'Sporty types' look away now
On Sunday 20 May, Freedom from Torture supporters joined a 40,000 strong crowd of runners for the BUPA Great Manchester Run 2012. Social Media Co-ordinator Helen Nickols was one of the 22 runners fundraising for Freedom from Torture.
Let's start at the beginning. It's mid-Winter 1993 and I'm huddled in a very small group of sports-inept Year 9 girls outside a portacabin off the M40. It's netball team selection time, and we're last again! Our school has dispatched us in netball skirts, and in front of me I can see the breathe of all my classmates. Over the chatter of my (brace-clad) teeth, I look down at my stick-like, purpley-blue legs and conclude that nothing good can come of this, but that in five years' time I'll have left school and be away from sport and inappropriate legwear forever.
So it was with great surprise that I looked down, almost twenty years later, to see the same legs scurry over a 7k marker at Britain's largest 10k run. My mind flashed back to the school sportsfield, noting the unmistakeable difference: the no-longer-skinny legs were there voluntarily, there was no borderline hypothermia and, in spite of the pain, I was actually enjoying this!
As a solo runner at my first mass-participation event, I didn't know what to expect and was nervous to the point of nausea. Would we all 'fit in' to the route? Was my training (twice per week for five months) enough to nail the run in under one hour, which was my target? Would I be overtaken a lot (or vice versa) and how would that affect my morale? Joining the 'blue' wave of runners (for those with an estimated finish of 59-61 minutes), I began looking around. There looked to be some seasoned runners here and I'd only begun running at Christmas. I started to panic.
When my foot crossed the start line all that changed.. I was off! My nerves and doubts disappeared and I began to enjoy the sights and sounds of the race - the live music, the runners in fancy dress (Sumo wrestlers, rhinos and brides!) and all the cheering spectators. I thought about the other Freedom from Torture runners and about how I wanted them to have the best day, and about all the runners challenging themselves for a good cause. The good vibes were flowing and, soon enough, we reached a sign showing us that we were one kilometre into the route. I was one minute ahead of schedule and feeling pretty ok.
Running slightly faster than usual, a painful stitch struck at 1,500m which hit me offguard. I don't remember it shifting and I think it became absorbed into a general blur of pain, with different sorts of pain taking centre stage and then drifting into the background - with a backdrop of exhaustion. The next few kilometres passed in a blur, but reaching half-way was a high point. I checked my stop-watch at every kilometre marker and was consistently one-minute ahead of schedule.
The second half
I saw another Freedom from Torture vest as the route approached Old Trafford and ran to catch up. It was Drew, who I'd met on Twitter. It was wonderful to have a chat but I soon realised that I didn't have enough breath for that and vowed to catch up with him in the pub instead. Another live band pulled us through and I became aware that I was overtaking runners. Signs for 6k and then 7k passed and I began high fiving the little kids who were waiting on the side of the race course. Watching their little faces light up when they aced a high five in their tiny palms was a great morale boost (even if it did knock a few seconds off my time!)
As the 9k marker approached, I was increasingly struggling for breath and it dawned on me that I was so tired that my eyes were closing. This was immensely difficult. I thought about slowing a little, but then remembered the monumental Manchester City-QPR showdown from a couple of weeks before: anything can happen in the final few minutes - and I didn't want to let my target slip now. More than anything, I remember my brother's text: 'Dig deep and remember why you're doing it. Crossing the line crying with emotion and covered in sick is a sign that you're trying. Proud of you.'
An 800m sign appeared, I lifted my pace significantly and began what felt like a sprint. It was difficult to maintain it, particularly when I realised that there was something not very pretty happening to one of my toes. In the last 200m, I gave it everything, safe in the knowledge that by then I could probably stumble over the finish line. The main thing is that this blast shaved 16 seconds off my time, earning Freedom from Torture an extra £10 (my brother had pledged £20 sponsorship for every minute under 63 minutes and £10 worked for up to 30 seconds!) Finishing was such a relief.
When your best is personal
It wasn't until I started running that I realised how personal it can be (as opposed to solely being a faster way of getting around, as I had thought previously!) It was obvious that taking part in the BUPA Manchester Great Run meant different things to different people.
Lots of runners were running in memory of their loved ones, which they wrote on the 'I'm running for... ' signs on their backs. There were lost and loved mums, dads, daughters, uncles - and even photos of newborn babies who went too soon. It was an emotional scene. The atmosphere was light-hearted, though: hats off to the runner donning the genius sign 'I'm running for... the last time'.
Heroic teammates slowed to run alongside friends, giving gentle encouragement to the exhausted and exasperated. I overtook a slow jogger who was clearly challenging herself more than many of the sprinters around her. There were fundraising triumphs: Freedom from Torture's own Caroline Glendinning raised over £1,000 from taking part, which is quite something in the midst of a recession.
And then there are the elite achievements, to which we all bow. Race winner Haile Gebrselassie from Ethiopia set a 'world-leading time of 27 minutes 39 seconds' (and passed the finish line with the warmest smile) whilst Linet Masai of Kenya took the women's title in 31 minutes and 35 seconds.
For me it was about doing something that I didn't think I was capable of, i.e. running a 10k in under one hour. It was for personal satisfaction, with the knowledge that my challenge might inspire my friends and family to donate to my favourite cause - Freedom from Torture. But the process of creating a challenge from your unchallenging circumstances, reminded me of my privileged existence, and how life is so different for torture survivors.
I don't think any of this would have been possible without the support of my friends and family, the event organisers (who made everything so slick, and tidied it all up afterwards) and the North West fundraiser Alice Nicolay. Alice was with me every step of the way, with encouragements, emails, texts and a hug and goodie bag after the event.
Bring it on 2012!