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Coveting another’s distance

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All runners have our favourite distance or discipline.

When I was younger I coveted being an Olympic 1500 runner. Well, strictly, that's not true. I probably would have done the middle distance running in my spare time when I was not being a cross-code All Black/All White sensation.

But, if I were to be a runner of any sort, it was a miler like John Walker. Or rather, like Filbert Bayi at the Commonwealth Games - running away from the field, then hitting the final bend, holding the lead, fading, holding, fading and grasping at the finish line with John Walker bearing down on him.

However, when I got old enough to run miles at school I quickly discovered, despite it being the longest distance on offer at school sports day, it was too short for me.

Twenty or more years later I discovered my niche was mountain running. By that stage, my John-Walker-emulation-daydream had faded somewhat, so I was more than happy to take what was on offer.

But I still occasionally step onto a track and run hard off the bend into the home straight imagining what it would be like to have Walker just slightly too far behind me. Mountain running is the love of my life, but I can still enjoy a tryst with my childhood sweetheart, the track.

Runners also have our least favourite distances and terrains.

As George Orwell (English steeplechaser from the 1890s) would have it, all races are equal, but some are more equal than others.

For instance, I hold a false belief that running an ultramarathon is easy because 'it's just jogging slowly for a long time, with food breaks along the way'.

My condescending attitude undoubtedly relates to my complete lack of desire to run said ultra. If I wanted to run it, I would have tried, just like I have done multiple times with 1500m races. And, just like for those middle distance attempts, I would have quickly learned that I was wrong. Still, ultras are not the discipline I covet.

I once tried race walking. Quentin Rew came along to Newtown Park and spent an hour teaching a group of us the basic rules and techniques. Then we were released on to the track to give it a go. After being disqualified about five times within 3000m, soundly beaten by all and sundry and having endured well-meaning sideline encouragement from the walking community, I never returned. But I also never more made jokes about race walking. Racewalking is not the discipline I coveted.

I conducted an informal survey of Scottish members. The distance many daydreamed about excelling at, coveted being world champion at, was either the marathon ("to be first into the stadium and run that one sweet lap" says Alasdair Saunders) or sprints ("all the fast twitch muscle fibres" says Niam Macdonald).

Some races are more coveted than others. Within middle distance, the 800m is a brutal test of speed, tactics and luck. The 3000m is many runners' favoured distance. But nothing matches the Olympic glamour of the 1500m. Within distance races, the 10,000 has some of history's greatest running heroes, but nothing compares to the mythology built up around the marathon. Within sprints the hurdles are spectacular, the 400m is satisfyingly round, but nothing surpasses the razzmatazz of the 100m.

Other disciplines - cross country, ultra and trail running, mountain running - have their romantic proponents but none have either the Olympics or the atmosphere of a stadium.

What I have learned, both from trying new events and from avoiding new distances, is that it's not a sin to covet another runner's distance. My experimental fling may feel awkward and uncomfortable but it won't be adulterous.

I can safely return to my mountain trails knowing they cannot smell the road marathon perfume on my shoes. Nor will they judge me poorly for having spent the summer with Newtown Park's rubber track.

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by Stephen Day

 
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