Start at the beginning. There’s a lot to tell. So get yourself a cuppa… And if you fancy a prologue, skip over to Running Up Top Down Under for my race preview. But please come back…
I was really relaxed about this race. Good night’s sleep, no worries getting ready or getting there, just nice and calm and easy. I’ve no expectations that I’m going to run anything like PB pace, so it’s just a case of go out and enjoy it.
Fetchies at the start of the Great North Run
For the first time ever, I make it to the Fetch photo. And for the first time for this race, I’m wearing my Fetch T-shirt. I have a nice chat with Paul, before assorted Fetchies assemble. A smaller gathering than previous years, but nice to have company all the same.
We went our separate ways, me heading for a wander back over the media bridge and a loo stop, then making my way to the starting pens. The sun was beating down at this point, and it felt far hotter than had been forecast.
Time seemed to have speeded up and as I walked back from the start towards the white zone, I heard the dying strains of Abide with Me. I’d missed the moment of reflection – something I really like about this race. No matter. I had my own little moment of thoughtfulness just before the start, when I recited the names of runners and others who are no longer with us and dedicated my race to them.
Walking back, it was great to see the stars of the race. Not the elite athletes who I didn’t catch a glimpse of, but the very special people who have run every single Great North Run. I had a quick chat with a couple of them, including Ann, one of the few women to have run all 34, dressed as she usually is as Minnie Mouse. What a lovely, lovely lady.
The pens seemed particularly well packed this year, as I joined in the warm up. Normally, by this time I’m starting to get excited and nervous, but I was still quite low key. I chatted to a few runners nearby as the races got underway, but wasn’t near enough to see any of the action on the screens. We gave Mo a massive cheer though!
And then we were off. Well walking forward towards the start at any case. I reckon it took 15 minutes to get to the line and, I almost missed it! I seem to remember it being more prominent in previous races, but there was the mat, so I hit the Garmin start button and began to run.
The plan was to go steady – 10 min miling for as long as I could manage. I had high hopes of sustaining that kind of pace for at least 8 miles after trying it out last weekend, and maybe going a little further if I could. I felt nice, bouncy, light of heart, no pressure on. And despite the thousands of runners around me, in my own little running bubble.
I ran to the right hand side, down under the motorway passes and started an oggy, oggy, oggy. I knew the first mile had been a bit quick, but figured I’d settle once I was over the bridge. As it approached, I realised, I was on the wrong side to spot my top running buddy Jo Shewry who had said she would be there. I managed to squeeze across to the left and give the whole family sweaty, smiley hugs.
I kept getting shouts on the bridge – not sure if they were people I knew, or just enthusiastic race vest readers, but it was brilliant. One guy turned round and said “You’re popular!”
“Welcome to my city,” I replied with a massive smile. I love running across the Tyne Bridge and that was a moment for the scrapbook.
The band on the roundabout were playing ‘Blaydon Races’ and I was very happy, beginning to settle and find the right pace. But blimey, it was hot. And this course, on tarmac and concrete roads, is unrelenting. There is no shade.
I grabbed water at 3 miles and had my first jelly baby. I was still very much in my running bubble, just following the lines in the centre of the road, managing, as I always seem to do at this race, to find space and not be too jostled or held up. But people were walking. They started walking really early on. People who looked like good runners, walking the inclines, or just looking to get some respite from the sun.
At 5 miles I wasn’t feeling so bouncy. I hadn’t paid much attention to my watch, but I knew my pace had dropped. At 5 miles, there’s still a long way to go. And I knew then that I didn’t have the desire, or the fire in my belly to push hard. Given my run training and race times this year, I was never going to be in with a shout of matching my best, and suddenly any kind of time target didn’t seem to matter.
I didn’t collapse or despair or beat myself up. I just said ‘so what?’ And decided to go easy on myself by running at whatever pace my legs felt like. But I would run. I wouldn’t walk.
I started breaking the rest of the race down into chunks – 6 miles and another jelly baby, halfway and then another water station.
After a second good gulp of water I did pick up a little, felt happier in myself, and realised that I needed to come out of my bubble and start drawing support from the crowds.
There were some great kids out on the course, shouting things like “You’ve done really well to get this far”, or pointing out all the costumes and fancy dress. “Look daddy, a boy in a dress…!”
I get my water bottle from 16 time Olympic Champion Tanni Grey Thompson
My breathing was easy, too comfortable for a race really, but I just didn’t have the desire to work any harder and at times my hips were giving me warning twinges, telling me to go easy. The briefest bit of cloud cover, or the shadows cast on the ground from motorway barriers was a welcome respite from the sun.
