A few aged locals leaned against the time-worn but solid bar of a bistro in small town outside Antwerp. Communication was limited. It was Friday noon – time to sip reflectively at a couple of glasses of pils and to daydream, peering absently at the dust motes dancing in the beams of weak Autumn sunshine straying through the portions of window not covered by painted advertisements for beer.
Peace was dented by a squeaking of brakes as several vehicles drew up outside. Then the swing doors crashed open and more than twenty customers squeezed inside onto scratched chairs round circular tables in the cramped little dining area. Regulars raised eyebrows at the appearance of the incomers, who were nearly all sparely-built with prominent cheekbones. Skin-colour and style of clothing varied considerably – suits and blazers contrasting incongruously with jeans and tracksuits. The plump little extrovert who was clearly in charge certainly sounded Belgian – but who were these others?
The magic word ‘Marathon’ explained all, as the well-fed fellow confidently started to run up a considerable bar-bill by ordering drinks and lunch for his party. Anyone who kept in touch with the sports news was aware that the sixth and biggest ‘Internationale Antwerpen Marathon’, one of the highlights of the Septemberfest, would take place on Saturday evening. So these must be the invited competitors! Assorted nationalities, obviously – must be from all over Europe.
Alastair Taylor couldn’t help grinning as he relaxed, his tonsils tingling from his first good mouthful of ice-cold Belgian lager. His gaze took in the traditional décor, yellowing posters, curios (wasn’t that the figurehead of an old sailing ship?) and sawdust on the bare floorboards. Then he enjoyed the sight of shining silver beer fonts and a gantry packed with multi-hued unfamiliar liqueurs, mainly flavoured gins. Just the sort of place he liked; and the company he preferred – other runners. Pity he couldn’t speak much French and German, let alone Dutch, Belgian, Danish, and certainly not Polish and Turkish. Thank goodness for the Irish and for his British team-mate, Mike Durham.
Mike was talking now, animated and relentless, the words pouring out. He’d hardly stopped chattering since they’d met at Heathrow Airport. Alastair hoped the Englishman’s legs would lack the stamina of his mobile mouth. He could not rely on the truth of Mike’s claims to be unfit and injured in many minor but significant ways. Not surprisingly the Turks had only each other to talk to, and the French seemed rather aloof. Yet Pidgin English (with an American accent) plus meaningful gesticulation seemed to enable everyone else to cross the language barriers.
Alastair remembered in the past, managing to communicate with a Finn by exclaiming “Lasse Viren!” with thumbs up and vigorous nodding. The response had been “Brendan Foster!” and the conversation had continued with reference to football teams, Scottish kilts and whisky. Of course marathon runners the world over had their obsession in common, so there was no problem discussing current fitness, injuries and training distance per week. (Some exaggerated but others cagily admitted to much less than they had really run.) Most competitors seemed cheerful and carefree, yet Alastair noticed how few accepted a second beer and how many switched to fruit juice or bottled water.
The meal was excellent: plenty of crusty white rolls to go with home-made onion soup, tender medium-rare steak (a Belgian speciality, possibly marinaded), lots of fresh salad and bowlfuls of boiled potatoes. Then fruit and ice cream, (“Great after a race – it cools the blood,” said one of the Irish.), coffee and Danish pastries. Enormous quantities of food disappeared rapidly into apparently famished bodies. Almost a perfect menu, thought Alastair, although a syrup sponge and custard would have provided even more fuel.
Mike and he chatted amicably to the other athletes, especially the three from Eire. Every other national team had only two runners, but the Irish were from the same Dublin club and hoped to win both club and international team prizes, as they had succeeded in doing the previous year. Alastair found listening to Gerry O’Neill particularly easy, partly because of his delightful Dublin accent – the total inability to pronounce ‘th’ other than ‘t’ or even ‘d’. The bespectacled Gerry looked rather staid (and indeed he turned out to be a college lecturer) but was in fact an eloquent and amusing person with a wide range of opinions and a considerable knowledge of running. He had won the Antwerp race three years previously in a personal best time which was precisely the same as Alastair’s. They also shared a love of that creamy black nectar Dublin Guinness.
Jim McIntyre was a witty talkative man too – but although Diarmid McDonnell seemed pleasant, he was rather withdrawn and serious, the gauntness of his face evidence of many tough training miles and exhausting races. Indeed on paper he was one of the two fastest men in the race, the other being the Belgian Peeters. The best times of the top fifteen participants ranged from 2 hours 13 minutes to 2 hours twenty-two – so a close contest was guaranteed.
At the thought of the race, Alastair’s already full stomach tightened further. Throughout the meal, despite the light-hearted atmosphere, he had felt an inner tension. At seven p.m. on Saturday night, in twenty-eight hours time, the marathon would start, and he expected it to be competitive and strenuous. Not that there was such a thing as an easy marathon, the sheer distance made sure of that – 26 miles 385 yards or rather 42 kilometres 195 metres. Alastair remembered that he would have to think in terms of five kilometre sections rather than five mile ones.
He was glad when the party split up and were conveyed to their accommodation. Some who had competed in Antwerp before were enjoying the generous hospitality of local families; but Mike and Alastair had adjoining single rooms in the Eurotel. Alastair was relieved about that because he needed time to rest and then concentrate. Having agreed to meet Mike for a jog (“A SLOW one, mind!”) in a couple of hours’ time, he went back to his room and lay on the single bed.
Dozing for a while was possible but then his mind drifted inevitably onto the coming test. Alastair knew he would have to be especially cautious in this marathon – a follower rather than a bold front-runner. His preparations had been less than ideal – how could they be otherwise when he had received the letter inviting him to represent his country in the race only ten days earlier? Still, this had been a very good year so far, and he was sure that his general fitness would ensure a much stronger performance than he had managed in his third marathon three years earlier.
On that occasion, he had made several errors – training hard until a couple of days before the race and then running the first sixteen miles too fast. To make matters worse, he had been using a better runner as a windshield when his more experienced opponent had demanded that Alastair share the work into a strong headwind. Foolishly he had obeyed and inevitably had been unable to respond when, with a derisive chuckle, the tactician had swept away to victory. Gradually Alastair had ‘hit the wall’ – particularly badly in the last couple of miles. A curious shivery increasingly weak feeling had come over him and he couldn’t have cared less when he lost his second place with four hundred yards to go. The final lap, in front of an embarrassingly large crowd, had been a dream-like slow motion very careful run/walk, as performed by a shorter anorexic version of the Incredible Hulk. A ‘friend’ had timed the last lethargic two hundred metres which took Alastair no less than eighty aching seconds!
Alastair was sure he had learned from that experience. His training had improved in quantity, quality and above all consistency, with the results that his times had improved from 5000 metres right up to the marathon. April, May and June had been a marvellous time for him. Three months of solid training, getting the balance right between long distance runs, speed work, hill work, time trials, races and recovery sessions. Two weeks before his chosen marathon at the end of June, when he had broken right away from his training companions in the final few miles of the long Sunday trail, Alastair had proven that he was succeeding in ‘peaking’ correctly. After all they had only run sixteen miles, whereas he had managed twenty-seven!
Following a week of easy running, he had managed to complete the ‘pre-marathon diet’ with scientific exactitude. Without more than a cup of tea for breakfast, he had run a steady but tiring eighteen miles before completing the ‘bleed-out’ process by trudging ten miles a day on Monday, Tuesday and early Wednesday. During this time he had eaten only protein and fat – no carbohydrate. Wearily clambering into the shower after the final session, feeling like an exhausted deep-sea diver whose oxygen cylinder was almost empty, he had consoled himself with the thought of rest and stuffing himself with the stodge which his leaden body craved. He weighed himself before breakfast and last thing on Wednesday night – and was mildly startled to note a thirteen pound weight gain! Potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, cakes, biscuits and precious little protein plus lots of fluid – he went from feeling starved to satisfied to bursting to rather sick! By Thursday evening he had reverted to a more cautious and normal mixture and was feeling fit if plumply moist.
Sure that the extra blood sugar (glycogen) was safely stored, Alastair was very careful to jog only three miles and eat light easily digestible food in the twenty-four hours before the race. He stuck to white bread in preference to wholemeal since he had no time to waste on ‘pit-stops’ during the actual marathon.
In future years, Alastair would come to believe that the ‘diet’ regime was too strict and that most of the advantages were psychological (“I have suffered more than these guys and therefore will the stronger in the last miles.”) Perhaps he had been in such good condition that he had been sure to run well anyway; perhaps the theoretical extra fuel could be pumped aboard without the ‘draining’ stage. But at the time he believed in the whole process with the faith of a Christian Fundamentalist.
