So today was one of the most surreal days of my life. I carried the Olympic Torch as part of the relay around the UK. Not something I do every Saturday.
I don’t even know when it started, but when the nominations for torchbearers opened, a friend of mine, Kavita, said that she was considering nominating me. I thought it was a ridiculous idea and wondered why on earth anyone would even go out and watch the torch relay never mind want to run in it.
A while later she emails me to ask for some details such as my job title, local authority area etc. My suspicions aroused, she confirms it is for the nomination form. I protest, until she tells me that they really wanted more nominations before the deadline, and that in any case there are no guarantees that I’ll get chosen.
A while later, I am chosen. By this time more information about the event has been released and I grudgingly admit that actually it is something I would want to be a part of. I would even go out and have a look if they were near my area.
A while later the route is released, they are indeed passing near my area, past the end of my road in fact, but I have been assigned a slot at Luss. Oh well at least it’ll be more scenic.
So the day comes and I am told to report to my collection point (the car park at Luss) at 8.20am. I am due to run at 9.55am. They are very precise about these kind of things. A week or two ago I received my natty white and gold tracksuit in the post along with an instruction manual. Unfortunately I hadn’t actually tried my tracksuit on until last night, so only then did I realise that the trousers were somewhat on the tight side. I had visions of me striding out and splitting my pants. Great. I was already convinced I’d trip / drop it / let the flame go out / set fire to something.
I got changed in the shiny new toilet block at Luss car park (built for the occasion?) but only after changing my 2 year old who had been sick in the car on the way up. Apparently a 6am start, much confusion and excitement and weetabix don’t go well. Luckily she was sick before I put on the natty white tracksuit. Immediately I stepped out again people started staring at me, asking if I had run yet and requesting photos. I hadn’t even met an official Relay person or got anywhere near a torch yet.
I had looked at a couple of websites to find out what the arrangements were, and it seemed much more was being planned up the road at Tarbert rather than Luss, so I had assumed it would be a fairly quiet affair. I was wrong. The people just kept on coming and coming and coming.
I found my check-in people and got taken into the briefing. I had to say goodbye to the now-better 2 year old, her dad and my brother who had come to watch. Some more friends were on their way but it was still really early. I also had to surrender all my worldly possessions (including my phone so live-tweeting was out) bar my ID and a wee hanky that I had to stash in the minuscule pocket in the oh-so-tight trousers.
I was surprised to find 3 other torch-bearers there, because I had been told there were 2 of us in Luss, but they said they were doing us jointly with Tabert, the next stage, so we met the 2 guys from there too. We got the briefing and did a fair bit of waiting. Most of the briefing had consisted of stay where you are, do what the official people tell you and run when you get told to.
All torch-bearers get the opportunity to buy their torch for ca£200. I had declined to buy it in advance thinking there were 101 better ways I could spend 200 quid. They gave us a further chance in the briefing but I said thanks, I wasn’t interested. Then I spoke to my fellow bearers and they had all pre-bought theirs. Oh well, they must be better off than me I thought.
Eventually it was time to board the bus to take us to our “insertion point”. We had some time on the bus to chat. It transpired that 2 of the other 3 worked for the same company, which was one of the main Olympic contractors, so it seemed dozens of people in the company had Relay slots all over the country. The other one was Myles, a young guy who didn’t speak much but told us about his Duke of Edinburgh award endeavours which sounded pretty impressive. I also discovered that they had been practising for the Relay. I felt a bit under-prepared. However I was pleased to hear I wasn’t the only one to suffer from tight trouser syndrome, one of my colleagues had to veer from the official uniform because they didn’t have any spares available and she couldn’t get in her provided pair.
Luss is a very small place, so our bus went out the car park, down the main road a wee bit then back round to the other side of the car park. But as we got there we realised the scale of the thing. There were people, cars, busses, wheelchairs, buggies, children and dogs everywhere. The police were turning people away because the village was basically full. People were straining to get a glimpse inside our bus. My instinct was to duck and cower, one of my fellow torchbearers decided to stand up and wave to everyone. The rest of us decided she could be the official bus crowd pleaser and left her to it.
We waited in the bus until the start of the convoy got near. The streets were narrow and the crowds were huge and I had no idea how a convoy of trucks and coaches was going to get through, but luckily a dozen police motorbikes arrived and sorted everyone out.
