The Scribbler

23 July 2013

Back to the Olympic stadium

It’s a year since the Olympics and Paralympics, and it was time for me to follow the path to the finish straight, raced in victory by Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, David Weir, Hannah Cockcroft and Jonnie Peacock.

I was going back to that glorious cauldron of sporting entertainment – the Olympic Stadium and the Olympic Park to run a five mile race, finishing on that amazing, historic track.

It seems so long ago that I anxiously tried to get through the scrabble for a chance to run. But I got lucky and with 12,500 others got excited about running in the venue we’d seen shine on our TV screens last summer. And on Sunday I was there.

Me at the Olympic Stadium

Mobot on the Olympic track

I’d been worried about the heat. I was worried about getting through security with our bags. But on the day, the clouds covered the sun and we were checked and waved through quickly. And once I was there, sitting in that grand stadium, looking out over the red track and the green field, seeing the seats fill up with runners and their friends and family, I felt calm.

One thing I wasn’t worried about was running. And that’s quite a thing to be able to say. The changes I’ve made to my life since 2008 mean that a 5 mile run holds no fears, no anxieties for me. That’s quite something.

This was never going to be a race for a time. It was about the experience of being there in the moment, doing something I enjoy and creating long lasting memories. My plan was to run easy, but not too easy and to relish it.

Still, I went through the motions of warming up, to get my mind and body ready to run. Welcome clouds had taken some of the heat out of the sun, but it was still sticky and humid. And my legs had taken a battering from London sightseeing the day before. My poor feet were already blistered more than they’ve ever been through running.

I bounced and hopped and stretched, watching the crowds of runners gather in their blue shirts, before heading to my starting spot. For once, I really am calm and there’s no temptation to race this, just enjoy it.

We follow the mass warm up. A heaving crowd of arms and legs and nervous laughter. We cheer the ‘elites’ as they’re introduced on the big screen, with a rousing roar for starter Sir Chris Hoy and distance running legend Paula Radcliffe.

And then after a short count down we cheer as the first wave of runners sets off, waving, smiling, stopping to take pictures of Chris Hoy. And soon after we start to move forward to follow them, walking at first then jogging and running over the start line, a mass of smiles and waves. In the stadium Gary spots me mugging for the cameras like a loon as I laugh at the joy of starting this run.

The path swoops, twists and turns. In the first few hundred metres the surface changes from smooth tarmac to rough gravel to parched grass and back again. There’s a park area to the left with trees strung with brightly coloured paper lanterns, but we run past on side roads and access roads, past traffic cones and plastic tape.

Me running in the Olympic Park

Passing by The Orbit

Up and round the side of the beautiful velodrome, scaffolded and changing, no longer as fresh and new as when I first saw it. Runners around me who have been here during the Olympics, remark on the landmarks that have disappeared. “That’s where we sat near the big screen, remember?” There are patches of bare ground now, sanded squares and heavy machinery the only evidence that there was something there before.

I catch glimpses of scenes from the park. The crayon like structures that poke up from the river. The green banks and paths. The barges and river boats alongside the river, cut off by the metal fencing. On the other side a runner in a yellow t-shirt passes in the opposite direction and is greeted by shouts of  “You’re going the wrong way!”

But for the most part it’s like running through an industrial estate. Black tarmac and grey concrete. Empty and waiting for its life to begin again.

The route is busy, crowded. But I pick my way through with few problems, running a steady pace, looking for faces as we pass fellow runners on several switchbacks.

Just before the water station there are volunteers with megaphones, shouting encouragement, the human contact making us laugh as among the runners there’s little chatter.

It is hot and humid, although the sun is still shaded and my shirt is soaked through with sweat. I grab a bottle of water and sip a few mouthfuls before throwing it away to one side. Some of the runners are walking now. Coins jingle in runners pockets, heavy breaths fall behind me as I push on, focusing on bouncing off my hot feet, keeping my run light and easy.

Round and round the paths turn. Snatches of music from steel bands, bangra drums and a sound system that blasts out the start of Elbow’s ‘Day like This’ as I run by. I know I will run this, all of this. My legs feel strong and move freely, even in this heat. In the end I do stop just once, pulling over the to the side over a small rise to take a photo of the stadium and the twisting structure of the Orbit as I pass by.

Each time the stadium comes into view, the path twists and turns away again, until the last turn takes us up a small rise and down again, snaking into its dark underbelly.

I’ve been here before. I know what to expect. But last time this dark corridor under the seating was cool. Today it’s stifling. Muggy with the sweat and breath of thousands of runners who’ve run four and a bit miles to get here. I start a chant, the one we shout in the underpass on the Great North Run ‘Oggy, oggy, oggy!’ The response echoes through the corridors.

Me approaching the finish line at the Olympic Stadium

Approaching the finish line

And there it is. The entrance of the gladiators. The whole stadium opens up before us as we run onto the track. The surface bounces below my feet. I wave and clap and look round at the stands, marvelling at all the people, hearing the noise of their cheers.

This track wants my feet to go fast. It bounces me along. But I want to savour every moment. I look up into the stands, seeking the marker that will show me where Gary is sitting and wave and blow kisses like a crazy woman. In seconds he is behind me and I’m cruising round the last corner into the last straight, just 100m to go.

I pick up my feet and pace it out as a couple next to me unfurl the union jack between them to a huge cheer. I do something approaching a sprint to the finish line, hoping I’m still managing to smile and wave as I cross the line.

That was an amazing moment and I scrabble to collect it, to preserve it in my mind forever. As I bend over to get my breath back and gather my thoughts a man taps my shoulder gently and asks if I’m okay. It’s another runner and I look up and smile at him saying “Thank you.” Runners are good people.

Gently encouraged to keep moving away from the finish line to let the hordes of finishers through, I pause to take in the view of the stadium, take a photo of two girls together who return the favour and I mug up a Mobot. There’s a huge ‘awww’ from the crowd and I turn to see a couple hugging with tears in their eyes on the big screen. I think there’s been a proposal on the finish line.

Slowly I make my way out of the stadium to collect my goody bag with medal and water and walk back around to find Gary in his seat in the stands. Still the runners pour through, smiling, waving, sprinting the last few hundred metres, catching the attention of friends and family in the stands, taking photos. Often the end of a race is a struggle, a desperation for it to be over. But not this one. There is nothing but a shared sense of joy and delight, of doing something special, of just being there.

Later I catch up on facebook and twitter, seeing joyful status updates and a real sense of pride and achievement from those who set themselves the goal of being there, of running this race. For some it’s the furthest they’ve ever gone. The prospect of following in the tracks of the champions tempting them out on training runs. The reward for their efforts, a chance to  experience something of what it feels like to be the best you can be.

For some it may be a one off, a unique occasion. But others I’m sure will be inspired to keep on running, training and entering other races. There’s  your Olympic legacy right there.


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