Years before I ever ran it, I reported on the Great North Run for BBC Newcastle and the local website. I mingled with the runners, took their photos and asked them why they were running. Every year, someone’s story broke through my professional mask and I had a little weep, and usually a hug.
It’s been the same since I started running it. In 2010 when I ran in memory of my baby sister Ava, I spotted a bloke dressed as a beer bottle with a sign on his back saying he was running for his son who he lost at birth too and we stood and hugged each other all the time Abide with me was playing.
Now, I take tissues, and I always have a couple spare.
2. Spot someone who’s run every single Great North Run
There are 103 of these very special runners who have done this race every year since it started. I usually see Anne Wilson who dresses as Minnie Mouse. They now get a special number.
3. Say hello to someone from BBC Radio Newcastle
Usually on the bridge over the start line. It’s always nice to get a wave from one of my former colleagues. I know they’ll be having a busy day!
4. Can’t believe I need the loo again
Honestly, talk about nervous race bladder. I always need to go at least one more time before the start.
5. Set off too fast and shout out oggies in the underpass
Even when I know I really should be trying to run a sensible first mile and save my energy, I get carried away by the atmosphere.
6. Miss people looking out for me
With a stream of coloured shirts passing by in their thousands, it’s often easier for runners to spot familiar faces in the crowd that the other way round, but every year I’ve missed seeing someone who later says they gave me a shout!
7. Get a bottle of water from Tanni Grey Thompson
The first time this happened was a complete fluke. I ran to the end of the water station just after 9 miles and took a bottle from a lady in a wheelchair, did a double take and realised who it was. After that, I knew she was there and made a point of looking out for her, even on my PB or bust run in 2011. Last year I stopped for a chat and a selfie
8. Thank the good folks of South Shields
By South Shields, you’re really flagging and locals know that climb up the John Reid Road is hard on tired legs, so they turn out in their thousands to urge you on. They shout, cheer, clap, spray hoses of water, anything to help you through the last few miles. Bless the mammies who hold out plastic boxes of jelly babies and orange segments. There have been times when I could have kissed you.
9. Sprint for the finish line
It’s a race, and I can’t help myself. No matter how tired my legs are and how much I’ve suffered and slowed down before I get there, I’ve always managed a death or glory spurt over the line.
10. Ask myself could I turn round and run back
I consider myself a runner. And I’ve not yet done a marathon. Would I? Never say never. But at the end of the Great North Run, the answer so far has been a resounding ‘no’.
And something that’s only happened once:
I got spotted on the TV coverage, running towards the finish line and waving for the camera last year.
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.
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…!”
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.
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)
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
I’ve done this the last couple of years after the Great North Run and I feel like it’s a nice tradition to continue. So, first of all a big thank you to all of you who supported my fundraising for Sands. My online donation page is full of generous donations including some from people I’ve never met. With so many people doing so many things for good causes, I really do appreciate that you just can’t keep on supporting every one, so thank you.
No lesser thanks to all those who have supported me through comments on my blog here, or through online discussions on Fetch Everyone, twitter and facebook. Throughout this year, I’ve really come to believe that I could achieve my goal of a sub 2 hour half marathon at the Great North Run, partly because I understand more about the best way for me to train, but more importantly because people who I respect and admire have believed in it too.
I could not believe how many people I knew at the finish and every single one asked ‘Did you get your sub 2?’ I guess I have gone on about it a bit, but it meant a lot to know that among your own amazing races you still remembered mine.
If I were to try and list everyone who has offered me a kindess, advice, support or even just a smile it would be a long list and I’d be bound to miss someone out. So please accept a blanket thank you.
But I do have to say special thank yous to Al, Lesley, Mark Willett and Jeff. Al/Scotty’s been gently nudging my mental attitude into a good place ever since he first commented on my first Great North Run blog post and is always a joy to run with. Lesley is my tri idol and someone I love to spend time with. I feel very lucky to have met them both.
Mark Willett may be surprised to see himself in that list, but little comments and well dones on my many running status updates coming from a runner who is himself hitting a fine run of form, really added to my confidence. The same goes for Jeff who always has time for me, and who it was a joy to see at the 9 mile point after a tough section of the race. Of course I should give an award to his dad, or Mystic Fred as I now think of him, who predicted my race time perfectly, despite me thinking it was over optimistic.
