Cruel Runnings

Day One

“The last Ice Age moved quicker…” That’s the verdict of Scott Allaway, an overly honest bobsleigh brakeman, having witnessed my sluggish 30m sprint trial. Bobsleigh training starts with this assessment of speed and though I have some excuses (cruciate ligament surgery for one; zero natural pace for another) there’s no ignoring the uselessness of my time. I’m being tested at Bath University, home of Britain’s only bobsleigh training facility. Here we will determine the loading order for our sleigh, and by some distance I am the slowest in our four-man team. 

Scott will help us to stop, but 22-year Royal Marine Commando, three-time Olympian and full-time psychopath Lee Johnston will be our driver. A mass of testosterone, his self-preservation mechanism was disabled long ago. A guy like Lee barely seems to belong to my namby-pamby world – easier to imagine him on some far flung battlefield, eviscerating a battalion of Sumerians before breakfast. Having retired from elite competition four years ago, these days he settles for coaching, the same way tiger settles for eating meat that’s already dead.

“Lee is probably still the best driver in Britain,” says Scott. The big man considers this with a De Niro-style frown, then says: “It’s true, I probably am… And I want a medal.”

On our first day of training, after the speed trials we simply run alongside a rickety training cart and practise swinging in, stopping at the top of a hill. This is essentially our theory test, and a chance to ask about some of the permutations of race day. Inevitably the conversation turns to crashing and Cool Runnings. “Always remember, your bones will not break in a bobsled,” says John Candy to his Jamaican athletes in the movie. “No, no, no – they shatter.”

“I haven’t had a crash in 8 years,” says Lee, though I had been hoping for “ever”. “I’ll stake my professional reputation on us not crashing – if we do I’ll never get in a competitive bobsleigh again.” I want to point out that as he’s already technically retired, this isn’t much of a promise, but my balls aren’t anywhere near big enough.


Day Two

There’s plenty of unsubtle product-placement in Cool Runnings, and there is here too: Volvo sponsor British Bobsleigh and I’ll be in their sled with Lee, Scott and our fourth man Jeremy Taylor. Today I find out that the most unnatural part of the sport comes as the bobsleigh passes over the hill. When running downhill, the natural instinct is to temper your speed, but with a bobsleigh the only option is to speed up, always trying to “add value” as Scott puts it. Then, when the world falls away and your legs can’t keep up any more, you must instantly jump on – don’t make it and you’ll be exerting negative energy, mostly likely as your useless body is dragged along the ice.

In short, it’s terrifying, and no less so when I take a heavy fall, unable to keep up with the careering cart. Bloodied and bruised, it’s not long before I fall for the second time. This is as Christ-like as I will ever be: tormented in stages towards my violent, gory demise. Another hour of practise later, we’ve ditched the rickety cart and started using something much more like a real bobsleigh. Now Lee has joined in with the push and things get faster still, even more manic. Yet, perhaps because this thundering rhinoceros is now running right in front of me, failure no longer seems like an option.


The Training Montage

I fall asleep and awake thinking of nothing but bobsleigh, fretting about how to improve. On Twitter, I ask Tesco to loan me a trolley to practise my pushing, but they’re not up for it, even when I promise not to make any horsepower puns. Thankfully the good people at Keynsham Town Football Club give me free access to their all-weather pitch for sprint training. Almost every morning, I’m out in the cold, stretching my hamstrings, working on my acceleration and trying to improve what intolerable gym-types call my “explosive power.” At home I lift weights, squat and lunge as much as I can and, following a bit of research online, buy some resistance bands to strengthen my hip flexors. I run up and down the stairs in my house until I feel sick and dizzy then, when I get my breath back, start a programme of weighted spread-eagle sit ups. I eat incessantly, doing two workouts a day, knowing that it won’t transform me into an Olympian, but hoping it might be enough to make some kind of difference.


Practise Runs

The bobsleigh facility at Igls, Austria, was built for the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics. Since its construction there have been two on-ice fatalities, though none in the last 30 years. Scott insists this is the most gentle bobsleigh run in the world. Even so, by the time we arrive for the British Championships, following a fitful, anxiety-ridden night, the confidence and newfound strength I’ve built over the last fortnight have drained away.

We get there early so Lee can give us a track walk and so we can get a sense of the speeds involved. Today there’s also an inter-service championship between various members from the RAF, Army and Navy. Pre-race these furious warriors bellow and butt each other, then have at their two-man bobsleighs like howling orcs. After watching three or four teams disappear down the ice, an emotionless Austrian voice comes over the tannoy: “Track is closed, we have a crash.”

