It didn’t start on social media. No, he couldn’t even blame the bubbly icons of validation on the phone, because it didn’t start there at all. It didn’t start at the pub or at work, and not even at the gym. It didn’t start at any one moment that Ryan could have put his finger on, were he in the mood to try (which he certainly wasn’t). A thousand small humiliations and lessons that separate good character from bad, perseverance from apathy, honour from duplicity: they were all the toxic seeds of deceit.
With no beginning, the whole business was constantly evolving until he was hiding in the driveway of a sprawling country house on Tanners Lane, waiting for the lead runners in a local 10k road race to pass by. Hiding, not only because he needed to re-enter the race at a moment that would look natural and not as if he had cut five kilometres off the course, but because it was questionable whether the drive was a public right of way, despite it leading from public fields to a public road. Besides a marshal or wayward farm dog, one of the last things he wanted to see was an indignant Oxfordshire landowner stomping towards the spot where Ryan crouched in his flyaway Mizuno racing shorts, demanding to know what his intentions were on the property. And not because it would be embarrassing or look like he was relieving himself, and not even because they might call the police: this was undesirable because it might force him to explain what he was doing, even if only to himself. ‘It’s no trouble, sir, I’m just cheating.’
No, it didn’t start with bragging rights or praise on Facebook or the ability to embellish the horror of the last climb into Emmer Green the following morning. But now it was a cascading crime that needed constant attention to detail. His sense of timing and acting abilities were paramount. His Garmin sports watch was no longer responsible for giving him his average pace or kilometre splits, but was instead a stopwatch letting him know when to expect the first wave of competitors. He would rejoin the course with just under a mile left to run, right at the point of a 10k when most people are truly starting to suffer. The ninth kilometre, with over half an hour of agony behind you but up to ten minutes left, was usually the most dreadful. In his left hand, a 300ml fist-grip water bottle wasn’t for drinking, but to dump over his head in the minute or two before he anticipated the lead pack’s arrival. It was late September, but the weather was a touch warmer than expected, creeping over twenty degrees in the time since the gun had set the race off. He needed to be seen to sweat.
The question of how well he wanted to do had been a pressing subject for the week leading up to the race. The event certainly didn’t warrant a personal best time: the course was rough and undulating, and a final hill (which he would have to climb, with no way to rejoin later in the race) reduced even the fastest runners to ten-minute milers. The rest of the course crossed fields and included too many tricky lanes and cut-throughs to be quick. He estimated that most runners would end up five or six minutes slower than they were capable of in a flat road race, leading him to the conclusion that he should aim for a time in the mid-forty-one minute range to complement his supposed progress towards a personal best time of 35:30. This should place him towards the bottom of the top ten: good enough to impress, given that the sharp end was dominated by men in their twenties and early thirties, and good enough to beat the women. No faster, because the leaders would notice a newcomer. But tenth place has no idea who’s ahead of him or who stopped to tie a shoelace.
It didn’t start on social media, but as he waited for the final ninety seconds before the light crunch of racing flats approached down Tanners Lane and the guide bicyclist flew by, Ryan McAllister began composing the brief race report he would post alongside a photograph of himself covered in Thames Valley tap water, with his finisher’s medal.
His plan was to duck onto the course to tie his shoelace, already loose at the side of his trainer, starting to run with the ninth athlete and attempting to hold on to him until the end. The man he’d be tailing would be in a much worse state than he was. Half a minute after the leader and the cyclist had gone, Ryan dumped the contents of his bottle over his head and shook the water through his hair. The second- and third-placed runners passed just under a minute later, stride for stride in a silent, wheezing battle that would either fall apart on the climb back into Emmer Green or would find its resolution on the flat suburban streets leading to the finish line at the primary school. Fourth, fifth, sixth… he peeked out around the hedge at the end of the driveway to see an empty lane and, his nerves getting the better of him, hopped out into the road. With the shoelace still untied, he assumed the position he’d perfected in front of a full-length mirror at home, somewhat shakily fiddling with the lace like he imagined a person would in the grips of oxygen debt. Where the fuck was the seventh runner? He should have waited for eighth or ninth – damn his lack of discipline – but at the same time he couldn’t give up the lure of an empty road. He might not get another opportunity as the pack got denser. To achieve his goal time of forty-one minutes, he would need to start running again very soon. Where the hell was his man?
Suddenly, he realised how stupid it was to wait. The shoelace trick was only necessary if someone saw him entering the course; with nobody around he could set off with no excuse whatsoever. Horror smacked him in the chest as he realised he would have to tie the shoe regardless, and the shaky fumble became real as he made haste, watching thirty-four minutes tick by. There was still nobody approaching down the lane, the shadows under the trees to the north covering a country road as quiet as it would be at midday on every South Oxfordshire Sunday. The shoe tied (too tight: his foot already pulsed under the mesh), he leapt into an uncoordinated canter down the path. His quads were aching after his trek across the fields from Tokers Green, and he felt like this was punishment enough for not being as fatigued as the people coming up behind him.
He had definitely chosen the right spot. Two hundred metres from his hiding place, a marshal stood to the side of the road. The course took a steep downhill along a path leading directly south, but Ryan knew the sharp descent only meant a sharp rise in return. Seventh place; nearly done! the marshal called to him as he passed, and he frantically wondered: was seventh where he had thought he was? Tenth would have been better. The calibre of the three or four people immediately behind him might be too high: they might all come flying past him at once and make him look a fool or, worse, guilty. The path flattened and the murderous climb began, a seventeen per cent uphill gradient at its worst, attacking his lungs before it reached his calves and sending his heart rate soaring into the one-seventies. Christ. Imagine doing this after nine kilometres. The steepest part of the hill went past several houses and driveways, and he wondered why he hadn’t made his way down here to begin running in earnest, before he remembered the marshal. No. He had done the right thing. With five hundred metres left to run and the course suddenly flat once again, he could at least be sure nobody had seen him. His watch read 38:45; he was on target for around the forty-one-minute finish he wanted.
His breathing was evening out after the climb, and that’s when he heard it, that light crunch of trainers on slightly stony pavement. Here was seventh… or rather eighth place, gaining on him after faring better on the hill. There were people on the street ahead, two little children with a placard and parents with a dog. The overwhelming desire to look around overcame him and he glanced to his right.
The absolute horror. She was short: no taller than five foot two. Not even that skinny either, he noted hotly as she drew level with him but didn’t return his glance. Tanned; dark hair in a plait and a thick red headband over her hairline. She had the compact, muscular look of a diminutive but natural athlete, small but efficient. Her strides were short but quick and confident next to his awkward lurching, legs still stiff from the time spent hiding and crouching and then climbing the dreadful hill. Had she been hiding in one of the driveways?
He kicked, breaking into a last-ditch sprint, far too soon to be effective, but he just couldn’t bear it. She looked young, too, maybe twenty-five at the most, and she just didn’t seem to care, her pace too easy and too much. His breath came in gasping gulps as she put a metre, then two and then three between them. Glancing down at his watch, he was running at 3:45 per kilometre pace, much faster than even his fastest five-kilometre personal best and a speed he knew he couldn’t maintain for another two minutes. She pulled away further and his pace dropped, the watch stoically documenting the decline: 3:55, 4:00, 4:10, 4:20. Christ alive, he would lose twenty seconds to her on this pathetic little cul-de-sac. With a wretched glance over his shoulder he noted that there was nobody else behind them.
The finish was awkward, a sharp left turn taking him through the car park and out onto the school playing field, over the fading painted white lines of the athletics track and towards a modest chute. The antenna mat would register his finish when the chip in his bib passed over it. And he would be a few seconds faster than he’d intended but in much worse shape than he had imagined, in total oxygen debt and cramping from hip flexor to Achilles tendon.
The woman, hand on hip, drinking from a plastic bottle and already wearing her medal, still refused to look at him. No neighbourly handshake? She was certainly the first-placed female competitor; glancing down at his own watch, he realised she must have finished in close to forty minutes flat. He had stopped his watch on the line and he would scroll to a display screen that showed only the time (40:49) before snapping a picture for the upcoming Facebook post. Medal, water bottle, hearty congratulations at being the first-placed finisher in the V45 category, and only a few months before he turned fifty too! A damp hobble to exit the chute and look for his family, and Ryan McAllister had finished the Emmer Green 10k.
This was the first big one: the first big cut for the first big result where he could later point to his self-reported training times ‘paying off’. It had started so long ago that along with not being able to pinpoint its origins, he also didn’t know when honest participation had completely stopped and true cheating had begun. ‘Appearances’, such as they were, could be kept up in a number of ways, but for as long as he could remember, he had been curious about the pursuit of achievements that money couldn’t buy. And that set Ryan apart from his own origins. He was hard-pressed to identify anyone in his family or social circle whose goals weren’t available for purchase, providing you could afford the bill.
He pursued those material achievements too, but this was different; a wholly individual pursuit. This was how he justified it to himself, when disgust at the memory of squatting in a shabby country driveway threatened to tap on his shoulder. At least what he did wasn’t a grubby battle of credit cards and mortgage calculators. At least his pursuit involved sweat and some grit and was a largely victimless crime in a sport where victory was denoted by a plated nickel medal and there were no real-world riches or consequences. At least. He told himself.
His previous cheats had been less spectacular, taking a kilometre off the first half of the Shoreditch 10k in the summer and missing the final loop down to Hoxton Square, but still completing almost eighty per cent of the course. If spotted, he could have hobbled anonymously away – but not so in Emmer Green. His children were both in their teens now, but his son had attended the school that sponsored the race until they’d bought a better house on Albert Road and moved him to Caversham Primary. Worse, the race was littered with stalwarts of the Mapledurham Golf Club and its overpriced gym, an outfit as shabby as his driveway hiding place but also the nicest club in the area, its car park a seething battleground of ageing Gen-Xers in increasingly gaudy Porsches. Cheating there was the first big risk he’d taken.
His family didn’t understand running but were happy enough to be walked up the road to the pub later that afternoon to bask in Ryan’s success while he wallowed in a tortured battle between two pressing distractions. One, being caught would have been the end of twenty years spent climbing social ladders in the nicest suburb of this town, and that alone frightened him. But his wife had said it and he couldn’t let it go. She didn’t mean it badly. She was impressed. Why couldn’t he ever be pleased for other people’s successes? He grimaced into the second Praha, excruciating lactic acid burn pounding through his quadriceps.
‘That lady who came in right before you did very well, didn’t she?’ Ryan McAllister’s wife had said. ‘What an amazing athlete.’
The thick brunette plait, the round firm calves, the springy but quick patter of her shoes clipping away on the empty road. The whoop from another thirty-nine-point-nine-year-old housewife with her two kids and their placards. They didn’t whoop for him when he passed them. What an amazing athlete. He wanted to be an amazing athlete. Emmer Green was the first big one and the time was quick, but he was sullen. This wasn’t the glow he had anticipated, even as the notifications buzzed on his wrist – Facebook mostly, but a few tweets in reply as well. Good on you mate, getting pretty quick there bud! Especially on such a tough course!
He mulled the race plan as his daughter, eighteen in November, blushed under her second Aperol spritz. There hadn’t been much more he could have done, but the problem with subterfuge and shame is that plans are made under the cover of out of sight, out of mind. He had to reach a specific mental state to put these plans together, one that mimicked meditation in its intense control. No questions of morality were allowed to enter his mind while he considered routes and hiding spots or did the maths on how fast he could run short distances, coupled with how fast the rest of the field would be running. The exercise had to be as cold and academic as possible, and he regularly pretended the task was a project at work, a dull chomp on the blandest flavour of corporate recruiting that meant nothing to him personally and would be forgotten the moment he clocked out and strode back over the Christchurch Meadows footbridge. He hadn’t even seen her on the start line or in the awkward scrum of the first five hundred metres.
