Yesterday was the day. The day of the presumptuously-titled Great North Run, which I’d been working towards since the spring. To cut a long story short, it was indeed great, it was indeed Northern, and it was indeed a run. But why would I cut a long story short when there’s chance to pen a really verbose analysis?
The Great North Run is the biggest half marathon in the world. As compared to the training race I did last month, it’s the king of the running jungle, squatting over a dormouse. This year, some 56,000 runners were registered to take part, including:
– dozens of men in drag
– a 92-year-old pensioner
– Natasha Hamilton from Atomic Kitten
– Haile Gebrselassie / Mo Farah / Kenenisa Bekele.
It’s also my local race. Though I’ve lived in London the past five years (and went to a Southern Jessie university), I’m from the North East, and my loyalties haven’t altogether faded. If you lived in my town, and wanted to run a race, you wouldn’t think to do a marathon, or a 10k, or some some obscure fell-running hell-simulation. Your first port of call, always and without exception, would be the Great North Run.
My schoolteachers ran the Great North Run. My family friends ran the Great North Run. Local wits ran the Great North Run dressed in tutus. Both my parents are grizzled GNR veterans. When I decided to strike ‘half marathon’ off my bucket list, there really wasn’t any other option.
The race tied in nicely with a long weekend at my folks’ house. Coming off the back of a mind-warpingly exhausting few weeks, I was ready for the second bit – bed, bath, food, wine, R&R and TLC. I was less ready, however, for a 13.1 mile race which I fairly transparently craved a ‘time’ in.
“I’m doing it for charity,” I told people. (This was true.)
“I’m not hoping to get a decent time; just getting round would be enough,” I told people. (This was bullshit.)
Much to my discredit, I *really* cared about my speed. Running for me, as well as being physically beneficial and psychologically remedial, has proven an apt way to channel my competitive instinct. I thrive on the buzz of getting better; of striving to push my own limits and, yes, beat other people too. Does this make me a bad person? Considering that many of the runners I ‘beat’ were there in memoriam of a loved one, I expect it probably does. But I did raise £220 for Cancer Research, so my malevolence has its limits.
In any case, a good time looked unlikely because I was just so fatigued. My only training that week, a 4.5-mile jog on Thursday lunchtime, was like wading through a glutinous pond on badly-oiled robot legs. And the next afternoon, I fell asleep straight after lunch, like somebody’s alcoholic granny.
By the time Sunday morning came round, I’d done a lot of sleeping, a lot of eating and a lot of speed-reading Paula Radcliffe’s autobiography. Practically sweating malt loaf, I boarded the train with my Mum.
Mum was following a strict itinerary. She would come with me as far as the start line, leave before the gun, jump on the Metro, pop up at mile 8, cheer me on, hop back on the Metro, arrive at mile 13, and emerge at the finishing line to join forces with my Dad and sister. I should point out here that my Mum is incredible. I should also point out the utter impracticability of this plan, which required her to sync up the Metro times (unreliable) with my projected speed (made-up numbers).
The train was packed out. So much so that we had to stand in a huddle near the toilet. It was a bit like being on the tube at rush hour, only everyone was wearing running shorts and trainers and tatty old fleeces, and nobody was attempting to use the Financial Times as a barricade. By the time we arrived in Newcastle, the atmosphere was galvanising; the same electric hum of energy you normally get before a football match. Hundreds upon hundreds of people were making their way in the same direction, as if suckered in by a force field.
With two hours to go, the start section was already bustling. It was nearly a mile in length, which wasn’t ideal for the poor sods at the back who actually had 14 miles to conquer. People were occupying themselves mostly by queuing for Portaloos, drinking isotonic muck, then queuing for Portaloos again. I occupied myself mostly by staying warm. I was wearing a hoodie from a charity shop, modishly layered with a bin bag.
We began to file into our holding pens. These were a bit like nightclubs, only with BUPA volunteers in lieu of bouncers, colour-coded numbers in lieu of a VIP list, and an air of disgusting athleticism in lieu of booze. So not really much like nightclubs, then, although they did have the cheesy music. Motivational mash-ups were pounding out of the speakers, punctuated with soundbites from Iwan Thomas and Mel C.
A Mr. Motivator-style stretching zealot guided us through a warm-up. Orange zone C thrummed with anticipation. The wheelchairs were off – then the elite women – and then, at 10:40, us non-elite blobs, guided by the elite men.
I had been warned to expect congestion – bottlenecks formed by walkers, and banana suits blocking the road. This much was a wild exaggeration. There was a bit of ducking and diving, sure – and I definitely accidentally kicked a few men in the shins – but for the most part I was swept along in a steadily moving wave.
It’s difficult to get a handle on the scale of the event when you’re actually there. On TV, you can see the aerial footage – thousands of runners streaming towards South Shields, like ants in search of a sugar stash. When you’re one of them, you simply fix your gaze on the 20-odd T-shirts in your eyeline.
I followed the same T-shirts over the Tyne Bridge, past the Gateshead Stadium, past the water stations and the steel drum bands and the local kids handing out jelly beans; up the interminable hill between miles 10 and 12 and down the steep drop toward the sea front; past the flashing sign that read ‘Final mile!’, then ‘800 metres to go’, ‘400 metres’, ‘200 metres’, sprint finish… Had we actually spoken to each other, as opposed to diverting our laryngeal energy into our legs, it might have been a bonding experience.
This time round, I did not stop, legs caving in on me at the nine-mile marker. I grabbed a water bottle at one point but promptly dropped it, because it was too difficult to drink and breathe and run. I also attempted to seize some jelly beans, but instead nearly knocked the bowl out of the poor child’s hands. I was drugged up with that corniest of sentiments – the joy of being alive.
I’ve experienced ‘runner’s high’ before, but this was on a different scale. I felt strong. I felt capable. I felt unquenchable. I also felt like a bit of a berk, having actually obeyed the order “wave your arms in the air if you’re feeling goooooood!” from some bloke with a megaphone in the ‘Boost Zone’. But however stupid I looked, it didn’t matter. I came in at 1:37:45, beating last month’s time by six minutes.
The support, throughout the race, was exactly as rumour would have it. I probably didn’t get the measure of it, because I was just so focused (and had my iPod on throughout) but I did high-five dozens of little kids and join the chant of ‘Oggy Oggy Oggy’. You’ve got to hand it to the Geordies: who else would line the pavements to watch running, of all things, on such a dismal, rainy, prematurely wintry morning? I hope they got the spectacle they were hoping for when the gaggle of guys in swimming trunks rushed past.
Official stats: I was 2,733rd out of c. 40,000 finishers (2,732nd if you disregard the token Oompa Loompa), and in the top 200 women. If you’d told me I could do this six months ago, I’d have questioned your capabilities as a soothsayer.
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands