Lying on the grassy infield in lactic acid agony, having finished last in my School Sports Day 1,500 metres, I realised my Olympic dream might be over.
You see, I loved running, and I was desperate to be good at it. Inspired by David Bedford, who had led for 24 of the 25 laps of the 1971 European 10,000 metres, and by Juha Vaatainen of Finland who, running the last 400 metres in 53 seconds in front of an ecstatic Helsinki crowd, had led for the 25th, I was determined to be a great runner like them.
I would go out at night and run round our garden. I reckoned it was about 30 laps to a mile, avoiding the washing line, zigzagging across the patio and ducking under the trees, and I calculated I was getting very close to 4 minutes.
Go on like this, I thought, and it would be at least one gold medal, maybe two, later that year at the Munich Olympics.
It was 1972. I was 14 years old.
So the Sports Day 1,500 came as a bit of a shock.
How could I try so hard, and come up so short? How could I train so much, and achieve so little?
I had to reassess. I kept on running, and the next year, I was second instead of last. I tried decathlon. I tried race walking. I tried anything to find an athletics event I’d be good at.
Of course, I was not alone in finding early success elusive.
Paula Radcliffe was 299th in her first national championships.
Geraint Thomas, who’s done all right recently, apparently came last in his first cycle race.
Charlie Spedding, who won the London Marathon gold and Olympic marathon bronze in 1984, even called his autobiography, “From Last to First.”
Mamo Wolde, who won the Olympic marathon gold in 1968, took years to find his true event, competing in the 1,500 and 4×400 relay(!) in his first Olympics for Ethiopia.
But my talents were far more deeply buried than even any of these.
I ploughed on at university, coming near the back of the field in every cross-country race. I remember being out of sight of any runner in one wintry competition, and slipping over on the ice. I lay there for what seemed like ages, trying to find my glasses in the snow, assuming I was last. I wasn’t. There was a runner behind me and his name was Winterbottom, although it was my glutes that had been in close proximity to the seasonal freeze.
I remember when I took up race walking after university, I vowed that, if I ever came last in a race, I’d give up. A couple of weeks later, a 3,000 metres race at Crystal Palace produced a classier field than I had anticipated. Still, I was comfortably ahead of the only man behind me with a lap to go …. until he produced a sprint finish I could not match. My PB was no consolation.
But gradually things improved. It’s amazing what running 120 miles a week can do.
My times plummeted, and my results soared. I even won a few local races.
But it wasn’t until I turned my attention to ultra-distance running that things really took off, and national medals and a call-up to the British team followed.
Now, I am not saying that everyone can go from last to first, but as long as you ‘last’ at something, you won’t be last in the end.
I haven’t made an Olympic team or won the Tour de France (yet), but at least I’ve carried on running long enough to have outlasted my last place.
And you can too.