No matter the reason, the June marathon had gone like one of the dreams that runners really do have. Alastair’s training partner, also in the form of his life, had run very strongly into a slight breeze during the first half of the out and back course. Alastair simply had to shelter and hang on. On the return journey he had waited for the right moment to attack and then, when his opponent had shown a slight sign of strain at nineteen miles (he had cursed a tardy water station attendant with unnecessary vehemence), Alastair had made the break. He felt calm, strong and in control all the way to twenty-five miles, by which time he had a lead of a minute. A slight jolt of cramp had worried him at that stage, but he had kept going well enough to preserve his lead into the stadium, round his ‘lap of honour’ and through the tape, taking four minutes off his previous best for the distance. A day to remember always. As someone once said, “If you want a race, sprint a hundred yards; if you want a real experience, run a marathon.”
Lying on the bed, Alastair smiled at the memory. But his happiness faded as he admitted to himself that fitness had been lost since then. July had been a holiday month. Then he had been called up to run a ten kilometre track race, followed almost immediately by and ‘adventure’ – a thirty-six mile ultra-marathon, no less. That had been satisfactory, for a masochistic whim. But the problem was that the ‘ultra’ had been precisely three weeks before the Antwerp race (to which Alastair had no way of knowing he would be invited).
So there had been no question of ‘peaking’ for this one. Had his legs recovered properly? He hadn’t even done ‘the diet’. Caution, patience and of course luck was going to be essential.
The ‘jog’ with Mike was less than ideal. Alastair was wearing his racing shoes and socks but had no desire to run hard. Mike talked his way through the first mile but then grew strangely silent as, hardly surprisingly, the pace edged upwards. After a couple of uncomfortable miles, Alastair was content to take the shortest route back to the hotel and leave Mike to impress himself further. Some team-mate, trying to give a compatriot an inferiority complex!
A wander round the diamond-selling area of Antwerp was followed by a light meal and an hour lingering over a single beer and enjoying the ‘crack’ (that is the high speed witty conversation, otherwise known as blarney) of the Irish. If Alastair believed what he heard, everyone was at best half-fit for a wheelchair marathon and consequently treating the race in an extremely low-key manner. Then he went back to the room to read for a while before an early and optimistic attempt to get some sleep.
Naturally Alastair spent the night worrying, swallowing to check if his throat was sore, having hot flushes, and making conscious attempts to calm pre-race nerves and to relax his body from toes to brow. Occasionally he dozed and had that repetitive nightmare in which transport to the start line breaks down, racing shoes are forgotten and the runner arrives five minutes too late! Eventually he did manage four hours of deep sleep from dawn onwards. Fortunately he was not over-concerned because he had heard the wisdom that it was the sleep you got the night before the night before that counted – and that had been eight hours solid.
A solo jog after breakfast (just a couple of slow miles, but enough to reassure a hypochondriac that his ankles had not gone wobbly overnight) gave Alastair a chance to check the weather. It was overcast, cool but not too breezy and therefore favourable for a marathon.
At three p.m. he had his final ‘top-up’ meal – two white bread jam sandwiches washed down with a pint of glucose drink. Then a steady intake of bottled water (not fizzy). Having dressed for battle, by fastening his chain mail (or more precisely his number, secured by several safety pins) to his vest, Alastair tried to relax completely for a while. Several visits to the loo later it was five-thirty and time to meet the other invited athletes in the hall.
A bus arrived and they reached the town square an hour before start time. Two thousand club runners and joggers were already there in rows, restlessly shifting like cattle in market pens. The more fortunate ‘elite’ were escorted into a nearby building to rest, stretch, jog up and down or go out for a thorough warm-up. With twenty minutes to go, Alastair drank a mug of black coffee without sugar. He hoped that it was true that caffeine not only gave one a smooth rapid start but also made it easier to metabolise fatty acids for energy later in the race. Then he checked that the tape on the pressure points of his feet hadn’t slipped, ensured that his racing shoes were tied firmly but not too tightly, stripped to his vest and shorts, made one last precautionary trip to the toilet and eventually reached the line with five minutes to spare.
