The highlight item in my 1970’s school pack lunch box was a Jacob’s chocolate bar (our’s was definitely a make-your-own-pack-lunch family, so forget 5-a-day, brown bread or layered rainbows of goodness displayed in a kiln jar, we’re talking dairylea triangles on pappy white bread).
If you got to the treats cupboard at the start of the week (again, don’t get excited here, for ‘treats’ read the odd bag of own label hula hoops and a family pack of discounted, broken custard creams) you could at least enjoy the adrenalin rush of having a choice of biscuit flavour before older siblings started stashing away their favourites. To this day, I stand by my opinion that a regular milk chocolate Jacob’s bar top trumps mint or orange any time.
The TV jingle for Jacob’s was – and I think still is – ‘if you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our club’ and, tenuous segway here, joining a club has been something I’ve managed to avoid most of my life, chocolate or no chocolate. Now here I am, old enough to know better, a member of both boot camp and a running club. Last weekend, entering an event for the latter, I had over six sweaty miles to ponder why I might have taken so long to see the merits of club membership.
In early summer, it seemed like a good idea to agree to join one of the club’s ladies teams and enter a five leg, hilly, off-road relay. I’ve only ever run staff relays at school, and then I’ve only had 200m to worry before transferring the baton clumsily to another old-timer signed up for humiliation in front of a hostile student crowd.
Cross country is different. You’re given maps (and I don’t map read well); you need to lift share to ensure you have cars at both ends of your leg; you – ideally – meet up with strangers running the same relay leg for other teams before the actual day to do a recce (two if you’re really keen). Then there are the social media invitations from members of the club you have probably never spoken to, setting up message groups for different legs and different recces.
Thankfully I was brave enough to accept an invitation to a recce one evening in August. Our organiser turned out not only to be a seasoned veteran, but also head honcho for all five legs of all five teams entering from our club. He also turned out to be one of the most patient and encouraging people I have ever met.
He told us to bring a bag to leave in his car for the end of the recce run and he would then drive us back to my car which we would leave at the route’s start. It was only at the end of the recce when we returned to his car hot and sweaty, that I realised that my bag should have contained wet wipes, deodorant, a total change of clothes and some healthy snacks; instead I had packed a sweat shirt and some jelly babies. Fortunately one other newbie club member had also packed in my fashion and we watched awkwardly as the other three veterans stripped down to their running smalls before climbing into the spotless car, fragrant and ready to share small packs of dried fruit. We sat quietly, trying to keep our muddy trainers off the upholstery, and trying not to be offended when our fellow backseat passenger wound the window down. Lesson learnt.
How grateful was I for that recce when we got to race day last weekend. As I stood on a blustery beach ready to start my six mile leg, I started to get a sense of what club membership means. Members from the club who weren’t even running, and those who had every excuse to be miles away waiting for the baton to arrive on some distant hilltop, arrived on the sand to wave us off and to check we knew our route. Bananas were shared, extra layers offered and banter exchanged as we waited for a man dressed as the Mad Hatter to set us off. It turns out that the baton is a sawn off piece of plastic piping and it fits perfectly well under the strap of a running bra. Again , who knew?
It’s clear very early on that I’m going to be one of the slowest of the teams on my leg and, instead of the line of runners marking the way ahead of me, I soon realise that it’s going to be me against the route. I feel the responsibility of ruining things for the rest of my team if I don’t get the baton to the handover point. I’ve never felt like this before at any of the solo running events I’ve entered.
I start trusting myself and thankfully the banter from the recce starts kicking in. All the way markers that my club members had previously pointed out to me – that hideous sculpture, that ostentatious tennis court and the friendly lady who had popped her head out of her cottage bedroom window when she heard us arguing over map directions below, all of them guide me at the appropriate time. On the three occasions I doubt myself, I suddenly see a club vest appear at a junction and a friendly smile point me in the right direction and ensure a sweaty action shot is preserved for the club website.
The last mile is all downhill and I can hear the voice of my club coach telling me to ‘let myself go’ and let the hill do its work. I’ve even remembered to wear trail shoes because the recce proved this was needed. As I near the bottom of the hill, on seeing me, I can hear a fellow club runner bellow ahead to get the Leg 2 recipient of the baton in place and suddenly my bit’s all over. A bottle of water is placed in my hand and then I’m sitting in the same car, with the club runners from the other Leg 1 teams. This time I’m wet wiped, deodorised and wearing fresh clothes – so is my felly newbie – we smile and feel fully fledged.
I’m clearly hooked. I’d intended to go home and shower after my leg and catch up on some marking, but I find myself at every checkpoint throughout the day cheering our club teams on, and I’m there at the very end, in front of the cathedral cheering as our men’s team wins first prize. We crowd in to admire their hamper of chocolate and beer and to photograph one of their prizes – a very baggy pair of running pants, so baggy in fact that you could fit most of the club inside. But then, if you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit…