The longest day, the shortest hour
After three months of problems with poles, high jinks with high jumps and shockers with shot puts, the one-hour decathlon is finally upon us.
I'm at Gateshead International Stadium - the time for training is over. The conditioning work with Dean Macey is done, the throwing advice of Goldie Sayers and Steve Backley in the past. Daley Thompson, sadistic architect of the most brutal session I've ever been put through, cannot help me now.
The nerves are clanging like fire alarms. The head is full of worry and doubt. I haven't done enough training. I'll forget how to pole vault. I'll mis-count my run-ups, land the javelin tail-first, catch a trailing leg on those monstrous high hurdles and bury my nose in abrasive orange track.
Worst of all, there's the hamstring. After six weeks missed training I've only been running again for four weeks. Two of those merely involved gentle jogs. I've just got to hope that it holds together for at least one more afternoon.
The 6pm start time seems hours away, and is then suddenly upon you. There's time to shake the hands of the four officials and wish fellow competitor and multi-event veteran John Stacey bon chance, and then the whistle goes.
One hour to complete a decathlon. On three months training, minus six weeks. Whose idea was this?
Watch Tom in action in Gateshead. If the video above does not work, watch it here
Event 1 - 100m
Trackie bottoms off, spikes on, a walk to the blocks. Only when we turn to stare down the straight does the strength of the headwind become apparent. It's tugging at our vests, flapping the flags on the grandstand.
I settle in the blocks and think about Jurgen Hingsen, Daley's great German rival, who once false-started in the 100m three times and was thus a goner before he'd even begun. If I only make it five metres down the track, I'll at least be one up on him.
BANG! Drive drive drive, pump the arms, come up gradually and then run tall and relaxed. A dip on the line - I hope it was on the line, although it may have been two metres before it or two metres after - and a wave of relief.
Bill, official scorer for the day, shouts out the times - 13.1 seconds for John, 13.3 sec for me. It's much, much slower we'd both hoped for - I'd done a 12.8 sec in practice two days before, in trainers, not pushing flat-out - and John reckons the wind has cost us at lest a second each, but there's no time to dwell on it. The wind is what it is, and there are nine events to get through. Time to move on...
Event 2 - Long jump
This is one transition that makes sense. Having just done one sprint, this is simply a shorter one with a leap and leg-shoot at the end of it. The distance between the two in the stadium is also small - the runway starts around the 80m on the home straight. A brief pause to get the breath back, a slow stroll to the mark I'd left in silver tape earlier and we can go.
Three attempts allowed. The first is called at 4.40m. Steve Cram - former 1500m world champ, BBC commentator and trackside advisor - gives me a shout: "Six inches behind the board." I don't want to adjust the run-up too much - I'll probably come in faster on the second approach - but when the same shout comes again, moments after climbing out of the sand for another 4.40-ish, I gamble on moving the mark half a foot length in.
Different starting point, same result. Six inches behind the board, a jump of 4.51m. John pings out to 5.77m. On the downside, those extra centimetres could have meant decent points. On the upside, there are points on the board. And the hamstring is still in one stretchy piece.
Event 3 - Shot put
A jog over to the concrete circle, a quick change from spikes to trainers, and the first big error.
After a first attempt lobs out to 7.49m - steady enough from just a simple crouching technique, rather than a slide or step - the second feels twice as rhythmical and powerful. There's hip turn, a decent push with the chest and a final flick with the fingertips.
"Whoo-hoo!" I think, looking eagerly to the extending tape measure, and step happily out of the side of the circle. "Foul!" shouts official Bill.
Fordyce, you clown. That was an 8.50m you just threw away there. Another 50 points have slipped away. "Forget about it," warns John (11.11m). "We've got seven more events to come. Don't worry about anything but the one you're doing."
Event 4 - High jump
The potential disaster. I've done less training for the high jump than any other discipline, mainly because of the hammy - maybe three sessions in total. This now seems both laughable and disastrous in equal measure. Add to that coach Ian Grant's infamous, "You have no natural spring," comment, plus the extraordinary revelation from friend and colleague Ben Dirs that he once cleared 1.60m en route to becoming Havering schools under-16 champion, and the pressure is weighing me down like lead laces.