I want to say thank you to my Asic Gel Nimbus trainers. A mere 258 miles in, I’m sure we still have many more to look forward to. But you are my trusty travellers who’ve felt right from the very first run. You’ve never caused me a blister or a lost toenail.
And to all the volunteers, marshalls and support crew who help put on this amazing race. Every year I forget how many of you there are. But you’re brilliant. Especially the lady at the end near the elite tent who came over and gave my hand a squeeze as I got a bit teary and overwhelmed at what I’d just done.
And Tanni Grey-Thompson. The first year I grabbed a water bottle from you was a fluke. This year we had a date and there you were again. Only one of the UK’s best athletes giving up her time and making memorable moments for many runners.
A massive thank you of course goes to Gary, support crew extraordinaire. Who needs the elite’s minibus when you can be transported in style to the start? Who needs marathon photos, when he captures every grimace with 800m to go and the smiles and medals at the finish? Who need post-race nutrition drinks when he buys you fish and chips?
My running and training year seems ineluctably attached to this event and so September has become my time for looking back and looking forward. I could never have imagined when I first stepped onto the beach for a training session with Ian just how far that journey would take me.
Team Inspire had a great day at the Great North Run with three PBs smashed and Tony the Fridge getting lots of coverage and support for mad fundraising run carrying a 40k fridge.
Personally, I’ve completed not one, but three half marathons – each faster than then last. And just this year finished three triathlons – competing in three sports, rather than just one.
Miles and miles of training. Getting fitter, leaner and learning so much about myself. Doing things I never thought I was capable of. And finding so many friends. That’s real inspiration. That’s real deep in your heart stuff. And all it took was one person to get it started.
Was there anyone who didn’t know I was going for sub 2 hours for this?
I have felt relaxed and ready this week. Hoping hoping that I hadn’t peaked too soon with a couple of spot on target training runs in recent weeks. Good luck wishes from so many people this week, including some unexpected ones. Well, when it comes to running, I wear my heart on my sleeve.
So Saturday resting, eating well, trying to keep it cool and calm. Getting in touch with my top running buddy Alastair and hatching a plan that would guarantee I got to see him before the start and pass on some very important hugs.
And Sunday morning, after a decent night’s sleep, the sudden realisation this was it. Today was the day. The usual race routine, porridge, banana, multiple toilet stops and my secret ingredient – a home made oatmeal and raisin cookie to eat on the start line. The nerves were kicking in a little now.
Met up with Alastair and his running pal Gordon with plenty of time for piccies and a relaxed meander around the start line until about 10am when we went our separate ways to our pens. A fab warm off helped burn off some of the nervous energy and get the message through to my legs that they were going to have to do some work. And a nice little chat with a Helen from Elswick got my mind on the run.
Every year I’ve stood on the start line as a runner or spectator, something’s brought a tear to my eye. I held it together for Abide with Me this time, but when the Red Arrows flew over in the missing man formation, that did it for me.
We shuffled forward slowly, still nice and relaxed, laughing at the radio commentator reading out all the charity names and just walking to the start point. As the archway approached the excitement built and my feet began to move more quickly and then with a smile and a beep of the watch I was off.
Right hand side this year for a change and quickly up and over, hearing the shouts coming up from the underpass below. Finding space, conscious of trying to keep a steady pace. Last year I ran 08:09 for the first mile and paid for it around miles 9-11. I knew I had to keep steady, be sensible, focus and relax.
I allowed myself one oggy oggy oggy, then tried to keep my energy for the task ahead. High up above as we approached the Tyne Bridge someone shouted my name and I managed a wave, but could not see who it was.
Over the bridge and here come the Red Arrows again. Another raise of the arms in tribute and this run is really underway. Run my own run. Race my own race. I always seemed to find space and fixed my feet to the side of the white line. The band is playing the Blaydon races and I smile.
Checking the watch at regular intervals and seeing some alarmingly changing pace time – anything from 08:19 to 09:29, but settling, settling into a rhythm. A couple of girls always just ahead or behind me. One in a green cap and top, the pther in a pink hat and yellow blood cancer T-shirt. I kept them in sight as potential pace makers for most of the race.
Up and over onto the Felling bypass, picking up my feet and shortening my stride even for this little incline, conserving energy for later. Breathing steady, feeling good and strong.
The heat when it came was scorching. Motorway concrete and no hope of shade. A snatched sip or two of water at three miles and I’m on target. But my mind’s asking me, do you want this? Do you really care about it that much? And for a while I’m not completely sure, but I keep on running because I cannot do anything else.
