Several colleagues and I met up in Olten, Switzerland, last Sunday to take part in our local incarnation of the Wings for Life World Run. We were 11 out of almost 4000 eager participants on that grey and drizzly morning, some more fit and eager than others. I was definitely one of the others.
When my colleagues had first mentioned the Wings for Life World Run to me last summer, I was on board right away. Wings for Life is a great charity that donates all proceeds from the event to spinal cord research – the World Run slogan is “running for those that can’t” – and the race concept is very different to your typical charity race.
For one, a ‘world run’ is exactly what it is, with 155 288 participants in 58 countries running at one of 111 official race locations around the world or individually by using the selfie run app. Everyone starts at exactly the same time, from dawn in California and Mexico to sundown in Taiwan and Australia.
It’s a great concept that’s perfect for anyone to participate in, however far you think you’re able to run.
And then there’s the fact that there’s no finish line. While initially that might sound like some nightmarish Stephen King-esque never-ending run, what it really means is that the finish line comes to you. A ‘Catcher Car’ sets off from the start line half an hour after the runners and gradually hunts them all down with slowly and steadily increasing speed (admittedly, also not unlike something from a horror film).
It’s a great concept that’s perfect for anyone to participate in, however far you think you’re able to run. So of course I signed up right away amid thoughts of how I was definitely going to run at least 25 kilometres on a raceday still nine months distant.
A quick confession: by the day of the race it had been more than a year since my last run. Needless to say, on Sunday morning I was apprehensive about how the next few hours would go. The race route looped back to the start line in Olten after around 12 kilometres before continuing on for those with more mileage in their legs, and so beforehand I’d resolved that getting myself back to Olten in one piece would be achievement enough for me.
One of the great things about this event is the range of people there to participate. In the Olten Stadthalle in the hours before the race, honed athletes aiming for a marathon-length slog were registering and warming up alongside fun runners happy to reach the five kilometre mark. It’s really quite unlike any other running event.
After meeting at eleven o’clock, Team Hexagon picked up race numbers, posed for a group photo and retreated into our various warm-up routines as we waited for the kickoff.
It would have been sensible to keep my ‘12 kilometres back to Olten’ plan in mind until the race began, butafter some energetic stretching I apparently arrived at the opinion that I was Hexagon’s own Mo Farah, and instead joined some of my colleagues to begin the race at the top of Block 2. That put me alongside athletes aiming to run 30 kilometres or more over the next few hours. There was a runner standing in front of me holding up a large ‘40KM’ sign – several such flag bearers ran among the crowd, pacemakers organised to help people keep on track for their targets during the race.
But I was unperturbed by this literal sign of things to come as we counted down the minutes towards our one o’clock start time. As my team mates stretched and set up their pedometers and heart ratemonitors it occurred to me that I was a little out of my depth. But everyone was excited, the music and incomprehensible commentary was blaring from the track-side loudspeakers, the now traditional giant inflatable ball was bouncing back and forth across the top of the crowd, and with well-prepared athletes packed in to every side of me it seemed a little late to fall back to a more sensible starting position.
And then we were off. The first few hundred metres were a mix of kicking celebratory balloons out of the way and dodging the heels of the runners in front of us, but soon the pack opened up. As a tall guy, long, fast strides felt comfortable for a while, and Mr 40KM stayed within my sights. I largely ignored his presence and its repercussions, but it wasn’t long before I felt the inevitable stitch in my side and more and more runners began to pass me by. I realised I may have gone off slightly fast.
Mr 40KM and several colleagues were soon fading to the horizon ahead of me as my breathing became more strained and my legs grew increasingly heavy. I began to wonder just how soon the Catcher Car would be along to relieve me. Seeing the marker that confirmed Ihad by then run only three kilometres was a sombre moment.
Asecond confession: I have some history when it comes to underpreparing for big running events. Several years ago I attempted the Hong Kong marathon following an intensive training regime that consisted entirely of walking my dog regularly and going on a four-day skiing holiday two weeks before the day of the race. While I did make it to the 35-kilometre mark on that occasion before my legs gave out, it was a very painful experience.
Since then I’ve grown three years older and moved back from Asia to Europe, where I’ve become reacquainted with the pleasures of chocolate bread and good sausages. So I started the race in Olten nearly ten kilos heavier and apparently not a bit wiser.
Had there been an award for the‘Wings for Life World Run Most Overtaken Runner’ I would certainly have been a prime contender.
With family waiting to cheer me on at the six kilometre mark, getting at least that far was mostly what I thought about for the next agonising 3000 metres. Mr 30KM soon passed me by, and by the time I reached my cheerleaders I was about ready to quit and ask for a lift home. After receiving some much needed encouragement, I was convinced to carry on. With muscles aching I was forced to slow to a crawl, and had there been an award for the ‘Wings for Life World Run Most Overtaken Runner’ I would certainly have been a prime contender.
The next few kilometres went by painfully and extremely slowly. Mr 20KM passed, and not long after so did Mr 15KM. Several times I slowed to walking pace before breaking back into a not-much-faster jog, but the kilometres eventually rolled by and still there was no sign of the Catcher Car. As I saw markers for eight, then nine, then ten kilometres I began to regain hope of making it back to Olten before being forcibly retired.
Astonishingly, I was soon back within sight of the start line, and as I finally passed it by I tried not to think too hard about the effort expended; instead focusing on how much further I could go. It was not long before the sounds of horns blaring behind me signalled the fast approach of that moving finish line , and I dug deep for a final sprint (slightly helped by a conveniently placed downhill stretch).
The Catcher Car passed by with cries of congratulation from the drivers and a not insubstantial amount of relief from myself. It also delivered the realisation that I now had to walk back up that hill to get back to the start where I’d left my bag. With heavy legs I made the slog back, and checking the Wings for Life World Run app on my phone along the way I discovered I’d completed 12.74 kilometres. I wouldn’t call myself extremely proud, but all in all, not too bad.
After checking in on the progress of my colleagues I was very pleased to see some incredible efforts from the Hexagon team all over the world. As a group globally, we ran 322.89 of the incredible 1 431 183 kilometres In Olten, several us recorded over 20 kilometres on their own. We even had one 30+-kilometre runner in Alex Schneeberger, who can claim a new Hexagon record for the Wings for Life World Run.
It’s now a few days later;my legs are still aching and the stairs in my apartment still look like Everest. But while it was more thantough at the time, I’m enjoying having done it at least. I look forward to joining what was a great event again next year, perhaps with a little more effort by way of preparation.