The race was a loop, starting and finishing at the same spot, but the route headed west initially, down a steep ravine to the north of the public fields where his wife walked their two witless Springer spaniels. There, another steep rise took runners briefly into the streets at the north end of Caversham Heights, his neighbourhood, before veering sharply to the right and into the South Oxfordshire countryside. From there, it was only one kilometre until Dysonswood Lane, where Ryan feigned a toilet break to leave the course. He had not seen her ahead of him, and he had managed to stay in about twentieth position before the cut. Surely he would have seen such a bright bandana and so much thick, female hair?
She wasn’t a regular at the health club, unless she came in at times he didn’t, and that he doubted because he was a regular at varying times for varied reasons. Like the majority of his peers he had a golf membership, but he found the sport bothersome on account of a shoulder injury sustained in a bicycling accident. The restaurant served lager and acceptable sandwiches for social visits, and although you couldn’t effectively cheat at swimming, nobody in the pool was good enough to keep up with him anyway. By day, Ryan was a talent acquisition consultant specialising in the energy sector, meaning that his 2:1 in Electrical Engineering wasn’t exactly being wasted, but his career goals were padded by the health club. A decent portion of the people he nodded at in the weights room worked in businesses where throwing him a professional bone would do him a world of good, and he assumed that these quasi-exclusive connections would pay off at some point. Winning his (their) age group in running races certainly buoyed his reputation.
Golf was not the first thing he had cheated at either, but it was the easiest to manage. The club ran serious tournaments, several large wooden panels in the bar denoting decades’ worth of men’s and ladies’ captaincies and championship wins. Ryan preferred playing socially but found himself unable to resist the temptation of a largely self-policed game: mark me down for a six he’d say when it had been eight. A ball inconveniently in the rough or behind a wayward tree was at first nudged out with his foot, but later he’d just bend down and walk out with it. Nobody ever noticed. Justification was even easier than the self-imposed meditative state he went into when considering his running cheating: he was absolutely sure they all did it, even the boomer ladies and the jumped-up little toffs who were barely old enough to order a post-game pint.
Believing that everyone does it was an evolving part of his psyche that definitely began with golf. Every high-profile sporting drug scandal was an affirmation, whether the perpetrator be a pretty twenty-year-old swimmer or a shot-putter three times her size, and their drug of choice didn’t bother him either. Everyone does it at that level; you’re never going to make it in the Olympics without your chemist. Icarus became an obsession. He’d seen it four times. He became indignant. Why was it okay for the privileged, with their Lottery funding and their Loughborough training and their globetrotting, to blatantly cheat so long as they cycled their poison for foreseeable drug tests, when it was unconscionable for him to claim a putt that he’d have easily made and had made many times before, but didn’t bother with today? It wasn’t fair. So he’d make it fair by emulating the pros.
Running had always been a cheating venture for him, even though he was adequately good at it. As his generation took over the higher tiers of his workplace, the focus was gently moving away from golf and towards sports like cycling and triathlon. The people he wanted to impress were now in Lycra, not plaid, but he was afraid of bicycles on account of his previous accident. Swimming was both very hard to cheat at and not as popular or accessible on a mass-participation level. All that was left was running, and thankfully that was enough. He needed to graduate past 10k races and into the big leagues of half and full marathons, but his ascent looked natural and his times were becoming impressive. Running was the big one: the big cheats, the big results, the big wins. He hadn’t completed an honest running race since primary school and it didn’t occur to him to think about how he most likely never would again.
Not golf, not running. The first cheats were at school: diving in football, reading the ref to get away with offside infractions in rugby, excitably claiming catches he had missed in cricket. If suspicion marred his name at all, it was never enough to stop him being picked – notably a First XV player until university. Ryan McAllister was physically big enough for rugby and fast enough for either wing position, but he was also self-assured enough and had enough charisma that even blatant forward passing and unsportsmanlike tackles were rarely called. He was never challenged. Boldly taking on this running lark in his forties, he had thirty years of bravado egging him on.
Second gin and tonic necked, his wife had delivered her cutting line. What would she know, he thought, without a hint of basic athletic talent or interest beyond the Ashes and the final weekend of Wimbledon? He grimaced as she continued, apparently addressing their daughter as if this were a feminist briefing. Just loved seeing her out there.
