The Great North Run

Me with my Great North Run medal
Me with my Great North Run medal. I finished in 2 hours 4 minutes.
How to make sense of this overload of sensations? How to describe the sights, sounds and feelings? It’s a blur, a jumble, a carnival of noise and colour, swirled in with feelings of excitement, and pride, fears and doubt, joy and fellowship.

What a race! What a day!

Nervous excited in a good way as I walked through Exhibition Park back from the start. Spotting celebs at the front and making my way back to the white zone. How glad am I that I managed to get my start zone changed – it was a long way to the back of the field.

Runners meeting and greeting, relaxing by the sides of the road. Was it too early to head to the pen? Picking a spot and stretching, looking around. Here they’re all wearing serious running gear, charity vests and sports watches, well worn-in trainers. Not so many costumes or craziness apart from a couple of punky hairdos.

I chat to Nick from London – he’s on his sixth Great North Run and says it’s the only one he does because it’s so well organised and the atmosphere’s brilliant. I try to conserve my energy, eat my banana, nervously sip at my water and wait.

Watching the big screen it all seems to go so quickly. There’s a warm up and music to make me smile and sooner than I think we’re walking forward – edging to the start line. And there’s room, there’s space, hit the watch, start running and we’re off.

The welcome cool of the overpass and the resonant shouts of ‘Oggy oggy oggy’. Pumped up and excited we reply and wave to the crowds on the bridges. Up towards the Tyne Bridge – about to be part of an iconic moment. Remember this moment in the crowd in the sunshine – behind the girl wearing a brthday cake hat.

The red arrows roar over.

And there’s a hill, pulling on my calves. I’ve gone off fast, ease it down a bit, find my usual pace and just keep moving forwards, forwards.

All these people, it’s amazing, but I’m still running my own race. I smile and talk to myself in my head. Checking I’m okay. Checking the watch and the pace band – and I’m on.

Everything blurs. I can’t take in landmarks or signposts. I miss most of the mile markers. Where am I? I don’t know. I’m on a road runnning and it’s hot. The sun beats down and surges up from the tarmac. I need water. I never need water when I’m running – but today I do.

I stick to the left hand side, find my space and just keep going. Where the ground heads up there’s a sea of bobbing colours, but mostly my focus is just a few feet ahead.

Miles pass and I acknowledge the half way point. Feeling good, feeling strong. Enjoying the sunshine. A shower from a fire hose cools things down a little, dousing sticky sweat from my face.

It’s hot. It’s hot. I reach for water again and look in vain for shade. I stick to my plan and tear off a gel pack to keep me going.

There’s a roundabout, but by now I have no sense of the route. I’m just running, following, unable to do anything more. I pass 10 miles and I know I’m slowing. I try to hang on to a couple of runners in Cystic Fybrosis shirts for a while, but start to drop back and they’re gone. A couple of black fairies bat me with their wings. And I’m starting to struggle in my head.

Plug in my headphones for some focus and direction. Treat myself to another gel pack, barely even registering the taste. Just body craving the sugar.

And finally there’s shade. Trees line the road and families have gathered with picnic mats and chairs to watch the runners. They hold out cups of water, bananas, ice pops. I grab a slice of orange and it bursts in my mouth with welcome sweetness.

That’s what I needed, just to settle and gather my thoughts. Just a little further, just a little more. You can run for another 20 minutes, easy. But it’s not so easy as it has been in training.

And here’s the hill. The one everyone talks about. But it’s okay and suddenly I’m running down, down towards the sea and I’ve never seen such blue. Turn onto the sea front – remember there’s still a mile to go. The soft breeze revives me.

All I can see is faces. People crowded four deep by the barriers, clapping, shouting “Not far to go, keep going”. I pick up speed. I can do this. 800m and trying to decide when to sprint. And I see Gary – one face in the crowd that means something to me and I call out.

400m – it still seems a long way. I can see the elite finish now. But where’s the end? How much further? My legs don’t have enough for a real sprint, just a brief spurt and head in a blur I remember to stop my watch. It’s over. I did it!

Can I call myself an honorary Geordie now?

The great big thank you post

Running can be pretty solitary. Actually, that’s one of the things I like about it. The time it gives me to be alone in my own head. Lately, on my long runs I’ve been visualising the race. Thinking about the day, what could happen, what it’s going to sound like, look like, feel like. And all along my route I think of the people who’ve helped me go from struggling to reach a mile in ten minutes to running 12 in around an hour 45.

The first, as always, is Gary. He’s put up with me breezing in and breezing out again in my training gear, getting up early in the morning for training, and building my weekend and weekday plans around the next run. And he’ll be braving the crowds at South Shields trying to spot me at the finish next Sunday. I’m sure he still thinks I’m a bit crazy (what’s new?) but he’s supported me all the way.

Then there’s all my family. I must have bored you stupid sometimes with tales of my running and training. Thanks for putting up with my latest obsession and for always having faith in me. And, little sis, I’m sorry I dragged you out on the Navan run. I think I put you off running, but I hope you’ll keep dancing!

Thank you too to the other first-timers in the office – Mandy, Jo and Hayley. It’s been great to have people to share the experience with who understand what it takes to do this. You’re all amazing and we’re going to do something really memorable on 20 September.

