I was a competitive type once.
Whoever doubts this didn’t know me fifteen years ago when I got into vetschool (start Werther’s Original music here). Back when getting into Vetschool was Hard.
My UCAS form looked like this:
A-levels (taken for granted)
Music grades 8, 7 and 5
Queen’s Guide Award
Chief Guide’s Challenge
Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s
Assistant Guide Leader
local band and orchestra member
County windband too.
School debating society
One day a week volunteering at City Farm
Six months as an afterschool kennel-maid
Soooo many weeks observating at local vets
A week spent harassing abattoir workers
….and summer harrassing a dairy farmer’s entire family
….Easter, the Duchess Of Devonshire’s lambing squad
….Summer, the biologists at Scarborough Sea-Life Centre.
My diary was crazy; my revision timetable insane. The teachers dreaded me putting my head around the science staffroom door. I didn’t get into vetschool by being born ‘clever:’ I was just obsessed and my obsession paid off.
But any early confidence was shattered when I met the other vet students on day one. They seemed so sure of themselves, already like vets. They could talk about vetty things all day; had opinions on nearly everything; could squeeze six long medical words into every sentence.
I quickly identified myself as the group’s imposter. I became a self-confessed low-achiever, setting myself basic standards which I struggled to meet. I threw up in my first night-club, learned to kiss and plotted side-steps into alternative careers.
But anyway: this post is not about me learning to be a vet. It is about going running. When I go running, I don’t compete with anybody except myself. To be honest I rarely bother to compete with her. I just enjoy jogging a bit, harbouring vague hopes of getting fitter and of one day being so fit that I can utter the words ‘Bob Graeme’ without irony.
Now meet our friends, Gareth and Naomi. At first glance, similar to us: young professionals; young families; keen on the phrase ‘work-life-balance.’ And yet, so different.
Gareth and Naomi have challenged us to race them in the Nine Edges Challenge (21 miles). They are so good that we get a two-hour head start.
Naomi: ‘It’s eight miles today.’
Liz: ‘Really? I hadn’t reckoned on eight miles for a good few weeks yet.’
N: ‘We looked online at BUPAs ‘intermediate’ marathon training and we’re following that. I hadn’t thought I could run 7 miles last week, to be honest, but we did it. It was really, really hard -’
L: ‘Presumably you could just do the basic one?’
Naomi looks confused.
‘Surely you could train at beginners level.’
N: ‘Gareth wouldn’t be up for that. It’s very important for Gareth not to be seen as a -’
She realises what she’s saying and bites her lip awkwardly. I wait.
N: ‘Oh, I know it’s not the right word. But for want of a better one. Gareth would never want to be seen as a punter. You know?’
Well: there we have it. I have aways assumed myself a ‘punter’. If I am out for a run and I start gasping, I am not ashamed to slow down and walk.
‘As long as we keep running all the way round,’ Naomi comments helpfully, ‘It doesn’t really matter how slowly we go.’
So we keep running – although I cheat a bit when I think her back is turned – and Naomi slows down a lot to accommodate me. This is kind of her; she runs at a very respectable pace.
We get to a very steep incline. Naomi continues to run. But this is my home turf and I never run on this bit. I shout directions to the top and drop to a power-walk. I power-walk quite quickly, but I loose sight of N. Still, it gives my running muscles a rest.
A few minutes later I’ve caught up. When I say ‘caught up,’ I mean that Naomi has added a loop to increase her distance; I’ve followed along said loop and met her coming back.
Now, Naomi is tired.
Now, we are on steep, tree-routey terrain that Naomi doesn’t like.
This combination slows her down to a pace that I can keep up with and we begin to rub along well, encouraging each other up the hills.
Oh, did I mention that Naomi hasn’t slept all week, and has spent the last couple of days in Hospital with her feverish 7-month-old?
She eventually turns nearly as dark a shade of lobster pink as I have, but not quite.
‘We’re nearly there now!’
‘Come on, we can get up here without walking.’
We literally count down lamp-posts to make it back to the house.
Where I continue moaning. ‘I just don’t have competitive bones.’
‘You’ll become competitive,’ says Gareth, ‘When you develop empathy with the other runners. It’s temping to get all self-absorped and think ‘I’m feeling rubbish and they’re really fit,’ but actually, they are feeling rubbish, too. Let’s face it, running’s shit. You’re not supposed to enjoy it. They’ll probably be feeling worse than you are. It’s just that they keep going. When you think that, it keeps you going.’
I think back to an eighteen-year-old Liz, eyeing up the kids in my vetschool year.
If only I had known, on that very first day, that I actually had better A-level grades than most of my peers. A-levels prove nothing, but knowing it would have made a difference to me. If only I’d known that they weren’t all intrinsically smarter or more absorbant of facts. If only I’d known that I was capable of understanding a lecture as well as the rest of them. Perhaps I might have listened, or engaged myself in learning to be a vet. Perhaps I might have hated it all a little bit less.
The vet story has a positive ending. I turned out to be good at explaining difficult concepts to clients and eventually did OK in practise. After three years as a mediocre vet I started locumming. I started to realise that not all vets were cleverer than me. Then one day I met a super-dooper locum who knew awestriking amounts and instead of being intimidated, I thought, ‘I want to be like you!’
I knew who he worked for, took a big risk an embarked on an expensive course they ran for newish graduates. I took on a new attitude; learned new skills, opened myself up to new challenges. I now seek out the sort of cases I used to avoid; have built up a professional identity that I am proud of. Every time a practise invites me back to work for them again, I am pleased I made an effort to become a better vet.
So what of running? I was as intimidated by Naomi as I was by that room full of Freshers. She started off going so fast!
Perhaps I should concede now that we’ll never beat those two in the nine edges challenge (even with a two-hour head start). Or perhaps I can make the effort to try to match her – try to do better, damn it! – and after that who knows where my running will lead?