By Arthur Knaggs
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. (Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running)
“You don’t get anywhere by magic, but only by putting in the required number of steps, one at a time and in the correct sequence. You can’t run the last lap of a mile until you’ve run the first three. There is a truth, a beauty and a symmetry in this that is inviolate. Every step counts.” (Bernd Heinrich, Why We Run)
London. An athletics track. Evening. Clouds hang fat and heavy in the sky above Parliament Hill. There is a low-key festival atmosphere that grows as the light fades.
Vans and stalls line the outside of the track. The arena fills with people. A bridge made from scaffolding crosses the track ten metres before the finish line. Beer tents squat above the back and home straights. A double decker bus sits on the infield. It is the commentary box.
The format for the day is simple, there are nine races, each of them is a final. Entry for the public is free. The slope that backs down towards the edge of the track is full. People collect in groups. The smell of pizza, and crepes, drifts lazily between the bodies.
A woman wearing Hungarian running kit sits down among the crowd. Her deep green tracksuit clashes with her pink trainers. She doesn’t move. Her whole body radiates calm. Small drops of rain fall and the temperature cools. It is a perfect night for racing. A man wearing a bucket hat lopes past the beer tent carrying a can of Stella. A puppy tumbles in front of him and thrusts its snout into an upturned glass of Pimms. The Hungarian athlete stretches slowly, ambles down the bank and melts into the crowd.
The runners look slow, but their pace is brutal. Gaps appear in the field almost from the start. The pack becomes a line. Then the line breaks. The best runners move their shoulders very little. Their chests thrust forward from their hips and their heads remain still. Sweat flies off them as they pass and re-pass my position on the side of the track … 1,000 metres, 2,000 metres … 6,000 metres.
One runner leaves the track and falls down on the infield. He lies completely still and nobody goes to help him. His shorts are thick with sweat and his belly heaves. After some time, a man comes over to pour water on his neck.
When the women run, their hair flies out behind their heads and their legs turn like pistons. One, two, thee, four. One, two, three, four. 180 beats a minute. They hardly seem to touch the ground at all. One runner sticks her tongue out. Another flicks her eyes to the right to see who called her name. The race is personal. I don’t see the Hungarian. From the side of the track, you can feel each deep and urgent breath the runners take. It is strange to stand so close.
When the last race starts, spectators stand three deep around the edge of the track. There are more on the hill. The atmosphere is electric. The moon has risen and rain falls heavily. Bright green lights dance around the track to mark time. The lights mark the threshold for the World Championships. Beat the lights and qualify. This is significant.
Intensity envelopes the track. There is no running any more. There is only flying and the gentle rush of feet. It is pain that makes the runners appear human. Their faces hold wide, silent screams, and with each lap they wind the rack another turn about their bodies.
The beer tent is a cauldron of noise. Cowbells beat and clang. Voices seethe and whirl, and a fresh roar meets the runners at each circuit, driving them deeper and deeper into pain.
When the race finishes, there are only names and a broken heap of bodies. The runners collapse on to their hands and knees, or fall on to their backs. The track is littered in a flash of heaving singlets.
Slowly, the runners leave, no longer bound together, each one heading out to their own direction. The night’s energy fades out into darkness and the rain falls hard upon the ground. What has happened? Is this the end? The crowd breaks apart, and shuffles out of the park towards the warm golden bellies of home.
Later, when I close my eyes, I see the runners again. Legs turning, arms rocking to the silent rhythm of their blood, faces etched with pain – a host of men and women whose shining bodies call out to mine. There is no race, only the whisper of feet and their heavy, panting breaths. They look like gods, and they are running.
© Copyright Arthur Knaggs 2019