Every year after the Great North Run, the invitation comes through, normally with an increased price, to enter next year’s event. Every year I think twice about it. It’s crowded, it’s not a very picturesque course and it’s overpriced. And every year, I enter again. Why? It’s the event that got me into running; 2006 was my first year and I have run it every year since; the atmosphere on the course is amazing; it’s a challenge with inclines that seem to go on forever; I can run and socialise with friends, before, during and after; it has people from all over the world competing; it is the biggest event of the year, bar none, not just for athletics, in the Northeast of England; it is a whole weekend event with good quality junior races around the Quayside on the Saturday, in which my children take part; because I live only 3 miles from the start, my family can watch me run in a big, televised event without having to travel long distances. For all its detractors, and there are plenty, it’s still my favourite event of the year.
In the past, most years, my training has been focussed to peak at the Great North Run. This year was different. The London Marathon was my main event of the year and I haven’t been 100% physically since, so I was not expecting great things. My target was anything under 1hr30m, compared to a personal best of 1hr24m39s and 1hr28m02s last year. That meant an average pace of about 6m45s per mile to make sure. I followed my usual preparation during the week leading up to it and that seemed to go well, but I wasn’t overly confident of achieving my target. It would take a huge effort to do so, heavily reliant on my left leg holding out. I had done a couple of half-marathon distances in training, but slowed significantly towards the end in both. Hopefully, that would not be the case today.
Meeting up with clubmates beforehand, we did a warm-up together and entered Zone B at about 10.10, half an hour before the race start. I was nervous about my left knee, which seemed to be locking randomly, and about my left hip flexor which has been weak for some time. Grouped together, we applauded the elites, wished each other a good run and, before we knew it, the gun had gone to start the race. I crossed the line about 1m40s after the gun, a little bit longer than normal. The first mile is always crowded, but that normally stops you from starting too quickly as it’s mainly downhill. The Tyne Bridge comes upon you very quickly. While crossing it, I passed Rob Deering, a comedian who presents a runner-oriented podcast called Running Commentary with another comedian, Paul Tonkinson. It’s funny, informative and entertaining wherever you listen to it and recommended for all runners, whether on the run or not. I got a cheer by name from a spectating clubmate just after the bridge which is always good to hear, and the left turn onto the Felling Bypass was accompanied by a band playing the Blaydon Races. Brilliant.
It continued to be crowded along the Felling Bypass towards Gateshead Stadium, but it didn’t slow me down at all. I wanted to ensure that my splits were more controlled than normal as that was the only way I was going to hit my target, so I was more conscious than usual about looking at my Garmin to ensure I was in the range. I was trying to make sure miles 2 to 8 were between 6m30s and 6m50s per mile, accommodating the inclines and declines of the route. I was achieving that, but I wasn’t finding it easy. There is always a lot of discussion whether there are any actual hills on the Great North Run. Some years I don’t notice them at all. Other years, they can feel as bad as the steepest hills imaginable. Really, they are best described as inclines. They are certainly not steep, but they go on for a long time and can sap your strength. At the top of the mile 5 hill at Heworth roundabout, the highest point on the course, I was promising myself I would never do another half marathon or marathon again. Then I passed a clubmate guiding a blind runner and, after giving them both encouragement, I took one of my two gels, this one with a caffeine boost, and pushed on. The Great North Run is the second biggest event of the year in Britain for charities after the London Marathon. There was a woman in front of me wearing angel wings running for Pancreatic Cancer Research. This was the disease that took my father-in-law, which was why I noticed it. She was running at a very similar pace as me and had a vest with her name in big letters so all I could hear from the crowd was “Well done Lindsay”. I must have heard her name at least a hundred times because we were never more than about 10 yards from each other between mile 5 and the finish! In fact, look closely at the header picture of this blog, taken in the last mile and you can see her in the background.
