The Sweat Trilogy Part One: River Rat Race

This year I took part in three events to raise money for the Cerebral Palsy charity, Bobath Scotland. The events were:

The River Rat Race, an obstacle course
The Spartan Spring, also an obstacle course
The Great Scottish Run, a half-marathon

(All images by Stockton Council or my own)

“No way that’s 15 feet”.

I’m on a ship: The Glenlee, nicknamed the Tall Ship, a name which has never seemed more appropriate. Four planks stretch out from its side. I look from them down to the murky river below, trying to measure the distance between the two.

“No way that’s 15 feet. Double that, maybe”.

I don’t normally go around trying to measure things. But today that distance is important. In a few hours I’ll fall from one of those planks, plunging into the river beneath.

I was here to participate in the River Rat Race, a six-mile obstacle course around—and occasionally in—Glasgow’s River Clyde. The race’s ‘Event Village’ was erected on the grounds of the city’s Riverside Museum. Two thin, black, inflatable arches marked the start and finish points. A stone-coloured tent housed Registration, where I received my timing chip and signed a disclaimer (if I died or got injured it was all my fault). Another tent contained the baggage drop; a third, the changing area (which noticeably lacked a flap over the entrance, great for exhibitionists). In a black tent the Rat Race shop sold last season’s bags, trainers and race t-shirts. Tables brimmed with bottles of hand sanitiser and drinking water. At the rear, a significant queue formed outside portaloos.

I’d turned up early and decided to wander some of the course to see what I was up against. I’d decided to avoid details of most of the race, thinking the unknown element would make it more exciting. I knew a little about the obstacles, and the one that’s stuck in my mind was the ’15-foot drop from the Glenlee’. I don’t like water, but that didn’t sound too bad. Once I’d inspected the drop and called bullshit on the distance, the race looked far less attractive.

Thankfully, I didn’t have too much time to think about watery death. My wave was called forward to warm-up. I donned my black Rat Race t-shirt and joined 100 similarly-dressed others for some brief aerobics. After lunges and high kicks, we were herded into the starting area.

I edged to the left of the start line, though I knew the course took an early turn right. Vanity reasons, my family were on that side taking photos. My plan was to run out quickly—hopefully looking fast for the spectators,—then drop to my normal pace once out of sight. The final seconds slowly ticked away, then bang, we were off.

I burst to the front, quickly realising few runners were chasing me down. Was I super-fast (spoiler: no)? Were the others slow? Or were they just holding back? I had no idea, this was my first race, never mind my first obstacle course.

When I decided to take on some physical challenges this year, I didn’t even know what the Rat Race was. The Spartan Race and Half-marathon were already on my radar, and they seemed like plenty. The mistake I made was picking up some Scottish running magazine that had a list of events in it. Among the marathons and ultras, here was this weird, soggy obstacle course that was happening in just a few months. Climbing and wading and shit? Gimme that.

I was in third place for the first few hundred metres, and allowed a foolish thought to sneak in: could I win this? I dropped to fifth. Okay, maybe top ten?

But my struggles had already started. Half a mile in, my calves ached. Calf problems had plagued me over the previous months. I barely ran in the week before the race in order to rest them, but even that hadn’t been enough.

I was gasping for air too. After the race I mentioned this to my stepdad, a half-marathon veteran. He’d had the same problem in his races. Nerves, excitement, he wasn’t sure what caused it, it just happened. Yet I couldn’t help but think I simply made a novice mistake: not warming up properly.

About a mile in I spotted the first obstacle. Joy—my calves and lungs could get a break from this bloody running while I took on…a bouncy castle? Had I taken a wrong turn and arrived at a kids’ party? Getting closer, I realised what I was looking at was three inflatable walls with holes through their middles for us to clamber through. This looked like fun. I dove swimmer-style through the first hole, overshooting and bouncing off the second wall. I climbed through the remaining holes and rolled off the end, a smile across my face.

I ran into the strangely-named Plantation Park. It was lunchtime on a Sunday, yet the only people here are my fellow racers. When I signed up for this event, I liked that it would take place across public property. I imagined people, out for lunch or the Sunday papers, being boldy interrupted by a bunch of sweaty, black-shirted men tearing around a corner at them. It was vain, but I wanted people to wonder who we were and why we were running, but the places we ran through were mostly empty.

