I’m the proud owner of two quite prominent scars. They’re not hidden away, only to be dramatically revealed at parties by rolling up a trouser leg or exposing a pec. Mine are always in full view, inscribed onto my face.
They’ve been there so long I barely give them a second thought but I occasionally find myself looking in the mirror while cleaning my teeth thinking, those are actually quite conspicuous. Perhaps people do sometimes notice them and wonder briefly to themselves how I might have got them.
Both scars, one a vertical furrow about 3 cm long, gracing the middle of my forehead, the other a small but deep gash across the bridge of my nose, are the results of running injuries. Under entirely different circumstances however. Let’s settle down with cocktails and say hello to my little friends.
My dad had started a new job. This must have been a big deal, the exact size of which must somehow have been communicated by my mother to her four year old son. The four year old in question being me, I should clarify that the account of how I earned my first facial scar comes mostly from my mum. I do have some memory of it although only in the form of vague images.
Sitting with me in the living room while waiting for my dad to come home, I think my mum had been encouraging me to make sure he received a hearty welcome and I guess I got the message loud and clear. On hearing the sound of a door opening and my mum exclaiming “here he is!”, I shot out of the living room and pelted down the hallway, gripped in the frenzy of a four year old’s excitement, to meet him.
I mentioned vague visions. In the first one, I’m slowly falling backwards as things go black and I’m thinking to myself... ”huh?”
My dad had come in through the back door. To reach it, a corner required navigating. It was later deemed at the inquiry that such an abrupt, last second manoeuvre was not possible at the speed my little legs were generating so I instead slammed head first into the wall then bounced back off it. I can actually remember the moment of contact and, in the few seconds before unconsciousness, surmising with my four year old logic that the result of running down the hallway had not quite turned out as expected.
In the next vision I remember, I’m looking upwards. Everything was white and silver and I’m a bit puzzled because there’s a lot of activity around me and I can’t move. I’d woken up in hospital having just had my forehead stitched back together.
In a heartwarming adornment to the story my mum tells, my favourite toy, a golly doll (to give it today’s less offensive name) she’d knitted for my first birthday accompanied me to hospital. Some time during his formative years, Golly had also acquired a hole in his head and my mum explained how, together, we’d both had our heads made better by the doctors.
Something just occurred to me for the first time as I wrote that last sentence. It was probably my mum who made Golly’s head better. It could have been the doctor though.
Although I hardly ever notice it, the resulting scar does stand out in a certain light and when someone made a Harry Potter reference for the first time, I realised it can be quite striking to other people’s eyes.
Over the next few decades I managed to bring a measure of control to my over-enthusiastic running prowess, which was just as well because I was doing a lot of it. In fact, I think I’d become a pretty decent runner. I suppose that would depend on your definition of decent; I wasn’t troubling any Olympic qualifying times but whenever I was running regularly and eating healthily, I noticed I was doing a lot better than average for my category.
The half marathon was my favourite distance. I’d enter a couple of organised events per year, gradually reducing my times from around two hours to 1:40 (hours:mins). Very respectable. And I was still improving.
I clearly remember the first time I broke 1:40. It was the Reading Half Marathon in 2011. I’d actually timed myself a couple of seconds over but had gotten into the habit of starting my stopwatch before hitting the first timing mat and stopping it a second or two after crossing the finish line. All too often I’d checked my official time online, only to discover a few seconds had been added to what my Garmin unofficially claimed. This method prevented that little irritation.
It was going to be close but I was confident I’d be given a time marginally under 1:40. Sure enough, with feet up on the sofa and enjoying a traditional, post-race, meat feast Dominos, I looked up my official result and there it was. A new half marathon personal best (PB in running jargon) of 1:39:58. You could not have upset me for the rest of that day.
How far can I push this? I thought to myself afterwards. Going under 1:30 would be incredible but I was sensible enough to realise that was beyond me. What about 1:35? Hmmm…possible, possible. I should be able to shave off a couple of minutes at least.
I resolved to enter the Reading Half Marathon the following year and give it all I had for three months beforehand. I hope I was never perceived as one of those sanctimonious runners who refused to socialise if it got in the way of a training schedule but, just this once, I wanted to see what I could achieve if I prioritised my fitness and training over everything else.
The race was on 1st April. From 1st January, I abstained from alcohol, junk food and chocolate. The occasional bag of Haribo was allowed to suppress insanity. I knew an experienced Iron Man competitor (if you don’t know, you don’t want to know) who kindly drew up a customised training plan for me. I was running 4-5 times a week during the most intense period so I had regular deep tissue sports massages to aid recovery. That’s what Jessica Ennis did. I knew because I was following her Olympic training blog.
Having already spent quite a bit of money in pursuit of peak condition, I decided the extra cost of a hotel room the night before the race, rather than getting up super early and taking a train from London, would be worth it. Training had gone very well. I’d stuck to the resolutions I'd made and my goal was borderline achievable. Why not give myself every possible advantage? It’s the little things that make all the difference. Jessica Ennis said so.
