Everyone was expected to participate. Those who were physically incapacitated were encouraged to attend; to hand out water bottles or finishers t-shirts to the runners at the end. The t-shirts were in corporate colours, with the name of the bank on the front and the event's various sponsors (in much smaller writing) on the back. One unlucky young woman in HR had to push back her wedding shower, planned for the same evening, to the following Wednesday. They assembled in the park, numbers pinned to their singlets, already tired after a day in the city and the journey westwards. The sun still cruelly high, the temperature in the high twenties.
It wasn't a race, of course, but an exercise in public relations, and esprit de corps. Nevertheless talk in every office, on all thirty-three floors of the bank's London headquarters, centred on who might win. Who looked fittest. Who did the hard miles in the gym. On the upper floors it was generally agreed that some rapid young associate with a past on the track would take the honours. There was an informal club for triathletes at the bank, who trained together three mornings a week. Surely the prize would go to one of them.
In fact there were only two contenders. A New Zealander called Grant something, close to forty, utterly ruthless and hugely unpopular (who worked in Legal), and Ibrahim from the post room. Ibrahim was only there because of some outreach programme that one of the senior VPs had been bullied into signing up for by his meddling other half. Freed, blinking, from HMYOI Feltham, he sat a literacy test, got a job and started buying food for his family from Waitrose.
Grant had run a 1500M heat at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, and missed out on the semis by three one-hundredths of a second. He still wore his hair (blonde) a little too long. His handshake was dry, his eyes blue-grey and purposeful, but he was dead inside. He crossed the start line thirty seconds or so before Ibrahim. He was soon twenty yards ahead of the field, coasting. Three minute Ks, he thought. No-one's going to live with that. He checked his watch.
Ibrahim detested almost everyone he worked with. They were, he reflected at times, idiots. But the money was easy. Everything was easy. It was also very unlikely that he would get shot, cut or whatever, while working in the post room. They ran in front of him, bent forwards in abject cadence, drones, fools. He ran in a strikingly upright posture, dancing almost, through the bent mass of bodies, the corporation before him. He still had his post room polo on, and some basketball shorts, but his running shoes, which he had stolen to size, were top notch.
The runners thinned out as he approached the front. Then there was just one ahead, a tanned older guy, all in black. Ibrahim stretched his legs. He guessed they were about half way, then saw a yellow banner with 3KM on it.
Grant felt someone at his shoulder, didn't hear him. As the track turned he saw the kid's shadow stretching ahead of his. Tall, he thought, turning his head slightly and flicking his eyes backwards. African? Arab? Looks like a fucking goat. Young too. Grant realised he might have a problem, and felt a new tightness in his legs. Not insurmountable. Let's see what you've got. He kicked, just a gentle acceleration.
Ibrahim let the blonde guy pull ahead, twenty metres or so, then lengthened his stride again, easing up alongside him, floating over the turf. Saucony Powergrid with a flame motif, a hundred and forty quid, the right price.
Beyond the ribbons which marked their course the park passed in a jolting blur of dried out foliage, greenbrown, some flowers wilting to the same colour in the heat. Grant heard the kid's feet, only just, over his own breathing. Two paces to every three of his own. He felt a burning in his shins and his neck, the lower pain in the bone, the higher in the muscle, but the same pain essentially, his body telling him he was doing something he really, really shouldn't be doing. They ran under a kite marking a kilometre to go. Three more minutes of pain, then relief. Like holding in a piss, but with your whole body. He turned his head again, as far as broiled neck would allow. The Arab boy was there, he didn't seem to be sweating even, his jaw loose, eyes straight ahead. Who was this fucking kid?
It bothered Ibrahim that he didn't know who the guy was. Was he someone who could have him sacked? He stayed at his shoulder putting the ground behind him unhurriedly. He was loose now, warm. The skin on the old guy's neck was an unusual shade of red, like a drunk's cheek, but more vivid. He pushed ahead of him then slowed. Everything is politics, he thought. Everything.
Grant fell over the line first, and heard his surname being mispronounced over the PA. He lay on his back, and as if compelled by the motivational talking-to he had given himself a kilometre back, urinated lustily into his shorts.
The kid stood over him, offering a hand of support or salutation, withdrawn when he saw the moistened halo of dusty ground around the older man's middle. Close, said Grant. You know, said the goaty looking kid.