I knew I had to, I felt it coming like a sunless void devouring all hope – the desire to stop, withdraw. The chap in front had hunched into a painful ball and maybe that was the trigger – I pulled up.
Mind, the pain rippling through my right calf was persuasion enough – but to stop?!
Never, never had I stopped in a race, not even in that meat grinder that is the grass arena. I peered ahead, sunlight stabbed through the writhing, twisting trees, squirming in a pitiless westerly. Yeah, that westerly, it snatched, tore, ripped and wrenched, raked the skin, rattled the gizzard and shredded all ambition. The chap in front had got going again, time to move. Jolted from my melancholy brooding, I lurched on. There were lighter moments, of course, permeating the fog of painful introspection: the comradely clap on the back from Dave Moir, just caught his angular form flitting past; and then the words of encouragement cutting through the melee…Matt Walker my old running buddy, or was it rival? From my TBH days, had picked me out amidst all the rough and tumble; then James Meader’s hushed assurances, he’d pulled up alongside me, and in that peculiar, but likeably undemonstrative style of his, expressed his support; and then there was the avuncular figure of Rob Brown, came swimming into view just in the nick of time. I was being swallowed, eaten away, disappearing once more into that nameless void. “Can’t do it Rob”, I gasped, “just can’t do this anymore..” “Yes, you can Keith, nearly there, you’ve got to!” “I’ve got to, of course I have”. I knew that just needed Rob to remind me.
It was a quality course, Thornley, raw, unrelenting, a vexation as the name suggested, a proper xc course, to quote Wor Sam. “If you’re not gannin doon, you’re gannin up”, he reiterated with some relish, afterwards. I could hardly share his predilection, I was wretched, in pain, the right calf throbbed abysmally, I was filthy, cold, my lungs burned and I was as limp as a rag doll. It had been a brutal reminder of the rigours of xc – and that I’d been out a long time. The cancer had taken it’s toll, physically and psychologically, I realised that now. So, of course, I couldn’t share his exuberance, there was to be no catharsis for me post-race, I was on the periphery, the outside looking in, it seemed. And that was a shame, it really was, I thought, as I scanned the rugged setting. Sam was right, this was indeed real xc: I liked the weather-beaten little knoll the tents perched upon, the unforgiving rock- strewn incline, the valley meandering away into green depths, and sweeping through it all the tree-crowned escarpment. I drank in the view one last time and turned my aching cadaver to more immediate tasks, such as packing, and stumbling after a sprightly Sam as he scampered off in search of his car. Man, he had a spring in his step, I mused ruefully, but, then, he came 9th out of how many hundreds? And to think not too long ago he had announced he was hanging up his xc shoes for good, didn’t have it in his legs anymore, he said. And that got me thinking, it was only a year ago and I was chained to my hospital bed, my running days over, I was reliably informed, curtailed by the Big C – and yet here I was, not in the best shape, not in my customary position, puffing and rasping like some old banger long past its MOT – yet, I had made it back, I was competing, drawing inspiration from the unique set of characters that make up club and competition. So, here’s to a year of renewal and hope, to borrow that old running adage: it’s onwards and upwards. God willing.