I looked at the uncomfortable, lycra–clad people, wondering what their reasons for being here were. Mine would be different to everyone else’s. I couldn’t imagine anyone was carrying the same guilt as me.
They were walking in small circles, waving arms about and generally looking foolish when I arrived. I was gestured into the group by someone with ‘Leader‘ written on the back of a bright, neon yellow waistcoat. I became one of the sweaty middle–aged masses, engaged in that futile fight against the natural order of things. There was no escape. This was my penance, this was how I would make up for what I had done.
As I circled I remembered how much I had hated that runner. There they were every morning on the way to work, always so fucking bouncy and smug. Rain, wind, sleet, hail; they were always there. I began to dread that stretch of road. Each time I saw them it brought back the memories of school. How I yearned to be one of the sporty, popular kids, how badly I failed. It was not a long part of my drive, just a few bends curling round a village shop and pub. The runner would be on the road just beyond the pub, bouncing down the narrow, twisting lane, thick claustrophobic bushes on either side. It felt remote and, quite often, I would turn the corner and the smug fuck was almost under my wheels.
Back in the present, the arm waving and walking in circles was over, the group was beckoned into a huddle and the plan for the evening given. We were to run for two minutes and then walk for one. Obviously we were not up to ‘proper‘ running yet. I felt inadequate. I had no one to blame now, back then I had convinced myself that it was the bloody runner who made me feel bad but, it had always been my problem.
We set off.
In my head I could see the way that lonely figure moved, there was a certain nausea-inducing grace, flowing along the road and round corners. It made what I was trying to do look easy. Now – within a few paces – I knew exactly how hard this was going to be and how much I wanted to just leave and go home. There was cake at home, and tea, and biscuits, and a TV, and warmth, and light, and my own comfortable chair with the seat worn down to the shape of my ample behind. Right here there was dark and it started to drizzle. I silently welcomed myself to hell and put on my best ‘don’t talk to me‘ face.
The runner threw my own inadequacy into sharp relief. I just wanted to see a change of expression, rattle them, make those stupid running feet misstep just once. At school I tried everything to show I was one of the cool kids, humiliating and making fun of the unfit and bookish, picking on those less capable. As I got older and more self aware I realised I was never going to join the beautiful kids when at school, I was as incapable as the children I had victimised, I was as much of a joke as they were. That runner was one of those exquisite specimens and I wanted to teach them a lesson because of it. That was why I started – to see how close I could get to the skinny running shit.
My heart was pounding now, lungs burning and legs aching, this was longer than 2 minutes. The whistle sounded and all around me sweating, heaving, wobbling bodies ground to a halt. What made us think we were ready for this? How were any of us going to manage to run a whole 5k? Much as I despised these people for wanting to join the enemy, I was now one of them and, I had to admit, there was a grudging respect for these peers making a difference to their lives. As the whistle sounded and we began another 2 minutes of weary plodding, my story continued to replay in my head.
For about 2 months I got closer and closer to the runner. It was so unfair, how can anybody look so comfortable in sports gear, so dynamic and capable at 6:30 in the morning? Every time I got a reaction I was pleased. I began to score points, with a scared or angry shout netting the most. Time passed. The fear the runner felt was payback for my own comparative inadequacy, a small problem created for someone who had it easy.
Then one morning...
I can see the dog starting its run down the garden path. The runner turning to look and starting to step away. The face a foot from mine as it hit the windscreen.
At the inquest it was declared an accident, nobody was held responsible, but I knew better. It was my game, my loathing and my stupidity that had killed someone. I looked at the obituaries, at the Facebook page which had been left and learnt something. The runner had once been me. Overweight, overworked and unhappy. Four years ago they had started to run and social media charted the progress. From the bitter slave of their own inadequacy to the elegant graceful runner who seemed to be all the things I could never be.
I tried to forget but could not, there was something deeply wrong with me. Not just for playing the game but for hating all those who were what I wanted to be. Those who worked to make themselves better. I would look at that page, at the before and after pictures. I looked at somebody who had changed everything, who had realised that all it took was effort and, I decided to become one. I could work hard and fix my life in the same way, and I would start by learning to run.