‘Becoming a great runner is all about training properly. And having some sort of natural talent, I guess. But mainly it’s about training. And to train properly you’ve got to be disciplined.’
Extract taken from The Race
By Roy Peachey
Published by Cranachan Publishing
It was Wednesday afternoon and Tom was being annoying.
Tom is annoying most days but that afternoon he was being really annoying. I think it’s because he was bored. We were in school, which was kind of OK, and we should have been having Sport, but it was pouring with rain, so we had to stay inside.
I think we should have gone out anyway but the teachers said it wasn’t safe, which seemed odd because we run around at break whether it’s raining or not. The teachers aren’t worried then and no one ever gets hurt. Well, not often anyway. And what does it matter if we do get wet? Our skin’s waterproof. That’s what my Gran says and she’s pretty much always right.
So, it was raining and we were cooped up in a classroom, learning about the history of the Olympics when we could have been outside doing actual sport. That’s why Tom was being annoying.
‘Where did China come in the medal table at the Rio Olympics, Miss?’ he called out.
The problem with Tom is that he’s actually pretty clever. He’s annoying, of course, but he’s also smart. I hate to admit it but it’s true. He knew where China came in the medal table. That’s why he was asking.
‘Good question, Tom,’ Miss Scattergood said. ‘I can’t quite remember off the top of my head but let’s check, shall we?’
I like Miss Scattergood, I really do. She actually listens to what we say and she’s got a great collection of purple glasses, but she is a teacher and teachers have a very funny way of speaking. Every question’s a “good question” and “let’s check, shall we” really means “I’ll google it.” If I ever become a teacher I’m going to speak normally.
I sat back in my chair and waited for Miss Scattergood to work out how to get connected on the school laptop. I avoided Tom’s eye but there was no escaping him really. In every lesson there was always a vague sense that Tom was there, that Tom had been there, or that he was about to appear.
The maps of the world that we’d made last term were a case in point. The purpose of the exercise had been to show that there are different ways of presenting a 3D world in 2D form, but Tom had taken the opportunity to cause mischief as usual. Sophie and Rachel had drawn an enormous Greenland, like the one Miss Scattergood showed us on her Mercator map. Andy and Todd had added a super-large India and my contribution was to put China slap bang in the middle, just like Chinese map-makers used to do. And why not? Why shouldn’t China (or India or Greenland, for that matter) be in the centre?
But Tom couldn’t cope with China in the middle of the world, so he carefully cut round it so that when Miss Scattergood picked up the map to show the class, China promptly fell to the floor. Tom and his idiotic friends thought this was hilarious. We stuck it back together afterwards but it was never quite the same again.
‘Oh, here it is,’ Miss Scattergood announced, interrupting my thoughts. ‘They came third.’
‘And who came second, Miss?’ Tom asked. He’s so predictable.
Miss Scattergood checked her screen.
‘Well, it was Great Britain. That’s good, isn’t it?’
‘You’d think the Chinese would’ve done better than third, wouldn’t you?’ he said, half turning so I could see the snarky look on his face. ‘There are so many of them.’
Snarky is a good word. It means cranky or cutting. My Gran taught me what it means. She said it might come in useful. She said it’s a word teachers should use more often, especially when they’re talking about Tom.
‘I think China did very well, Tom. And so did Team GB. They both did very, very well.’
‘But China didn’t do well, did they, Miss?’ Tom insisted. ‘We beat them. And that’s what sport’s all about, isn’t it, Miss? Not being a loser.’
‘Sport,’ Miss Scattergood said, changing her tone of voice and piercing him with a steely look now that she’d worked out what he was up to, ‘is all about taking part. So let’s get on with the lesson.’
Actually, I wasn’t bothered that Britain got more golds than China because I’m Chinese and British. That means I get to support two teams at the Olympics. Britain won 27 gold medals and China won 26. That means my teams won 53 gold medals, which put them in first place. The USA only got 46, so they’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
In fact, we did even better than that because my family also supports Kazakhstan. My sister, Alice, is Kazakh and British, you see, and she doesn’t like to be left out. And Kazakhstan won three gold medals, which took our grand total to 56. I tried to explain this to Tom one day when he was going on and on, but he didn’t get it.
He doesn’t care: that’s why he didn’t get it.
But maybe you don’t get it either. Our family’s not exactly run of the mill, I guess, so I’d better explain. Dad was born in Newcastle but his ancestors came over to Britain with the Normans a thousand years ago (that’s why we’ve got a funny surname that no one can spell —DeLisle) and Mum was born in Glasgow. So I’m English and Scottish. But I’m also Chinese because they adopted me in China when I was eighteen months old. Not that I can remember, but I’ve seen the pictures. And then, when I was seven, they adopted my sister from Kazakhstan. I can remember that all right. It was wild. We spent weeks going back and forth to Kaz, staying in a really nice hotel and visiting the orphanage. We had all sorts of funny food as well, string cheese and halva, which is a sort of sweet sunflower paste, and stuff like that. It was really good. And then Alice came home with us and I had a little sister at last.