The bar is set at 1.30m. This feels humiliating - if the regulations only permitted it, I could clear that with a Superman dive - but not as humiliating as asking for 1.20m as my opening height and being told that the supports don't go that low.
Bill tells us that we're only 25 minutes in. There's time for a practice jump. I knock the bar off.
Come on, Fordyce. A child could clear this. Concentrate.
In we come, lean away from the bar, drive up with the right knee and arm, flick up the hips - clear!
With the clock ticking I gamble on going straight to 1.40m. It is a gamble that fails by the thickness of my shorts. Twice the shoulders and hips clear the bar, twice the cloth brushes it off. John puts my lack of ability into stark contrast with a casual leap and flip over 1.81m.
Four down, six to go, and I need to start clawing back some points. And some breath.
Event 5 - 400m
"Don't go off too fast," coach Grant had warned. "Run it evenly, and aim for somewhere between 58 seconds and 60 seconds. If you go too hard, you'll have nothing left for the hurdles, let alone the rest of the competition. Hold something back."
With John in the lane outside me, I try to keep the pace steady. The wind doesn't help - it pushes us down the back straight and then slaps us in the face coming off the top bend - but there feels like gas left in the tank to push on through the line.
Keep it relaxed, don't flail the arms about, stay upright. 58 seconds dead for me, 58.3 for John. At last an event that feels like it went well.
Was the pace even? Nope - I ran 30 seconds for the first 200 and 28 for the second - but it wasn't flat out either. 29 minutes gone, halfway through, still alive.
Event 6 - 110m hurdles
This was the bit everyone on the blogs had been warning me about. There's a reason why a normal decathlon allows a night's rest between the 400m and the hurdles, and it's called lactic acid. Going straight from a one-lap sprint to 10 barriers that are 3ft 6in high is asking for trouble. And pain.
It's also the other event to which I've been able to dedicate the least training time. Because of injury and the lack of hurdles at major Test cricket venues (covering the Ashes series might be a delight, but it's not the ideal preparation for a decathlon) I've only been able to squeeze in three hurdling sessions all summer. Neither have I ever before gone over a full set of 10. The most we've done in training is five.
We walk slowly back down the home straight to our blocks. The legs feel ominously wobbly. The hurdles look horribly high.
There aren't many shortcuts in sport. You tend to get the result your preparations deserve. So it is with my hurdling horror story. The headwind doesn't help - rather than leaning forward over the hurdles, I'm being pushed upright - but the technique is not there to cope with it.
With each flight the height of the barrier seems to grow. With each leap the number of hurdles left to leap seems undiminished. The only thing that changes is the spring left in my legs.
It's like trying to jump out of glue. For a moment I feel as if I am on some sort of hurdling treadmill, the barriers coming towards me again and again on an endless loop.
Crack. My trail leg clips the penultimate hurdle and throws me off balance. Crack-thump - my leading leg clouts the final one, the trail leg follows suit and I stagger sideways, only staying on my feet thanks to a Flatleyesque shimmy-shammy.
23.1 seconds. It's a disgrace. Even typing that time makes me feel ashamed. 23 seconds?
John tries to cheer me up. "I ran 18.6," he says. "That wind was a nightmare. That gust on the fourth flight... You can knock at least a second off the time."
I'd like to. One second quicker would be worth a massive 100 points. It doesn't matter. I can't.
Event 7 - Discus
There's a strange feeling of relief as we stride to the discus circle, 35 minutes gone. While that hurdles clocking is an insult to the sport, it is at least out of the way. From this point on, the exhaustion might grow, but the events can't get any harder.
Into the circle, a slow-motion discus-free run-through of the type that I've been practising in my kitchen for weeks, and three wind-up flings.
It's nothing spectacular - there's been no time to learn a full rotational technique - but 19.62m will do. I even remember to leave the circle by the back. John spins his best effort out to 27.06, and we jog over to the last of the big scary ones - the pole vault.
