I can’t say the new school year started magnificently. It wasn’t like some Hollywood montage, but things did start to turn around. The nightmare Year 6 class had gone, and the staff room was moved, so the teachers no longer had to hear me scream. I learnt things the hard way, and figured out, slowly, how to control the class and give them a fun time. And that those two things were inextricably linked.
My own running career was full of pain and frustration, so I poured my heart into the school. I took every opportunity to do sport with the kids, any sport, any time, paid or unpaid.
We began winning the Tag Rugby tournaments, our fitness and speed were superior enough to compensate for technical flaws. My confidence grew, as did our trophy cabinet (we built a trophy cabinet).
A new Headmaster came in, loved sport, and me. Great. He also loved football, brought in a football coach. Not great. Courtney was taller and slightly older than me. We fell out immediately. It was all too easy for him. You just have to show kids a football and they flock like crazy. They were all talking about Courtney and how amazing he was. I was jealous. I came to watch them play a match one weekend. I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t like the way he treated the kids. One day I saw him flick Timothy’s ear. Timothy was annoying, but that was a sackable offence. I should have reported it, I didn’t. I resented him for putting me in that position. We stopped talking altogether.
The kids started debating, first in hushed whispers, who would win in a race between me and Courtney. I tried to shut it down. I was a fast 800m runner, but I was one big, walking injury. It took me an hour of warm up to be able to run. And, even then, I was in danger of popping a hamstring or worse. Try explaining Achilles Tendonitis to a child.
The whispers grew louder, the smell of inevitability grew stronger. The kids started wearing us down. Asking, demanding, chanting. I was chicken. He was chicken. I would win. He would win. One sunny day, at lunch, Courtney cracked. He came over to me and said something truly epic like; “It’s on”.
I didn’t even say a word, just took my position on the start line.
We were in the main playground, and everyone knew the race course. 40 meters one direction, touch the brick wall, 40 meters back again. A classic ‘to the wall and back’. I was scanning the children frantically, I just needed one who was play-acting, who I could then blame for my non-participation. Surely there was one. For the first time in human history, 300 children assembled themselves in a quiet and orderly fashion. They lined up along the race course so they could all see the big event.
No way out. This was all happening too fast, adrenaline was pumping through my mouth, I could feel my heartbeat in my eye balls.
This race had to happen. I had been trying to get the kids to respect, understand and enjoy running. Racing. Athletics. When everything in the UK is about football. Always football. The kids would pester me in my classes:
Can we play football instead?
You can go to the next playground to play football.
Let’s go then. Can we play football after we’ve done running?
Can we next time?
After months of this, I was winning them over. Starting to get them interested in Asafa Powell, Kelly Holmes. Now Courtney had come in and was undoing all my hard work, with his shiny balls. Weekend tournaments, with their all-weather pitches and real live scouts. This town ain’t big enough for the both of us. This race was more than me vs Courtney. It was athletics vs football, Blur vs Oasis, Persians vs Spartans.
One boy, Mujib, a small, chubby kid with a big mouth (I liked him), solemnly made his way through the crowd and took his place on the start line, conveying all the gravitas befitting a person with a role as important as his. The one who would call “ready steady go”.
The whole school was silent; tension and excitement filled the air. Mujib knew this was his moment. He was going to make the most of it. He took a deep breath, and slowly, with a rising pitch, rumbled;
Long, dramatic pause (I hated him)
Another torturously long pause
I was gone. But so was Courtney. To the wall, we were neck and neck, shoulders bumping. I took a massive leap high onto the wall, I was carrying an injury, ‘runners knee’, terrible pain in patella tendon, it screamed up at me as I jumped, the adrenaline numbed it, I got a perfect rebound, Courtney stumbled, I didn’t. I was ahead, I didn’t look back, pumping my arms with everything I had, I stormed to victory. The crowd cheered, the whole school mobbed me. Was it 300 kids? or 30,000? It felt the same to me. One of the biggest victories of my life. I had to win. And I won.
I would hear the kids talking about that race for months later;
“Do you remember when Russell was going so fast he couldn’t stop and ran straight through the fence innit.”
“Oh yeah that was sick! Russell was blazing. Courtney is budget innit.”
Conversation between Navron and Torrik. I’m pretty sure I’m quoting verbatim.
That race made a big difference to the kids and me. Wanting to be fast like Russell became a thing. I could talk till the cows came home, about how great running is, how cool athletics is, but sometimes, the kids just need to see you run fast.
Courtney got laid off a few months later. I can’t say it was because he lost that race. But it definitely didn’t help.
Meanwhile, I was walking around the school like a God. I grew into my new found respect. I wasn’t perfect. But I did a lot of good stuff. I would march into the dinner hall, grab the salad bowl and start dishing it onto kids’ plates. If they wanted to be fast and strong like me, they had to eat their greens.
Wet play was no longer Connect 4, it was Beep Tests in the hall. I brought in a trophy I’d won in a race, and did an assembly about how I won it. A Team GB friend, Huw Lobb, got me two GB vests, which I gave to two kids as prizes.
My classes were full now. Teachers would use them as a form of control. If the children misbehaved, no races with Russell.
I was still making mistakes, a lot. I got absolutely balled out one day in the staff room in front of the entire staff, for some arrogant, careless thing I had done. And no one came to my defence. I realised I had to tone it down a bit. But I was forgiven everything, I worked hard, arrived early and left late, and loved those kids. Every damn one. I was never in my life happier than playing with them. I made the races so that everyone could win. After my classes we would play British Bulldog. I invented new and exciting ways of picking the kids up and swinging them about, just because I wanted to hug them. I never dropped anyone, and no one ever got hurt. Except one boy, Peter, who, randomly ran straight into a wall, breaking his arm. We weren’t even racing at the time, just standing there, and he suddenly took it upon himself to run into the wall. I made him a Pokemon ‘get well’ card.
We were growing up fast, the kids and I. I didn’t know where this was going, but we were building up to something big.