the intensity of the sun seemed to have reached a new level.  Those in the team with the best sight noticed that the electronic scoreboard showed the temperature of 44 degrees centigrade, a temperature that would seem to become the norm at many later championships.  However, after removing my knee length shorts, removing my soddened t-shirt and my hat, it soon became clear that the starting officials had some sort of technical hitch.  15 minutes later and we were still stood behind our blocks, absorbing the energy sapping power of the sun, with no breeze at all and my water bottle had been taken away by the officials.

Eventually we were called to our marks and we settled down awaiting the gun.  It went, and so did we.  I tried to relax as I had done in the 100m demonstration race and it seemed to be working really well.  We turned the bend with good rhythm and strode out down the back straight.  As we approached the second bend Mario gave me the correct call and I started to turn.  Although Mario got the call right, he forgot to lengthen his stride to cope with running the extra distance around the bend, and within two strides we had totally lost synchronisation.  Pretty soon we were 180 degrees out of sync.  This meant that as Mario’s left arm came forward so did my right arm, well it would do, what with being tied to his left arm.  The problem was that at the very same time that my right arm was going forwards, so was my left arm, such movement being the natural corollary of my right leg going forward.  For all intents and purposes, I was cross-country skiing with my arms, whilst my legs were trying to run.   This had happened to me quite a number of times in training, but never in a race.

There were two possible methods of coping with this cross-country skiing situation.  I could try to get synchronisation back by putting in a quick hop, which would have the effect of taking two steps on my right leg, which would throw me out by 180 degrees, thereby correcting the problem.  However, this was a high risk manoeuvre, being very tricky at the best of times, and after 250m of a 400m race it was courting disaster to attempt it.  The only other way of dealing with this problem was to try to lessen the effects of skiing by just holding my right arm as motionless as possible, letting Mario run off me in effect.  Being risk averse, and embarrassment averse even more so, I chose the second option.  The problems with this running action were twofold.  Firstly, it slowed me down dramatically, not surprisingly given that in effect I had foregone 25% of my forward propulsion.  Secondly, the twisting action caused by using two levers on one side and only one on the other, bracing my right arm against its natural tendencies, coupled with the build-up of 400m induced lactic acid in a breathless cauldron was almost unbearable.  However, pride and a burning desire for more glory and gold, silver or bronze ware, drove me on.  I refused to let this slight hindrance stop me from finishing in as fast a time as my twisted frame would allow me.

By hook or by crook, we entered the changeover box, not as quickly as we might have hoped for, but at least we had safely passed the virtual baton on to our second leg runner.  As the overwhelming and unstoppable urge to be sick consumed by aching limbs, I knew the chance of a gold medal had completely evaporated in the preceding 60 seconds, but there was always the chance that the boys could pull something out of the bag, and pull something out they did.  Three storming runs by my comrades in arms and a third bronze medal was mine.  I felt a tang of guilt that I didn’t even attempt a lap of honour, if only for Mario’s sake as he was so excited, but the medal ceremony more than made up for Mario’s disappointment.  He absolutely revelled in it.  Never had there been a prouder honorary Brit than Mario on that day.

All that was left was the last night celebrations.  Several of us volunteered to go to the local supermarket for cheap beer.  On the way we found a discarded shopping trolley and ended up bringing it back completely full of beer.  We took the lift to the 15th floor and wheeled the trolley to the team manager’s room and started the party.  After a couple of hours we took the party down to the open air disco.  It had been a successful championships for most of us and we all stayed up all night, drinking with athletes of all nations, after all, there would be no chance of sleep, what with the Brazilians having won another medal on the final day.  Whilst our celebrations were not as exuberant as the Brazilians, we did make a serious dent in the German stores of beer and a great time was had by all.  Even my warm-up track combatant colleague and I properly made up after our handbags at 12 paces incident!