The stretch approaching halfway is normally a bit of a deadzone support-wise, but not this year. Seeing another two friends cheering us on was great. By mile 8, I was having to dig really deep to maintain the pace. The chimp in my brain was telling me to just take it easy, forget about my target, stop and walk for a while and drift to the finish and it was very tempting. I consciously removed those thoughts and gritted my teeth as I passed a band playing Mr Brightside by The Killers which never fails to get me going. I can always tell when I am at the limit physically when my head starts feeling slightly fuzzy and I had hit that point. I had my second energy gel and needed water which came at the mile 9 water station. Every year, I take a bottle from Tanni Grey-Thompson, winner of 11 Paralympic gold medals and a Baroness no less. She is there every year at the same water station on the same side of the road. “Thanks Tanni”, I shouted as I grabbed the bottle from her hand and she responded “Well done Neil!”. How did she know my name, I wondered in my confused state. I was wearing my Gosforth Harriers vest; not the vest with my name on it. Did she remember me from previous years? Yeah, right! It took a few minutes for me to realise that our number bibs have our names on them and, because Neil is only four letters long, it was printed in quite large letters. I was conscious that miles 9 and 10 saw my splits drift slightly outside the 6m50s pace range. Not far, but enough to get me worried about hitting my target. It was going to be tight. I started trying to work out what I needed to do over the last 5k; 3.1 miles; a parkrun. 7.00 minute mile pace would do it with a bit to spare. I caught up with a clubmate. We gave each other encouragement and I’m sure we both found a little bit of extra speed as we urged each other on. I then passed a partially-sighted clubmate who was being guided and shouted encouragement to him as well. Blind and partially-sighted runners start with the elite women, so, together with their guides, they have a clear course to run for at least some of the way. I have several good friends who act as guides, both inside and outside the club, and it’s a very positive and admirable thing to do. Kudos to them all.
I always find miles 10 and 11 to be the toughest. They are predominantly uphill when you are already flagging. My pace had drifted well outside 7 minute mile pace now. At about 11 miles, a fellow runner asked me “Is that the end of the hills?” to which I answered “Yes, all downhill from here”, probably a little prematurely! I hope it gave him a boost anyway! The right time to say “Yes” to that question would coincide with one of the greatest sights in world sport as the sea comes into view for the first time. For me, that is the start of the finish. Then, all the height you have gained since mile 8 is lost in a single steep downhill into Marsden Grotto before the left turn onto the home straight, or the longest mile in the world as I call it. You’re effectively home, but you still have about a mile and a quarter to go. Another glance at my watch and a futile attempt to make a complex calculation of adding a quarter of 7 to 7 and then adding that answer to the elapsed time on my watch. I gave up and just ran as fast as my legs would carry me. The 800m to go banner came into view. Half a mile. I should be able to do that in 3m30s. My watch was on 1hr26mXXs. I couldn’t read the seconds as the numbers were too small. I must beat 1hr30m. The 400m to go banner arrived after what seemed like an eternity, well, 600m anyway. I didn’t look at my watch anymore; I wasn’t able to change the outcome now; I was running as fast as I could. I turned right onto the grass, with the finish line about 30m away. Another look at the watch – 1hr28m50-odd seconds. Blimey, a whole minute underneath 1hr30m. Even better, a sprint would get me under 1hr29m. I crossed the line and stopped my watch at 1hr28m58s, an average pace of 6m45s per mile. Result!
I slowly gathered myself as I walked through the finishing funnel. The clubmate I passed at mile 10 slapped me on the back. He had been only 10-15 seconds behind me for the last 3 miles. Water was being handed out. I did a double-take as I recognised the person giving me the bottle. It was only Sally Gunnell, British Olympic 400m hurdles champion from 1992 and former world record holder! Getting water from Tanni Grey-Thompson and Sally Gunnell on the same day! That’s the Great North Run for you. I bumped into another clubmate while getting my medal. We congratulated each other, collected our goody bags with the t-shirt inside and I then wandered around the sponsors’ tents seeing what freebies were being given out.
Getting back to Newcastle after finishing is never an issue for me as I finish well in advance of the crowds. When retrieving my bag from the baggage bus, I saw a woman with angel wings and Lindsay on her Pancreatic Cancer Research vest. She recognised me as well and we had a chat about the run. A quick change of clothes and I managed a warm-down jog to the metro station where I met another clubmate. We went to the pre-arranged, post-run meeting place, a pub in South Gosforth where we waited for all the other club runners to convene, rehydrate, share experiences and celebrate some outstanding performances! Final stats showed I came 736th overall out of 43,065 (top 1.7%) and I was 84th in my age group out of 5,550 (top 1.5%). After some recent performances that left me down-hearted, this has revived my running spirit. Another excellent Great North Run day. I’ll receive the reminder to sign up for the 2018 run within the next few days. Will I? Absolutely!