I sort of lost track of where I was on the route as I was just in ‘ keep moving and get to the finish mode’. And I actually thought I’d missed a water station at mile 8, but actually it’s mid way between 8 and 9. I really wanted to hit this station, even though I’d taken on water at 6 miles, because I knew this is where Tanni Grey Thompson would be.
Tanni Grey Thompson – 16 times an Olympic medallist, eight times winner of the Great North Run and one of the UK’s best known disabled athletes – hands out bottles of water at the station between 8 and 9 miles on the Great North Run.
She’s handed me my water 4 times now. The first was totally unexpected, but in subsequent year, I’ve made a point of looking out for her. And there she was again.
Not caring about my time, and running with my phone in my Tune Belt arm band, I stopped for a selfie and a chat. Tanni was lovely, gave me a big smile and kept talking and handing out bottles as she said it was hellishly hot and even the elites had looked like they were suffering. I said thank you, told her it meant a lot to me and I’d tweet the picture. Best Great North Run picture ever!
I really picked up after that. Getting to 8 miles had been a bit of a struggle, but now, even with 5 still to go, I felt more confident that I could manage it without completely breaking myself. 5 miles is still a long way, especially when you know that your race plan is out the window, but I lifted my head and tried to pull support from the crowds.
Heading into South Shields, I kept my eyes out for the next cheering point manned by a couple of Elvet Striders. I’d been told it would be where it would e, but my brain couldn’t keep track of the course and I wondered if I’d spot them. No fear of that when there’s a huge banner over the road sign! I ran over to the left hand side of the road, waving and shouting and got a high 5 from Dave.
That took me to 10 miles. And at 10 there’s just a parkrun to go. It was going to take me a while, but I was going to run every step of the way. My mood was positive, even if my pace was, by my standards, barely a shuffle.
People all around me were walking now. And I was running so slowly it would take me a few paces to overtake them, but I just kept on moving. I tried not to look too far ahead, just focusing on being in the moment and moving forward.
Smiling on the last mile
And then I saw the sea and my heart lifted again. It’s a nasty little sharp downhill before the left turn onto the coast road, but I was smiling as I ran down it and headed over to the right hand side, ready to spot my supporters.
Loads of shouts and high fives as I came into the last mile and a bit. I know this is a long road and I was in no shape to push it, so I just kept it steady and smiled and gave a thumbs up to everyone who yelled my name.
I was scanning the crowds for Gary, knowing I was already beyond the time I’d said he could expect me, but hoping he’d hold on a little longer. I heard him shout, saw the camera and waved and smiled. By this point, I was running so slowly, he was able to run behind the crowds and catch me again along the last mile.
800m to go and in the past, I’ve started to up a gear here, but not today, there’s not a lot left in my legs and I really don’t care what time I finish in. Even at 200m, I only rustle up a slight knee lift and then give it a sort of pathetic sprint over the grass and Mobot over the line. I stop my watch at 2:30:50 – my slowest ever time at this race by a good 20 minutes.
But I’ve made it, and I’m okay, and I get a great big Strider shout from Angie, collecting finisher’s chips before making my way through the goody bag pick up and to the collection point where Gary is waiting.
Refuelled, rehydrated on trying to make sense of my experience by writing this blog, here are my reflections on this year’s race:
I’m pleased I kept my head and didn’t let my ambition to be better beat me today. I don’t really give myself a great shot at half marathons anyway – only entering this one and not really doing the consistent running mileage throughout the year.
Will I go further? I said I’d ask myself the question at the end again this year, but I knew before the start, that the answer was no, not next year, and not in future unless I burn with the desire to do it, like I did for my first Great North Runs. For now, I’d rather get lean and strong and faster over shorter distances again. And next year I want to make the most of my potential in triathlon and get a decent standard distance done.
But I don’t think I’m done with this race just yet. I’d like to enjoy it again, and not necessarily try and race it. I’d like to come back and maybe help someone else enjoy it too.
Thanks to Gary for supporting me and making it so easy for me to get to and from this race, and for buying me fish and chips. Thanks to Ian Turrell for giving me the training plans, fitness and encouragement to take on these challenges. Thanks to all the supporters, those who know me and those to whom I was just a name on a shirt. And special thanks to Tanni for being my water carrier again. Moments like that make this a very special run.
Stats (the splits are good for a laugh)
13.1 miles 2:30:50
2. 10:31 (hugged my buddies on the Tyne Bridge)
9. 13:25 (Tanni Grey Thompson water stop)