A sharp left took me into Festival Park. It may have been a park once, it’s a wasteground now—long grass and broken bottles. A marshal shouted, “Watch out for the hurdles”. I assumed she was talking about the rubbish on the ground, but then I saw what she meant. None of your thin, narrow hurdles here, these are Glasgow obstacles—my route was blocked by six rows of the red and white barriers council services use to block off pavements. A racer caught up to me. I slowed down in case he tripped on roots or slipped on a black bag and took us both out. Shamefully, I realised I was enjoying the thought—one less rival. He cleared the obstacles. I gave chase, running straight out onto the road.

If I organised this race, my main concern wouldn’t be a competitor being injured by an obstacle, but a car. The roads we crossed were quiet, but busy ones might’ve actually be preferable. Traffic would’ve forced me to recognise where I was. Despite the marshal’s warnings, I was so concerned about finding the arrow that lead to the next part of the course, that I didn’t notice the road until I was crossing it.

A Walk Zone forced me to slow down as I returned to the Clyde. A crowd had formed ahead, a zip-line launching someone across the river. This wasn’t the kind of obstacle I expected from the Rat Race but, having ignored the course map, how would I know? I looked around to find the end of the queue, then realised fatigue was already making me a fool. The zip-line started on the other side of the river. The people in helmets, having had their shot, were all of school age. This wasn’t even part of the race.

I was still laughing at myself as I approached a large metal frame. I had to get through bands that were stretched haphazardly across its width like Kerplunk straws. In front, a man pulled the bands apart to let a woman through. I noticed there were less bands along the frame’s bottom (presumably someone was lazy when it came to tying them up). I scuttled under and through.

The next frame had six bars horizontally across it. Each was surrounded by netting either above or below, dictating the direction I’d have to take. The same couple were still ahead and took an age clearing the first pipe. I got impatient, but didn’t want to force my way past them in case I accidentally kicked one in the face.

How did these slowpokes get ahead of me? Then I realised: they didn’t, they’re from an earlier heat. A wave had left 20 minutes before mine; I’d caught up with some of them already. I felt some pride over that but, as I watched the couple sloth their way through, I realised many more of my wave would catch them before the event was over.

I was in 12th place as I reached the halfway mark. I glanced back to see if anyone else was catching up. There was no one in sight—it was just me and the river. The course veered behind a girder of the Kingston Bridge. Hidden here was a slip-ramp: a wide strip of wood, angled at about 60-degrees, with a platform at the top that a rope hung from. A Rat Racer had to reach the top, normally by running up the wood until their momentum slowed, then grabbing the rope and pulling themselves up. I expected this to be difficult, but the ramp’s surface was grippier than it looked. I got most of the way up before having to catch the rope, then swung down from the top and resumed running.

Crossing Tradeston Bridge I noticed movement in the water below. My fellow Rat Racers were kayaking across the river. A small dock was a hive of activity—people clambered in and out of kayaks, grabbed oars and pulled on lifejackets.

At the dock my timing chip was stopped (so the wait for a kayak wouldn’t affect my overall time). I happily entered a Walk Only Zone, enjoying the rest.

My kayaking experience? Zero. I’d been advised to get some practice in. I didn’t. I’d used a rowing machine three or four times in my life, that was the best I could offer.

My timing chip was restarted as I approached a two-man kayak.. Some poor bastard was called forward to join me at the riverside. I grabbed an oar, moved to the front and sat down. I made sure I was balanced and placed my oar across my lap. Good to go. The marshal turned and gave me an odd look. I realised I was sitting in his dingy, the kayak was beside me.

Even with that inauspicious start ,there was still room for further failure. We had to row from one bridge to another, then back to the start. A rectangle. Four straight lines. We set off. In a curve.

I’m right-handed, but somehow every row was stronger on my left. My co-pilot, clearly more experienced in such matters, told me to forget trying to steer. Just row. My technique was terrible, the oar hitting my knees or the side of the kayak. A few minutes passed before I even noticed the oar…ends weren’t symmetrical. That’s where I was going wrong, I thought, adding rotation to my stroke. I dug too deep into the water, nearly capsizing us. Behind me, my fellow kayaker was quiet, but I could tell he wasn’t impressed. Particularly when I scooped water out with my oar and threw it back into his lap.

