The Blaydon Race is the North East runner’s carnival. In a world of corporate mass participation events and health and safety overkill, it retains a sense of anarchy and craziness.
It sticks to its traditions. Always on the same day, no matter when that falls. Starting from a pub in an area where you might expect to find the real-life inspiration for a couple of Viz characters, it follows the route described in an ancient music hall song.
Or follows it as as near as anyone can make out, given that most of the landmarks are now long gone. Some still remain, like Armstrong’s factory, only it’s not called that anymore. And others have dropped out of memory all together.
But still we gather, the north east running community, from the fast lads and lasses to those happy to party at the back. For one evening, we fill the streets with colour and the smell of deep heat. Stilettoes and leopard print give way to rubber soles and club vests, packed into cobbled streets more traditionally drowning in beer and curry sauce.
We stop the traffic. Call out the Lord Mayor to ring an ancient bell. We take over the high way. And we run.
We run. We shuffle. We walk. We limp. We bound over pavements and kerbstones and watch out for sign posts. Catching elbows, tripping over feet, seeking a space, a way through the throng.
We follow the white lines. Feet pounding concrete. We think ‘Scotswood Road is a very long way’. We give thumbs up to the band playing by the car showroom and then fall into watching the endless pattern of coloured shirts and slogans down the grey slipway into the sun.
We issue a collective groan as we turn left, up and over the bridge then filter down to the shade of the riverside. We pass each other side by side, high fiving, shouting out to fellow friends; dodging the cups of water strewn on the grass and tarmac.
With more than half the distance run, we twist and turn onto yet more concrete. Round the back of an industrial estate. In and out of units. Not a place you’d chose to run.
But we’ve taken over. We rule the road tonight. So clear out. Keep out of our way! Or get swept along in the mad jamboree.
Just as we start to think about the finish, there’s another crest to rise and another series of corners, taunting us with an ending we can hear but cannot see. Crowds now, hanging over barriers, caught behind fences like caged animals, shouting sounds we cannot comprehend because all we can hear is the roar of our heartbeat in our ears, yelling just a few more steps…
And suddenly with a last mad gasp death or glory sprint it’s over for another year. And although we’re hot and tired and legs are weary, we’re smiling and thinking ‘when can I do that again?’
We collect our rewards, beer and sandwiches and inspect our race t-shirts hoping this is one of the years where they look decent and we can wear them proudly. And we gather on the grassy bank to spot friends, family and fellow runners to toast their success.
For this runner, this year’s run was a crazy ask, coming as it did on the back of a long, hard event. But I bounced. Far more than I expected to.
I set off too fast, as I always do. I sang and blew kisses to Tony the Fridge en route. I flew up the flyover and was genuinely chuffed to see the girl who’d been struggling a few moments earlier come past me before the finish. And even though I was expecting them to give up on me at some point, my legs kept bouncing right to the end.
It may have been my slowest time over this course, but it was still faster than I expected or had any right to run. It’s a silly distance and it’s not an attractive route. But the Blaydon race is the only event I’d even consider doing after a standard tri the day before.
From gathering with the Fetch crew at the start; to spotting parkrunners and work colleagues in the race; to hearing my name called from the sidelines. From its traditions and connections to the roots of this area, to its crazy anarchy and celebration of life as a runner, it retains a very special and unique place in my heart.