We’re a real League of Nations my Gran says. Which I thought was something to do with sport but apparently it’s something to do with history. Anyway, what she means is that we’ve got lots of different nationalities in our family.
Which is great when it comes to the Olympics.
In fact it’s even better than I first thought. I found out a few months ago that my Uncle was born in Greece and they won three golds at Rio. I thought I’d add them to our list as that would have taken us to 59, but Dad said I was getting carried away, and he’s probably right because I do sometimes get carried away. Not that I mind. If I get carried away then I get things done.
But try telling Tom any of that and all you get is a snarky comment. Not that I care what Tom says. I’m proud of being Chinese and I’m proud of being British too. Unfortunately some people find it hard to get their heads round that simply because I don’t look like my Mum and Dad. They want to put me in a neat box, stick a label on the front and hope I don’t protest. The problem is I don’t fit into most boxes and most labels don’t stick, so I confuse people.
‘The thing is that China just don’t have the same track record as us,’ Tom added, because he was really trying to wind me up. ‘They’re still trying to catch up.’
Miss Scattergood sighed and tried not to catch my eye. I kept quiet because what’s the point? I knew that in 2008 China got more gold medals than anyone else and I knew that in Rio China won more medals overall than Britain. But Tom isn’t really interested in facts. He just likes to be annoying.
‘I think you’ll find that China have been doing very well in the Olympics for a very long time, Thomas,’ she said, trying to close down the conversation.
‘Really?’ Tom said, scowling. He hates being called Thomas. ‘So when did they win their first gold?’
‘Well, let’s check shall we?’ Miss Scattergood said, turning back to her computer.
While she searched, Tom turned round and grinned in triumph. He’d obviously done his research. He thought he’d got one over on me.
‘Oh,’ said Miss Scattergood, looking up, ‘that’s not what I expected.’
Tom turned back. Maybe I was imagining it but I thought he looked a bit worried.
‘When was it?’ he asked.
Whatever it was she’d discovered, Miss Scattergood was obviously enjoying it because she was smiling away to herself.
‘When was it?’ Tom repeated.
Miss Scattergood looked up and beamed at him. ‘1924,’ she said.
‘That’s not right,’ Tom blurted out.
‘Oh yes it is, Tom. 1924. In the 400 metres. A man called Eric Liddell blew the opposition away.’ Then she turned to me. ‘I think we could have some fun with this, Lili. I really do.’
‘She’s got to be joking,’ Tom muttered loudly enough for me to hear, as we filed out of class. ‘Eric! That’s not a Chinese name.’
‘Since when were you an expert in Chinese names?’ Sophie asked. Sophie is my best friend and more assertive than me when dealing with boys.
I nudged her to keep quiet. She was only trying to be helpful but sometimes you’ve got to pick your battles.
‘Since when were you an expert in anything?’ Tom replied. ‘Eric’s clearly not a Chinese name. Scatterbrain’s got it wrong again. Just what you’d expect.’
I took Sophie by the elbow and tried to steer her away, but I could see her hackles rising. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know what hackles are or how they rise, but I definitely knew that Sophie’s were.
‘You’re so arrogant, Tom, you really are,’ she said, stepping in front of him as he was about to walk off. ‘Lots of Chinese people have both western and Chinese names.’
As she waited for him to comment, Sophie folded her arms and refused to move. She could be as stubborn as him when she thought she was in the right. Tariq and Andy, Tom’s sidekicks, edged forward, sensing that they might be called into action but Tom had no intention of resorting to physical force.
‘I tell you what,’ he said. ‘Let’s check, shall we?’
His impression of Miss Scattergood was irritatingly good. He grinned at Sophie but I could see that he was half looking at me. Pulling his phone from his jacket pocket, he flicked it on and sidled away from the door.
‘If any of the teachers catch you with that, you’re going to be in big trouble,’ Sophie said.
‘Like they’re going to notice,’ Tom replied, not lifting his eyes from the screen. ‘Okey-dokey, what have we got here? Eric. Olympics. Here it is. Eric Liddell, who was known as the Flying Scotsman, was a student at Edinburgh University when he won gold at the 1924 Olympic Games. So not Chinese then. Scottish. Which the last time I looked wasn’t part of China. Or, if I have to spell it out for your little sprinter friend, I was right and Scatterbrain was wrong. As usual. See ya.’
He could be really obnoxious when he put his mind to it and he put his mind to it quite a lot.
‘Come on,’ I said, pulling Sophie away. ‘We’ve got Geography to get to and I don’t want to be late because of Tom.’