After a good couple of runs without them, I decided to ditch the gels for this race. Run it minimally, just relying on a boost from a bit of dried mango. A bite planned for 6 miles came early as feel I’m drifting. And I kick back into focus.
Spectators, landmarks, music en-route – most of it just passes me by. I am running. In my own world. My own space. Just following that white line, reeling in the miles. I know this route so well, but I cannot tell you at any point where I am.
I spot the marker for 10k and check my time 54 something, that doesn’t look silly. The challenge is still on. I’m running well now, easing out the legs and picking up a quickish mile.
A band plays ‘Brown eyed girl’ and I give them a wave. A metro goes past and toots his horn. And at 8.5 miles as I’m really starting to feel it in my legs, there is Tanni Grey Thompson at the water station again, just like last year. I grab my bottle and get a shout out. A multiple gold medal winning athlete is my water girl today. I cannot let her down.
A couple of sips and I splash my face and neck, although the sun is being washed over by grey clouds now. 8-9 has been a tough mile, but I can pick this up. I spot Fred and Eric at the 9 mile marker (the only one I see all race), but at this time I cannot remember their names, so I shout ‘Jeff’ because I know he must be nearby. And then I see him and he shouts ‘Looking good’.
I’m biting off bits of mango now whenever I feel like I’m slipping, dipping into the ease of the earlier miles. Now the pace is toliing, now it feels heavy. But now is where it counts. Now I know I want this.
As I go through 10 miles the rain has started, a welcome cooling and ease. I want to wash my face in its reviving drops. Instead I check my pace again. If I go through in under 1h 30, it’s still on. The watch says 01:29:xx (quite possibly a 10 mile PB) and I know I can do this.
Where has the John Reid Road gone? Where is the scene of the hard battles? I do not see it, do not acknowledge its existence. there must have been a rise here, but athough my legs feel it, my mind does not take it in. This is where I have to stay strong, I have to keep pushing. This is where it hurts.
I do not allow myself to think of the cushion I have to my target time. I know there were some sub 9 minute miles back there, but I also know there’s a 9:2x on the deficit. Do not let this go now. I want this. if I can get to the bottom of Marsden bank in under 01:50 it is mine. As I pile down the steep bank overtaking runners, the watch says 01:48 with just over a mile to go.
But what a mile. At the turn, I see a runner just behind me fall flat on his face and someone picks him up. The crowds, sheltering under umbrellas are making some noise, shouting out names. And I am in a dream state, drifting, moving but not moving towards a distant distant goal I cannot see.
My eyes lazily scan the faces for Gary. This mile goes on forever. I start to turn over the legs, stretch out and try to pick up the pace, but it is too hard now and I just need to keep going. I see 01:54 on the watch and start to panic. How far do I have to go? I spot the 1km marker and mentally think five minutes to the end, but I cannot compute if that gives me enough time or not.
If I want this I still have to push. It’s not in the bag yet. I spot a guy with a huge camera at his face and it’s Gary. And I see the blue arches of the Elite finish ahead. We’re down to minutes now, seconds. Just keep running.
I have not the strength to push on much faster. I spot the army guys and now it’s not far now. As we turn away from the elite finish, it’s elbows out, runners clashing, pick up the feet, pump the arms and raise the hands as I come in under the finish line to a clock showing 02:08:xx. It took me 10 minutes to cross the line. Have I done enough?
In my fumble to stop my watch, I switch the screen back to time and I anxiously scroll through the menus to see. ‘Please, please, please,’ I say out loud to the amusement of the runner beside me. And the magic number appears 01:57:59 (Official time clocks me at 01:57:57).
Happy, happy day! I stumble towards the barriers near the elite tent, intending to stretch and get a little teary eyed. So, so happy with that. So, so happy that so many people will be so happy for me. So, so many good runners who have had faith in me, who have encouraged me to believe that I can do this.
I wander over to The F for Fetch flag to meet some of them, including Paul and Mark who I’ve now seen at the end of the Great North Run 3 times. And there’s Dawn looking fab in her sailor suit and Rebecca who I’ve never met until today. Another who knows I’m a triathlete. And Paul and Pen recently returned from Marathon du Medoc. And fab, fab Al for more hugs and photos. And they all want to know did I do sub 2? Well yes, the smile on my face says it all.
