It really was a wonderful experience and I am so glad I did it. But I do feel a little deflated now so I'm hoping to get it all down and share the full story now.
Race for Life is a women only event in aid of Cancer Research UK. It's a 5KM "race" but there are no winners and losers and you can walk it, run it, go round on a scooter (saw someone doing that), be pushed in a wheelchair (saw several people doing that) or even wheel yourself round in a wheelchair (as I did). Hell, you probably could crawl round it or hop backwards on one foot but I didn't see anyone doing either of those.
I wheeled my own wheelchair round the course (less one bit which was on grass which they had me go a different way - not 100% convinced I did the same distance but they said it was) and I did so in one hour and forty minutes. I'd known in advance that a lot of the paths it was on weren't great for a wheelchair and had hoped to do it in less than two hours. Equally I know that if I'd been on proper paths without the odd loose bit of gravel and frequent huge stones sticking up I'd have been quicker. But I'm pleased with what I did.
At one point in time Sam pointed out to me that there was an actual honest to goodness proper path of the kind that wheelchairs love not far ahead of us and one we would be going on. I screamed "a proper path!" and managed to get some speed up at that time. Alas, it didn't last too long and it was back to the loose gravel, dirt and stones much too soon.
When you sign up you get assigned a runner number (mine is 8856 and if you go to this website and select Race for Life Oxford from the drop down and enter it you can see the three photos of me their official photographer took, but I don't think they are great). You also get sent a bright pink piece of paper which says "I run for life for..." and you can write who you are running for or why you are running. I used a big silver craft marker and decorated it a little and wrote "my Gran" on there. She had skin cancer, not a serious sort and had a brief course of radiotherapy and was fine for years after that. You wear it pinned on your back.
Race for Life is a hugely, hugely emotional day. I don't know if the organisers realised that it would be when they were first mooting the idea around 10(?) years ago but it is. There were 2500 women taking part in the race I did and most wear those bright pink back signs I mentioned above. Going around the course and reading what others have written on them is very very eye opening but it's also tough in a way because it gets to you emotionally (or at least it did to me). At least seven times I had to stop reading them, stop my train of thought and say to myself "no, you can't start crying, you have to do this."
Sam, my friend I was with, wrote "because I can, for those who can't." on her back sign
And we saw many other ones, friends, family, general, and people running for themselves - some of the ones that have stuck with me are:
"Because, six years on, I can."
"For the surgeon who saved my life."
"For my Grandad, he got the all clear on Friday."
"For my daughter and all her friends on ward XX at the childrens hospital"
"For every woman who has found a lump."
"For the future"
"For the world"
I think the one that has stuck with me the most needs more explaining. Some people just write on their signs, others decorate them and some put photos on them. I drew a few lines around mine but nothing major. Next year, glitter.
We saw one woman running with a photo on her sign and the words "in memory of my sister." She had a little girl with her who can't have been more than 11 if that. She had the same photo on her back and the words "in memory of my mum."
We also saw some people who were very obviously on chemo and Sam said when her friend ran another race for life last year they saw people doing it who were actually on drips at that time receiving chemo as they walked.
At the end of the race there was a big fence thing with clothes pegs on it and a huge sign saying "I race for life for..." most people took their back signs off and stuck them on there. I didn't look at that closely, I couldn't. My brother did take some photos of it for me though and Sam went and added ours. She said that she couldn't read it either, just went added ours and left.
[Photo shows the collection of back signs described above, you can't read the writing on the individual signs as they are too small, just the big sign. There are some people sitting on the grass in the background and grass in front. The fence itself is made of plastic mesh stuff and is blue. One some of the signs you can see photos and things people have printed and stuck on them.]
Oh and although Race for Life is a women only event, we did see a guy running the course in pink wig and bra. So I guess it's actually pretty inclusive.
At my request, Sam and I were allowed to start the race 20 minutes before the official start time. That was because there was no real way it would have been safe (or I would have felt safe) starting off in a crowd of 2500 people all going to the same place at the same time, especially given the fact that I knew the path wasn't overly wheelchair friendly and when my Dad and I had gone and walked part of it previously (half of it, in fact) I'd had some where in the region of ten incidents of getting my wheels messed up on loose stones etc and slamming to a stop. The suggestion had been I would start last but thankfully they agreed I could start first.
That was a little embarrassing but also in a way really fun. We thought they would just give us instructions on where to go/what to do and we would go. They thought differently. First one of the stewards asked our names and I heard them repeat it over their headset "It's Emma and Sam, Emma's the one in the wheelchair."
And then they told us. Adam Ball, one of the presenters from our local radio station, Fox FM, was there. And they were going to get him to announce that we were starting earlier and give us a count down. I don't think it went out on the radio, just over the tannoy in the parks. I hope not at least. I can't remember the exact words he used but I do remember being impressed and pleased because he didn't say I use a wheelchair. He said we were starting early because I was determined to push (wheel?) myself around the course and it was liable to take me well over two hours. We got a huge count down from the crowd and we were off.
