This is probably going to be a bit of a jumble, as I try to sort out my thoughts and impressions of an amazing day. But that’s what the Great North Run is like. It takes you through highs and lows, brings smiles and tears, pain and pleasure. Even after four years, I still find it a bit overwhelming and need a bit of time to process it.
Let’s go back a bit. Last year I ran my target time like my life depended on it. I was on a sub 2 hour mission and nothing was going to stand in my way. This year, I deliberately didn’t set out with a time target in mind. Recent runs have suggested that with a bit of luck and on a good day, I could go close to 2 hours, but I didn’t really feel the desperate urge to prove anything over this distance again.
So my watchwords were relax and enjoy. And relax and enjoy meant that I did some other races in the lead up to this race that I loved doing. It also meant that I ran the day before the race – which I wouldn’t normally do. But when Tony the Fridge asks you to join him for his last mile before the big day, you don’t say no.
And so I found myself soaking up the sunshine, running the last 1.1 miles of the route behind a man carrying a fridge, a junior football squad and a dozen Harley Davisons. The traffic coming the other way tooted their horns, we clapped and sang and it was just a mad unforgettable moment.
And the people at the Great North Run finish were kind enough to open up the finish line a day early for us to run through. So technically I got there a lot earlier than even the elite runners!
Anyway, onto the big day. And so much was different this year. I felt nice and relaxed and barely nervous at all. I went through the usual routine of breakfast, kit and getting a lift to the start line.
One of the first people I saw as I made my way to cross the media bridge was Anne Wilson, one of the few women to have run every Great North Run, usually dressed as she was today as Minnie Mouse. Now she doesn’t know me, but she stopped for a chat, and I was thrilled to wished well by such a lovely lady. Hope to see you at parkrun soon Anne.
Then something really unexpected happened and I saw my Fetch friend Mark Willett at the start. For the past three years we have managed to say hello to each other at the finish, and Mark was one of the first Fetchies I ever met. It was really good to see him. It doesn’t feel like a Great North Run unless we see each other, so I’m glad that tradition continues.
I continued wandering, not sure whether to get into the starting place already or whether I’d need the loo a couple more times (I did). And then I found myself a bit adrift as Eric Robson began to speak over the microphone and I knew what was coming.
It’s the moment that always gets me. In many ways, it’s what the Great North Run is about. It’s soppy and sentimental. But that’s Geordies for you – big on heart.
Before all the elites get introduced to the crowd, before the mass warm up and the hullaballoo, there is a moment of reflection, a moment to remember why we run and the people who can’t be there to see us do it. They play Abide with Me and I have a little cry. Do it every year. Some years more than others. My first run for Ava – well, that was very emotional.
This year, I just went a bit wobbly bottom lipped and looked around a bit lost, not knowing what to do. And then I heard a bloke, obviously quite upset saying, “I haven’t got any tissues”, and I knew I had (essential start line kit). So I passed him one and the lady with him, seeing I was a bit upset, asked if I was on my own and gave me a big hug.
And that’s why this isn’t just a race. The Great North Run isn’t just a mass half marathon. It’s something a bit special. Something that brings strangers together to share in a moment. To be human and decent and amazing. And I’m a soft old (adopted) Geordie too.
So thanks Steve, running for Cancer Research for your mum. I hope you had a brilliant day and finished smiling.
Crumbs, I better get on and tell the tale of the run hadn’t I?
It was a longish walk back from the start to my starting pen in White Zone F, but I did get to see Mo Farah being interviewed on TV from a distance. Then it was into the starting pen and warm up as usual, except this year I couldn’t see the screen or hear what was going on down the front end so well.
The Red Arrows flew over, which is always a great moment, but unlike previous years, I didn’t really start to get excited until we started to move forward, walking towards the start of the race. That’s when I got really lucky and spotted an Elvet Striders vest just ahead. I nipped through and tapped Jacquie on the shoulder and then realised I was in among a group of runners from the friendliest club in the North East, including Alister Robson and Greta Jones. And that’s how I ended up running the first few miles with the Striders 2 hour pace bus.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For first we had to start, and with 55,000 runners this can take some time. Normally I’m not that bothered about high fiving the starters and just want to get on with the run. But this year we had Olympians at the start – Mo Farah, Nicola Adams, Greg Rutherford and Ellie Simmonds.
Now, I am a bit of an Ellie fan. They are all awesome and I would be proud to shake the hand of any of them, but Ellie is my girl. I think it’s because she’s a swimmer and she seems to really enjoy competing and isn’t afraid to show her emotions. She surprised us all at the Beijing Olympics and then went and proved she is just a class act in London.
And I high fived her. And Greg Rutherford. And shouted like a loon “I love you Ellie! I love you Greg!” And it absolutely made my day. (Told you I was a soft old Geordie). In fact I was so distracted by it, I didn’t start my watch until I was over the line.
But now we were running, our race had started and I stuck with the Elvet crew, listening to Alister’s sound advice on pacing, taking it easy on the ups and not going off to fast, enjoying the downs and keeping our heads up, looking for the cameras.
It was brilliant. Giving over the stress of pace to the group meant I stayed relaxed and running easy. In fact, I clocked my slowest ever first mile of the race. This may not sound like a good thing to non runners, but it’s easy to get carried away at the start of a long race like this one and run too fast, only to pay for it later. Pacing can be really important on longer races and I have traditionally done the first one of this one too fast.
This time we were spot on target (or just a bit under) and heading for the Tyne Bridge, enjoying the crowds gathered up around the Central motorway. Over the bridge and I was watching out for Ian and Kelda, but failed to spot them. But I did see my friend Penny and Paul and gave them a shout. Sometimes it’s easier for runners to spot spectators than the other way round!
