I've heard this phrase before but didn't really understand it until just recently...
When I got started in running, my dear friend Malcolm was my mentor. He guided
me through some tricky patches in my training, tried to help me learn
from his mistakes (I should have listened more) and babysat me at the
start of my first marathon.
Tragically, he was taken from us
We spoke often of how much we wanted to run a marathon together and I told him how grateful I was for his help and advice. But we never did get to run that race and I never got chance to return the favour.
Well, I'm injured just now following my DNF at the EcoTrail de Paris a few weeks ago. I had hoped to run the Marathon de Montauban last weekend but a short, gentle run on the Saturday morning showed me very clearly that I wasn't recovered enough to do the 10k, never mind a full marathon.
As it turned out, this was one of those times when circumstances don't deliver a problem. Instead, I was presented with an opportunity.
My friend Sarah, who has decided to start doing triathlons, was entered the Montauban 10k as her first ever race event. So I got to do for her what Malcolm did for me.
Sarah "blames" me for her having taken up running. She uses words like "inspired" and "amazing" in ways that really make me uncomfortable. In my most narcissistic moments, I like to think I have helped some people along the way but there's nothing special about putting on a pair of running shoes and getting out there. You just, well, you just do it.
I admit that I let my inner geek out for all my hobbies. (Really, my outer geek is nothing by comparison.) And so I've always been free with my half-baked opinions and crackpot theories. Or as Sarah insists on calling it "experience and advice".
Well, we pitched up at her place the day before and a lot of the time was spent calming nerves and helping her to focus on the practical preparations for the race.
Not all of it was useful. Things like "Nothing new on Race Day" didn't last long in the face of arguments like "But I have a new Tri suit and I want to wear it." On balance, though, it was all pretty level-headed. Best piece of advice turned out to be that old chestnut: "Wear a bin bag, it's going to be cold standing around at the start." We also talked about pacing, negative splits and (particularly pushed by me) actually taking the time to enjoy the experience itself.
The day of the race was a different story, though. Fortunately, my other (better?) half volunteered for child-wrangling duty so I was able to accompany Sarah to the start line just as Malcolm had done for me. In addition, I was able to carry her bag so she didn't need the extra stress of dropping it off and picking it up after the race. Am I the only person that always checks in their bag and then immediately remembers the vital thing that didn't get put in it. Or taken out. Or whatever.
Anyway, I'm pleased to say that I'm pretty sure I was able to keep her grounded and focussed through the start. I collected her bin bag at the last moment and, as it turned out, a coat from one of her friends and she was off. Even more usefully, I was able to distract her from the fact that the start was delayed by several minutes.
I was struck during the last minute or two before the start gun by something Malcolm had said to me at my first marathon. He told me that it was the first time he'd ever been to a race start when he wasn't actually running. And the same was true for me this time. I'm not ashamed to say I got a little misty-eyed at that point.
Once the race was away, I went to check on my wife and her collection of infants. They had cheered Sarah off at the start and so it was time to take them off into a warm café for hot chocolate and croissants. Meanwhile, I headed off to the 5k mark just before the aid station. As we had discussed the previous night, there was no point in stopping there for anything unless things were going badly. I watched (and cheered) as the front runners went past.
Sarah appeared bang on time for her predicted pace and I smiled, waved and cheered like a loony. She told me afterwards that it was great to have that unexpected encouragement and she'd been able to see me from "miles" away. I know exactly what she means as there's nothing like seeing your supporters to push you on through the event. It was my first time as the cheerer, though. (On reflection, it wasn't. We went to shout at Malcolm during a couple of his marathons but that was long before I took up running.)
By the time I made it across to the finish, Helen and the kids had got a great spot just after the finish line and, as token tall person, I watched out for Sarah over the assembled throng of, er, not-so-tall frenchmen. While we waited, I counted in the female runners and here's the impressive thing: On her first race, Sarah came in 7th female overall.
Much cheering and congratulating went on but there was better to come. She placed 2nd in her age group out of 124. On her first race. Yes, it was my turn to use words like "amazing" and "inspirational". And I meant them all.
So, here I am three weeks after twisting my knee and still not recovered. And it's not a disaster. I've been able to really help someone on the way to a remarkable achievement. I'm sure she'd have been OK without the help but it's nice to think that I made things a little easier.
Nicer still to know that Malcolm would have approved. He was such a generous person and I have tried to pass a little of his kind and thoughtful assistance on to someone else. Paying it forwards because there will never be an opportunity to pay it back.
Thanks again, Malcolm. Thanks for what you taught me and for showing me that I should pass it on to others. Where ever you are: Run free...