1994: Bronzed in Berlin Part I

 

After returning from my most successful individual championships in Dublin, CS informed me that he wouldn’t be able to carry on guiding me due to his work commitments.  Thankfully, my coach, BS, made enquiries in and around Leeds and a contact found a coach in the area who was willing to give it a go with his group of athletes.  The coach was called MB, and he coached at the track in Wakefield, Thornes Park.  I had never even visited Wakefield before, but Uncle A agreed that he would continue giving me a lift every Tuesday and Thursday night, and on the whole we were usually on time or just a little bit late.

MB’s group was exclusively male and all the lads were in their late teens.  MB had decided to give me a go with several of the lads and see which one suited my running style the best.  Over the first couple of weeks I had a go with three of the lads.  M was a really good bloke, and a strong runner to boot, but his stride length was far too long for me and I found it very difficult to cope with.  A had a more suitable running action, but his range of distances was limited and there was no way on earth I would have been able to talk him into doing a 200m never mind a 400m.  The third musketeer was CD.  He was a very personable lad, the right running action, and was fast enough to guide me over the 100m, yet strong enough to guide me over the 400m which was his own preferred event.  He was also very reliable and always made it to training.  In short, I couldn’t see any problems with him at all, so I offered him the job after only a couple of sessions.  As he had high hopes for his future career prospects he jumped at the chance, as it would look good on his CV.  I think he was also quite excited about the chance to represent his country in the Olympic stadium in Berlin, even if only in a guiding capacity, which was the long term target for the season.

I did quite a bit of my training with M and A and some of the other lads in the group, especially if CD had his own sessions to do, or if he had other commitments.  One such occasion was one cold and damp Yorkshire evening a month or so before the season started in earnest.  MB asked one of his star middle distance runners if he would have a go at guiding me.  Although he was an 800m and 1500m runner, he had a good sprint so MB thought it would work quite well.  The only problem was that, probably due to his middle distance status, the lad in question had hardly any coordination.   The session was a couple of sets of 150m runs, starting at the water jump and finishing, as was somewhat traditional, at the finishing line.  We stood as usual in lane 3 as I explained the finer points of guiding.  We walked through a standing start, and I showed him how we had to stay synchronised, and it seemed to go well.  However, as soon as we tried to do it, even at a fairly slow speed, we lost synchronisation immediately.  After several attempts I pointed out the bleeding obvious that when your left leg goes forward your right arm goes forward, but he disagreed with this.  He was convinced that when your left leg went forward your left arm went forward.  I got him to jog along to see if this was the case, and he soon realised that it was not.  It seemed that although he could still run on his own, as soon as he started to think about it he lost the plot; in short, I’d blown his mind!  I told him to stop worrying, he wasn’t going to hurt me, and to just concentrate on running naturally and it would easily slot into place.

Pep talk over, we returned to the water jump in lane 3, and set off.  It worked a treat and we had perfect syncronisation.  The only problem was that while he had managed to run in syncronisation with me, he had totally forgotten everything else I had told him.  The first time I realised that this was the case was as I felt a pain like never before in my left ankle.  Apparently I had landed on the metal temporary curb which ran along the inside of the track.  This curb was removed when a steeple chase race was in place, and thus unlike the permanent curb it was only an inch or so thick, and about two inches high.  This meant that as my foot landed on the curb my ankle cockled over.  I laid on the track in a great deal of pain as the rest of the group and coaches ran up the track to my rescue.  They helped me off the track where ice was applied and I tried to reassure my guide that it wasn’t his fault.  To be true, it wasn’t entirely his fault as I should have inducted him into the ranks of guides on the straight, far away from any curbs.  Painful lesson learned, this was the last time I ever started a new guide runner off on a bend.

