It was hot and sunny in Lyon the day before I was due to take part in the 10,000m at the World Masters Athletics Championships held there last month. I set off on a necessarily easy and relaxing run simply to collect my race number from the registration centre at the Stade Balmont in the old part of town, but my now familiar pre-race anxiety monkey wasn't about to make it easy and relaxed. First, I got lost trying to navigate past Lyon's extensive inner city motorway system before hastily forming a back-up plan that unknowingly involved a long road tunnel cutting, rather obviously, through a massive hill that I was eventually forced to climb to reach the registration centre.
This was the opposite of easy and the opposite of relaxing and my anxiety peaked in concert with my hilly ascent as I considered the implications of burning myself out the day before my race. My mood darkened.
"People may run for or by themselves but they are part of a huge, warm and supportive community that celebrates people being the best they can be."
As soon as I reached the top of the hill (which I walked in the end) the darkness joyfully lifted as if I'd flown through ground level murkiness and rain to a calm oasis of sunshine and colour above the clouds, because there on the streets surrounding the Stade Balmont was a glorious gathering of runners of all ages decked in bright national kit (no country seems to have grey or black in its national colours), preparing for their race or supporting others. There was simply a fantastic sense of energy.
Stade Balmont is an impressive facility boasting an indoor 200m track, which doubled as the registration centre, and an outdoor 400m arena complete with a spectator facility that would not look out of place in many a league football club. I picked up my number and then joined hundreds of others to watch the 800m finals. If you're not familiar with Masters (Veterans) Athletics, it is open to anyone over 35 (there is no selection and no qualifying times) and races break down into 5 year age brackets for as long as, well, for as long as there are enough entrants left (the men's 100m for the over 95s had two entrants, for example).
The first 800m final (5 entrants) was for 85-94 year olds, won to tumultuous applause by Christian Larcher from France, followed by the 80-84 year olds which was fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, because like people of all ages and experience, 80 year olds can go off too fast at the beginning of a race, Fredy Suarez from Chile burning himself out on the first 200m. Secondly, it was fascinating to see the determination, drive and technique of the winner – David Carr, 83, from Australia. Short, fast and very efficient strides enabled him to finish in 3 minutes and 7 seconds - that's just over six minute mile pace. Truly incredible. At a time when the media is understandably focussed on the crisis riddled elite form of running, different stories were taking place in Lyon that bypassed many. Remarkable performances like David Carr’s played out during the whole event.
Winning was important to those that won, but being part of it was much more important to everyone else. The camaraderie among athletes and the support from spectators rivalled anything I have experienced in athletics/running or indeed any sport I have participated in and that's where the real story is.
The story of Lyon, for me, lay in the drive for men and women of all ages to be THEIR best not be THE best. Many people think of running as a solo event, and while I was avoiding motorways and road tunnels and climbing steep hills the day before my race, I certainly felt alone, but that perception couldn't be further from the reality. In Lyon, as is true all over the world, people may run for or by themselves but they are part of a huge, warm and supportive community that celebrates people being the best they can be. In that sense running is the most inclusive of sports. It genuinely is for everyone. Everyone can strive to be THEIR best and that is what binds runners together in a way that no other sport can or does. At a time when elite athletics is suffering something of an identity crisis, being reminded of the unmatched inclusivity of running was truly uplifting and an experience that I'm sure will live long in the memory of everyone involved.Are you interested in joining a fun, very inclusive run club in London? Coach Steve will be guiding our all-levels group through Chelsea and area every Wednesday starting Oct. 21. Email email@example.com for more info or watch this space for more!