Sophie clenched and unclenched her fists.
‘He’s such a little…’
I gave her another tug and this time she came. Even so, I could tell that she was brooding all the way through the lesson. At least, she was brooding until Mr Smith nipped out to get some paper. Unable to wait any longer, she got her phone out and started searching. Unfortunately Mr Smith wasn’t gone long. Just as she let out a low whistle of triumph, he walked back in, saw her on her phone, confiscated it, put her in detention, and carried on teaching as if he hadn’t disappeared from our lesson in the first place. It didn’t seem fair.
I didn’t really concentrate for the rest of Geography. I did what Tariq and Andy do most of the time: I stared out of the window. And when I’d finished staring out of the window I stared blankly at the walls. It wasn’t great but it was better than listening to Mr Smith drone on.
We have ‘inspirational’ posters all over our walls. The first woman to win a Nobel Prize; the first Welshman to climb Mount Everest; the first child to get a record deal: you know the sort of thing. Then, when we got back after the summer break, we found that a new lot had gone up. Famous people. Or people the teachers thought were famous. There was some businessman I’d never heard of in Social Sciences and a Greek guy I’d never heard of in Maths, but my favourite one was in Religious Studies. They could have chosen Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama, butinstead they went for some philosopher called Elizabeth Anscombe. What I really liked about her was that she was wearing her name badge upside down.
The poster on the wall in Geography wasn’t quite as good as that but it was still pretty funny. It was an old picture of map-man Mercator, wearing a big hat and a big beard. He looked a bit odd to be perfectly honest. Anyway, thereason I mention it is because I spent most of the lesson staring at that uninspirational ‘inspirational’ picture, cominground only when Mr Smith announced the end of the lesson. I still have no idea what he had been talking about.
‘I’ll see you at training,’ Sophie whispered as we packed our bags. ‘If old Smithy doesn’t keep me back too long.’
‘Or unless training’s off. It’s still chucking it down out there.’
Then she caught my eye and laughed.
‘OK, OK! So you’ll be there anyway, whether it’s cancelled or not. I knew that really.’
I gave her a big smile and then I smiled at Mr Smith too because it looked like he was going to comment. He hesitated and then walked off because smiling at teachers usually confuses them. Smiling is my secret weapon. I know it doesn’t seem like much of a secret weapon but, believe you me, it works. I’ll try to explain.
Becoming a great runner is all about training properly. And having some sort of natural talent, I guess. But mainly it’s about training. And to train properly you’ve got to be disciplined. You’ve got to keep at it. You’ve got to train when your competitors can’t face it. And that means going out in all weathers. I go running in sun and rain, in windand snow. If it’s cold and dark I get up and go out anyway. If it’s raining sideways, I still drag myself out through thefront door and do my usual circuit. I have to keep going because taking a break for bad weather means I’ll slip behind my competitors.
But here’s the tricky thing. Getting up when the weather is being very British isn’t much fun. I’m just an ordinary girl. I hate bad weather as much as anyone else. So what do I do when it’s hurling down rain? I fix a smile on my face and decide that I’m going to enjoy it. And if I decide to smile and enjoy myself then I really do enjoy myself. It’s like jumping into a cold swimming pool. It’s terrible for a couple of seconds but then you don’t even remember that it wascold once you get moving.
I know that my rivals are probably sheltering inside if it’s terrible weather. Which means I’m getting fitter than them. And if I’m fitter I’m faster. Which is what it’s all about. So there was no way I was going to hang about inside just because it was chucking it down. If training was on, I’d train with the rest of the school squad. If it wasn’t, I’d train on my own. That was how I’d got to be the district champion. That’s how I’d got into the regional squad. That’s how I’d qualified for the Nationals.
So straight after school, I rushed off to training and was halfway through a series of circuits when Sophie eventually appeared. She had a grin on her face.
‘How was detention?’ I shouted as she cut across the long jump area.
‘Pointless,’ she shouted back. ‘But I did manage to find out a bit more when Smithy went off to make himself a coffee.’
Sophie was nothing if not daring. Most people who are in detention for checking their phone during lessons don’t start googling under the desk.
‘Tom was half right,’ she admitted. ‘Oh great,’ I said ironically.
‘But so was Miss Scattergood. Eric Liddell was born in China but his parents were Scottish and he competed for Britain at the 1924 Olympics. It’s all in some movie apparently. Chariots with Fire, or something like that. Anyway, he was supposed to be running in the 100 metres but because the heats were run on a Sunday he refused to run, so he switched to the 400 metres and that wasn’t really his distance. But he didn’t have much choice if he didn’t want torun on a Sunday. And it all got really tense, especially as he went flat out over the first 100 metres, which isn’t how you’re supposed to run the 400, but somehow he hung on and won. In fact, he did more than hang on, he broke the world record.’
‘I don’t get it,’ I said. ‘Why didn’t he want to run on a Sunday?’
‘Because he was religious. His Mum and Dad were missionaries in China and they believed that you shouldn’tplay sport or do any work on Sundays.’
‘But running isn’t…’
‘Look, that’s what they believed,’ Sophie interrupted. ‘Anyway, the point is he refused point blank to run in the 100 metres, which he was favourite for, and competed in the 400 metres instead, even though no one thought he stood a snowball in hell’s chance of winning. And because he was born in China and lived in China, the Chinese have claimed him as their very first Olympic gold medallist, so Miss Scattergood was right.’
I started jogging again as I tried to process what Sophie had said. I couldn’t get my head round the fact that EricLiddell had given up the chance of an Olympic gold just because the heats were run on a Sunday. I mean, I go to Church on Sundays, but then I go running afterwards. And if there’s a race on then Mum and Dad arrange for us togo to Church somewhere near the competition. I’m not quite sure how they do it but they always seem to find a way.
And I couldn’t quite believe that Eric had been born in China, like me, and competed for Great Britain, like me. I’m not usedto hearing about people like me; it seemed too wonderful to be true.
‘Look, Sophie, I need to get this straight,’ I said, once she was jogging alongside me. ‘Are you sure he’d qualified for the 100 metres? Maybe it was nothing to do with it being Sunday.’
Sophie sighed in the same exaggerated way that adults use when they’re about to patronise you. Then she stopped running, turned to face me and put her hands on her hips.
‘I know it’s difficult for you to grasp basic facts, Lili, but you’ve got to forget about the whole Sunday thing. What you’ve got to hold onto is that he was born in China. He was China’s first gold medallist and you’re going to be their 250th. But only if you get on with running round this track and stop standing there with rain pouring off your nose. Got it? Good. Now come on, I’ll race you to the finishing line.’
Tianjin, China, 1907
The children were struggling with the heat. They had been wrestling against it all afternoon and now, one by one, they slowly admitted defeat. Three little girls in off-white calico dresses were sitting in the shade of a gingko tree, fanning each other with cheap paper fans. A red-haired boy was pouring water over his head from a standpipe in the corner of the yard and spraying his companions every time they came too close. A slightly older boy was sitting with his back to a great brown Labrador, the two of them panting with exhaustion, their tongues out and sweat rolling down their faces.
The remains of their games lay scattered about the yard. A football half-deflated in the back of a goal, two bamboo hoops on the edge of the pitch, and a wooden top, which a couple of chickens were pecking at.
Though the children had all dropped to the ground, the late afternoon was still full of noise. The sound of a heavy hammer resounded across the compound. Frogs croaked in an unseen pond. Two voices rose in song from the squat building behind the goal. Sometimes in unison, sometimes edging towards harmony, they seemed to reach out towards the children who paid no notice at all to the music swirling round them.
As the children slumped in the shade, a small, white-haired woman shuffled into the light. She looked briefly at each of them, but the one she was looking for wasn’t sitting with his back to a dog, or resting with his head in his arms, or standing with one arm on the standpipe. The little boy she wanted was the only one still moving. A bundle of perpetual motion, he was shuttling between the goal and the gingko tree, barefooted in the dust. Sometimes heslid up to the turning place. Sometimes he collided with it full on. Accelerating away with a push of his out-stretched foot, he pivoted off the tree to the goal as though he were being pursued. The old lady smiled affectionately and started to clap her hands in time to his five-year-old strides.
‘Kuai dianr! Kuai dianr!’
The little boy lifted his head for a moment. Intense and serious, he didn’t have time or breath to reply but, pounding his little feet hard into the ground, he tried to pick up the pace. The other children joined in the chant.
‘Faster, faster, faster!’
The little boy strained against the heat of the afternoon, determined to force another burst of pace from his little legs. Maybe he would have succeeded but his mother, attracted by the sudden surge of sound from the yard, appeared in the doorway behind the white-haired woman.
‘Eric!’ she shouted. ‘That’s enough. It’s time to come in now.’
The little boy hesitated and then slowed to a halt. His brother peeled himself away from the standpipe, trotted over to where Eric was standing and tried to lift him up.
‘Come on, little ’un,’ he said gently. ‘Do we have to?’ the little boy asked. ‘Yes we do.’
‘Can I come out again tomorrow?’
His brother hitched him up a little higher. ‘No we can’t. Not tomorrow.’
‘Oh, why not?’ Eric whined.
‘Because tomorrow’s a special day,’ his brother explained. ‘Remember: just like Ma and Pa said. Tomorrow’s a day for the Lord, not a day for running yourself into the dust.’
The Race by Roy Peachey is published by Cranachan Publishing, priced £7.99.