Over the next couple of weeks I spent most of my spare time, and most of my wages, at M the physio’s.  Sprained ankle ligaments was the diagnosis.  Treatment was working, but not quickly enough for my liking, so M ordered me an angle brace.  It was basically like a boxing boot, reinforced with metal strips running through it, with no sole.  This was worn over the socks but inside the running spike.  Without this brace my ankle just gave way, but with it my ankle was stable enough to allow me to run, even if this did mean enduring a lot of pain.  It was one of those funny injuries which was difficult to walk on, but through gritted teeth I was able to sprint.  In this case there really was no gain without pain.

After a couple of weeks M and I decided that as my rehabilitation and treatment had been going well it was time to have a go without the brace.  With the benefit of hindsight, doing our usual warm-up jog on the road which went through the park was probably not the best idea we had ever had, but it was only a very tiny stone, barely bigger than a grape, which I stood on after a couple of strides which left me sprawled on the floor clutching my ankle again.  After another week’s intensive treatment the brace was reapplied, and there it stayed until the end of the season.

Work remained far from satisfactory.  I was still basically just answering the phone and then getting one of my colleagues to do the job for me, before I passed the answer back to the caller.  I had no job satisfaction whatsoever, and I couldn’t stand the thought that this was going to be how my working life was going to be forever.  Something had to be done.  All my options were discussed and it was decided that drastic steps were necessary if I was going to make the most of the talents I possessed.  In the end we decided that I should leave work and go to university, get a degree and then see how the land laid.  The only question was which subject should I study?  Two options stood out: physiotherapy and law.  Both careers were ones which had historically been suitable for blind people to undertake, and I had an interest in both.  My interest in physiotherapy had been developed through my hours of treatment during my sporting endeavours, and my interest in law had existed since I had studied law as part of my banking exams.  In the end, the deciding factor came down to an assessment of the long term job prospects for each career; we decided I was less likely to be struck off as a lawyer than I was as a physio, as it would only take one misplaced hand in the latter and it would be game over.

I looked into the institutions were I could study, and practicality was the most important factor.  Hull University at the time was ranked sixth in the country for law, and it would be possible to get there from Bridlington easily enough, so I applied to Hull to study law.  I applied to UCAS in the usual way, but I was invited along for an interview in the meantime.  Being a “mature” student my ‘A’ level results were not vital, but as they were quite good the university was quite pleased with this as well.

When I attended the university for my interview the admissions tutor asked a colleague of his to attend.  His name was Professor CB and he was totally blind, so his interest was obvious.  During the interview he told me that he had been involved with training many blind people in the past, including an Air Force Pilot.  He wasn’t too amused when I asked him where his guide dog sat.  The outcome of the meeting was a place on the course which started at the end of September 1994.  Thrilled at the news, I handed my notice in at the bank, and I think they were a bit relieved that I had taken the step rather than forcing their hand.

Preparations for Berlin went as well as could be expected, if not better.  CD settled into his guiding role like a duck to water.  In one of our first races we ran a personal best in the 200m, running 24.6 secs at Cleckheaton.  Our last race before the World Champs was at Wakefield on men’s’ final day at Wimbledon.  While Pete Sampras was beating Goran Ivanisevic we competed in the 100m.  We were drawn in the lane next to A from our training group.  A usually ran somewhere in the low 11 seconds, so if we could get reasonably close to him we would be extremely pleased with that.  It was a red hot day and there was no wind, so we were confident that we would run well.  The competition was as hot as the weather, and although we finished in the middle of the pack, we hadn’t finished that far behind A, probably only about a metre and a half, which we thought would equate to about 0.2 secs.  However, A was given a time of 11.8 secs and we were given a time of 12.2 secs, which was not what we were looking for.  We would have been very happy with a straight 12.0 secs, as I had never dipped below 12.0 secs in the UK, so we focussed on the fact that we had only been a bit behind A which is where we thought we’d be, rather than on the time given; being an amateur sport, with amateur officials, timing was not always the most exact of sciences on the Northern Men’s’ circuit!  With this in mind, we left for Germany with our hopes high that we were in form to give everybody else a good run for their money.

