Personal best

One minute to go. Andy took a deep, slow breath. The chill air felt fresh. He usually ran after work. Would a morning run slow him down? He hoped not.

This was it. The big reboot. After eighteen months of covid lockdown the park run was finally back. He looked around at the other runners. Less than there used to be. Many he didn’t recognise. He tried to gauge their fitness. See who would be a threat. You could tell some of them were lock down runners. People who only started running in the last year. Good luck to them.

A couple made him pause. They were both slim and energetically bouncing and stretching. They had all the right kit but Andy noticed it was all new. He wouldn’t be surprised if they had never run before.

There was one guy who would be a worry if he wasn’t so old. You could tell he could run just by looking at him. The way he stood. Totally relaxed but ready to spring out as soon as the starter said go. His running gear was well worn. There was even a hole in his trainer above his big toe. But Andy was sure he could beat the man. Unless he was a former Olympian.

Damn. Andy spotted Robin trotting down the hill. And Katy. Maybe he’d have to settle for bronze. He’d never beaten them before. But he’d never been in such good shape before.

He’d run almost every day. Lockdown suited Andy. Working from home saved two hours a day. The boss wanted staff back in the office but no way was Andy going to return to that daily grind. He’d look for another job if he had to.

Robin nodded. Katy waved. Andy gave an awkward half salute in return. The race director gave the usual spiel with the additional Covid rules of no spitting and no high fives. The sporty looking couple did an air high five to each other.

It was time. Andy made his way to the front and stood right on the starting line. Robin and Katy were just behind him. The old guy who looked like he could run was back about ten places.

Three, two, one, go.

The sporty couple sprinted off. Andy didn’t. He knew he had a tendency to go too fast on the first lap and especially on this first slightly downhill stretch.

It was hard to judge his pace. He’d become used to running alone and had long ago abandoned watch wearing. During the first month of lockdown he’d obsessively recorded every run on a spreadsheet. He’d been delighted to see his progress but then hit a bad patch after getting what he thought was Covid but wasn’t. It took a further month to get his times back to normal.

That’s when he decided to give up recording. He ran everyday for a month with no watch. Then he did a timed run and was amazed to see that he’d cut over five percent off his best. Another month, another two percent. Another month and three percent.

That’s when he had his big idea. He wouldn’t time any of his runs. He’d simply run to the best of his ability. He’d push himself and not worry about time. Not until the park run resumed.

Andy rounded the first corner and started up the long hill. He’d practised this. He’d not run this particular course during lockdown but he’d chosen a five kilometre run that included a long steep hill. Over the last few months he’d been forcing himself up that hill at a faster pace than felt comfortable.

He’d overtaken the sporty couple before getting half way up and reached the top in first place. At the sharp right turn he glanced back. Robin was not far behind. Katy was running alongside him. They were chatting. That wasn’t good. Andy’s own breath was so strained that he couldn’t have chatted if he wanted to.

The top of the course was flat. Then there was the long descent before the slow drag up to the start/finish line.  He could hear Katy’s foot-slaps behind him. He’d forgotten how distinctive each runner was. He couldn’t hear Robin. It might be that he’d fallen back but his footsteps were always nearly silent. He had such a graceful style he seemed to slide across the ground.

Those silent steps passed him on the descent. Robin always ran recklessly without holding back, even on the steep section. Maybe Andy should let himself go. It was a risk. It would be easy to over extend and end up slipping out of control. Maybe next lap. He might not need to. He was feeling so good. He was breathing hard but not uncomfortably. He knew he could go faster but was choosing to hold back. He was still gaining on Robin.

The second lap was a repeat of the first. Andy surged ahead up the hill. All that hill training was paying off. But Robin overtook with his charge down the slope. They then drew level as they approached the finish line for the last lap.

He could do this. As he turned he started to power up the long slope. It was amazing. Rather than tiring he seemed to be getting stronger. He pushed again.

Andy took the hard right and smiled. Robin had dropped back. Even if he caught up on the downhill Andy could take him on the final climb.

There was something about being in the lead that made things easier. Andy accelerated on the top flat section. He was running faster than ever and had to check himself before the descent. The last thing he wanted was to fall now.

He could hear his own feet hit the ground with extra force as he slowed himself. Then he heard footsteps just behind him. He couldn’t believe it. How was it possible? And who was it. The old guy? He risked a look.

Robin was flying. His arms were wheeling and his legs looked like they were struggling to keep up with his body. But the speed was incredible. And the noise. Robin’s usual silent steps had turned into a desperate whirlish and he was shouting like a pumped up footballer after scoring.

Andy had a choice. He could hold himself back and hope to catch Robin on the final hill or he could let himself go, scream at the wind and trust that his feet would run true.

“Geronimo.”

Legs shouldn’t go at this pace. Running shouldn’t be this much fun.

Andy came alongside Robin. Overtook. Reached the bottom of the hill. Realised turning the corner wouldn’t work. Ran straight on. Tripped on a kerb. Rolled through mud and grass. Remarkably span back up onto his feet. Smirked. Smiled. And tumbled again as Robin rolled into his legs.

Robin stood up, laughed and held out a hand. Andy took it and was pulled to his feet. Robin pointed to the finish line.

“Race you.”

Andy laughed once and then darted back on to the path and up the hill. He could beat Robin on the uphill but there was no way that he’d catch Katy now. But who cares. This was the best run of his life.

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