We covered the first KM in 20 minutes, and were just passed the sign that marked it when we heard the klaxon that marked everyone else starting. Every time we reached a KM sign we found the next bit of shade and stopped to drink water as I can't wheel my chair and drink at the same time even with the sports hydrant that I have - possibly if I got a regular hydrant I could. So we slurped down some water and kept going. But then we got lost. We were walking with instructions to follow the pink ribbons and with a map, only the last stewards we saw before we got lost didn't realise we were already running the course so we ended up heading the the start/finish again. Soon figured that out and got back to the main course, having missed a tiny bit (the one bit they had said was narrow and might be difficult in the crowd - and just as the fastest runners got there too thankfully) but made up the distance and then some with our accidental detour. The bit where my parents bumped into us and my dad tried to insist on pushing me back to the course so I didn't do extra took longer than the detour; I refused to be pushed and mum backed me up when he tried again to insist.
We got passed by loads of people; and because of the announcement made about me at the start loads of people knew I was pushing myself. I tried to keep count of how many took time to squeeze my shoulder or wish me luck, encourage me, tell me i was a brave lady, etc as they went passed. After about a minute I had to give that up.
One lady told me I was nearly done. I laughed and said "oooh you liar. But I love it, thank you." I think we'd just seen the 2K sign then (and we'd also seen the 500 metres to go sign but that was when we were lost). Two people offered to push me but didn't mind me saying no. One of those went "awww I was hoping you'd say yes so I'd have an excuse to stop running." and grinned. Another asked Sam if she (Sam) was allowed to push me. She told her no, and so did I - rather forcefully!
We had to pass one specific point three times and the first time the steward there told us we would be seeing him three times and that we'd be really glad to see him. By the time we saw him last we really were - particularly when he said we had 100 metres to go! And when we passed the 4K sign, Sam went up and kissed it, the crazy woman.
The toughest part for me is the fact that part of the course was over grass and I can't wheel my chair on grass. I wanted to try but everyone told me not to kill myself and probably leaving that bit was the right move. I went an alternative way (they hadn't realised that grass and self propelling a wheelchair is not a good move) and the organisers claim it was the same distance. Unfortunately for them, I'm not stupid. The grass bit involved going off of this path, looping around the grass in a made up route marked with pink ribbons and back onto the same path not far from where you left it, and they just had me and Sam go along the path between the two points. A huge part of me is so proud that I did the race for life. But there is another tiny part of me that sits here going "but you didn't do the course everyone else did and you pretty much definitely didn't do the whole 5K". It's close, I know, and I know that everyone is proud of me regardless. But...
My parents were there and Ben and Geri came into Oxford later to be there. They had a nightmare getting into Oxford and literally ran to make it before we finished. I could see the finish when all of a sudden I glanced over at my dad and saw my brother run up and make it - just in time. I'm not sure Geri saw us finish, I don't think so. That's actually when the second official photo of me finishing must have been taken, because I'm looking off to the side in it.
Adam Ball was still there providing commentary talking about the people he could see finishing and providing some encouragement. He announced when me and Sam made it back to the finish (which was also the start) and said he was surprised we'd been so quick, he'd expected us to be longer. He also caught sight of my hands and commented for all to hear over the tannoy that I would need new gloves. I'm not sure I actually do, but my hands were a right state. (After we finished, Sam rang her husband and as she put it - I was wearing black fingerless gloves but they were so dirty you couldn't tell where the gloves ended and my fingers began. I had a pretty nasty blister right where they ended too but I never noticed it until mum gave me a wet one to clean myself up and it stung like anything.)
Then finally we were over the line, through the archway with it's Cancer Research UK decal that marked the end. Sam and I hugged and then a steward (at my request) helped me off of the course and on to grass - this was the set up, off of the path onto the grass where the official end stuff was set up (GRRR) where we got our finishers medals, our goodie bags and some bottled water.
Met the family, wandered over to a gazebo and we hung out for a while chatting and drinking water. I made my Dad go and get me a hot dog because I'd been sick with nerves before and hadn't eaten yet that day other than a quick cake bar right before the start. I was starved by that point.
Moments after that which stuck out to me was hearing about the last person to finish - an 84 year old woman whose time was roughly five minutes slower than mine if you added in my head start (as an aside, there were three Race for Life's in Oxford that weekend and my friend Emma ran one the day before, she told me later than there had been a two year old there who had walked the whole thing. Wow.). Also, they were playing music and one of the songs was Heather Small - Proud
I heard that (it's a song I love). And the lyrics (especially those below) called out to me even more than they usually do.
I look into the window of my mind
Reflections of the fears I know I've left behind
I step out of the ordinary
I can feel my soul ascending
I'm on my way
Can't stop me now
And you can do the same
What have you done today to make you feel proud?
It's never too late to try
What have you done today to make you feel proud?
You could be so many people
If you make that break for freedom
What have you done today to make you feel proud?
I listened to that and I thought "I know what I've done today to make me feel proud". It was a magical moment.