Anyway, on across the bridge, smiling and enjoying the best bit of the run as the band play The Blaydon races and we turn onto the Felling bypass. Somewhere along here I saw Tony the Fridge, and ran in front of him, blowing kisses to him and his wife Janita. I was on a high!
The miles were ticking over nicely with the Elvet crew. We weren’t saying much to each other, but it was nice to run with a small group. Some miles felt easy, others I thought the pace was getting a bit tasty. My plan, such as it was, was to run at about 9 min mile pace for as long as I could stand it, then back off if I needed to.
Almost from the start, I had a sense that it wasn’t going to be a great run like last year. Despite the company, despite feeling nice and relaxed, I just felt it wasn’t there today. No particular reason, other than, I didn’t have the heart for it today. I wanted to run, to run well, to push myself. But I didn’t have the burning desire to go and really have it.
At between 4 and 5 miles, I dropped a bit behind the Elvet crew. I kept them in sight for a good while, but then at one of the roundabouts or water stations, they disappeared from view and I was okay with myself to let them go.
I was still running well, I just needed to take control of my own race. I tried to sing my songs in my head to keep pace, but they slipped away as I was distracted by the bands, the runners, the spectators on route. I kept cheerful and easy, chatted with another Sands runner for a few steps and told her to look out for Tanni Grey Thompson at the water station at 8.5 miles.
I hadn’t been tracking my pace running with the Elvets, but now I took a glimpse at my watch as I clocked up another mile and started to make some calculations. I went through 10k in around 57 mins and surprised myself thinking it’s still on, I could still do sub 2 hours. But I knew there were some tough miles approaching.
The supporters were out in force, despite the rain. Oh I forgot to mention it was raining, didn’t I? Practically perfect running weather, with a bit of light drizzle throughout the race, not too hot and not too windy. But this is a testing course and today it tested me.
I know there’s a tough mile 8-9 and I was still using Alister’s advice of taking little steps and easing up the slight inclines. But I was finding it increasingly hard to stay focused. My mind was darting all over the place, trying to take things in, hear things, see things, calculate how I was feeling, how far was left to run.
At the bottom of the John Reid Road I saw Krayg from the work choir and shouted and gave him a wave. I kept trying to pick myself up with every boost zone or cheering bus. And they really helped keep a smile on my face, but I was drifting and I knew it.
I told myself to run for my good pals Scotty and Lesley, who I knew would be keenly waiting to hear how I’d got on and sent me lovely messages of encouragement. I told myself to run for Ian who puts so much into my training and really believes in me, and who even thought I could get a PB today. And that kept me going a bit further too.
I stumbled into the water station at 8.5 miles, waiting for the last minute to see Tanni Grey Thompson, looking rather damp but still handing out the bottles. That’s three years in a row, she’s been my water girl. I absolutely love that she does it and have so much respect for her for supporting the runners in a role that’s not glamorous or high profile.
Somewhere around here, or maybe it was a bit further on, I saw Tove just ahead and shouted out to encourage her. I’d just clocked my watch and I knew that I was still in the margins of a sub 2 hour run, which is the time Tove wanted. I think she was surprised to see me. I don’t really remember what I said, but she offered me a gel and I said I was okay. and then I put my stern voice on and said something like, “Don’t let it get away from you now!” And she was gone.
And I was okay with that. I really wanted that sub 2, but not for me, for you Tove. I knew you had it in you. I knew you could do it if you believed in yourself. And I think I knew at that moment that today, I didn’t.
I felt every footfall of the John Reid Road. Not the unsettling but glorious blur that it was last year when I managed to blank it from my mind completely. I had no energy for Oggies, but tried to keep a thumbs up for those cheering and smiling and shouting my name. I was running but felt like I was running backwards at this point.
Unbelievably, at 10 miles I was still in with a shout of doing something around 2:01 – 2:02. I smiled my way through the boost zone, enjoying the music. And I tried again to pick up my feet and push on. But my strength or my heart had gone. If it was my strength, it was the first time it’s given up this year and I cannot be angry with it.
Prince Edward Road approached and it’s never seemed so long. Here people start to walk, to drop, to fade. It’s dangerous territory. But the good folk hand out water and oranges and shout the loudest to keep you going. I grabbed a segment and sucked it dry, then ran alongside a group in Hawaiian party mode running for Great Ormond Street Hospice. They were having a whale of a time, playing to the crowds, waving an inflatable palm tree around. I drew on their support like it was my own.
And finally, finally, there’s the sea. It really took its time coming into view this year. And I know that means just a mile and a bit to go. And that I can run every step. I have slowed down. I’ve had to to keep going today. And that’s okay. So I make an extra effort to enjoy the last bit.
Running along the right hand side of the road, I high five the kids with their hands out stretched, give thumbs up and smiles to everyone who shouts my name along this last stretch (and there are plenty of them – thank you). And I scan the crowds until I spot Gary, whereupon I mug up for the camera, grinning, waving and generally looking like I’m having the time of my life. Which, in a weird way I am. The pressure’s off, it’s just another Great North Run.
And so to the final few metres. And I can normally conjure up a kick from about 400 to go. But it’s not there. It’s not there at 200 either. But I do manage a last gasp glory sprint over the grass and over the line as they open up the same finish funnel I passed through on Saturday, arms aloft, big daft grin and a mobot.
I’m so pleased to finish that I even forget to stop my watch until I’m at the end of the line to hand back my timing chip. It shows 2:06, but I’ll be able to knock something off that. My official result comes back later at 2:05:19 – slower even than the first time I ran it, but still a very respectable time.
There is more to say and process about this run. But I am tired and need my bed. So for now I’ll just say how very pleased and proud I am of all my friends who ran today. I have enjoyed catching up with your stories of the Great North Run