By Jason Richards

No, I’ve not been joining Cilla Black on one of her TV specials, let alone appearing on Blind Date, but September ‘08 did hold a pleasant surprise for me.

Since its inception in 2005, the Middlesbrough Tees Pride 10k has been one of my favourite, and most successful, events on the road racing calendar. Based on a relatively flat loop, the course has produced some very fast times for wheelchair athletes over the years. In fact my 10k personal best time was done on this course in 2005 when I clinched victory by half a wheel length in a very tight sprint finish. Since the debut event in 2005, I have won the race three times out of four, finishing second in 2007. 

The fast flat nature of the course suits a T53 racer such as myself. At 800 m and below athletes race in four distinct categories; T51 to T54. The ‘T’ denotes track, the ‘5’ a wheelchair athlete and 1 to 4 the level of function for each individual. Classes 1 and 2 are for quadriplegic athletes with a disability in all four limbs, 3 being reserved for athletes with full arm and hand function but limited trunk movement and class 4 for the most able-bodied racers. 

However, at 1500m and above the T53 and T54 classes are joined together. On the road this means the more able T54 athletes have the advantage on the hill climbs and through the twists and turns of narrow courses where they can accelerate better out of the slow speed sections.

The Middlesbrough Tees Pride 10k is usually well represented by wheelchair racers looking to post a fast time towards the end of our season. However, on 21 September 2008 the turn-out was disappointing, despite me helping the organisers to rustle up some extra competitors at the last minute. Even with a distinct lack of training since the birth of our twins in November 2007, I was feeling good on the day.

The demands of two tiny babies combined with the sleepless nights had reduced my training from six days a week to once every six weeks. However, I knew I was pushing well technically and that, combined with a relaxing early
morning drive to the venue in my Ford S-MAX, meant I arrived refreshed and confident for the race. My main rival would be my long-standing friend and training partner Steve Williamson. We have not only trained together for years but also done battle in many races on the track and the open roads. I could see the look in Steve’s eyes that my lack of training meant he had the upper hand and he was in high spirits as we set out for our warm-up. Within a few hundred metres Steve picked up a puncture and with the start of the race only minutes away, we dashed back to his car to change the tyre. In the past I might have left him to it and focused on my race, but this was an event I was doing for enjoyment and it was better that we were able to both race and make it more competitive.

It must have been the adrenaline from the tyre change, but as the gun sounded the start of the race Steve shot off at an incredible pace. Even over these longer distances there is always a sprint at the start as athletes jockey for position, but this time I found it hard to keep up. I felt my heart begin to sink as it pounded and echoed loudly within my chest, but dug deeper to increase my speed and tuck into the slip stream as we sped along the opening straight. Once I was in the draught I was able to relax and hold a comfortable rhythm as we left the crowds behind and the tactical race began.

Not far into the course there are a series of small hills and I noticed I was climbing better than I expected as we hit the first few. One of my strongest attributes is my top-end speed where I have true economy and can maintain high speeds in an aerodynamic position. As we crested one of the last hills I noticed a small gap had appeared between myself and Steve and so I decided to attack as the descent opened up and I was able to whip the chair up to a faster pace. This proved to be a decisive move as the course straightened out and a long slight downhill meant I was able to keep the chair in excess of 20 mph and open up a good gap. I knew the last few kilometres ahead were uphill and Steve’s fitness and determination could mean he would reel me back in so there was nothing else to do but hurt.

And hurt it did. My arms and shoulders were burning from the lack of fitness and conditioning and my lungs heaved as I sucked in every last trace of oxygen from the cool September air. But then there it was ahead, the finish line beckoned. I sucked up one last lung-full of air in an attempt to pick up the pace as I crossed the line but there was nothing left in my muscles as the lactic acid traced through them. At least I knew as the cameras clicked that I had given everything. Having been placed second in the Wakefield 10k and third in the Redcar Half Marathon in April, I had written off the chance of racing in 2008, let alone a victory, due to my lack of training. So I was delighted to see the clock as my time of 25minutes 18 seconds was only just over a minute slower than the personal best I had set there in 2005.

So if the twins decide to both sleep through the night some time soon and I can get back to training, there may even be a comeback on the cards in 2009.

If Lance Armstrong can return to the Tour de France in 2009 after a 4-year break then I’ve got no excuses!

As I drove home with the heating on full in the S-MAX, to warm my body through, I was able to reflect on the race and life in general. It’s strange, but having raced very little in the 2008 season, this event made me realise why I train and race. It’s for selfish reasons, for pride, to stand out, to break away from my disability, for freedom, for respect and because I love the competition.

Perhaps if I follow in the footsteps of Lance Armstrong in 2009 it will be for different less selfish reasons, for my children.