As I spoke to three Americans in the queue for the loos before the start of this race, I told them: “It’s a bit special.” Now, I don’t have any other half marathons to compare it with, but I still stand by my remark.
For me, this year’s event was special because it’s the first time I’ve run as part of a team. I was already signed up for the race when the challenge was laid down that the company I write for would be entering a large team to take part and raise money for Cancer Research UK, but that gave me an extra incentive to train for it. And the added benefit of team mates I could talk to almost every day.
New team mates
Team Sage ladies at the start of Great North Run 2015
Over the past few months, our internal online ‘chatter’ board has been full of running and training discussions. I’ve written a good few articles, building on both my experience of running, and learning a lot along the way too. And I could barely move around our building without someone asking how training was going.
Seeing and hearing the excitement and nerves from the new members of the team, some of whom had only really taken up running, just so they could do it, really inspired me. It was very flattering to be asked questions, even though all the time I felt a fraud, as I’m not that good or fast, but I am known as a runner.
With any group of runners there are ups and downs, triumphs and disasters, and as the weeks went on, we learned to trust each other more and share doubts, fears and some very personal reasons for running and supporting Cancer Research UK.
We are a very mixed group with a range of speeds and experience, but by Sunday 13 September, wearing our green T-shirts, there was a palpable sense of pride and togetherness.
With 50,000 runners lining up at the start, we couldn’t all be together, but we were watching out for each other, and I certainly saw and spoke to a number of team Sage runners as I prepared for my 7th Great North Run.
The weather forecast had been pretty perfect running weather, a bit grey and overcast, light breezes and temperatures rising from about 12 to 15C. As I made my way towards my starting pen, the skies were blue and the sun was blazing. It was going to be rather hotter than that.
I’d arrived early, but time has a weird way of compressing at the start of a race, and as the wheelchair and elite women athletes started ahead of the main field, I was still walking back towards my starting pen.
I joined in the warm up, shared some chat with the people around me, cheered loudly for Mo Farah with the rest of the crowd and got goosebumps as Local Hero began to play and Alan Robson tried to read everyone’s T-shirt as they passed through the start.
Encouraging the runners in the first mile
From the green starting zone, it took about 25 minutes to reach the line. Watch set. A couple of high fives and then off, easy, easy, easy – or so I thought.
I ran to the left hand side, opting for the cool shade of the underpass. I ran to feel, just glad to be bouncing along and enjoying the slight downhill. I found my feet and began to enjoy the race, watching out for the billboard over the central motorway in the first mile, where I saw the Team Sage message I’d written. I heard plenty of Oggy Oggy Oggies so I think it hit the mark.
Over the Tyne Bridge, and no one to watch out for this year, but I heard my name a couple of times and smiled and said thanks, even though I couldn’t see who shouted. I think I remembered to wave to the cameras at the end of the bridge and I know I heard the band on the roundabout.
Now, that’s all the excitement over with, onto the race proper. The other thing I’d told the Americans, was that this isn’t a pretty race. It’s pretty much all main roads and concrete and once you’re away over the Tyne Bridge, few landmarks to spot. But with the runners and the crowds watching, you really don’t need them. There’s as much colour, noise and distraction as you could wish for.
I keep my head and body in a semi-permeable bubble. I let the sights, the people float by, taking care of myself, watching where I’m going, focusing on how I feel, slowing myself down, because I know from my breathing I’ve gone off a bit fast.
I get a good loud shout out and a glimpse of a Team Sage flag somewhere around Gateshead and that’s a nice unexpected boost. Children at the side of the road are trying to start choruses of oggies, but they get rather fewer responses now the heat has broken out and the initial euphoria has changed to a dig in and get on with the race.
I run for a good few miles next to a pair of guys carrying a flag with three red castles on it between them. I occurs to me to ask what kind of pace they’re running at as we seem to be well matched, but I never speak to them and I doubt they notice me, but they are in and around my eyeline from the Tyne Bridge to about halfway I think.
I spot Team Sage runners regularly and find breath to give them a shout and sometimes exchange a few words. At this stage, I’m passing them. Later, I’ll see those green shirts passing me.
I feel like I’m running well. I’m not looking at my watch and I never once hear the mile beeps, but I do spot most of the mile markers and at 6 miles I’m feeling good. I sneak a look at my time to give me a sense of how it’s going. I go through 10k in 1hr 2 mins, which is probably a bit too fast, but I deliberately didn’t set myself a time or pace targets, and I just go with the flow.
I’d planned to have a couple of gel sweets at 5 miles, then 8 miles. I end up taking them early, at about 4 and 7. I think I remember feeling a bit of pain in my right knee, but the sequence of what happens when is already beginning to blur. In any case, no niggle lasts long enough for it to become a concern.
It being a hot day, I’ve grabbed water at 3 and 6 miles – just a couple of sips as I manage to keep on running. The awesome rock band are there again at the roundabout just before the John Reid Road, playing T Rex, ‘Get it On’ as I pass by. I give them a big wave.
Over half way, but this is where I know it gets tough. Mile 8-9 is a gradual slow incline, barely noticeable other than it seems to take more effort to keep going at the same pace. And the inclines continue to come right through to the end of mile 11.
