One of the first days I showed up at the Iffley Road Track for practice with the athletics team–track and field’s called athletics here, that took a while to figure out–we were informed in a rousing speech that the sole reason of our existence was to win the Varsity match against Cambridge come May. Of course we were also training so we could get faster, but faster so we could beat Cambridge.
Though the competition is as fervent as a cross-state rivalry in the States, it’s debatable whether the training shares the same consistency and commitment. All clubs at Oxford, including the sports clubs, are run completely by students with only marginal and voluntary adult support, which means the captains are in charge of workouts, motivation, morale and everything else. Our captains were intense and focused, though some of our teams members were less so. And it really was difficult to make training the priority it is at home given the workload and schedule of Oxford. We had practice in the evenings, six o’clock, and ran under the stadium lights as the track turned slippy (British for ‘slippery’) and steam rose from us in breathy white puffs.
The track itself was one of the best parts of running at Oxford. Arguably one of the most famous facilities in Europe, it is the oval where a man first ran under four minutes in the mile. On 6 May 1954 Roger Bannister finished the race in 3:59.4, breaking a barrier long thought impenetrable. Studying medicine at Exeter in Oxford and practicing as a junior doctor, Bannister almost didn’t run the race due to high wind conditions and his performance was all the more impressive considering his limited training due to his busy schedule. Completing the last lap in under 59 seconds, Bannister soared to track and field fame though his record was surpassed a mere 46 days later.
It was surreal running on that track in the presence of so much history and under the bulbed steam of the lights, on soft curves that were once cinder and the straightaway of recordbooks, under the auspices of (purportedly) Europe’s oldest athletic club. Inevitably there’s the impression of American athletes as extremely intense and fast and bulked up and ‘way better than us’ but it’s highly doubtful I fit any or all of those stereotypes. The athletics team was the largest exposure I had to British culture of my own age and it was there I picked up slang and norms; there’s no such thing as push-ups (‘press-ups’ here) and it’s your ‘bod’ that’s tired or your ‘bum’ that’s sore.
I won’t be there in May to participate in the worthy purpose of OUAC but I have so enjoyed my time with them, and of course, #shoethetabs.