Last Sunday, early in the morning, I stood in the centre of an Oxford square looking for a friend. It should not have been difficult to spot her: the square was not unconquerably big, the sunshine under which its yellow stone glowed bright had starched the air clear, and the friend in question has features highly familiar to me on account of the fact that I sit but a few feet removed from them for eight hours a day, five days a week.
And furthermore, she was dressed as Santa Claus. Which should have made her stick out against the plain college walls as conspicuously as a crocodile trying to hide in a goldfish bowl. Except it didn’t, as on this particular occasion I too was dressed as Santa Claus. As indeed were the hundreds of other people assembling in the self-same square, twiddling beards and bumping stomachs, and making spotting my fellow Santa about as easy as reuniting two perfectly matching black socks in a drawer full of black socks, or picking out your favourite penguin from among a waddle of identical penguins (digressionary note: if I have got nothing else out of this year’s challenge, I have at least learnt that the collective noun for penguins on land is the superbly quaint, Rowan Atkinsonian “waddle”).
While ordinarily the coming together of a mass of people dressed identically might be judged a bizarrely coincidental fashion faux-pas, this was no occasion for embarrassed cheeks to blush as red as one’s garish Santa suit. For this was no coincidence, but the orchestrated gathering of 1,700 people dressed as Father Christmas to run two miles through Oxford’s streets for the sake of raising funds for a local children’s hospice. In fact, the only person I knew to be embarrassed by her attire was mater, who’d sportingly dragged herself out of bed before Sunday’s dawn to cheer me on, but in neglecting to don even a jaunty elf hat soon felt herself to be an attention-drawing interloper.
For all that mater bemoaned feeling out of place, I was relieved to have a non-conformist chaperone. First of all, it meant I did not look like a total nutcracker walking to the assembly point. Passing along quiet streets filled with early-morning’s stillness, for the first ten minutes we saw only bemused builders and confused joggers and began to wonder if I’d gotten the day wrong, until eventually we started spotting my bearded brethren, clustered in furtive little groups of two or three beneath clock-towers and down alleyways, their numbers slowly increasing until finally we turned into the last cobbled street and there they were: a swarm of Santas! Which was the point at which mater – her body not being swamped in an over-sized red suit, her face not being muffled beneath a white fluffy beard – turned from teasing my looks to expressing shyness over her own; and it was the point at which I put her dissenting ordinary appearance to some practical purpose.
“You’ll be able to see me,” I telephoned my friend; “I’m the one with a person who doesn’t look like Santa.” It transpired she had in fact taken the same precaution of bringing a muggle escort, and thus we were relieved of the need to resort to pulling the beards off every other Santa in sight in the hope of finding each other’s faces beneath them.
Once together, we swore to stick together to the bitter two mile end. Now two miles may not sound like a lot to an ordinary person; indeed, it did not sound like anything at all to my marathon-aspiring co-Santa. To me however, two miles was a marathon. I lost my gym membership three months ago and have since allowed myself to slide into joyful physical inertness, punctuated only by the short walks I make between my car and office desk.
My chances of keeping up – or even keeping going – were therefore never great, but were diminished dramatically by the “warm up” (or, more appropriately, the “wear down”), in which a hyperactive elf led us through an endless, relentless, crazed Carlton dance, before a posse of her fellow workshop toymakers exhorted us to hop on the spot and wave our arms about like so many drowning lemmings. Then, before I had a chance to catch my breath, the whole mass of over one and a half thousand Santas lurched forward as one and propelled me into a slow jog.
Within metres, I had a stitch.
Within minutes, I was finding it hard to breathe through my beard.
Within a mile, I was starting to calculate at what point I could take a walking break with dignity. I could after all, I reckoned, claim I stopped not because I was tired, but because it is not true to the character of an aged, obese man to run two miles straight without losing even a little puff. And surely if a Santa Run is unrealistic, it is not worth running.
In the event, I did keep going till the end. Three months ago two miles would have been as easy as a sledge ride, and I was reluctant to accept the evidence of my own pleading body that my stamina had unravelled so far, so quickly. More importantly, I was reluctant to accept the indisputable evidence that almost every other body was fitter than mine. For although I may have lost any resemblance of strength, I have stubbornly preserved enough groundless pride in my strength to prickle when overtaken on the run by people considerably older than me. Or by people pushing buggies. Or dragging dogs. Or by children who barely reach above my knee.
Christmas may be all about the kids, and the race may be in the aid of kids. But I’m darned if I’m going to let the little nippers beat me in a two mile race.
I took part in Oxford’s Santas on the Run 2013 on behalf of Helen & Douglas House, a charity providing respite and end of life care to children and young adults in Oxfordshire and surrounding counties. If you would like to sponsor me, you still can at my sponsorship page.