A few nods, handshakes and muttered good wishes were exchanged, but each athlete seemed to be lost in his own private world. Alastair was vaguely aware of crowds of spectators on either side and, above his head, the festival lights outlined against the darkening sky. Then the start controller gave a ten second countdown, everyone bent forward in readiness and the gun was all but drowned by the simultaneous beep of two thousand stop watches and a stampede of expensively-shod hooves.
With a nervous rush, Alastair managed to avoid being trampled to death and then settled down behind the two hundred metre specialists. By the two kilometre mark a group of thirty runners had separated from the herd and were making progress at a reasonably fast but sensible pace. The Dane Lauenborg was a maverick with his own ideas however – he had shot off very rapidly and gained a fifty metre lead. His pursuers were not disposed to panic, but were keeping their eyes on him and the gap steady.
Alastair was relieved that on this occasion the organisers had not provided ‘pacers’ – men who were paid to shield the leaders from any headwind and to make sure that certain fast split times were achieved all the way to 20km or 25km. Since he was unsure about the state of his fitness, he preferred to rely on the caution or commonsense of the others to run at a less ambitious speed. This might enable him to store as much energy as possible for the later stages. He hoped that the Dane might falter and be reabsorbed into the main bunch – and so it proved.
The course chosen for the race was an irritating one, twisting through the streets and suburbs of the city. Although there were some steady drags uphill and other undulations, the route was fairly flat but Alastair found the constant corner-cutting a nuisance. A major problem which slowed the pace considerably was a series of cobbled sections which were slippery and treacherous in the damp, increasingly dark conditions. A stretch of dual-carriageway was rather exposed but usually buildings helped to shelter competitors from a cold breeze. The leading group fanned out craftily to gain maximum protection from any wind that did slip through and try to sap their strength. A six kilometre loop was followed by two laps of a fifteen kilometre circuit before another tour of the first six kilometres, this time to the finish.
During the first 10k there was some pushing, heel-tapping and elbow-work to avoid, as runners manoeuvred for position. On downhill stretches with a following wind the pace seemed uncomfortably rapid, but of course the group slowed considerably on hilly windswept sections. Alastair stayed at the tail-end of the bunch and kept out of trouble, since he knew how difficult it would be to regain contact if he were tripped. A twinge of cramp in his left leg unsettled him at eight kilometres but a few stretching motions (karate contortions carried out on the run) seemed to solve the problem. Some opponents tired themselves by putting in a fast burst to every refreshment halt – they seemed to have a desperate thirst for such a cool evening. The drinks attendants were so inexperienced that each station turned into a cursing, shoving, rugby scrum of heaving bodies and flying elbows and cups of liquid. Alastair, glad that he was well-hydrated , saved energy by ignoring it all and, moistened by a misty drizzle, plodded dourly up the middle of the road. The 10k mark was reached in 33 minutes 15 seconds. Alastair was coping fairly comfortably with that speed and was pleased to note that the leading pack was down to about ten men. Obviously some of the invited athletes had not been lying about their lack of sharpness!
Positions were unchanged at 15k – no wonder after a slow 5k split of 17.39. He was content to follow the pace and concentrate on his own form. Was he ‘belly-breathing’ properly (his stomach going out as he breathed in and vice versa)? He knew that if he lost his breathing rhythm and started gasping, sucking air into the top of his chest, he might get a ‘stitch’. Was his stride length economical and appropriate to the gradient (shorter uphill, longer downhill)? Were his arms swinging in a controlled fashion and were his hands lightly closed, not clenched? Was he the correct distance behind the runner in front and was anyone liable to tread on his own heels? Was he looking where he was going? Was he alert but as relaxed as possible? How comfortable did the others seem and when might he himself consider making a positive move?
By 20km they were eight. One of the Belgians had slipped behind and then poor Jim McIntyre had succumbed to cramp. Since he was the last counter in the club team, he felt compelled to struggle on to the finish more than twenty minutes behind the winner, but had the consolation that the Dublin outfit did retain their title. The others did not pause to commiserate but swept on dispassionately into the night.