The accommodation in Berlin was different to anything we had stayed in before.  The main part of the accommodation was a high rise block of flats, about 17 storeys, very similar to a large hotel, but there were no facilities on the ground floor apart from a pay phone in the reception area.  A separate building about 100m away housed a canteen style dining area, the serving area down one wall, with the rest of the room taken up with tables and benches.  In between the two buildings was an open area which was being used as a disco/bar, with lots of plastic seats and tables for us all to use.  Apart from this strange set up, the biggest difference to what we had been led to expect was the weather.  We had expected Berlin in July to be fairly warm, but not the 44 degrees centigrade that we were welcomed by.  Berlin was in the midst of a scorching heat wave.

At major championships, due to the vast numbers of athletes who needed training facilities, each team was allocated a specific training venue.  The training track we were allocated was within walking distance.  The walks to this track were very revealing.  Our accommodation was in East Berlin, and thus the standard of living was very low.  As described to me by CD, all the buildings were plane concrete, the cars were of very low quality and very old, and there were no signs of good living anywhere, it seemed that they were still suffering from years of Communism.

Whilst CD and I had to put up with bad track etiquette from our fellow athletes which resulted in CD having to take evasive action on a number of occasions to avoid both stray athletes and stray starting blocks, my teammate MW was dicing with a far more serious injury.  He had been busy working on his discus technique along with another couple of athletes.  It had been working well and he was regularly hitting over the 40m line, which he was pleased with.  MW wandered out onto the field after throwing a couple and scoured the grass at around the 40m mark in search of his discs, which often took quite a while due to his visual impairment.  Whilst searching, head down concentrating on the contrast between grass and discus, he heard something fly over his head.   He wasn’t quite sure what it was, but when it landed with a familiar thud at around the 70m mark he realised that it must have been a fellow discus thrower launching one.  His mind began to race; had one of his competitors improved massively, or had a new athlete emerged on the scene?  Was it an athlete from a different category that he didn’t have to worry about?  The answer to all these questions was no.  It turned out to be the world number one woman discus thrower training at her local track.  MW did comment after this that he had slightly recognised the big woman he had bumped into earlier.  It was a good job she was on form that day, or alternatively it was a good job F hadn’t let one go a bit further, or he might have had to start competing in a different disability category!

As the heat was relentless and the hotel rooms devoid of air conditioning, evenings were spent relaxing in the open air bar.  Most of the team members were having at most a couple of beers, or German premium strength self medication as some of us called it, even those of us who didn’t usually drink prior to a championships, just to help us sleep; it was so horrific, we’d try anything to get some sleep.  However, CD was not just having a couple of drinks, instead he was drinking like it was a good Saturday night out with the lads.  Most of us will recognise the kind of evening; at the start he was a good football player when he was younger (remembering that he was only 17 anyway); later he was one of the best players when he had his trial with Manchester United; by the end of the evening he could have been one of the best if he had got the breaks.  He was also walking a tight rope which would lead to disaster.

I had become friends with one of the physio staff.  Her name was I and she had helped me with a few minor injuries earlier in the year at her place of work in York.  Therefore, as soon as I got to Berlin I managed to get straight onto her list for treatment.  CD took me down to the physio tent at the track for my appointment and left me there for my allotted time.  Whilst having my treatment I introduced me to the rest of the medical team, most of whom I had not met before.  By the end of my appointment we were all getting on like old friends, which is what I often find happens when you spend the best part of an hour wearing only pants in a tent full of ladies.  After several more sessions some of the medical staff started to show more than just a passing interest in CD.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that one in particular had developed a severe case of the hots for CD.  I thought that she would get over it, especially as she sounded to me like she was older than him.  However, this was not to be and she pursued her man, or rather her boy.

I decided that I’d better nip this in the bud and asked her how old she thought CD was.  “About 28” was her answer.  Needless to say, when I burst out laughing she knew she had got it drastically wrong, but you could still have knocked her over with a feather when I informed her that he was only 17.  Eventually she came round, and after receiving the appropriate medical attention she resumed her work.

I told CD of the conversation and that I thought she had the hots for him.  I thought that he would comment about how she was too old for him anyway, but he didn’t.  Apparently, the attraction was mutual.  CD didn’t really need any dutch courage to close out the deal, but he did anyway, and as the games approached CD took to spending most of the evenings in his sugar-mummy’s digs, usually trying to sneak back into our room just as I was getting up for my early morning shower.

If only I’d have known him a little bit better, just enough to know how far I could take the piss out of him without him packing up his bag and going home.  The jokes just made themselves.  “Don’t forget to make sure she takes her teeth out before you go to bed”, “don’t reach out for a drink in the middle of the night, you’ll choke”, “ask Ms X if she can lend me some money, or hasn’t she cashed her pension yet”, “do you need any help with undoing her corset or taking off her support stockings”, etc, etc.  If I hadn’t been so scared about upsetting him, after all guide runners were in very scarce supply, I would have brought him to heal and demanded that he took his role a bit more seriously.  I did have words with him, but he swore that he would be fine, and as I had no real choice I had to take his word on it.

I had been struggling to get to sleep in the lead up to the games, not because of nerves, but just because it was too hot in the rooms.  I clearly remember one night at about 4:00 am lying awake, trying not to wake CD up (this being prior to his nocturnal activities period) just waiting for that wave of sleep to crash over me.  I had been trying all the relaxation techniques I had been taught, but nothing.  Occasionally the wave of sleep lapped at my feet, sometime even made it to my knees, but just as I expected it to crash over me and envelop me in sleep it would retreat.  Frustration made me cry out “please.. just let me sleep”.  Maybe, on reflection, it was this type of behaviour that drove CD to sleep in someone else’s room rather than sex appeal.

The first day of the championships came round and the competition started in earnest.  As I was to compete on the second day, I retired to bed at an early hour eager to get on with the 100m that commenced the following morning.  That was my first mistake.  Despite it being late at night, the weather was still in the mid forties, and it seemed even closer than it had been on previous days and nights.  The second mistake that I made was not having a beer to help me sleep.  The third mistake I made was not to have stolen the Brazilian’s instruments!  They had won a medal on the first day, and by golly they were going to celebrate it.  Even though I was fifteen floors up, their celebrations were still very noisy.  The dilemma was either to have the window open for a bit of breathable air and be deafened, or to have the window closed and melt.  In the end I chose window open, and even went so far as to leave my bedroom door propped open to try and create a through draft.  It did improve the air in the room, but not to any comfortable level.  The Brazilians must have had to compete the following day, as their celebrations were brought to a premature end at about 3:00 am.

My thought process at that time was that if I could get to sleep soon I would still get about four hours before I had to get up, so that wasn’t too bad, but sleep was still not even on the radar.  I was just too hot.  I remembered the advice that MW had given me, as he too was struggling to get any sleep at all.  He had suggested getting a cold shower and then laying down on the floor on a towel.  He apparently had fallen asleep like that the previous evening.  I tried and failed to fall asleep but at least it passed half an hour or so.

Five o’clock came round, as did six, and by that time I had totally given up any hope of sleeping that night.  Typical I thought, in the best shape of my life and lack of sleep was going to deprive me of a good performance.  I gave up trying and laid down on my bed.  The next thing I knew my alarm clock was waking me up at 6:45, so at least I had got half an hour or so, better than nothing.  This was followed shortly by CD returning from his assignation, and by the sound of him, he had got even less sleep than I had.