Our boat was overtaken at least four times before nearing the end (eight more mofos getting ahead of me). My co-pilot stayed quiet. I thought, I’ll apologise to this poor guy once we’re back on land. His friends arrived as we reached the dock. They commented on how slow he’d been. There’s more than one person in this boat, he replied. Cheeky prick. But I showed him. He didn’t get an apology. Take that.

Back on terra firma I chucked my life-jacket and ran off. Ahead, three woman handed out plastic cups of water. Delicious, wonderful water. Before the race I’d been wary of overhydrating and needing to pee during, slowing me down. But I’d gone too far and was dehydrated within the first mile. What little I had read of the course guide said there were no water stations on route. And now, here were three aqua-wielding goddesses. Were they truly physical beings, or figments of my parched imagination? I reached for a cup. And it was good.

Here I made two rookie mistakes:
1) A Water Angel offered me two cups of water. I only took one
2) I stopped to drink it, making small talk as if I wasn’t in a goddam race

Slightly refreshed, I raced off, then noticed my shorts felt heavy. I hadn’t shat myself (yet), so more water must’ve gotten into the kayak than I realised. These shorts were the lightest I had, of the thinnest mesh, rolled on the thigh of the finest virgin, and they’d still soaked up moisture. I was glad I’d tightened the drawstring pre-race, or said shorts could have been around my ankles.

Next up: the world’s smallest abseil. This was really a practicality, not an obstacle—we needed a way to get back down to the river. A queue formed. A man I’ll call Baldie (because he was bald. See how that works?) stopped behind me. He recognised the group ahead and chatted away while we waited. Being a kind soul, I was about to let him skip in front of me and join them, but he cut in anyway. Cheeky prick. He’d pay. With his life. Or something else.

I abseiled all of eight feet down to the Clyde, fell in behind Baldie and started wading along the riverside. I had the smart idea of hoisting up my shorts to avoid water weighing them down further. I didn’t notice when the water level dropped to my mid-shin, and I continued prancing forward with my shorts high and underwear showing, like a woman at a barn dance.

I climbed stairs out of the river and decided to punish Baldie for his disrespect. My legs rested and cooled, I sprinted off, leaving him and his chums in my wake.

The route had turned West, indirectly heading back to the Riverside Museum. But there were still a few tough miles ahead.

Another frame of bands awaited. Same as the last time, I ducked along the bottom. Next, a run of boards. Some were flat, some weren’t. Netting forced me to crawl along them. I awkwardly clambered off the last board and ran off.

The SECC rose up in front of me. As I got closer, I realised I had to turn right and cross a covered overpass above the motorway. This would only take about three minutes, but the thought of running uphill and through that warm, stuffy tunnel didn’t sound like fun.

I exited the tunnel into nice fresh air and closed in on Dumbarton Road, where the real world still existed. But, before I could reach everyday life, someone shouted that I’d missed a turn. I cut back and down a lane.

The arrows that highlighted the route became rarer and harder to spot. Maybe it was the fatigue, but finding them was a challenge in itself; they were up high on peripheral walls or badly placed on lampposts. I got the impression one person was responsible for marking out the entire course, and they got bored towards the end.

Two women, running together, caught up with me. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t like the idea of females beating me. One made small talk while I sized her up. Naturally-tanned, weather-beaten skin, the short, manageable hair of an athlete. Her stride graceful and efficient, she ran bolt upright while I sagged. She spoke easily while I gasped for air. I knew I was toast. The pair accelerated towards a tunnel ahead. I never saw them again. With no competition around, I settled back into my usual pace.

And then Baldie turned up.

I’d left him for dust 15 minutes ago. But here he was; like Pepé Le Pew, he’d incrementally gained on me. My mind yelled, Speed up, but my legs responded, Up yours.

Baldie and I ran side by side. I snuck a sly glance to see if he looked tired. Over his shoulder I spotted the museum—I was nearly finished. The emotional boost sped me up. I raced onto the museum’s grounds. Baldie caught up again. Marshals held up life-jackets. Baldie was slightly quicker getting his on and took a narrow lead as we approached the next obstacle: a sand pit. I sprinted and caught up, just as a marshal stopped us both to check our life-jackets were fastened securely. Wonderfully, the marshal decided Baldie’s wasn’t safe, and made him stop to fix it. I rushed ahead, sniggering.

