The traditional warm-up race for the Great North Run put on by Tyndale Harriers, is a well organised run along quiet and closed roads between the outskirts of Hexham and Ovingham in the Tyne Valley. It gets its nickname from the excellent sandwich and jelly served at Ovingham School at the end – a brilliant incentive and reward after a long run.
I was a bit nervous. Even though I had a plan to run at a sensible pace and use it as a test for next week, there’s something about it being a race. I was further unsettled by a couple of changes to the usual instructions for parking due to an out of action bridge and realised I’d been dreaming about getting lost and turning up late to the race.
In reality, I found the parking spot in plenty of time to catch the first of the transport buses to Hexham. It was sunny and warm, so I left my extra layers in the car, but took my sunglasses and a pocket full of jellybabies to the start. Once I’d collected my number and chip from the sports centre, there was a good deal of waiting around before the start of the race.
I saw a few people I know from parkrun, but far fewer than in previous years. With so many great local races on at this time of year, we tend to spread out a bit. I wasn’t really in a very talkative mood. I find other runner’s nervousness infectious and wanted to just keep myself right in my own head today.
It’s a good walk to the start of the race, on the edge of a slightly less than picturesque industrial estate. But once off and along the country roads it soon opens up into a really pleasant course.
It felt like I was barely among the running pack as the colourful club shirts stretched away into the distance and the crowd soon thinned out. My goal was to go steady, see if I could feel 10 min miles, just using my watch to check now and again, but not being a slave to it.
I ran the first couple of miles near to a group of Saltwell Harriers girls. They kept me amused with their chatter as I ran mostly just in front of them, or sometimes just behind a leading pair, one of whom was called Helen. We were near the back of the pack, but I make it a rule never to look back in a race, and it was clear from their chat that they were targeting 10 min miles too.
The pace felt nice, just right actually, not too slow, just steady and easy on the breathing. I did feel like I was holding back, but knew I’d have to do that to keep going strong. The sun had come out hot, so we took what shade we could by the road sides and I got asked a couple of questions about my shirt after putting ‘The Scribbler’ on the back.
As we came round into Corbridge, we were a bit held up by a combine harvesting machine in the road. Even running alongside it on the pavements felt narrow. Helen ran beside me for a while at this point and I learned she was just coming back after a a long injury lay off and using the run as a test to see if she was up to doing the Great North Run. I thought she was a strong runner. As we left the village, she dropped back to run with the others in her group, and I kept expecting them to come past me, but they never did again.
There’s a long slow climb at about four miles, but at this point I was feeling strong. I just kept my legs turning over at the same pace, but took smaller steps and focused on keeping my heart rate and breathing nice and even, not powering through and burning myself out. I suspected my pace target would have dropped a bit, but that was okay.
There were some good patches of shade and trees around this section and a welcome water station between 4 and 5 miles. I dropped my first bottle, but managed to grab a second and keep moving, drinking on the run, practising for next week.
Now I was running on my own, slightly aware of the group behind me, but feeling like I’d pulled away from them. Over the next mile or so I managed to reel in the two other runners in immediate sight – a guy and a girl in a Tyne Bridge Harriers vest.
One of my running friends recently paid me a compliment about being a ‘thinking runner’. That’s very true, but sometimes it’s been to my detriment, in that I think too much, or endlessly ponder the ‘what ifs’. Some of my best runs have been when I’ve stopped consciously thinking and just focused on the immediate now, a bit like meditation I guess.
I was trying to do that today. Keeping it simple, having a plan of 10 minute miles and jelly babies at 3, 6 and 9 miles. When I could feel my mind wandering, I just kept saying to myself, ‘keep going like this’. I had confidence in my pace, it felt nice and I was relaxed, so ‘keep going like this’.
As the watch clicked over from mile 5 to mile 6, I stole a glance at my pace and saw 10:01. Lovely, bang on target. As I saw the 7 mile marker, I thought to myself ‘just a parkrun to go’ and dug in up a little rise.
It was hot now, and the hedge-lined lanes alongside the fields didn’t offer much shade. My thoughts had become a bit knotty, my breathing heavy and the effort to keep the same pace, all the more harder.
I started to break down the rest of the race, took another jelly baby and told myself, ‘water at mile 8, jelly baby at 9, and then you’re in the last mile.’ I thought I’d got myself out of a tricky spot, but later my splits will show I had started to lose pace. A cheery and unexpected shout from a running friend helped lift my spirits around this point too.
But, yes, I really was starting to feel it and at mile 8, I let my mental drive go and gave myself permission to slack off if it meant I just kept moving. My feet were really hot and I was no longer running with good form. I tried a couple of times to move more onto the forefoot, but couldn’t sustain it, so drifted back to a flat shuffle. ‘Just this’, I told myself, ‘just keep going like this’ – keep it simple, accept the moment and just keep moving forward.
Up ahead there was a girl with a blonde pony tail walking. Slowly, slowly, I reeled her in, then gave her an encouraging shout as I passed. I was really pleased when she started running again, even though she soon outpaced me. Sometimes we all need a little boost and she was obviously a better runner than me, maybe battling her own mental demons or the heat.
Into mile 9 and it’s almost done. Apart from the hill. Yeah, it’s a killer at this stage of a 10 miler and although I remembered it was to come, I couldn’t exactly remember where it was. As I peeled up out of a tree covered section, it became unmistakable.
It really was a shuffle. The teensiest, tiniest steps that were barely any faster than walking, but I was determined I was going to run every step, even if it was horribly slowly. The marshals near the top were brilliant, no doubt having seen many pained faces that day. I managed to get to the top without blowing up and then I knew it was as good as over.
Just a long, slightly twisting road to the finish. Tantalising in that you couldn’t quite see where the end would be, although I could sense it was soon as runners started to appear running back up the road from the finish. With encouragement all round, I tried to pick up my feet again and push on for the last little bit. One guy said, just 1/4 mile to go, and I believed him, and he was right.
But still you can’t see the finish as it’s round a right turn. But as I approached, a girl appeared from nowhere at my shoulder and overtook me. I was done, I just wanted to finish. And then, no, I wasn’t having it. Spotting a narrow path along the verge that I thought I remembered as being within sprint distance of the finish, I put the pedal down. She came with me for a bit, pushing on, but I found another gear and saw the inflatable finish line and went for it. Thank you, whoever you were for getting a sprint finish out of me today. That really wasn’t on the cards.
I crossed the line in 1h47 by my watch (official time to follow). Not quite 10 min mile pace all the way round, but I was very happy with my run. I’d kept my head, run to plan, not lost myself in ‘what ifs’ or stressed too much about pacing. I’d tested out my race kit and water and fuelling and it all went pretty well.
I shake my head at the thought that I ran that course in under 1h30 3 years ago. How well was I running then! I don’t think I ever realised. But back then I was mainly running and had much more specific training and mileage in my locker.
Today, I’m feeling positive, mentally and physically strong and as ready as I can be to give the Great North Run a good shot next weekend. But advice and encouragement is always welcome.
Splits and stuff:
10 miles 1:47:00