Tim Heming talks about how he 'embraced his inner squirrel'
This year, Tim Heming, journalist for the Sun Newspaper, ran the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon as Chester Squirrel, sporting No 1 on his shirt. He shares his golden rules to running as a 7ft mascot...
Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe, Haile Gebrselassie, Chester the Squirrel. What do all these distance runner have in common? The honour of having No 1 pinned to their chest on the start line. Big favourites in a big city race.
No question the first three have delivered over the last decade but when it came to Chester’s big moment, in the Royal Parks Foundation Half marathon on Sunday, it was always going to be a tough ask.
Chester had failed to take the tape in four outings since the inaugural event in 2008 and with media commitments disrupting the pre-race routine, he became boxed in at the start and was narrowly beaten into 8,030th.
However, history will show - despite the internal cooling fan breaking and the feeding tube becoming trapped eight miles in - he kept his game face on throughout (he was contractually obliged not to speak or remove his head in public).
Lolloping through to the finish in 2 hours and 13 minutes, the official mascot hung tough for a new squirrel record, and before hibernating for 2013, just had time to reveal how it was done:
- Rule 1: Do at least ONE training run in the kit. Sounds obvious but 2012’s Chester has a laissez-faire approach, consisting of collecting the suit and rocking up on race day. When the packaging looked like Marlon Brando’s bodybag had he been ‘whacked’ in the Godfather, the alarm bells started ringing .
- Rule 2. Get a good chaperone. Chester’s trial run flagged up one key issue - the gauze over the eye holes meant he could barely see. Thankfully the wonderful Holly the Squirrel aka Jo Hill - a woman so hard she’d scratch in her own Ironman tattoo with a school compass - became Chester’s running mate, commentator and cameraman for the day. As Jo would say: LEGEND! BOOM!
- Rule 3. Being rubbed up the wrong way. The trial run also raised chafing issues. Not merely nipples and armpits, it could get you anywhere. And don’t ignore the warning signs. As soon as you feel a hot spot starting, deal with it by layering or lubricating. As Michael Barrymore used to say on Strike It Lucky? What is a hot spot not? Not a good spot.
- Rule 4. Don’t be a fuel. Staying in costume requires serious liquid replenishment. Without being able to drink from the aid stations, the solution was to wear a Camelbak rucksack under the suit filled with water and an an electrolyte powder from sports nutrition experts SiS. The hose was then run up into Chester’s head and with a little readjustment every mile or so, fluid could be taken on. It would have worked perfectly had the tube not become pinched. Teletubbies everywhere, you have my full respect.
- Rule 5. Animals are stupid. Especially dogs. They appear to think middle aged men in fancy dress squirrel costumes are real squirrels. Just bigger, slower, more juicy versions. If I’d have wanted to be chased by mutts I’d have dressed as Postman Pat.
For race day
- Rule 6. Read the contract. Important but easily overlooked. For example, the Royal Parks Foundation state: ‘You must stay in costume at all times when in a public space and NOT speak. Mascots need to retain an air of mystery.’ I was lost for words.
- Rule 7. People DO judge a book by its cover. And it’s often better if they just see the cover say ‘“Aw” and take a picture. JK Rowling did some kiddy-friendly sleeves for her Harry Potter tomes but it was still the same bunch of dark arts inside. It’s the same with humans in squirrel outfits. The crowd might see high fives, hugs and handshakes but underneath that fancy dress is one big sweaty mess.
- Rule 8. Embrace the heavy breathing. I’m not stipulating how to prepare for this, but if you’re going to wear full headgear you’d better get used to hearing yourself sound like Darth Vadar snoring in a bucket. Perhaps an acceptable state from one’s cardiovascular system at 13.1 miles, a little disconcerting when you haven’t yet reached the start line.
- Rule 9. Be wary of ‘headphoners’. The problem with a power ballad is that unless you go Like A Bat Out of Hell, it can become a liability.
Nobody likes to see a giant squirrel trampling joggers in London’s parks but despite Jo’s hollerings - and they got louder as the miles ticked past and the adrenaline soared - a few ‘plugged in’ people got unfortunately stomped. Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us now. Nothing except being sideswiped by a giant, swaying squirrel’s tail. Sorry. We tried to warn you. You couldn’t hear and we couldn’t really see.
- Rule 10. Don’t be psyched out by other mascots at the start. Many look more impressive but I found out that most don’t even bother running. They just photobomb on the startline, pushing to the front and ruining Chester’s chances with Nell McAndrew or one of the fit presenters from SkySports News. If you are overtaken by one when the race starts, convince yourself it’s not an even playing field. You cannot really be expected to compete with Superman.
- Rule 11. Cut the crowd some slack. They don’t get it right every time. I was once mistaken for the Tinman when I was C-3PO on a Star Wars float at Rag Week as a student. Affronted I was about to hit back that I was fluent in over six million different languages. But the kid was five and I was told to have a heart. This time Chester was mistaken for Mr Tumnus from the Chronicles of Narnia. I kept schtum. “More foal them, I thought.”
- Rule 12. And finally, if you choose to hug the snap-happy family in the crowd, throw an impromptu Pagan dance with a fellow runner who grabs your tail, or reach down that little bit too low to high-five a kid in a pushchair, understand that it may be tiring. As was discovered with bookended photocalls either side of the race, the running is the easy part.
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