Recently I was offered a free place in a race. You probably think that as triathlon’s leading truth-wizard I would be fighting off free race-entries with a track pump, but you might be surprised to learn that it happens surprisingly little.
You might also be surprised to learn that, despite this gift horse, I turned the free place down – not because it didn’t fit with my race plans, but because it would have meant racing under someone else’s name, an activity not without its risks.
Occasionally you enter a race and for some reason you can’t do it – perhaps you’re injured, or ill, or you’ve discovered it’s your wedding anniversary or your partner’s birthday (ahem). On such occasions the done thing is to contact the race organiser to let them know you can’t come out to play, so they can reallocate your place. But we all know that the most common response is to go on Facebook and offer the place to your mates on the understanding that they race under your name and keep quiet about it. This is understandably a big no-no for all sorts of good reasons, and it’s not an activity to be generally advised because it adds an interesting frisson of tension to your race day as you quietly dread being unmasked as you perform your multisport masquerade.
I speak with some experience because a few years ago my friend Tony Nutt, an accomplished belly-dancer albeit unintentionally, was taking part in a running race as part of his preparations for a marathon. He dropped out of the race a few days before with some paltry excuse designed to mask the fact that he hadn’t trained, and asked me if I wanted his place. This is of course strictly against the rules, but I thought ‘Sod it, what’s the worst that can happen?’ Unfortunately, we hadn’t considered the fact that:
1. I am a much better runner than Tony.
2. At the time, Tone had just turned 50 while I was in my late 30s.
I ran very well that day, so well in fact that shortly after crossing the line I heard the tannoy announcer say, “Congratulations to Tony Nutt who is our first M50 finisher in a new course record for the over 50s.” With prizes and a podium appearance for age-winners ahoy I was faced with a stark choice – go and collect the prize and risk being outed as A) Not 50 and B) Not Tony. Or, do the decent thing and confess my identity theft to the organisers and face the consequences like a man. The thought of trying to front it out as a 50-year-old was as appealing as having open heart surgery performed by a swarm of wasps, and even though I usually look a bit rough after a race and could easily pass for 10 years older, I’m no James Bond and would crack under even the lightest of interrogations about my birth date. That left either owning up, or scuttling off home before the awards ceremony took place. Guess which course of action I took…?
On informing Tone of ‘his’ record-breaking run his reaction was to be slightly miffed that I’d left without collecting ‘his’ trophy and prize money, and he even had the finisher’s t-shirt off me with the old ‘I paid for it’ line. Years later he still refers to himself as a record-breaking runner.
To my intense relief his record didn’t stand very long and was broken the very next year. But I’m conscious I’m clutching at more straws than a scarecrow with eczema because our supposedly victimless crime meant that somewhere out there was a 50-plus runner who was robbed of a small plastic cup and a £20 health spa voucher after coming ‘second’. And some race organisers were left waiting forlornly in a wet field for a record-breaking runner to turn up and collect his prize.
These days, as one of the most recognisable losers on the triathlon circuit, I’m far less likely to be offered a ‘race as me’ place by a mate. And I’ve also noticed an uncomfortable change in attitude, with people now reluctant to ask me as they’re concerned that my finishing time might make them look bad.
There’s gratitude for you