Then there are all my friends – old and new. Everyone who’s left a message on facebook or sent me an encouraging email or tweet. I’ve met a great bunch of people at my boxercise class and the gym and had loads of great advice from fellow runners at work including Kathryn, Steve, Donna and Andy in the UK and Shawndell in the USA.

I have to give a special mention to my buddy Jay who has been twittering away to me since the start of training, always with a smile and a spot of encouragement. I know you’ll have a great race Jay, and you’ll really make a big difference with all the money you’ve raised for Tiny Lives. Well done on smashing your total. You still have to run though 😉

Thinking back to the start of this, there are hundreds of little moments that make me smile. Lisa drew me running along the beach with the seagulls in the sky, before I even started thinking about myself as a runnner. Hayley stopped me getting bored and cold at the start of the Pier to Pier and my Blaydon Racer (I’ve deduced from the results that his name was Stephen Bell) kept me company on my favourite race so far.

Then there are all the nameless unknown runners who I’ve shared a hello, a nod, or a wave with as I’ve been training – from the Macmillan couple I met as I turned at the lighthouse, to the girls I’ve passed at Cullercoats two weekends on the trot now. There was another on Tuesday who spotted me as I was out with Ian on the Quayside for my last training run and shouted “See you Sunday!”

And that brings me to Ian who started it all really. Got me running for fitness and eventually fun. Who coached me and encouraged me and answered a million questions. I wouldn’t even have thought about doing this without your help. And I know thanks to you, I’m fit and prepared as I can be for a great race. Thank you.

I know you can’t all be there with me on Sunday, but I’ll be imagining you among the crowds cheering all 54,000 of us nutters on. And I’ll be smiling.

I’ve got a lot from taking on the Great North Run challenge, so if you’d like to help me give something back and raise money for a very special cause, please visit this page.

Thank you.

Run the time, never mind the distance

Ever since I got my 12 week training plan for the Great North Run there’s been a number that scared me. Basically the plan builds up my long run each weekend, increasing it by about ten minutes at a time for about three weeks, then eases back for a couple of weeks before building up again. There’s some clever science behind it to do with muscle building and recovery, but thankfully that’s something Ian worked out for me.

The number that scared me was 110. It lurked there in the final weekend before the Great North Run. Follow the plan and it would be my longest run before the big race – 110 minutes, that’s an hour and 50 minutes. That’s a long time to run, especially when I remember that 20 minutes was a challenge at the start. It was also scary because I know that, in theory, to prepare to run a distance, you should train above and below that distance. And I couldn’t run 13.1 miles in 1 hour 50 minutes could I?

In truth I had no idea how long it would take me to complete a half marathon. They ask you when you apply for the Great North Run, and they tell you the average time is about 2 hours 30 – so that’s what I put. Hence my pink race number which means I’m at the back of the pack.

But for a while now I know I’m a good bit faster than that. That’s one of the advantages of all the kit I have to help me keep track of the distance I’ve run. My Nike+ tells me that over all my runs I’m averaging just under 9 minutes a mile. And I know from analysing the stats over my longer weekend runs that I can do that consistently over a decent distance.

I’m lucky that I’ve been able to stick to my run plan without too many disruptions. My husband is very understanding about losing me as I head off down the coast for a couple of hours on a weekend or dash out to the gym of an evening. And I’ve made an effort to fit in runs around weekends away, weddings and other commitments.

So a few weeks ago, when we had a day out planned, I knew I’d have to run on Saturday or get up very early on Sunday morning to fit in the 95 min run on my schedule. With an untidy house to sort and clean before visitors arrived, I found myself setting the alarm for a bright and early Sunday morning.

It was a good day – clear and bright with just a hint of a breeze and early enough that it wasn’t too hot when I set out. I extended my usual route to allow for running a little extra time, and set off feeling good, getting into a nice pace and breathing pattern quite quickly. I ran on past the half way point, figuring a shorter return journey would mean I could avoid a hill at the end of my route.

Around an hour in, I slowed a bit and struggled through a rough patch where my legs felt heavy and my breathing patchy. But I pushed on, doing things that ran contrary to how I was feeling; making a conscious effort to pick up the pace and stretch out my stride. And I found a nice pace again, for once enjoying turning into the wind, welcoming the coolness in the morning sunshine.

It happened again as I approached the end of my planned run. With around ten minutes to go, I was struggling a bit. When I’m training I often say to myself in my head ‘Run the time, never mind the distance.’ So mind over matter, I wasn’t going to fail my goal for a matter of ten minutes. Even if that did mean I’d have to tackle that hill, having underestimated my original route.

And so I ran on. I got to the top of the hill and kept on going. And just like before, I found that little bit extra. A second wind. A boost of adrenaline. A reward for pushing on through the tough stuff. A reminder of what it feels like when it feels good. And I started thinking, what if I do another five minutes? I can do another five minutes… So I did.

And that meant I adapted my route a bit. I started thinking I might as well carry on until I got a bit closer to home. So five minutes turned into ten. Then I had a quick look at my watch to see how far I’d gone. It was close enough to a nice round number, so I kept on going until I reached it.

And that’s how I ran my first 20k. Double my first race distance. 12.5 miles in 1 hour 50 minutes or 110 mins and it wasn’t that scary after all. It was just a little bit more. That’s how I know I have the distance in me. So that’s what I’ll be doing two weeks on Sunday when I take on the Great North Run. Running just that little bit more.

Please support me on the run and help me raise money for Pear Tree Special School. Thanks.