Exhale as you lift. Inhale as you lower. Ten, eleven, twelve. Thirty seconds break. I feel drops running through my hair, down my neck, sticking my shirt to my back. One, two, three, four. Slower now. Back straight, Cable, don’t slouch. Ten. Eleven. Wobbly twelve, then down. Smashed it.
With a goal in mind, training is a doddle. The numbers tick down as my feet pound the spinning rubber of the treadmill. Wake up! Grab a brush and put a little make-up! The pounding vocals drive me on. This is easy. Until it isn’t. Three kilometres in, the pain in my chest is back. Last time it was at two-and-a-half. Progress. And where you gonna run when you're staring down the cable of a mic pointed at your grill like a gun? When the treadmill beeps cut through Fred Durst’s swearing, it’s all I can do not to collapse onto the floor of the gym. But I’ve done it. Twenty-six minutes. A whole minute faster. Race day will be a breeze.
The adrenaline starts as we jostle for position on the start line. There’s hundreds of us here, dogs straining to be let off the lead, angry bees confined to a hive about to break open. Then the starter waves her flag and the clock starts ticking and my feet start pounding grass flattened by hundreds before me, slowly at first, finding my pace, then settling into it as the first kilometre flies by. The crowds are thinning, the beasts have pulled together at the front, the stragglers behind. This is easy going. A marker indicates a further 500m to the first obstacle. In my head, I’m picturing an adventure playground, a huge web of nets held up by a wooden frame, to clamber over and around and through. I see in my mind’s eye soldiers in training, crawling on their fronts through mud, keeping low as live fire is gunned over their heads, barbed wire just centimetres from their backs. I’ve got this. I can do this. Feet keep pounding, the rhythm of my breathing quickens. I’ve lost my team now, probably behind me. I am flying.
Obstacle one. The sign looms up and I am ready, ready for anything, adrenaline coursing through my arms, legs, heart. And then I arrive at a row of tables with a series of people sitting behind them. And there, sitting quietly in a Windsor field behind an old school desk, sits my mother.
“Your father and I are quite worried about you.”
No. They – they promised obstacles. Like, physical obstacles. I spent months training for this. Is this some kind of joke? My heart is racing: from running or from the conversation I’ve been thrown into? I sit through five minutes of her concern, of her sleepless nights, of her “not anger, but disappointment.” I sit and can do nothing but listen, head hung in shame. It’s my fault. All of this, everything she’s saying, it’s my fault. My heart slows down, adrenaline replaced by the darkness of shame. I’m apologising, pledging to do better by me, by her, by our family. It’s all I can do.
“I’ll be keeping an eye on you,” she says. “But don’t let me hold you up. You’ve got a race to run. Priorities and whatnot.”
The kilometre after is tougher. The wind has been taken out of my sails and my feet feel heavy with despair. At the next obstacle, another row of desks. My girlfriend? My heart takes a hit and sinks like a stone.
“We need to talk,” she says.
There’s still three obstacles after this. The adventure playground is gone from my mind. All I see now is ever-darkening circles of Hell. What on Earth do they have in store for us? I picture it all out ahead of me, obstacle three: my boss accusing me of some corporate crime and threatening to strike me off sans compensation and hand me over to the police; obstacle four: a burning bonfire of all my books; obstacle five, the Grim Reaper with a scythe. Sweat now pours, my heart is beating in my mouth. I feel my mind tearing apart with the strain, make it stop before I am nothing but a bag of bones running through a field, make it stop, make it stop!
“C’mon, Cable!” She’s shaking me.
I look at her groggily.
“Wake up!” she says. “Are you ready?! It’s race day!”