By Alan Urquhart
As a young lad, my sporting abilities were somewhat mediocre to slightly above average. On school sports days my talent shone in longer distance races, (800m and 1500m), but I was normally beaten into 2nd, 3rd or 4th place. In team sports I lacked any great skills but could score goals, baskets, and points galore in the final 15 minutes of games as other kids tired and I kept going. Stamina was all I really had!
After leaving school at the age of seventeen I became interested in running. I decided to enter the Great Wilderness Challenge, a local seven mile run held in August in my village in the Scottish Highlands. I did reasonably well, and got a small trophy for being the first finisher under eighteen (there weren’t many of us). I was hooked, maybe running was for me!
Shortly after this small success, I left for sports college in Edinburgh to train to become a sports coach. While I was there I joined City of Edinburgh Athletics Club. I was put in with a group of highly talented youths aged fifteen to nineteen, two of whom were absent on my first training session because they were representing Scotland at the World Hill Running championships. Was I out of my depth? It was hard work to beat the fifteen year olds!
Enthusiastic and raring to go with my new club, I entered lots of races with my fellow teammates. It was cross country season and my first race was in Gorebridge, outside Edinburgh. I finished 198th out of 212 in the men’s race, it was awful!
Things didn’t get much better as I went from race to race. I struggled with being beaten by so many people who looked old enough to be my grandad. Running in a skimpy running vest and short shorts isn’t much fun at times in the Scottish weather either!
On race day, I was really struggling to show the improvement that I had shown in my training sessions. Training comprised of intervals on the running track twice a week with the club, and a couple of steady state runs in addition. Although I trained hard, I also consumed chocolate, crisps, and Irn Bru every day. Don’t forget, I was a student, so of course there would be the weekly student night out where I drank ten pints of beer with my friends!
Several months later, just after Christmas, I sorted it out. Applying what I was learning in my studies, becoming more sensible with my diet, and stopping drinking (partly due to my student funds running out!), I started to change my way of life. I was consistent in my attendance at City of Edinburgh Athletics Club. Running with other people at the club helped me improve, and running intervals made me much faster. Having a supportive coach gave me guidance and focus. All I did was train and study for 6 months. Running and coaching became my new life!
I set myself a new long-term goal: to go back to the Great Wilderness Challenge and win outright. I wanted another trophy and I was now too old to be first under eighteen. Aiming to win a race isn’t the greatest goal in the world, it kind of depends on who turns up, but I was determined and focused.
In the meantime, in June, I went to the Meadows, a park in the city centre of Edinburgh, for a 2 mile road race. Super fast track runners from Glasgow and Fife came to Edinburgh to compete and record fast times. I finished 6th, where the hell did that come from?
My coach was a fantastic man who I am very grateful to. Despite him usually being quiet and reserved, he was elated! I hadn’t told him I was running but news reached him pretty quickly (and this was in the day before mobile phones!). Two of his other athletes had finished in the top six but he seemed happiest with my performance. He said that when I started with him 9 months before, he described me as a ‘fast jogger’.
The following week I went back for the 1 mile race at the same venue and finished 6th again… Phew! It wasn’t a fluke!
It was now time to return to my home village for the summer. It was also time for the Great Wilderness Challenge, my long term goal and the culmination of all my efforts. The night before the race I never slept. In the morning I couldn’t find my running socks and blamed my sister for stealing them. I was a bit of a nervous wreck!
The race started and I went straight into the lead, leaping over boulders, and zipping through the small trails in the off road section that covered the first three miles. At the start of the road section a fairly out of breath runner had made an effort to catch me. When he caught up with me we chatted for a while. The pace in the last four miles was slower than I would have planned but no one else was catching us, so I was happy to chat while we were running along. As we approached the finish, I asked him if he wanted to cross the finish line together or race each other. I had seen it plenty of times on the tv, runners crossing hand in hand. I didn’t know if that was the courteous thing to do given we had run most of the race together. Despite him chatting to me for the last four miles, he ignored me when I asked this question…
… He finished second.