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Armagh-eddon: racing the fastest 5k in the world

How is it that races guarded by qualifying times dare you to race? A small hit of pride, perhaps, that’s all it takes, and I’m signing up to run a measly 5k in Armagh, which is in Northern Ireland, in case you don’t have googlemaps to hand.

But if you’re looking for excuses not to bother – and very soon, I am – this race in particular has more than usual for the dubious. It falls midweek. I live in London, so it’s the other side of a whole sea. It’s going to cost money to get there. Do I need a 5k PB that bad? I wonder (this turns out to be rhetorical, of course I do). And then a clubmate reminds me that I’d qualified, so I have to. ‘It’s Armagh’ he says, flatly, as if that should clinch it. And that is a strange thing to hear.

Despite Armagh being on the lips of runners I train with months, nothing about this race makes sense. Why would so many runners, including a lithe band of elites and sub-elites – people who can toe the line in almost anything within a hundred miles of home and come home loaded with silverware – trek to a small, wet town in Northern Ireland, in mid-February on a Thursday evening to run some dark, dank laps of a road circuit? The answer is simple, really. Armagh has cachet.

The race’s full title is a giveaway with its ‘International’ and ‘30th edition’. The event’s website reports that Armagh is ‘one of the fastest 5k in the world’, but to say simply ‘the fastest’ would not be braggadocio, though clearly, this is open to debate. Armagh has never been the stage for the fastest human being over 5k on the road, whereas the Carlsbad 5000 in California, billed as ‘the fastest’, has witnessed a spree of world and US records, and the Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei was the first to run sub-13 minutes in the Herculis Monaco 5k road race earlier this year. The ‘fastest’ in Armagh is more to do with amassed, concentrated speed. Last year, just over a dozen men ran under 15 minutes in both Carlsbad and Monaco, a statistic to which Armagh responds with a mocking whistle. Back in 2014, forty-five men ran sub 15 in Armagh, and that was before thetimes took off. In 2015, it was fifty-six, by 2017, seventy-eight. 113 men ran sub-15 in 2019 and this year 139 athletes will duck under that marker, the whole field, 237-strong and all sub-16 by qualification, will charge home in the space of a few frenzied minutes.

The women, too, have been gathering pace, bashing out ever more sub-10 minute 3 kms – fifty-two athletes this year – big names among them, present and future champions. If muscle has inched out your flesh, if you have freaky genetics and cells that respire at wondrous metabolic rates, if you’re the love-child of a decathlete and triple jumper, born nine months after a hectic romp in the athlete’s village of Barcelona ‘92, then this is the race for you. And this, combined with the sad fact of my retreating hairline and imminent middle age – I’m nudging on 40 – means that Imposter Syndrome will be, for me, inevitable in Armagh. In fact, I could have entered the world’s cutest lap dance contest, and I’d still be feeling less awkward than I do now, stepping off a bus, into the cool, Northern Irish drizzle.

I started running three years ago on the understanding that I’d give it up when my knees buckled and my cartilage crumbled into a chalky dust. Until then, I would try to enjoy it, bag a sub 3 marathon on the way. That didn’t quite pan out. I was faster than I expected to be, more happily hooked, more drawn into the spirit and community of the sport, more confident, more inclined to find myself travelling to Northern Ireland to run a distance I get to do for free every Saturday in any of a hundred parks closer to home.

‘Armagh’… I like the sound it makes. Armagh. Armaghhhhh. Its somewhere between a magic spell and a howl of distress, in slow-mo. A snapped ligament. Snap! Armarrrrgh! But that’s not all of course. It leaves you, too, with a vague sense of sectarianism, rubble-strewn streets, bygone bloodshed. The county Armagh was the scene of regular violence in the 70s, and South Armagh became one of the major battlegrounds between the IRA and the British Army. I had to google this though, since I’m the kind of bonehead who’d confused Armagh with Omagh, 40 miles away, and the site of the 1998 car bombing. Shamefully, this is my first venture to Northern Ireland and my ignorance only serves of proof that I am, apparently, biased to thoughts of conflict when I think of life here, a place generally excluded from the London-centric media and national conversations, unless, of course, we’re in a mood to recall the troubles. That Britain has such a one-track mind strikes me now as a deep shame for anyone who comes from Armagh, yet within ten minutes of stepping off the bus, the town, which is actually a city, the 5th smallest in the UK, shames me. People smile here. Honestly, I saw it happen several times in the supermarket, and once on the bus – broad, honest, crinkle-eyed perma-grins, expressions that can’t survive the brutal rent hikes of home, the Northern Line at rush hour. The puckered mugs of London – all those sideways glances – feel a long way away.

‘How’s the start?’ I ask Rob Wilson, a runner I recognise from various races across London.

The start? Mayhem. Says Rob. It’s total fucking mayhem.

Right then. Good.

At least the weather this evening is perfect. Northern Ireland is nestled between storm Ciara and storm Dennis and the God of PBs is looking down on us, having stilled the winds, dialled in a cool – but not nipple-hardening – temperature and deferred the rain. There are several races on the cards, all see athletes rush around a loop of road the town centre (the shape of a drunken athletics track) garnished in fairy lights and lined with spectators loudly encouraging the athletes to ramp up the pain.

