The loneliness of the long-distance runner

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

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It’s 32 hours since I completed the Miles for Smiles 10k ‘fun run’ and I feel like my legs have been run over by a Humvee.

If I didn’t know it before, I know it now. In a 53 year-old, averagely fit man’s life, 10k goes on forever. Especially when you’ve had two hours sleep due to jet lag and you’re stupid enough to take off running with the leaders (who covered the first 5k in a blistering 20 minutes).

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A kilometre in, and running along the glorious waterfront between the Jumeirah Beach and Burj Al Arab hotels, I knew I was in trouble.  Big trouble. I’ve played plenty of sport in my day and done plenty of running. Never have my legs ‘gone’ as they did in this run, and at a pitifully early stage too.

My aspirations of running in the slipstream of Paton’s James Kfouri (who finished in a similar time as me last year) were quickly cast aside as he disappeared into the distance alongside fellow industry front-runners Karl Marnane of Butlers Chocolates and Sean Staunton of Dubai Duty Free, together with a local woman runner who had taken off as if she had been shot out of a cannon.

Instead this was going to be about survival. All those months of plotting a sub-48 minute or even sub-47 minute time went out the window. The question was how to even get to the finish.

At an early stage I ran past Dubai Duty Free Managing Director Colm McLoughlin, who was cycling along with the 5k walkers. I pondered asking for a lift but pounded on instead, just about finding the energy to wave to him. Now I knew what the phrase ‘the loneliness of the long-distance runner’ really meant.

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When you’re running for such a good cause as cleft charity The Smile Train, giving up is not an option. Though it certainly appeared on my mental menu several times during the race. Twice I stopped, before castigating myself for losing precious time. Sometimes in life you just have to take your punishment. It was clear from the sheer strain on their faces that several other runners were feeling the same way.

I passed my colleague Dermot Davitt as I turned for the final long stretch to the finish. Dermot’s not been a runner in the past but like the trouper he is had trained hard for this. I could see he was hurting badly. I gave him the thumbs up and just about wheezed out ‘Keep going Dermot’.

Every landmark and every watering post seemed further apart as the race went on. “Never, ever again,” I said to myself to try to ease the pain. It didn’t work. Finally the soaring white structure of the Burj Al Arab hotel loomed. I knew that was a few minutes from the finish. They would be the longest minutes of my life.

At one stage I passed what looked like Spiderman (below). Then Anthony and Cleopatra. And then what looked like a drag queen on roller blades, who seemed to go by the name Juliette, raced past me. Clearly I was beginning to hallucinate in the heat.

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As I neared the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and the start-finish line I broke into what masqueraded as a sprint, trying to claw back some seconds that I’d lost by walking later. “Don’t leave anything out there” I had told myself all week. Stupid advice and I resolve never to listen to myself ever again.

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I fell across the finishing line, my face resembling a well-broiled tomato and my heart pounding as if there was no tomorrow. If I’d carried on any further there might not have been.

“You better go and lie down,” said a friendly marshall, handing me a bottle of water. “I am lying down,” I said, “the question is can I get up?”

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And so my race was run. Karl (who won in a brilliant 40 minutes and 17 seconds), Sean (second) and James (third), all looked like they could do another 10k. Had I really been stupid enough to run with them early on? Answer yes and I had paid the price ever since.

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Consolation came that evening when I learned that my fast start had not been entirely in vain. I had run 46 minutes and 1 second – three minutes and 55 seconds faster than last year – enough to earn the dubious tag of ‘fastest over 50’ and more importantly an additional US$250 in sponsorship from Aldeasa US President Rod Wiltshire, who had generously donated the same sum to the race and pledged to double it if I finished under 47 minutes.

I recovered in time to watch my colleagues Dermot Davitt and Mandy Sime finish in commendable times, both below 57 minutes. Dermot (below) had a crazed, glazed look on his face that you would more normally associate with a prisoner who had stumbled into the daylight after 20 years solitary confinement. He was in pain.

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Mandy (below with Dermot and I), conversely, looked fresh as a daisy. It was probably those Jimmy Choo running shoes. She and co-organiser Rowena Holland had done an amazing job in making this event happen.

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And so the remainder of the field stumbled in, all shapes and sizes; all manners of expressions on their faces, from anguish to contentment. All had done their bit for a great cause, raising some US$50,000 for The Smile Train – enough to fund 200 cleft operations on children in emerging countries.

At the post-race prize-giving ceremony we were reminded poignantly of what this race was all about. A Dubai-based married couple from Sri Lanka, Thakshila and Manjula, came up on stage to talk about how The Smile Train had helped fund cleft surgery at a world-class centre in India for their young son Aaryan. For the second time that day my legs felt weak but this time emotion was the cause. Everyone seemed to feel the same.

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Then the best-kept industry secret of recent weeks was revealed. I called Colm McLoughlin up on stage, who announced that Dubai Duty Free was donating S$1.5 million to assist The Smile Train’s work in the Philippines.

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The funding will be used to recruit additional staff, purchase vehicles and equipment, and to perform 3,800 cleft surgeries.

The reaction of the crowd was amazing. The applause went on and on and on. I like to think that everyone there realised they were part of something much bigger. As pain-relief measures for all those tired legs go, they don’t come much better than this. Instantly thoughts changed from running retirement to “How do we keep this momentum going?”

24 hours on, the pain in my shins has me thinking along the lines of a sponsored 100 metre sprint rather than any more long-distance efforts.

But whatever the format or project, the fund-raising effort should continue.  The smiles of thousands of children in the Philippines in coming years and of a single infant boy called Aaryan are motivation enough.

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