The obstacle was two short, shallow sand pits. Neither would have troubled children or midgets.

I rushed onto the museum’s grounds. Cheers grew louder—my family had spotted me. All was well, I’d done better than I expected, gone faster than I thought I would, and now I was in the home straight.

I arrived at a dock. I had to jump into the river and swim for the shore.

Now, I have an irrational fear of water. It goes like this: if I’m in water and my head goes under, but I can’t touch the bottom, I’ll drown. Instantly. In my mind, I’ll sink like a stone. I know it’s ridiculous, but I can’t help it. I like swimming but, if I can’t touch the bottom, I will die immediately, as far as I’m concerned.

Despite that, I wasn’t too worried about this obstacle. I’d be wearing a life-jacket, the depth couldn’t worry me if there was no chance of me sinking. I’d jump in, the jacket’s buoyancy keeping my head out the water, I’d float and swim the short distance to the shore. No biggie.

But, on the dock, I remembered reality is a mother. In front of me, four people jumped in together. Every one went under. I stood there, scared, staring at the water.

On this dock, fear and peer pressure collided. I was panicking, but racers were queuing behind me waiting for their chance to jump in. Across the river, my family were watching. I couldn’t back out. Could I? Next thing I knew I was in mid-air. Then underwater.

DSC_2028

I choked. Water shot up my nose and down my throat. My feet instinctively kicked for the bottom, but found nothing. I floated back to the surface but, in my mind, I was dead in the water. Sure, I had a life-jacket on, but I’d never worn one before—the primitive part of my brain didn’t understand what a life-jacket was. It just thought, I’m going to die unless I start swimming. So I swam, something I was already bad at. I don’t float or streamline well, my stroke is weak. Normally, I can swim a length at best, and although the adrenaline coursing through me should have kept me going, the fatigue, the weight of the clothes, the bulkiness of the life-jacket, the gentle but present tide of the river, all overwhelmed my attempts to reach the shore. Trying was pointless. I stopped, and realised I had two choices: call for a marshal in a kayak to save me, or accept death. When I thought of the shame involved in my first option, I genuinely gave weight to both.

The water was quiet and lonely now. The racers ahead of me had cleared the water long ago. Somehow, there was no one behind me. My family, worried by my stopping, went quiet. As I floated, a high-pitched shout broke the silence: encouragement from my three-year old niece. That was enough to bring me back to reality. I (mentally) had a word with myself,. I was harsh. You’re a grown fucking man, stop being a bitch. Look, you’re floating (I am floating, aren’t I?), you could stay here all day if you wanted. Dry land is over there, go and get it.

I arrived on the shore wearied, but incredibly happy to be out of the water. I waddled ahead and joined a queue, feeling an endorphin rush from escaping the river. I felt good. Until I realised what the queue was for. I’d arrived at the Tall Ship.

I was going back in the water.

The queue snaked along a gangway and up onto the ship. A cabin blocked my view of the planks. All I could think was, How do I get out of this? Going underwater on the previous obstacle was bad but this would be far worse. I’d hit the water hard and go much deeper. I didn’t have to do it, of course. There wasn’t even a punishment for missing an obstacle. My family had moved to the finish line, they wouldn’t even know if I did it. But I would.

We racers stood in silence, the chatter fading. The wind had picked up, pushing my soaking wet t-shirt against me. Clouds overwhelmed the sun,  a light rain started to fall. I’d been hot for the last hour, now I was shivering.

I spotted Baldie a few places ahead in the queue. Unsurprisingly, he must have passed me during the swim. I tried to establish if he was nervous. Then I realised I wasn’t. Somehow, imperceptibly, tension had left my body. While mentally rehearsing how I was going to die, I’d somehow found peace. And, if the queue moved quickly enough, I could get off the plank before the fear returned.

Four of us were called forward. We queued, a few deep, at each of the planks. I remained calm. There were no screams from the people ahead. I couldn’t decide if that was a good or a bad thing. Three women simultaneously climbed up to the planks. They all walked forward and looked down at the river. Within seconds all three shook their heads. Nope. They walked off. My heart quickened.

