The toughest race I’ve ever run was, bizarrely, something I’ve become quite accustomed to – the Tunbridge Wells Race for Life 5K in aid of Cancer Research UK in June 2014. Sunday 8 June, to be precise. My father had passed away very unexpectedly from a heart attack on the Wednesday just four days before, and my world was incomprehensible, nothing was making sense – I was still in shock. I had been sleeping on the living room floor at my parents’ house with all of my sisters and we were all mourning and muddling along together.
I had signed up to take part in the Race for Life event a few months before and had already received my running number etc. I was always going to run this race, it never crossed my mind to pull out. I’ve taken part in the Tunbridge Wells Race for Life every year for as long as I can remember, even when I wasn’t into running, and it’s become a tradition more than anything: 5K isn’t particularly a challenge for me anymore, it’s a bit of fun. I was certain that taking part on that Sunday would clear my head and lift my spirits in the way that running always does: it’s my stress reliever and takes me out of the world and into my own little bubble for a period of time.
Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that. I’m always full of beans on the morning of a race day, bubbling with excitement, but I just couldn’t lift my spirits when I woke up on Sunday 8 June. I had laid out my carefully-considered pink race outfit the night before and pulled it on robotically, hoping that I would be more excited once I got to the event. The grounds of Dunorlan Park in Tunbridge Wells were buzzing, there were people everywhere – people fashioning neon, tutus, funky headbands and even fairy lights. There was so much laughing, joking, people posing for photos and a general air of excitement. Loud music was being pumped out and a warm-up started: usually I wiggle my way to the front and join in enthusiastically. This time however, I stood on the outskirts next to my boyfriend Noel (the best cheerleader and supporter in the world) and realised that I couldn’t summon the smallest bit of energy. I felt sad and empty; I had no desire to join in. I just wanted to run the 5K and go home.
As participants walked past me, I read their back signs with names of people they knew who had battled cancer. The signs are absolutely heart-breaking; anyone who has ever been to a Race for Life event will know how powerful they are. A young girl had lost her mum, her granddad, her uncle… she had written a long list on her back sign and drawn little pictures of the people in her life who had been affected. Others had photos stuck onto theirs; I saw one with a poem. Cancer affects so many people. For a while I felt guilty and selfish – the majority of these people had lost someone to cancer, a lot of them were mourning. They were all joining in and trying to have fun – why wasn’t I?
I shuffled my way to the start line with this in my mind, still reading the back signs of people around me. I was in the Runner category (as opposed to Jogger or Walker) and tried to get as close to the start line as I could. The claxton sounded and I shot off with a sudden burst of determination. I ran and I ran; I overtook people and I kept running. I ran faster than I’ve ever run in my life. I didn’t look up, I focused on the ground, and I ran. It was an extremely hot day – about 25 degrees – and there are a lot of hills in Dunoran Park, in particular a drastically steep hill which is long and mountain-esque. It was after battling this around 4K that I began to feel ill. I was on the brink of tears, my heart was burning and I felt sick. Really sick. I continued at my pace and tried to ignore it, but by the time I approached the finish line I was retching, big ugly retches. I crossed the finish with my hand over my mouth and tears streaming down my face, trying desperately to both hold back the emotion and the inevitable sick. A poor volunteer went to hand me my medal and I remember hastily grabbing it as I retched, and then fell to the ground and threw up. Once, twice, then I saw my boyfriend Noel coming towards me holding a flower he’d bought me to say well done. After seeing my state he went off to fetch medical assistance; my lovely cousin Harriet had been watching her friends from the crowds and saw me finish so came over to find me. She walked me over to the shade and I drank a bottle of water, shaken up and feeling really strange. I didn’t have a single endorphin in me and didn’t feel like I’d achieved anything at all. I felt embarrassed – everyone at the finish line, up to and beyond could see I was a mess – and I felt drained. The first aider made sure I was ok and Noel bought us all a Mr Whippy from the ice-cream van. When I felt ok again, Noel drove me back to my family.
The medal came packed up in a cellophane wrap, and I remember just dropping it into my medal box without even opening or looking at it – I wasn’t interested. To this day I don’t know what the medal looks like. I remember seeing a timer as I ran over the finish line and it read 22mins. Usually I would feel extremely proud of this and it would be something to celebrate, but I didn’t care. Nothing about this race felt right. I have no idea why I reacted so badly – perhaps it was the 25 degree heat combined with the extreme hills, not enough water and pushing my body harder and faster than it had ever been. Maybe it was simply dehydration. Maybe it was partly mental; my body was in shock already and my mind wasn’t completely in it. What I do know is that I’m glad I took part: I would have been so regretful if I hadn’t. At the time I believed I was doing the right thing as I was certain that a run would clear my mind a bit, and cancer is rife in my family tree, so I will always make an effort to partake in a cancer-related charity event. This race was also my first ever ‘bad run’ which as a runner I needed to experience. I’m now extra-cautious on hot days, drink more than enough water and listen to my body more, and if I ever start to feel the slightest bit nauseous, I stop.