The time has come for a confession.
I have never taken performance enhancing drugs, cut any corners in a race, spiked another runner’s drink, or knowingly given false directions to a fellow cross-country runner to gain an advantage. I have though shaved my legs. There. I’ve said it.
In The Escape Artist, a brilliant and intimate account of a rider and his bike, Matt Seaton put aside a number of pages to explain just why cyclists shave their legs. He ticks off the legitimate reasons why they do it – easy with which to dress wounds, facilitating the post-race massage, aerodynamics, and those precious hundredths of a second gained on opponents. But, at the end of the day, he concludes that hairy legs in Lycra just look plain wrong.
The swimmer has more of an excuse. Waxing his back was just one of the indignities that Michael Phelps had to put up with on his way to eight gold medals in Beijing. Johnny Weismuller, another Olympic gold medalist, got away with it because he was playing Tarzan, and had Cheeta to be compared with.
But what of the runner?
Part of the reason I made the step up from marathon to ultra-marathon running was that I could not get around the 26.2 miles faster than 3.12, no matter how hard I tried. As a last attempt I decided to run the first Olympic Marathon in Athens, and trained harder and longer than I had ever done before.
The night before the race I went through all the usual preparations – an afternoon pasta feast, carbohydrate drinks consumed by the litre, and I laid my kit out before I went to bed. On the morning of the race I rose before dawn, and stood under the shower wondering what else I could do to give myself an advantage. I then reached for my razor.
As you can probably guess, it made no difference whatsoever. If anything it did more harm than good since, not only was I distracted by the sensation of the wind against my exposed skin, but even in November the sun combined with the sea air was sharp enough to leave my skin prickling and burnt for days afterwards.
I know. It was a ridiculous idea, and just precipitated the inevitable abandonment of trying to break 3 hours for the marathon. But I drew some comfort from the fact that I hadn’t been as daft as poor old Francisco Lazaro, the Portuguese marathon runner who covered himself in wax to prevent sunburn at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics to give himself the edge, and died at 29km from dehydration.