Ben Salmon: The day I ran like Usain
When Ben Salmon hit the track for the inaugural event at the Olympic Stadium, he didn't know how similar to the real thing it would be... until the drug tester came calling
Unless Usain Bolt eschews the athletes village in favour of the delights of Brockley, south east London, he won’t face the same commute as I did on race day.
Nor will he have to pick a path through Westfield Stratford shopping centre, and the army of volunteers wearing Gladiators-style foam hands, giant pink index fingers pointing in the direction of the Olympic Park. It is a job they have to do for some hours – a badly timed yawn could easily send whole trains full of ticket holders back where they have come from.
Nor will Mr Bolt have to brave the lengthy queues that begin at a series of marquees along a wall of iron fencing. My accreditation pass – my photograph, a hologram and the word “TEAM” – meant that I at least, was able to skip most of it. Us student runners were supposed to be treated exactly as the Olympic athletes will be in a few months time, to iron out any problems and ensure everything runs perfectly.
There are a lot of signs around the giant bowl of the stadium. Following the ones marked “athletes” was an extraordinary feeling. My first stop was the “Five Rings Lounge”, a sheltered platform with views of the whole stadium, reserved for competitors. It is where Team GB will watch their teammates competing, grab a banana and an IOC-approved soft drink as they watch the drama on track. The view alone gave me whooshes of nerves.
My coach and I, as Usain will do, went down a long tunnel and onto the main warm up track. It’s a full sized, pristine circuit, with a couple of small banks of stadium style seating – facilities superior to all but the most swanky athletics clubs. The muffled sound of applause and the Tannoy from the main stadium, which looms over us like a monolith, are constant reminders of what we’re here for.
The effect of the stadium in full roar will affect everyone in different ways, but the warm up track is no place for blocking it out. The “heat sheets” for the 1500m, my race, were put up on a noticeboard in a little hut like a mobile classroom on one side of the track. All the competitors, as their Olympic counterparts will do, head over to see which race they’re in.
It is in this hut, we are told, that athletes will be randomly selected for drugs tests, but no one in my heat is asked to do so. There is then time for a bit of warming up until, exactly 48 minutes before my scheduled race time of 11.26am, comes the “First Call”, flashing on the scoreboard.
The 14 people in my heat make our way into a long covered room, with athletics track style flooring. We are shown into a small cubicle with folding chairs, where we sit thigh to thigh. A volunteer asks us all questions, confirming we are the right people.
Athletes cannot take cameras or phones into the stadium, so we are all given a small bag with our running number to put them in. Another volunteer comes round with a roll of gaffer tape, ruthlessly covering up any unsanctioned corporate messages. The North Face logo on my bag is taped over, while another runner has the “Kerry Gold Butter” logo on his drawstring boot bag completely blacked out – “Just to be sure”.
The atmosphere is serious and tense. Some runners bounce around and stretch, others check their laces. Then comes the “Final Call”. We make our way down a long corridor, all with athletics track underfoot. It takes around seven minutes, at one point briefly spitting you out into daylight somewhere in the bowels of the stadium. It is here that a few fans in the right place and the right time will have an elusive photo opportunity with their Olympic heroes. We pass only a skip and some guys in high-vis jackets.
Then into another warm-up area. There is a 60-metre running track with starting blocks. The runners’ names are called in turn and you collect your front number, which contains a tiny micro chip clocking your lap times, and are told which lane you’re in. Each corresponds to a little folding chair where your lane number stickers are waiting. Then you sit and wait. Or warm up a bit more. There is quite a lot of time to sit and think.
Then: “Heat Three. Final, Final Call. We’re going now.” You line up in a long tunnel, like a concrete car park. It’s not lavish. You can just make out a tiny part of the stadium in the far distance at the end. It’s quite bewildering. I couldn’t work out quite from which part of the enormous bowl of the statdium we would emerge.
There you meet the volunteers, who are lined up carrying plastic buckets. When you walk out, they follow. A few of the student runners start offloading their belongings into the buckets before we are even out of the tunnel, and are quite comically chastised. “That’s a bit cheeky, wait until we’re out there please,” says a man at the front.
The volunteers are for the most part the same demographic that watch daytime telly – students and retired people. They really want to get it right. It’s all very English and reassuring. I am called “dear” on several occasions.
As we are led out, I manage to spot my family among the 79,000 or so empty seats, and glimpse my name on the giant scoreboard. Then, it’s finally time to go. “On your marks!” We walk, shaking our legs and looking ahead. “Set!” We adopt the distance runner start...“Pffff!”
I expected a bang, but strangely the starting signal sounds more like someone shaking an Etch A Sketch. It must have been a full second before it dawned on me that we were actually racing.
The race is all a bit of a blur. I remember all the clocks on the track as you run round. I am more used to checking my watch. And it’s a fast track. Very fast. It seems to push you forward as you run.
At the end of the race, we are led up some steps and through the long chicanes of the press area. There aren’t many journalists about – I suspect there’ll be a few more come the summer, and nobody seems to want to question me, or anyone else, on our Olympic dream come true.
In a little room in the bowels of the stadium, I am reunited with my valuables, and head off to find my family. I came 12th of 14 in my heat – two places higher than I anticipated – and I broke my personal best in London’s Olympic Stadium. At the time of writing, that’s more than Usain Bolt can say, after all.
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