At 25km, Alastair felt a little tired but had happy enough that he could maintain the tempo that the leading group was setting. Quickly he assessed the condition of his rivals. Diarmid McDonnell looked very easy indeed and his compatriot and club-mate Gerry O’Neill was breathing hard but seemed strong. Mike Durham was speechless for once but rolling along smoothly. Peeters, the local favourite, was still there but not looking at all composed – he kept rubbing his side and shaking his head in reply to anxious (and, to Alastair, incomprehensible) inquiries by his supporters. The other three were drifting off the pace almost imperceptibly: Altun, the short dark impassive Turk; Lauenborg the big Dane, who seemed to have lost his initial drive; and Rottiers the Dutchman. Apparently the latter was ceasing to respond to the hysterical prompting of his coach, the rotter, who persisted in appearing on a bicycle, indulging in illegal motivation.
As his body plodded on automatically, Alastair’s mind wondered what DID motivate distance runners. They might continue training and racing because the sport was addictive. If a few sessions were missed, the runner couldn’t sleep normally, complained about having cold feet in bed, became less relaxed and more neurotic, couldn’t eat or drink in the usual quantities and generally suffered from withdrawal symptoms. More positively, it was only right that any human being should try to develop to his or her potential (in this case mainly physical) to the maximum. Yet, no matter how hard people trained, the extent of their improvement was limited by their original talent. And very few were blessed with the world-record-breaking, Olympic-gold-medal-winning gifts of an athlete like Sebastian Coe. Without such talent, success could be only within certain bounds. Most distance runners, of course, came to accept their own frailties with a cheerful philosophical tolerance. They were motivated to keep on racing, Alastair decided, not just because of the company of friendly rivals who might share a few beers afterwards, but mainly because of the joy of swift movement, the excitement of the contest, the challenge to their own self image, and their sense of themselves as free adventurous individuals in a mundane society of constipated conformists.
Spectators huddled in overcoats or under umbrellas, and wished they had a hipflask of cognac to make the cold rain more bearable. They could see only a procession of ruddy-complexioned inappropriately-clad characters clattering round the Antwerp cobbles with manic determination. Even the friends or relatives they had come to cheer failed to fascinate. The sight was hardly worth missing an evening in the warmth. And the leaders, that dwindling band of eager ectomorphs, loping more lightly, undoubtedly seemed, in their dedicated, deadpan way, more demented than the rest.
Inside the mind of a contender it was different, however. Alastair’s fatigue was growing, but he was making a decision to take a chance, to gamble or what the newspapers call ‘glory’, to go for home with a third of the original distance still to cover. It might not seem sensible, considering his lack of peak form, but it would inject some drama into the race, and his own life. Foolish, perhaps, but fun. Maybe he would over-reach himself and probably he would lose, but he might just succeed – and if he did fail it would be in a bolder, more cavalier fashion. Consequently he looked ahead and, picking out the 28 kilometre signpost, which was positioned at the bottom of a gradual climb (one of his strengths), he steadied his breathing, gathered courage and concentration, sidestepped the front rank of the bunch and accelerated into a higher gear.
The effect was instantaneous: like human magnets the two Irishmen immediately increased their pace to match his but the others fell behind. Alastair pushed hard right over the summit of the gradient, then slowed for a few metres before kicking again. This time he could ‘feel’ one of his opponents losing ground, could hear a heavy footfall and heavier breathing fading away. He glanced sideways and saw, as expected, the calm grim face of Diarmid McDonnell. Side by side over the cobbles they strode into the darkness. At 30km (1 hour 41 minutes exactly) they were eighteen seconds clear of a group of four pursuers: O’Neill, Durham, Peeters and Rottiers.
Having achieved the desired effect (although dropping McDonnell too would have been preferable) and feeling the strain of his exertions, Alastair was content to coast alongside Diarmid for the next few kilometres. To be more accurate, he was relieved that the Irishman did not counter-attack. He tried to control his breathing and to conceal from his rival the tiredness he felt draining vitality from his limbs. He remembered reading about a great race in the past – the barefoot Ethiopian Abebe Bikila and the Moroccan Rhadi competing for gold in the 1960 Olympics, fighting along the Appian Way through the night to the finish under the floodlit Arch of Constantine. On a scale less grand, perhaps this was to be his own starlit triumph…… But as he mused vaingloriously they passed the 35 km marker and, peering over his shoulder, he was chagrined to discover that their speed had slackened and O’Neill was only ten seconds down! (Rottiers and Durham 22 seconds behind but Peeters cracking up).
