Two miles to go and the race is on, as I suddenly realise: I might just win this. Oh dear. I’d expected to be beaten long before now! The realisation that I’m still in with a chance comes with equal parts excitement and dismay: it means I need to keep on pushing the pace, and that’s going to hurt! Sprint finishes are not my strong suit. I dig deep, stride out and prepare for 15 minutes of pain.
When I set out to race the train, I had no idea whether I had any hope or not. It’s another of my ‘family friendly adventures‘, and the plan is simple: children and grandparents ride the South Tynedale heritage railway from Alston to Lintley Halt, whilst I sprint my heart out on the South Tyne Trail that runs alongside the tracks in a bid to make it there and back before the train does. Grandparents love grandchild-time; toddlers love trains; I love a bit of novelty in my training. Everyone’s happy!
The route is out-and-back, and my first mistake was to give the train an unintentional (and unmerited) head start, getting caught on the wrong side of the level crossing when it steamed out of the station. As a breastfeeding mum, my priority is always to make sure that the baby – 4 months old now, and thriving – is thoroughly fed before I leave her. This time, that meant bundling her to granny and leaping off the train, sports bra in hand, moments before the doors closed for departure. By the time I’d got myself dressed for running and onto the right side of the track, the train was already out of sight.
I wasn’t too worried: I knew there was a mid-station where the train would stop on its way to the end of the line; I didn’t know how long it might wait there but I reckoned the stop might just give me the chance to get back into the race. I pushed on. At one point I caught sight of the last carriage disappearing round a distant bend; a few times I heard the train’s whistle blowing and imagined I might be gaining on it slightly … but it was no good. There was no train in sight when I raced through the mid-point, and passengers were already boarding ready for the return journey when I arrived, gasping, at the end of the line.
I took a few minutes to catch my breath, and a few more to wave wildly at the unsuspecting passengers sharing a carriage with my family, until they eventually realised what was going on and tapped my dad on the shoulder. I spent another few happy minutes waving to them all, until it dawned on me that I was losing precious time: the challenge was to race the train there and back, and the clock still was ticking! A wave to the driver, and I set off at a sprint – confident I’d hear him chugging up behind me before the first bend.
But it didn’t happen.
Amazed, I told myself I’d give it my all to hold on to my lead to the mid-station. I could hear the whistle behind me, and thought it could only be a matter of minutes before the train loomed into sight. But it didn’t come. I cleared the mid-station with two miles to go to the finish, and realised: I might just win this! Oh no! I’d set a pace that I’d imagined I might keep up for a couple of hundred yards – and suddenly now it looked like I’d need to keep it up for two more miles! Blimey. I told myself I’d keep pushing for one more mile, then see what happened. I promised myself that the minute the train passed me, I could relax and slow to a trot. But I kept going.
My Garmin buzzed: another mile done and still no train. Excitement and dismay: this felt like the sprint of my life! I thought of Kilian Jornet, racing towards his joint victory at the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run at that very same moment – I’d been glued to the twitter feed all morning. He was probably still going at a faster pace than I was managing now, I told myself with a wry inner smile. If he can find it within himself to run like that over such a distance, then surely I can keep on pushing for the few more minutes it will take to find out if I can beat this train, I told myself. With fresh determination, I ran on …. only to hear the train rattling up behind me at last. Beaten in the final mile! I stopped for a photo as the train went by, and slowed to a jog – disappointment and relief in equal measure – until I realised the train was stopping too!! I don’t know why it stopped, but it did … so the race was back on!!
I don’t know where I found the lung and leg power, but I fairly flew down the final stretch of track. Past the train! Through the woods, over the bridge, past the engine sheds and by now the train was hot on my heels … and all the way to the station! Breathless and astonished! No-one more surprised than me. I’m not a race winner; not me: I’m a finisher, for sure, but a winner?! That sense of pure exhilaration! I felt like a celebrity, waving to the tourists and train crew as they chugged past me for the third time, all staring.
The doors opened at last, and my little boy came running to meet me.
“Mummy, you raced the train? You won?!’ Yes! Yes, I suppose I did …