Event 8 - Pole vault
This is where it could all go horribly, painfully wrong. I've enjoyed the pole vault training more than any other - you can't beat falling from a great height onto a soft mat - but neither can you guarantee that you'll fall on that mat in the first place. "A friend of mine died doing the pole vault," Daley had told me matter-of-factly back in May.
The 14ft pole is waiting on the runway, the bar set at 1.80m. I pick it up, rest it in my hands and suddenly realise that I'm not feeling nervous any more. I actually know I can do it. Beyond that, I feel completely confident I can clear way more than this.
The run-up feels inch-perfect, the plant good, the forward movement with the hands spot on. I swing over the bar, push the pole back the way it came and land happily on my back. Easy.
Time, however, is short. I can't mess about increasing the height by small increments. It's 30cm at a go or bust.
2.10m. Same run-up, same technique, same result. "Miles over," says the watching Cram. "2.40m!" shouts the always enthusiastic Allison Curbishley.
2.40m it is. This time the technique gets ropey - I'm thinking too much about the bar, rather than concentrating on getting up there - but with the help of a novel helicopter spin at the apex, I drop over.
It might be the first time the rotational style has been used in the pole vault, but it's done the job. John goes clear at 3m and we throw in a high-five that's only half ironic.
Eight down, two to go.
Event 9 - Javelin
Did I say that nothing more could go wrong? I lied. Even after Goldie Sayers' training session, I've still been throwing the javelin like a cricketer on the deep midwicket fence - elbow low, fingers going round the side, the jav rotating through its central point and falling woefully short. If it fails to land nose-first, it doesn't matter how far it goes - there'll be no points on the board.
Safety first. I can't afford three no-throws, so I sack off the run-up and take a standing one. It looks alright - straightish, through the point - but, as if the shot put shocker had never happened, I ruin it by letting my toe just touch the front line.
"Foul!" shouts Bill.
Two throws left. Allison is waving her phone at me. It's triple Olympic medallist Steve Backley. I can hear him chuckling down the line. "Throw it further!" is the big man's advice. There's no time to reply - we're 55 minutes into the hour - but the message gets through. The next standing throw is both legal and OK - 21m.
I might as well give it the full welly on the last attempt. After John sends one out to 36.83m, I do my best Backley impression and bag a slightly improved 26.01m.
His British record is safe, but so are my points. "Three minutes left!" shouts Bill. "Get yourselves over to the 1500m start!"
Event 10 - 1500m
We are exhausted. The legs have all the strength of limp celery. The head, however, feels great. I know I can run 1500m without fainting, fouling or falling. We are almost there.
"Steady on the first two laps, and then push on," is Cram's sage advice. "Go out too hard and you'll have nothing left."
"10 seconds left!" warns Bill, and the gun goes. It would be easy to let it drift from here - the lungs are smoked and the concentration wobbling - but I want to finish in style, and tuck in behind 1500m specialist Chris.
The first lap feels OK, the second tougher. It's the third when things really start to bite and spit. The legs aren't responding, and the voice on my shoulder telling me to just jog it round instead grows louder and more insistent with every step.
Saved by the bell. Its ting-a-ling ring fires fresh energy into the shattered muscles. I push down the back straight, try to wind it up on the final bend and then lob everything left into the pan.
My eyes are shut, my face grimacing. I must look like the new king of all idiots. I don't care. I fall across the line and spend an unquantifiable period of time on my back, trying to breathe. I hear John cross the line and stagger over to give him the decathlete's embrace.
4 mins 43.4 seconds for me, 6:30.6 for John. I've actually gone faster than either new world champion Trey Hardee or the legendary Roman Sebrle did in Berlin a week earlier. It's taken until the final event of the day, but I've finally produced a performance that doesn't make me want to hide my head in shame.
More than that, we've made it. I might be rubbish, and I'm almost certainly about to be sick, but the task is complete. I am a decathlete.
Total points: 3,443