The sun is shining as we put on our T-shirts and medals and watch the Red Arrows draw a giant heart in the sky. What more could I ask for? Well the fish and chips on the way home were mighty good too.
What an amazing, fantastic, wonderful, emotional day. What a great run! I am so proud to have run this race again, my home race and shared it with so many big hearted people.
If I were any kind of writer I would make you read to the end to find out my result. But I’ve dragged so many of you on my quest for a sub 2 hour half marathon, that it feels unfair to drag it on much longer.
I didn’t do it. I ran 2:02:56 – a new PB. And honestly, I am happy with that. I ran this race as a runner and as best I could on the day. And it has been about so much more than that.
So many strange little coincidences, so many little things unplanned added up to make this an amazing day.
I didn’t sleep particularly well. I wasn’t conscious of being hyped up and over excited, but I drifted in and out of sleep and finally awoke to the sound of pouring rain. I’d already decided to run in my contact lenses, and it was a good job as yesterday I managed to lose the nose bit off my glasses. For once I managed to get them in first time.
Porridge, banana, blueberries and honey. Race kit ready and off to the start line in plenty of time.
I browsed back from the elite start searching out familiar faces. I saw Liz McColgan and the Leukaemia Research team all lined up for a photo in their yellow T-shirts and Jonathan Edwards about to do an interview.
I scanned the orange pen for Alastair and Anne, running friends from Fetch, but no luck. And found myself in white Zone D just before they announced the moment of reflection for the runners and played Abide With Me. And that’s how I found myself hugging a beer bottle at the start of the Great North Run.
I knew that would be an emotional moment for me. And I didn’t really know what to do, where to stand. And as I looked around, I saw a sign on a runner’s back, saying ‘Running in memory of my son, born prematurely’. So I said hello, and explained I was running for a lost little one too and Charlie Paterson, dressed as a beer bottle, put his arm around my shoulder and we both had a wee cry.
And I remembered darling Ava, and said her name, along with Max Jacob, James, George, Molly and Indah. All precious little lives lost, but not forgotten.
Tributes paid. Time to Geordie up and on with the race. We warmed up and cheered the wheelchair athletes off. Then the women, and then a massive cheer for Haile Gebrslassie and soon I found myself moving forward to the start line. A quick good luck to a couple of runners nearby, set the watch and go.
Steady, steady on the start, don’t go off too quickly. Shouts of ‘oggy, oggy oggy’ through the tunnels and waving to the crowds on the road bridges.
The Tyne Bridge comes quickly. Spot Jolene from work and call out to her. I spot Peachy’s support crew with their banner and not far afterwards hear someone call out my name. They’ve read it on my shirt and it just makes me beam, because I know they’ll read Ava’s name too as I pass.
Check the pace for the first mile 08:09 – oops it’s fast, more like 10k pace. Never mind, you can slow it down.
Wave to the cameras on the cherry pickers and woosh, the Red Arrows zoom over. Right time to settle in and run this race right.
Steady, steady up the banking, focus just a few feet ahead. Keeping pace with a runner in an orange football shirt that says Ebits on the back. No I have no idea.
Just like last time I seem to find pace and space, not too baulked by runners, no need to weave and dodge. Just slow for a few steps and then find a gap.
My mind is already tightly focused. The spectators go by in a blur. I grab water at 3 miles, even though I don’t feel like I need it. I have too many memories of being desperate for it at the end last year. And my mouth is a little dry from the excitement.
Into my pace now, into my place. Just me out for a Sunday run. Running my own race.
And then reading a white T-shirt that says Tony Horne, running for cash for Kids. And taking a second to process it, but thinking, ‘That must be Tony Horne’.
For those of you who don’t know, he’s a DJ on Metro Radio here in the North East and a massive Great North Run fan. He did a live show all day on Saturday from the Quayside, speaking to celebs and athletes, and me actually. I told him all about Ava and why this year’s run was so special.
So, in a crowd of 50,000 runners, I spotted someone whose hand it was a pleasure to shake and someone who knew who I was. Amazing!
I was pacing myself well at this point, running strong and not looking at the watch too often, but seeing 9 min miles when I did. Around mile 5 I think I spotted a slower one and picked up my feet a little, still telling myself to run strong. That I had time in the bank from a fast start and a wee cushion for my pacing.
