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.

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