My turn. I climbed to the plank, staying as far from the edge as possible. Don’t look down, a marshal said. He checked the water below was clear of bodies, while I focused on a wall at the Clyde’s opposite edge. Go. I tried to walk with my eyes straight ahead, but the plank was so narrow I had to glance down to make sure I didn’t fall off. Well, not yet, anyway. Without slowing I disappeared off the edge, incredibly, still feeling calm.

Halfway down I changed my mind. I didn’t want to do this any more.

Boom. I shot down into the water. The world went brown around me (a trick of the light? Or evidence of the Clyde’s shitty composition?). I felt like I’d sunk to the river’s very bottom, with the shopping trollies and skeletons. I panicked and—foolishly—shouted, swallowing my second dose of river water. What felt like hours passed before I surfaced, trying not to vomit. The flailing had tired me out, I was too weary to swim. I paddled the few feet to the dock’s edge, grabbed a chain and shamefully pulled myself along to a set of ladders before climbing out. My mind was muddled, I had to ask a marshal how to get off the dock. He pointed to a big, obvious set of steps.

Off the ship, my happiness meter refilled. No more water. Fuck you, Clyde. With newfound energy I ran towards the final obstacle. Then I realised I still had my life-jacket on. I unzipped it, but I don’t know where to leave it.

A man caught up. My final challenger; I did’t want to lose to him. The route narrowed; I cut him off. Then I realised I had to keep my life-jacket on until I finished the race. It would be a very Me thing to do to get the jacket caught on the final obstacle and have to watch in agony as dozens of racers passed me. But I couldn’t run and fasten it at the same time, so I was forced to stop and let the chap past.

The final obstacle was another slip ramp. The Man Who Passed was on the platform but, somehow, there was a woman still hanging from the rope. I heard my stepdad shout, “Forget the rope”. Was this a “There is no spoon” moment? Was he questioning the nature of reality? Was I in the Matrix? Then I realise what he meant: this ramp was wider than the last, if I could scale it without a rope, I could squeeze by this still-dangling woman. I gave it a go, realising how bad I’d look if I came sliding back down again. I got to the top, where I could see the finish line mere feet away. Filled with the joy of being almost finished, I considered throwing myself down the other side. Then I noticed that the mat that was supposed to break my fall was thin and worthless, great for damaging a knee on. I swing down on a rope instead, banging my arm on the platform, getting my solitary bruise of the race.

I’d done it, I’d completed the Rat Race. I crossed the finish line and collected my swag bag (a Snickers, a bottle of water and two fitness magazines (my medal would arrive later)). I was done, hooray.

My family offered tentative high-fives, aware that I was covered in manky river water. Only later did I remember I was surrounded by hand sanitiser.

The post-race experience was anticlimactic. I was happy to be finished, but I didn’t like how quickly I started to blend back into my usual life. As ridiculous as it sounds, during the race I felt like I was the race, it centred around me. But, as I stood watching others finish, I was reminded that the race doesn’t care about me. Why should it? An hour after it ended I was home, eating a McDonalds and watching TV, as if I’d done nothing else that day.

Epilogue:

The race results were posted that night. I’d finished 139th of 485, good enough for the top third. Given my sore calves and how much time I’d lost on the kayak and the two swims, I was perfectly happy with my placement.

The race was great fun. I enjoyed most of the obstacles. The two water ones that I didn’t like, I’ve learned from. As cheesy as it sounds, the thing I took from them was that being scared of doing something and avoiding doing something are two different acts. The urge to avoid both those obstacles was a strong one, but I didn’t bend to it. Because I’m a bad mother-shut-your-mouth

Admittedly, the experience wasn’t all positive. Two days after the race, I woke up with a sore stomach. A few hours later, the world poured out of my arse. Then I fainted. Then I spewed like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. My doctor diagnosed a mild case of gastroenteritis. He couldn’t confirm drinking river water as the cause, but I’m happy to lay the blame there. Despite that, if the Rat Race comes back to Glasgow next year, I’d consider doing it again. And then I’d have to heed my mum’s advice: Raymond, you’d get on better if you just shut your mouth.

*comedy theme plays*
*fade to black*

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