‘Getting a bit weak at the knees over there?’ he found himself saying, a smile emblazoned to ward off accusations of insecurity. It was easy enough; she changed the subject as airily as she’d approached that of the woman who’d beaten him, because it didn’t actually matter to her at all. A passing comment, much like the one she’d made earlier regarding a light-handed pour on her first gin. She was satisfied. She was probably proud of him. Or resigned to him.
He didn’t envy them their satisfactions or resignations (because they were indistinguishable from each other) so much as he didn’t get it. He didn’t understand, the same way he didn’t understand why after six years the larger Springer spaniel barked at the window every time (every time!) the half-hourly bus passed the house. Why be satisfied with reality, or resigned to it, when there are so many ways to embellish and pad? He did understand, because his daughter made herself clear on occasion, that some people thought it was fake. She would say, the bank owns most of our stuff. But the bank didn’t get to live in it or drive it or lie on its rounded black leather horn when some 2012 Volkswagen Polo didn’t pull finger and just pass the bloody bus, there’s plenty of god damn room. He was bothered by her interest in fakery, but she didn’t suspect anything. And still it remained true: these things were everywhere and everyone’s, and they didn’t entice him in quite the same way as did the spoils of cheating.
Ryan’s legs hurt so badly that the pain was making him nauseous by the time they left. A kilometre walk home looked like the last three miles of an honestly run marathon, the warm late September day turning into a blustery early October evening. He knew how this neighbourhood had sprung up: development inching away from the original medieval village on the north side of the Thames through the nineteenth and early twentieth century until here they were. The nicest suburb, the best bit, the highest house prices in Reading: point at any of the detached four-bed brick boxes on the right streets and you’d be looking at close to a million pounds. Left unchecked, one could be given to bask in it: a millionaire, as long as his daughter’s rebukes about monetary fantasies didn’t ruin the moment. But at that point, wrist still abuzz with notifications and stomach containing just enough beer to accentuate the evening sunshine and dull the clouds encroaching from the west, at that point, yes: he was a millionaire and a champion and an inspiration. His wife would be even prouder next time, with no focus on anyone who crossed the line before him.
The park at the top of their street was emptying for dusk. During the day it was a popular children’s playground, a 250-metre concrete path around a modest playing field making it useful for football practice and dog walkers alike. But the pretence came crashing down in the dark: it attracted trouble, his daughter having been hissed at from the trees next to the street and his wife having once reported seeing two men pissing through the railings onto the pavement. Ryan and his family stopped at the entrance to the car park as a parade of SUVs peered out into the road before roaring off, abiding by an unwritten neighbourhood rule that one should hit thirty before the rear tyres have left the curb.
She had the gall to be on a bicycle, frame balanced sideways as she spoke to another woman at the entrance, hair in a regular ponytail now – but it was definitely her. He faltered, turning the slight trip into a furtive glance to see if any more cars were leaving. His wrist buzzed, knees locking under the awkward strain of managing the inferno in his thighs. The woman looked over at them, smiling in the wake of her conversation, and in the half light of early evening under the increasing cloud cover, her tan and her compact athleticism made her look bigger and more menacing than the person who’d glided by that morning.
Her companion was still talking, but in the brief moment when she made eye contact with him, she spoke, apparently a reply to her friend: You know, I saw you out there today. His heart jumped and his stomach sank; with help from the Praha, his mouth was a desert wasteland. The eye contact was no more and as he glared at her in terror, she switched her stance with the bike and put her weight on her other foot, an almost imperceptible shift that effectively turned her back on him. Did she know? She’d been looking right at him. He flicked his gaze to the pavement ahead – four hundred metres to home – determined to walk on, determined not to succumb to the temptation he’d fallen for earlier that day and look over his shoulder at her. I saw you. The first and only moment where she’d looked him in the eye. But a millisecond. Still seen. Did she really? There would always be the doubt and the terror that someone saw.
His family crossed the entrance of the car park as the first whoosh of autumnal wind blew up the road with the bounce of oncoming headlights. The wind smacked into the cold dread already in his chest and made his wide eyes sting, cruel and indifferent, ready to fight him for every remaining step.
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