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Sunday 15 August 2010
I am standing in lane five of the race track of the National Sports Stadium at Crystal Palace in south London. There is a sell-out crowd of 15,000 people and my heart is in my mouth. I'm about to take part in the 4x100 metres relay. Further down the track are former British sprint champions Roger Black, Jason Gardener, Iwan Thomas and John Regis. This is not a dream, but it has every potential to be a nightmare.
I don't yet know that the day will end in glory, a podium and a cup presented by Jessica Ennis, Britain's latest national sweetheart and world and European heptathlon champion.
There is currently only one thought in my mind: don't drop the baton. The event is being broadcast live on BBC1, kicking off its coverage of the second day of the London Grand Prix. The top names in athletics are here – on Friday Tyson Gay ran the 100m in 9.78 seconds, the second fastest it's ever been run in Britain. The next event is the men's 4x400 metres final proper.
Millions could be watching. Definitely watching are family, friends and colleagues whose own pride is on the line. Falling on my face means I won't be able to show it in the office again.
As it turns out I don't drop the baton. I take it in the left hand, switch it to the right and run like the wind, or at least a gentle breeze. That isn't as easy as it sounds. I am 42, and I have stood on a race track only once since I left school, and that once was last Wednesday when Roger Black, the 1996 Olympic 400-metres silver medallist, put us through our paces in a training session at Battersea. Three days later and my legs are still stiff. I think I can push it just once before they give up entirely.
Four media teams have been invited to run in this "legends" race. The Independent on Sunday is captained by Roger Black, the Daily Mirror by Jason Gardener, The Daily Telegraph by John Regis and BBC Radio Five Live by Iwan Thomas Black, who at 44 looks 10 years younger, runs with a grace – and speed – that makes it look easy. On Wednesday, we met for basic sprint training.
The first sprint over 50 metres comes as a shock. It seems I've forgotten how to run at more than a canter. Roger tells me to pump my arms more, and lift my hips. The body is symmetrical, he says, the faster the arms the faster the legs.
He quickly set the running order. Reporter Rory Crew, at 24, has two years to go before his body starts its long decline, so is the fastest and starts first. Mike Higgins, 38, the deputy editor of the New Review magazine, used to run third in relay at school and so goes third. Roger , 44, has to be the anchor at number four, which means I get the long back straight of number two by default.
Mental strength is key for a runner. Roger recalls his frame of mind before the final of the 1995 World Championships. "I made it to the starting line and that little voice in my head said 'What am I doing here?'. I came sixth. A year later, in the Olympics, I was ready. I had experience, I was in good shape and I felt a sense of destiny. I came second, to Michael Johnson, and there's no shame in coming second to him."
The gun goes and before I know it, Rory is hurtling towards me. He's fast, but not as fast as Five Live's number one who has caught him by the time the change-over comes. Before I know where I am, I'm halfway along the back straight with the baton safely held in my right hand. My thighs are starting to give up and there is a green blur to my left as Five Live's number two inches ahead of me. The baton is safely passed to Mike who is off like a rocket.
I see Roger set off with a strong lead. Iwan Thomas pulls him back, but can't catch him. We win in a time of 54.68, a mere 17.58 seconds off the world record of 37.10 set by the Jamaican team – which includes the 100m world record holder Usain Bolt – in 2008.
And there to present the first sports trophy I've ever won is a slightly bashful, modest, and polite Jessica Ennis whose civvies make her look like any 24-year-old woman, rather than a muscular sporting hero.
"I felt a huge sense of relief after winning Olympic silver," Roger says. "That's it over. I've done it. I'm not going to spend my life looking back – the sportsman's nightmare."
* The IoS team's spiked running shoes were supplied by Runandbecome ( www.runandbecome.com).
Additional reporting by Rory Crew
The IoS's sports expert gives his race report
OK, so WG Grace knocked off a double century for England at the Oval before he nipped off to run a winning lap at Crystal Palace (in the 440 yards hurdles at the National Olympian Association Games in 1866) but he could hardly have triumphed with greater aplomb than some bloke called Roger Black and The Independent on Sunday heroes managed to exhibit in the Legends' 4x100m relay at the south London track yesterday. A solid start by Rory Crew, a fine second leg by Andrew Johnson and a storming bend by the brilliant Mike Higgins left Black to bring home the baton on the glory leg. "I was gutted we lost to pretty boy Roger," Iwan Thomas, Britain's fastest-ever one-lap runner, lamented. And to the pretty boys Rory, Andrew and Mike too.
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