Alastair’s reaction was instinctive – that of the hunted animal. He dug in deep and raised the tempo once more. McDonnell followed closely but to Gerry O’Neill it was a bitter blow. Seeing the leading duo drifting back, he had mustered his remaining strength and forced himself ahead of his companions, striving to bridge the gap to Diarmid and the Scotsman. The effort hurt but he had been succeeding, and was looking forward to taking a breather once he had regained contact, when Alastair saw him coming and went away again. It was not to be Gerry’s race and he knew it. When Mike Durham came past he could offer little resistance.
Mike the Englishman reckoned that the leaders were on the road to self-destruction. He himself was the only person near the front who had stuck to steady even-paced running and he was confident that his economical strategy would succeed. Already he had cruised past one Irishman and he could see no reason why he couldn’t overtake the other one and Alastair Taylor as well before the end – especially since something like a fartlek session seemed to be developing up front!
Indeed the fastest five kilometres of the marathon was turning into a duel. Alastair had ceased to care about the risk of blowing up. He had forgotten that he had no carefully-garnered extra glycogen stores this time. He had one single objective – to drop McDonnell – and was trying everything he could to achieve it. And Diarmid was responding with similar spirit. First one man surged into the lead, while the other refused to give in, resisting the temptation to restrain his opponent by grabbing his sweat-stained vest. Soon the pace slowed again because the leader was tiring and realised that his attempt to escape was futile. Then the hunter became the hare and tried to surprise the greyhound by breaking away at an unexpected moment.
Attack, fail, hang on, attack again – the seesaw battle continued. And all the time, Mike Durham, mobile war correspondent, observed the conflict and moved steadily closer to the scene of the action.
A shadow of doubt was creeping into the mind of Diarmid McDonnell. He knew that his personal best was faster than Taylor’s and that his international experience was greater. But the uneven expenditure of energy was unsettling him. It had been a disappointment when Gerry had been left behind. Irish chances in the team race had looked very good. Still, marathoning was essentially a sport for the isolated individual – and victory might still be his. Perhaps the Scotsman was weakening.
Alastair was near exhaustion now. He realised that each surge was shorter then its predecessor, that his determination was ebbing with his physical resilience. Yet he persisted automatically. At least McDonnell would know he’d been in a race. His sight was blurred, dimmed by darkness, dazzled by streetlights. His thoughts were becoming dazed – this was moonlit madness. At 39 km Diarmid went into the lead once more – and Alastair could feel himself beginning to lose touch. Was his body refusing to fight – or was his mind accepting defeat? The effect was the same. With a dull resignation, Alastair watched McDonnell edge away from him.
At 40 kilometres there was a six second, growing gap. Alastair could do no more. The route suddenly swung round a bollard in the middle of the street and went back the other side. To his horror Alastair saw that Mike was only about ten seconds behind, waving encouragingly to his team-mate! Compatriot be damned – one thing a Scotsman hates is losing to an Englishman. At least the Irish are fellow Celts!
The final run-in was a desperate struggle for Alastair Taylor, as he flogged his knackered steed up the finishing hill. Diarmid, his ears ringing with cheers, was savouring the delicious taste of victory, while Alastair could only create a crick in the neck caused by panicky glancing round at the pursuing Mike. Seventeen seconds after McDonnell took the tape (2 hours 20 minutes 51 seconds), Taylor flopped over the line, with a comparatively fresh and very frustrated Durham a scant nine seconds behind. Gerry O’Neill, a minute back, was fourth, Rottiers fifth and the rest, as they say, ‘nowhere’. Both Britain and Eire had four points, but Alastair and Mike won the team prize because they had completed the course before Gerry.
Applause, handshakes, congratulations, flowers, presentations, photographs, interviews. Showers, rehydration, food, beer, dehydration, carousing, collapse, bed.
A reporter for a Belgian newspaper dismissed the Antwerp marathon as a typical procession, with a group of runners following each other round the route, before a sprint finish.
One individual perceives Truth, or Beauty, differently from another. Alastair’s viewpoint contrasted with the journalist’s verdict. His ‘international experience’ seemed to him arduous, enthralling, disappointing but undoubtedly worthwhile. Even at the depressing hour of four a.m. on Sunday morning, as he lay slumped with a hangover, too tired to sleep, in a hot bath, trying to soak the interminable twitching out of his battered legs.