The magnificent Madejski Stadium was developed to provide Reading Football Club with a home ground that aligned with their Premier League ambitions. It really was one of the most fantastic modern stadiums in the UK when it opened. Not only was the route of the Reading Half Marathon changed so that runners could finish inside it like conquering Olympic heroes, the complex included a very nice hotel, overlooking the start.
Instead of mulling around the start area, trying to keep warm, I sat in my room, watching thousands of people mulling around the start area, trying to keep warm. I’d been in the jacuzzi that morning and eaten in comfort at exactly the right time. Perfect preparation.
The race went to plan. I was on for a new PB but when the stadium came into sight, I realised how close it would be. I had to pick it up for the last kilometre. I grimaced and pushed harder. I turned into the stadium. Just a few hundred metres to go.
A section of turf that would be pounded by thousands of runners over the next few hours had been covered with a protective rubber mat. Quite a thick rubber mat with a bit of spring to it. Virtually a trampoline compared with the unyielding concrete I’d been running on up until then. The entrance tunnel leading into the stadium declined quite steeply, causing my gait to change. Running like a maniac, I found it hard to compensate for that and began to lean further and further forward. Then came the sudden change of contrast under foot. All control was lost.
The voice of hindsight suggests I should have stopped to sort myself out but the PB I’d long fought for was dangling like a big, juicy, carrot shaped Haribo gummi stückchen, and the finish line was right there.
I made it to within maybe 20 metres or so, then ate mat.
Adrenaline was soaring and I thought of nothing else but getting to my feet and charging for the finish. I got myself over the line. Job done, now for damage assessment. I stumbled over to one side and slumped down against a barrier to compose myself.
First things first, did I get a PB? A glance at the watch. Holy crap, I’d done it!
A marshall came over. ”Are you alright? This is not a good place to sit.”
”Yeah, sorry. I just need a minute.”
”Are you sure you’re okay? Do you need a wheelchair?”
What! A wheelchair!!! Things were a long way from being that bad.
”No no. I’ll be ok in a minute.”
He was right though, I couldn’t stay there. Runners were filling up the finish zone and we all had to keep moving. I slowly climbed to my feet, realising for the first time that I felt a bit dizzy. And some kind of pain was beginning to register in my face. I took a tentative step, wobbled, grabbed hold of the barrier again then turned back to the marshall.
”You know what? I think I will take that wheelchair.”
By the time he’d wheeled me out of the stadium, I figured I’d embarrassed myself enough and attempted to persuade him that I was already feeling better and could take it from here but he didn’t listen. He was a responsible race marshall and had a particular destination in mind.
Over the years, I’ve taken part in countless running events. Always pushing myself, often in challenging weather conditions, sometimes crapping out and having to suffer the shame of walking once my broken body had sucked up the last drop of available energy. But this was the first time I ended a race in the medical tent.
A paramedic came to check on me and her eyes widened. A second, more senior medical professional I guessed, was summoned to take a look. He also seemed unsure what to do about whatever it was he could see. A third person peered into my face, thought about it for a few seconds then shook his head. Not serious. I could go.
For several minutes I’d been sitting in a wheelchair while three medical personnel, in ascending order of experience, had frowned at my face. What was I thinking during this time?
Jeez, what the hell has happened to me?
New PB! New PB! I did it, I did it!
Released from medical care, I still didn’t feel great but was composed enough to head back to the finish area and get my medal. I pissed off several marshalls, pushing through barriers and going against the flow of recently finished runners but… you know… priorities.
Once a finisher’s medal is round your neck, you’d normally head to the baggage truck, pick up your stuff and try to find a spot where you can get warm, have a drink and munch a cereal bar. But I didn’t have to do any of that this time. I had a hotel room five minutes away. What a blessing that felt like right then.
After the reaction of the medical guys, I was braced for something bad so didn’t freak out entirely when I finally saw my reflection but, yeah, that did look quite nasty. A deep gash on my nose plus a few other cuts and a lot of dried blood all over my face.
I’d chosen the best possible spot to kiss the floor. Not only did I provide a front row performance to a surprisingly full section of the stadium, it happened directly in front of the cameras taking finishing photos. Often these are not good quality and people complain about how expensive they are but let me tell you, my official photos from that race were worth paying for. My little tumble had been beautifully documented.
Check out this picture.
Most people instinctively put their hands out in front of them as they take a nosedive. Apparently I thought it wiser to let my face take the brunt. Other photos explain why my nose was so badly cut. I’d smashed my sunglasses and mashed them into my face.
Reading 2012 turned out to be the peak of a glittering* running career. I moved to Berlin shortly afterwards and entered another half marathon there but picked up a meniscus injury while training for it. I’d pushed things as far as they would go. My time of 1:37:46 that day stands as my PB and a facial scar, etched not too far below the one I’d procured 30 odd years earlier, occasionally reminds me of how hard earned it turned out to be.
* I suppose that would depend on your definition of glittering. I never held any world records, nor have I been awarded any letters after my name for services to sport. But I do have a box full of medals in the attic, a 100 parkruns t-shirt and a few mentions in Aubrey’s Official Register Of London Marathon Runners.