Me and a very special volunteer – Dame Tanni Grey Thompson
But I have distractions in these miles. I’m still going strong at the water station between 8-9 where I watch out for Tanni Grey Thompson. I stop and we have a chat and a selfie as she carries on passing out water bottles. I can’t thank every volunteer and marshal on the course, so I hope she’ll represent the brilliant crew who help us runners have a great day.
As I stand up to carry on running, I know I’ve lost a bit of time, but it’s worth it. Even as my feet cramp and my legs struggle to get going again. It’s a feeling I’m used to from triathlon, and it soon passes, but I really do get the sense that I’ve slowed down and lost my rhythm.
I’m sensible through the boost zone, enjoying the announcer and the music, but not dancing or finding a spurt of speed as I have done in the past. My next focus is ten miles. After that I can start thinking, just a parkrun to go.
And somewhere along this part of the route I know I’ll see the Elvet Striders cheering point. They won’t be watching out for me as I’m not a team member in their purple kit, or wearing my Fetchie red and yellow, so I watch out for them. They’ve stationed themselves just a bit further along from the guys handing out beer. It’s a raucous and lively part of the course.
I spot Dave and shout his name, and then Flip, and blow kisses. I’d half planned to stop and say hello here, but having stopped and struggled to get going again once, I opt to plough on.
There have been runners walking from mile one. But as always, around this point I see more and more of them. The day is very hot and they are still moving with purpose, but they start to walk and in my head it becomes a battle not to.
I have slowed down. I have slowed down a lot. My run is barely that. I do not need to look at my watch to know that I’m talking 11-12 minute miles here. I can feel it in my heavy legs.
The wheels start to come off
I remind myself today is not about performance or times. My mantra is to relax and enjoy. I don’t beat myself up for slowing down. My breathing is relaxed and so I just go with it. Slow and steady and determined not to walk. This is, on reflection probably a bit of a mistake, as a short walk would have allowed me to refocus and perhaps get some running form back, rather than carrying on with my shuffle.
I grab an orange segment from a bowl held out by a family at the side of the road and cannot express my thanks enough. My tummy has started to cramp up and I cannot stomach another gel sweet.
Dig in, dig in and look for the 11 mile marker. Say to myself that anyone can run 2 miles, and then look for the sea.
There is never a more glorious site than that dip down to South Shields sea front, knowing you have just over a mile more to go. But the sharp downhill really does rattle my knees and I grimace for a few uneven steps before they loosen off a little. That’s going to be another attractive race photo.
Still, I’m practically into the last mile and I catch glimpses of the Red Arrows performing their display over the sea. Once upon a time, I had finished the race, got my T-shirt and was able to watch all this. Today I just grin as they give me a fly past in my final mile.
An incredible last mile
And then I see a figure in a Darth Vader costume, with a sign pinned to his cape that says ‘Charlie, running for my son Daniel’. And I can’t believe it. In this throng of 50,000 runners, I’ve spotted the man who I shared tears and hugs with at the start of the 2010 race when I ran for my baby sister Ava who died at birth.
I tap him on the shoulder and speak incredulously. I think he remembers me too. I’m swept along by the crowds and my slow but persistent rhythm, so it’s a brief moment, but a barely believable one. It brings me to tears in that last mile.
It’s a flat mile alongside the sea front, but my emotional rollercoaster is still rolling. I pull my happy, unbelievable emotions together and high five the kids along the sidelines. In the past, I’ve bounded, sprinted and bounced along here. Today, I’m drawing on the crowds energy.
I spot local runner Paul ‘Lord’ Smythe who normally has a job escorting a celebrity. But in truth he’s almost celeb status himself. Today he’s with Frank Bruno, who looks like he’s struggling a fair bit, but will make the finish now.
And then I see Phil, a fellow team Sage runner, who I think I saw go past me around 10 miles. He’s walking and I try to bully him along. By now the 800m to go sign is in sight. I try to get him running, but he has pains in his chest. I check he’s okay, make him promise he’s okay and then I’m gone.
I feel bad about it. Like I should have walked with him to the finish. But my legs though slow and achy have their own rhythm and the end is tantalisingly close. We spot each other once we’re both over the line and he’s fine.
For me, it’s just about digging in for a last gasp spurt over the line, a smile for the camera and stop my watch once I’m through, before heading off to collect my medal and goody bag. My time, is 2:26:24 – and, having said I’d be happy with anything under 2h 30 mins, I am pleased with that.
I knew I’d struggled from around 10 miles, and later when I get chance to look at my split times, it’s obvious that’s where I really started to lose my pace. But I didn’t have a plan, or a pace target. I just wanted to get round, without injuring myself and enjoy the day.
And I really did enjoy it, much more than I did last year, when I ran with a similar kind of plan. I will admit, that I found training for it much harder than in previous years, as I wasn’t enjoying the long slow runs and felt I had to sacrifice a couple of other events I’d have like to do.
But the team spirit has been amazing and the support and appreciation for the effort and fundraising amplified by being part of a great team. The Great North Run was the catalyst for me making new friends and sharing a special experience together.