Myself and “number 35” got called. I did as I was told and stood where I was put at the side of the road. The bus drove off and I was left there, clutching my torch while a gazillion people stared at me expectantly and took 10 gazillion photos. I suddenly missed my fellow bearers and the friendly insertion crew. Luckily an assortment of other random Relay officials came over and spoke to me, I have no idea who they were, but they were very friendly and upbeat and put me more at ease. And more importantly gave me somewhere to look rather than at the heaving throng in front of me. The rest of the convoy went past and got the crowd into more of a frenzy, then a nice man from the Metropolitan police came to explain how the escort worked. Before I knew it the flame had emerged from someplace in it’s travel lantern and I was being ushered to have my torch turned on and to receive the flame. Luckily there were plenty of people to tell me what to do so I blindly obeyed.
The minders arrived and I set off. I was to run from near the top of the main road down to the pier. I was glad it was down hill. We started at a jog, but the crowds were closing in over the road so the minders had to slow to a walk to clear the way. The torch itself was quite top-heavy, so I held it with both hands just in case, which made jogging quite difficult. That and the tight trousers… They said we could wave, but I thought I’d best just keep a firm grip on the torch. I walked the last wee part before the pier, then some minders went on over the bridge first, to let me go alone the last bit. I managed to jog that bit whilst holding it single-handed. The hardest part was smiling the whole time. I don’t know how long it took, but having a fixed smile on for that long is unnatural, so I started to worry I was looking weird.
The BBC have some photos here, numbers 5 & 6
There were loads of people crammed on the end of the pier, I made my way to the end where somebody hauled out torchbearer No. 35 (Sheila) and we were faced with a wall of photographers all demanding we look at them. But they were all over the place so we grinned inanely while trying to figure out who was shouting instructions from behind which ridiculously large Nikkon lens. After some time a Relay official decided it was time to do the “kiss” and pass the flame over, so we did that, posed for more photos and then Sheila was encouraged to get on her way.
I caught a glimpse of my brother, then saw my daughter and got her to come over and hold the torch and get our photos taken. Then I was beseiged by other people who wanted their photos taken too. I obliged, I couldn’t not really. Then a camera crew came and interviewed me, I babbled something about it being an honour (what the hell do you say in these situations?) then after a while a Relay official came and rescued me. We started to walk back up the road, when the minders came and said we were running late so did I mind if we took it at a run? I couldn’t really refuse so I ran back up the hill, still people requesting photos, but I had to shout that I was being escorted away and apologise.
I was ushered on the bus, handed over my torch, met up with Sheila who had completed her bit, then we set off. Unbeknownst to me we weren’t heading back to the car park, but on to Tarbert to collect the 2 guys from there. As I said, I was phone-less so I had no way of telling my family that I had been whisked off halfway up Loch Lomondside.
However I was kind of glad I did, because I got to witness the scenes in Tarbert and all along the road in between. People were stopped on the verges, on the footpaths, on side roads waving at the bus, cheering and waving flags. Tarbert was even more packed than Luss had been, if that was possible, every street was lined with people, groups of schoolkids who had made their own torches, Brownie packs all in their uniforms, people had made banners, were wearing Olympic t-shirts and generally getting right into the spirit of it. We got into the village, picked up the 2 bearers then tried to turn around to get back. That was impossible. We had to go through the village, out the back and a fair bit along the road, which was nose-to-tail with cars, before a coach going the other way let us do a U-turn, on the proviso that we got out and posed with our torches for photos. We stood grinning at the side of the road while a bus load of pensioners clicked away, then other people leapt out of their cars and came over too. We were shouting at them not to get themselves run over, but they didn’t care. It was mental.
On the way back through Tarbert we saw some of the entertainment, they had a big stage set up with different performers on. It was great to see such an effort had been made by the local people and they were all making a day of it.
We wound our way back to Luss. On the way my fellow bearers were discussing what they would do with their torches. The 2 from Aggreko said the company was buying their torches. One had plans to take it to local schools etc. I began to regret not buying mine. After having gone through the whole experience I was reluctant to let go of it. I also wondered what they’d do with the ones people didn’t buy. I asked the collection girl if it was too late – oh no she replied, I could pay over the phone and take it away today. Clearly they have bargained for this eventuality.
Once back in Luss and with my torch in hand I was approached some more for photos. I eventually found my friends and family, took some photos with them then it was time to get out of the tightest-tracksuit-trousers-in-the-world and back to relative anonymity. Although of course I was lugging a ruddy great torch around with me.