Lapsed sprinter Richard McComb tests his speed on Usain Bolt's Birmingham track.
As I go down into the blocks, I am thinking only one thing: don’t fall over.
Ahead of me is 100 metres of blood-red track – the same track world record holder Usain Bolt has been hammering down in training for the Olympics.
I am at the University of Birmingham, putting myself to the ultimate test of speed. But my inspiration is not Bolt, it’s Scotsman Allan Wells, who upset the applecart when he took gold wearing Kevin Keegan’s shorts in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The theme to Chariots of Fire is playing in my head. Altogether now: “Da da-da da-da da. Da da-da da-da...”
Black and white images of Roger Bannister flash through my mind, until I remember he ran the mile, not the sprint.
Then there’s that line in the film Gallipoli, uttered by a doomed ANZAC soldier as he runs towards enemy machineguns. Recalling the conversations with his old track coach, he says: “What are your legs? Springs, steel springs. What are they gonna do? They’re going to hurl me down the track. How fast can you run? As fast as a leopard...”
I am also as fast as a leopard, it’s just that this leopard is wearing lead boots and has an elephant strapped to his back. That’s some handicap, even for a leopard. I’d like to see Bolt try it.
There are a number of other factors going against me, undermining my confidence, as I settle for the start. Elite athletes are meant to block out doubts. Focus, I tell myself. Bannister did it. Wells did it. Bolt does it.
I can’t do it.
For starters, I am dressed in the sort of kit last seen on an athlete in 1952. I have eschewed the offer of a Lycra budgie-smuggling bodysuit and opted instead for some old-school string-draw shorts. My vintage white T-shirt makes me look like an NHS dentist, not a sprint ace.
And I am being closely watched. There are a couple of university press officers ostensibly offering me encouragement, but I know they are really here to ensure I don’t wreck the track for Bolt and compatriot Yohan Blake, who has posted the fastest time in the world this year, clocking 9.75 seconds.
“Don’t forget to pump your arms, Richard,” says one of the press officers, blowing out her cheeks. She has already told me she used to compete in the 800m at school. Pump your arms? What the hell is she talking about? I smile and do what I think is arm pumping.
And there’s a strong head wind to contend with, really strong. If this was a competitive run, it would be abandoned. I am only doing this for the photographer, who is creasing up in the distance. Actually, he’s only about 40 metres away but I’ve taken my glasses off, so he is a blur. I wanted to keep them on, like legendary 400m runner Ed Moses, but if I do fall over and smash my specs I won’t be able to drive home and then I’ll be stuffed.
All this is going through my head, cluttering my concentration. I am undermining my dash for glory even before I launch myself down the straight.
And then the biggest doubt of all resounds through my brain: I haven’t done this for 30 years. The last time I ran 100m I hadn’t started shaving and the Goombay Dance Band were in the charts. Sprinting meant a standing start, not blocks, which I have never used.
I had a couple of attempts on the blocks before my first (and only) run. If you’ve never done it, it’s agony. Getting in the start position deserves a medal in its own right. The first time, I almost propelled my head into the track, Usain Bolt’s track. He’s not going to want to train on top of half of my face. I tell myself it will get better the second time, but it doesn’t. We may as well get on to the sprint and see if I can make it through the first two metres.
And then the cry goes up: Ready, set, GO!
“Arm pump. Ed Moses. Gallipoli. Allan Wells. Kevin Keegan’s shorts. Leopard. Lead boots. Elephant.”
As I explode out the blocks in Lane 4, I realise I can’t see the finish line. Suddenly, 100 metres looks an awfully long way. “Just don’t fall over,” I tell myself. “The snapper will love that.”
At 25m, I am gasping for air. By 50m, my legs are tying up and I’m ready for a massage and a long G&T. But Bolt always says no one can beat him over the final 10m, so I concentrate on that, that’s where I can make up ground, even though I’m running alone.
Wayne Johnson, my fitness mentor at the university’s Munrow Sports Centre, has told me to do the Colin Jackson dip. It’s worth several 100ths of a second. I’m on it.
As I flop through the finishing line, I see Wayne snap the stopwatch. If he’s impressed, he’s doing a good job of hiding it. In fairness, Wayne is an Arsenal fan so there hasn’t been much to smile about recently.
I rush over to him. Well, I stagger over to him. A colleague has said he will give me a quid if I make it in under 20 seconds. Wayne shows me the stopwatch: 18.68 seconds.
I am ecstatic, Wayne less so, but he offers a warm smile. “I’m on fire! Number 1!” I shout. Because in a race of one, I am.
On a vaguely serious note, it is now a year since I first started training (that’s training in very large inverted commas) at the University of Birmingham. As well as offering superb facilities to Olympians, elite athletes and students, the University of Birmingham also runs a community membership scheme for local residents who can use the gym, the swimming pool or take part in all manner of sports activities. There are reduced rates for juniors and over-55s.
At first glance, the results of my year using the gym may not appear spectacular. In 12 months, I have lost the grand total of 800 grams, or 1.8lb. Last week, I had a sandwich called The Godmother at Anderson & Hill in Birmingham. This beast of a meat sarnie contained coppa piccante, Napoli salami, Finocchiona salami, ham, Oxsprings air-dried ham from Pershore, garlic sausage and Comte St Antoine cheese. It weighed 500g. So in one lunch, I ate more than half of what I lost in a year.
The real picture, however, is this. As a 45-year-old father of two children, I haven’t done any serious exercise since I left school. I have dabbled with other gyms, usually going for several weeks, usually before the embarrassment of stripping off on a beach. I’ve then given up and sat on my fat ass for endless months, possibly years.
But at the university, thanks to the encouragement of Wayne and a sense of my creeping mortality (and threats from my wife that certain activities would be curtailed if I didn’t make an effort to get in shape), I have maintained 12 months’ of exercise. This, for me, is unprecedented. I’m pretty chuffed with myself.
There have been absences through illness or when I was forced, as the Post’s food critic, to go to Brussels and Australia to eat huge amounts of food, but I have kept at it.
The weight loss, in a sense, is an incidental bonus (although it’s got to be a plus) because what trainers call my core strength has increased. The test of this is as follows: when I used to extend from a flat position in bed to sitting up to drink my morning cup of tea, my whole body used to shake. My stomach went into spasm. There was no strength there.
Today, I still hate getting up in the morning but as I rise to sup my brew, the movement is seamless. The muscles have returned. I’m good to go.
So, Usain, if you fancy it, let’s race. Just give me a 100m start.
* For more information about the University of Birmingham’s community membership scheme, go to www.sport.bham.ac.uk