This is my first time seeing bobsleigh live and it scares the shit out of me. Scott tells me that on certain tracks that can literally happen, so strong are the downward G-forces exerted on some of the bends. Here that’s unlikely (we’re still advised to go to the toilet before racing) but we’ll get up to 75mph and around the signature Kriesel turn, a 270 degree loop that holds the bobsleigh high on a 3m wall of ice, we’ll pull four Gs.

After five hours of hanging around, a fear creeping up my spine like mercury up a thermometer, it’s our turn to race. As it will be my first time on ice (bobsleighers have specially adapted, ultra-spiky shoes for grip) we’ve agreed on a jogging start, and that I’ll keep my head up to take in the run.

But standing on the start line, some important part of my brain disconnects from the situation – this all seems so unlikely, so ill-conceived that I become a barely involved observer of my own doom. When the bobsleigh moves off it almost gets away from me completely. I then over compensate, running on the ice for far longer than we’d agreed so that by the time I’ve swung into position, we’re almost at the first bend. The moment we hit that, I’m instantly snapped back to reality.

The run is like the start of a Marvel movie: a series of loosely connected images flickering through my mind, barely time to identify each before something else happens. My ears are quickly overwhelmed by the roar of the run, my feet are crushed somewhere underneath Lee. My head is slammed left and right against the bobsleigh as we fly round the bends. The only point I know where we are is when we hit Kriesel and the G-force buries my chin in my navel. It’s a long time before I remember to breathe.

Nothing really compares to bobsleigh, but I can only guess that this is what being born must have felt like: a relentless, dark assault on the senses, violent and traumatic, me wailing on the other side.

On our second run, I jump on the bail (a small step on the side of the bobsleigh) with the wrong foot and sit down too quickly, meaning Jeremy has to jam his ice spikes into my back to get into position. I spend the rest of the run unknowingly headbutting Lee in front of me. When we get out at the bottom, he bluntly lets me know that I’ll need to sit back tomorrow.

I think perhaps I don’t really like bobsleigh.


The British Championships

“Did you enjoy it?” That’s a question frequently asked of novice bobsleighers. For me it’s not about enjoying – not letting my team down is my first and only goal. But my bombastic, battle-hardened driver won’t accept Team Volvo not being on the podium. Lee probably isn’t the kind of guy you’d want to introduce to your nan, or your boss, but take this bull out of the china shop and I can think of no one else I’d rather have in charge of my bobsleigh.

This being the British Championships, the nation’s best team is also in town. Currently ranked fifth in the world, next January GB One will carry Britain’s hopes to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics where they will compete against the world’s best from Russia, Canada and the USA. Today, they have to contend with us. Watching the Olympians warm-up is a bit like watching the start of the 2000 Guineas – there’s something like an eruption, followed by a rush as though the gates of hell have opened. On the world stage they are renowned as some of the sport’s fastest starters, but just in case they were suffering from nerves, I give them a confidence boost by nervously warming-up nearby in my lycra race suit.

It’s a genuine honour to watch these athletes perform. They are the first team down when the competition starts, pushing a lightning quick 5.15s at the start, completing the course in 52.21s. We go next, but rather than feeling intimidated by GB One, following them down is inspirational. Our push time is 6.02s, but Lee’s superb drive puts us in third place, the RAF’s four-man team separating us from the professionals.

It strikes me as fairly obscene that we are in a medal position with so little training and only one run to go, but now that we’re there, I’m determined not to let it slip. I’ve never trained for any sport as hard as I have for this and it’s unlikely I’ll compete in a British Championship in any discipline ever again. So when the last run comes and Lee tells us, just as John Candy told his Jamaicans, that he wants a sub six-second start, that’s what I want to give him.

Standing on the starting block, staring down the long, white decline, knowing it leads to a minute of raw madness, I don’t feel afraid. I don’t feel small. I feel pride, I feel power, and when the roar goes up, I push like Atlas, driving with every stride, contributing, adding value and jumping in before I lose control. Then I hold on in the brace position and let the pandemonium consume me.

When we reach the bottom it feels as though the fabric of my soul has been ripped apart and reassembled, quivering and electrified. We’ve won a bronze medal in the British Bobsleigh Championships – and we pushed a 5.93s start.


A version of this piece was published in Shortlist in March 2013.

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