Desperate to remain hydrated, I took on board a considerable amount of water before leaving for the track.  The buses to the stadium left every half hour, and the journey took between 45 minutes and an hour.  This meant that I needed to time my last trip to the toilets very carefully.  The worst thing was timing it perfectly, but then sitting on the bus until it set off 5 minutes late.  So as the armed guard slept on the front seat of the bus, rifle flopping about on his lap, and the Kenyan athletes sang at high volume, I sat pensively wondering how much the lack of sleep would detract from my performance.  My pensive state was soon replaced by agitation as my bladder became fuller and fuller, and still half an hour to go.  Through the Brandenburg gate and we were almost there.  Why did such journeys always take longer than they should?  The resulting quick sprint from the bus to the toilets became a regular part of my warm-up routine.

As was usual at the time for the 100m, all the competitors were given the chance to race against the clock with the fastest six going on to compete against the clock in the final in reverse order.  The only problem with this was that there had been a record entry for this the first ever IPC World Championships, and more than 20 athletes would take part in the first round.  We were split into two groups of 12 or 13 and allotted about 45 minutes for each half.  I was in the second half, and so I timed my warm up accordingly.  However, it was never an exact science.  The ability to do fast work in the warm up area under the stadium was always different.  Facilities differed vastly, and any failings in the facilities were heightened by the fact that there were so many blind athletes, all with guide runners.  Therefore, I liked to be ready to go when we were called up 45 minutes before race time.  I would then keep loose in the warm up area through extensive stretching, and a short sharp stride or two if CD felt able to navigate me between the swarm of athletes and guides.

Just before we were due to go out onto the track with the other 12 athletes in our group, I visited the toilet for the last time, confident that I had timed it correctly.  Safe in this knowledge I kept on consuming my water happily, cramp was definitely not going to affect me.  When we got out onto the track the heat hit like walking into a sauna.  We took the opportunity to do some strides on the back straight, and waited for our run to come around.  We waited patiently, then not so patiently, and after over an hour of waiting we were waiting quite angrily.  Apparently, the problem was caused by the athletes from the under developed countries who had turned up without guides and had to be called.  They did not know how to set up starting blocks, and so this took a lot of time.  When they did start running it wasn’t much better, as several of them disappeared off the track.  So much for German efficiency.

By the time an hour passed, I was absolutely busting for the toilet, but the officials would not let us leave the track, and it was still about half an hour or so until my turn.  As I assessed the situation, I had two choices:  first,  I could do nothing, be in great discomfort for that time, not concentrate on my race fully, with the result that at best I would be risking compromising my race, and at worst risking compromising my reputation by wetting myself; secondly, I could find a way to relieve myself.  I chose the latter option.

CD and I strategised for a while and we arrived at a plan.  CD moved me over to the outside of the track, at the back of an area behind all the other athletes who were busy watching/listening to the other athletes taking their turn.  I must have looked weird to everyone else.  They do say mad dogs and Englishmen, so it may not have seemed too strange to anyone watching when I took my track suit bottoms out of my bag and put them on.  I then took out my now empty water bottle and placed it inside my track suit bottom leg.  My manual dexterity came in handy as I managed to manoeuvre myself into a position to relieve the tension.  Luckily the bottle was a litre one, so capacity was not an issue, and the neck was a wide one, so again, capacity was not an issue.

It was at this point that CD pointed out to me that there was a television camera which had been panning around the stadium and producing its pictures on the large screen in the stadium.  Stories had been circulating about how people had been caught at the most inopportune moments, and my heart lurched.  But once you’ve started….. Luckily for me, the camera was otherwise engaged with someone’s cleavage… thank goodness for the Germans fascination with busty women.

When I eventually ran I did so with a great deal of relaxation, not surprising in one sense, but given all that had happened to me I was absolutely thrilled with a personal best performance of 11.83 secs.  As was becoming the norm, I had finished second behind SS, the Russian world record holder.  He had run 11.73 secs, and the third placed athlete was a long way behind my time as we had been the only two to get under 12 secs.  I was confident that I could run faster than that as it had seemed so easy, and I’d done it on no sleep, so with a good night’s sleep….  Gold was a real possibility.