Under starter's orders

Jo Brighouse

September, and a new race is beginning. The 30 competitors are lined up by the track in differing degrees of nervousness. In the stands, the crowds look on with varying levels of attention. As the coach of all the athletes, you are apprehensive and excited.

You shout encouragement as the runners take their starting positions. Not together, of course, but scattered along the track. At the front, the elite competitors are poised, desperate for the off. They wear the latest running shoes and have arrived sipping sports drinks. Further back, several wear cheap sandals and ill-fitting jumpers; many have trailing shoelaces. One entrant will run with his shoelaces tied together and another has turned up in a sleeping bag.

Each runner has their own group of spectators who cheer and shout advice - or abuse - at both runner and coach. Sometimes they throw in water and energy drinks, although some provide burgers and crisps instead. The spectators at the front have an obsessive interest in the position of every entrant and discuss this loudly with you. For a few competitors, the spectator team keeps changing; for some, their supporters keep popping out to the bar.

Finally, the starter's pistol sounds. It's a false start but there can be no second chances. Some runners set off on their toes at a brisk pace, as they've been taught. Others proceed in a more leisurely fashion: some almost walk; a few adopt an unorthodox approach, spinning, moving sideways, hopping on one leg. Occasionally, a runner leaves the track altogether and a new one joins in, although rarely in the same position.

From the moment the race begins, you, as the coach, must be in constant motion, racing between participants like a demented wasp, shouting advice and encouragement, demonstrating running styles, threatening, cajoling, praising. The officials stand beside the track, stopwatches poised. Occasionally, they send one of their number to run alongside you for a while, watching silently and unsmilingly before reporting back. This makes you feel faint and dizzy and you consider giving up, but some fellow coaches shout over encouragement from their races, so you carry on.

Coaching is energy-sapping. You watch with satisfaction as a group surges forward together. You seethe in exasperation when a former sprinter refuses to do more than jog and you weep with joy as the runner in the sleeping bag makes a massive bound. You spend a lot of time with one who has dropped to the ground and is trying to trip others up.

Finally, you are on the home straight and muster all your efforts to accelerate your runners towards the finish line and the man with the stopwatch who keeps altering the qualifying times. You limp across the finish line and drop in exhaustion. Some of the competitors and their spectators thank you. The winners get medals. The judges consult league tables to decide whether the coach should also get a medal. There are no prizes for taking part; in this race, it's the winning that counts.

Jo Brighouse teaches at a primary school in the Midlands.

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Jo Brighouse

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