At one point my route is rather restricted by a few runners running and chatting together and a wheelchair. I drop behind but cannot find a gap and don’t want to waste energy, or risk upsetting the runners behind me by dodging out wide. So I just ask if I can squeeze through, and they let me. It’s only when I watch the TV later, I realise its Helen Skelton off Blue Peter, that I’ve just pushed past.
I was clocking the miles until the end of the Tyne Tunnel – an important point for me, as I’d run the route from here last Friday, so I knew it would give me a good psychological boost. That and the band at the bottom of the John Reid Road, singing Walk this Way, really put a smile on my face.
Just after 8 miles, I went to grab water again. I’d been running down the left hand side of the road, but noticed the right hand side was less congested. Trying to keep moving through the water station and reach out for a bottle, held out by the most successful Great North Run athlete, Tanni Grey-Thompson. I shout ‘Tanni’ and she says, ‘Well done Michelle’. Wow! That has just made my day. I tweet her later and get a lovely reply.
And so to mile 8. So often my troublesome mile. And it’s no different here. I feel good. I feel strong. But the clock is starting to tell and I’m slowing down. I notice a slower pace mile, but tell myself not to worry. Just run to the finish line.
But the next mile’s hard too. Pulling on my calves and I’m starting to waver. I’m beginning to struggle and I know it. The dark thoughts don’t overtake me for long, as I know Fetchpoint’s not far away. Just run how you feel I tell myself. Today the time is not important.
Let me explain Fetchpoint. You may remember that I log my runs and chat to other runners on a site called Fetch Everyone. It’s like a social networking site for runners – a bit like belonging to a virtual running club. And when they’re not running and there’s a big event on, like the Great North Run, sometimes Fetchies arrange a cheering zone along the route. They are usually stocked with jelly babies and hugs and always guaranteed to be noisy.
As I approach, I yell ‘Fetchie’ with all the breath in my lungs. And I high-five Dave, Jeff, Lesley and a runner I only know as Geordiegirl. I’m beaming and put on a good show for some good friends.
But a few hundred metres past my fabulous chums and I start to pay for my exhuberance. I’m slowing. I bloody will not stop. The legs fall more slowly and slowly. I’m plodding.
Do the opposite, dig in. It’s the sodding Nook again isn’t it? Push on. But hopes are fading. Just keep looking forward, pushing forward. Ignore the walkers. You’re not going to walk today.
Just like last time I grab some proferred orange segments on Prince Edward Road and keep going. My mango treats and gel have long been used up. It’s just stubbornness and adrenaline now.
And then there it is, that grand vista. It’s the sea, the sea. ‘Just over a mile to go’ I say to the runner beside me. ‘We can do that’. And we smile.
I pile down the bank picking up the pace and push on just a little bit into the roar of the crowds at the sea front. I don’t have the same speed in my legs as I’ve had on training runs, but I manage to pick it up a bit.
I feel a brief twinge of cramp in my calf and grimace. Someone calls out my name from the sidelines. It happens again. And I’m just pushing on, overtaking runners, desperate to see the 800m sign.
Another shout out and another. You are lovely people. I will finish this smiling. 800m and tell myself to finish in 10k pace if I can. It’s so close, I can taste it.
Past the marker. I can see the 200m sign ahead. And then there he is. Gary, in the crowd. I cannot believe I’ve spotted him again. I call out and he sees me.
At 200m I no longer care, hammer down, arms pumping, who needs to breathe anyway? Spotting the elite finish and turning to run over the grass. Stopping the watch, knowing I haven’t done sub 2 hours, but not caring. Feeling a bit wibbly in the funnel, but welcoming the stretch to tear off the timing chip.
And then away over the field, and a stretch by the fence. And a few tears. Because it’s been emotional. But not many, because it’s been so amazing and full of so many memories.
I called this a run with the stars. I don’t mean the athletes or the celebrities, although they add to the sense of occasion and I’ll always be proud to say I ran with Haile. I mean the real stars. The hundreds of thousands of people that do this. That take on this challenge for thousands of reasons. The people that come out and support it, cheering and yelling, offering biscuits, jelly babies and hose downs. And the people that make it possible. The St John’s crew holding out globs of vaseline. The army of marshalls, the people collecting chips at the finish and picking up all the rubbish at the start.
This is an amazing run. It is an amazing experience. It’s worth every ache and pain, every worry and niggle, just to say I’ve done it. And I didn’t do it alone.