There are professionals. There are names on vests I recognise. There are Americans and others of international standing. There are people who say ‘steeplechaser’ and hold out their hand when you ask what they do. There are perilously short shorts and muscles that defy anatomical classification. The shoes are pink, and between us, Nike have made a killing.

There are official sponsors too of course, like Brooks, but this is not some shrill corporate bonanza. Young lads from local running clubs leaf through race numbers at registration, and Armagh has retained the community mood of a small time club race – the fee is pennies, many don’t have to pay a thing and, depending on your qualifying time, your travel might be covered too.

With the race looming, I’m trapped in a circuit of lunging and absurdly short pisses in portaloos and anxious strides. Someone more athletic, and presumably without my particular penchant for family size cheesecakes, in bed, watching Netflix, is doing some flamboyant stretching routine on the grass. While attempting a much stiffer imitation, I am sad to say that much of the women’s 3k passes me by. To be fair, this takes seconds: they’re smashing it. A gust of bodies. Steely eyes flash bright in the street light, then gone.

I have an ironclad race-plan and for what it lacks in conventional wisdom, it makes up for in audacity. It is also, I suspect, how everyone else is planning to run Armagh.

Lap 1: Run unreasonably, unsustainably hard. 2. Hold on. 3. Hold on. 4. Hold on. 5. Kick. There may or may not be a prolonged 6th stage after the finish line, during which puke, cramp and delirium will almost certainly feature, and possibly for several days.

There are 5 pens and I’ve been condemned to the least mental. As the clock counts down, we move forward to join pens in front. The air tangs of sweat. Men huddle, shivering as one in the fairy-lit dark. Breathes mingle, grey and rising into the night. Then: bang. Bodies surge. At once, heads in front disappear and I am teetering on the edge of a mass grave: tangled legs, upside-down people, pink trainers pitched irrationally skyward. Someone’s tripped and there’s been the kind of horrible pile up I thought could only happen in horse races. Twenty runners maybe, sprawled, and a howl that will live on my memory as one of the most upsetting sounds I have ever heard (I am, I should mention, an A&E doctor by trade). Somehow, I seem to recognise what lives within that scream. It’s not physical pain, or rather, not just physical pain, but something worse. It’s the PB, hoofing away. It’s the fruit of start-line jitters, of bodies like coiled springs, of a flight to Northern Ireland, of weeks of training and a sudden, savage sense that life is not fair. It’s all this, slammed into pavement, bleeding, times twenty. But almost immediately, runners are scrambling to their feet and making up for those misspent milliseconds. I side step a leg, dance over a torso, find the outside line. Men stumble into my path and sprint, panic-stricken, like the zombie apocalypse is nigh.

At the top of the course, there’s a slight incline, over almost as soon as it starts. I race hard on the back straight. Coming last is the grim possibility that sits on my shoulder and bullies me on. After one loop, a man shouts out my kilometre split: 3:10. Despite the carnage of the start, I’m on track, just, a heartening thought that is immediately eclipsed by a less heartening one: I’ve just run the hardest kilometre of my life. There is, of course, only one way to deal with such intrusive thoughts that stalk all runners in suffering, and it’s called hope. The hope of finding a rhythm, of distorting your sense of time, of suddenly finding yourself, out of nowhere, staring down the tail end of the race – a sneak preview of pain’s lovely abolition, a sweet, sweet hint of ‘I’m going to make it’.

By the third lap I’m taking odd runners, men who look reassuringly fast and youthful and short-shorted, and it feels a little glorious even though I know that we are, in fact, the laggards in this race. My Garmin is dead to me now and the voice of the man calling splits has been drowned out by the blurry crowd, all wails and ‘gwan!’. Instead, I pick out runners, try to stay on their back, then shoulder, inch past. The final stretch rambles on in hope-sapping perpetuity, but then the finish line looms and it’s like The City Of Oz. I lunge over it: 15:51, a one second PB (though I would like to point out that it would have been 3 seconds if someone had been concentrating on the road and not their Garmin at the start line). If I had more in the tank, my legs, and my lungs, don’t know it. My head-rush says: no more.

Home again, I watch the video of the race on YouTube. ‘Armageddon’: that’s what this is. A dramatic and catastrophic conflict – it’s in the eyes, windows into the war. Danish Olympian Anna Møller goes sub 9 minutes in the 3k. Adam Clarke runs faster than the parkrun world record, and 20 men later, the clock still starts with a ‘13’ as they charge across the line. And there I am on the finish line video myself, towards the rear, true, but not quite last, arms flailing like one of those inflatable tube men. I press pause, drink in that stilled moment of rapture and agony combined, and think: yep. It was worth the trip.

Three months later, clutching a diary cleaned of competition, I realise how much of life, races included, I’d taken for granted, and yet how grateful I am that I raced when I still could. It’s a salutary lesson: race every race as if it’s your last, but this one especially. After all, it’s Armagh.