Sunday September 15th. 6:13am.
The sports hall I had slept in was still pitch black. I had been awoken by the sound of other people, and not my phone for once. The camper bed I had slept on was still hard as ever. Wide awake, off I went and showered. I decided not to dawdle too much – I got changed into my kit, and went out with Rob to get the widely discussed breakfast in a bag. Many were already speculating what we were going to receive, most of us guessing at a combination of porridge, granola, fruit, etc. – basically, items you’d expect in a takeaway bag. The weather wasn’t fuelling our intrigue – it was forecast to be wet and windy, and indeed the rain had already been falling hard overnight. We went to the nearby cafeteria, got in the queue and subsequently collected our bags. Surprised? Not at all. We got pot porridge, a banana, and some orange juice. We also got some croissant object that in my case had possibly lemon curd on it? Bleargh. I didn’t much the like the look of it to be honest. We sat with another runner from Derbyshire who told us the previous year they’d laid on full English breakfasts for everyone. This seemed a cheap job in comparison. Still, its hard to argue against the benefits of oaty porridge, even convenience style, and indeed bananas. I didn’t like bananas, though all too aware of their many benefits. But I’d paid £4.50 for this breakfast, and I wasn’t going to waste it. So I ate it – and enjoyed it. I saved the croissant for the family. I can’t remember what became of it.
Soon it was 9:00am. I’d been getting pumped in the corridor waiting for Rob, listening to a soundtrack mixing AC/DC, Beastie Boys, Hatebreed, that Public Enemy track and Judas Priest among others, doing a few stretches and occasionally pacing up and down like an impatient tiger. We were ready to go. Off we headed to the baggage buses on Claremont Road. By now the weather had cleared up – there was a bit of a breeze and it remainded overcast, but otherwise, the rain wasn’t falling. Excellent! We got our baggage on the bus and headed to the crossing point. I wished two fellow MND Association fundraisers good luck, from one campaigner to another two. I sadly didn’t see Paula, the MNDA fundraising racing in a giant blue and orange thumb costume, but nonetheless it was good to see some of our 253-strong team dotted amongst the many charity shirts and vests.
10:15am – we were now in our designated Orange Zone C, two zones behind the elite runners, the top club runners, the celebrities. Now it was real. Yes, I was about to run the world’s greatest half marathon, the Great North Run, on behalf of the MND Association, for whom I’d been raising funds for over the last six months. I’d run to work several times and in numerous challenging ways. I found numerous hills to get my teeth into. I badgered people to stake on my finishing time at work.
I’d overcome injury, annoying doctors, sleepless nights, self-frustration and a worrying lack of money. I’d kept focus on the mission at hand.
And now it was finally here.
The ‘legend’ Rod Dale got everyone warmed up with a mass workout. I’d never heard of him before but I felt limbered up anyway. Good stuff. Cue 10:40am. We were off. I don’t remember hearing the gun, just a loud cheer. Me and Rob set off together, wishing each other good luck and pledging to keep in touch should that be the last we saw of one another. The pace began to pick up as we neared the start line, and roughly five minutes later after the clock started ticking, I was over the start line.
To my surprise, I was straight into my stride. I had been concerned about falling prey to my biggest weakness – going off like a shot. But the pace was quick, and it wasn’t as crowded as I imagined. So I just went with it. I began overtaking people like it was a big game of Road Fighter. Only with people. And without cars. It wasn’t long before the shout of ‘Oggy oggy oggy!’, a tone which would populate pretty much the rest of the course, boomed under one of the many tunnels of the A167. Whether it be young boys & girls, men, women, or even bands at the side of the course mid-song. It was impossible not to shout back at them, indeed mean-spirited if you didn’t indulge the kids who had come out in droves with their families to offer oggys, high fives and numerous sugary snacks.
I began to get worried when only three miles in, I could feel a bit of discomfort building in my right heel. I’ve had a few injuries in training, but never one around the heel area. I tried to ease off a little, but inevitably I couldn’t resist continuing to go for it. I wasn’t going to have my big day disrupted. Still, it continued to persist – it ebbed and flowed for the next six miles, right up to about mile 9. I was a nag, a persistent bugbear, and yet I continued to forge on, trying to weave between pedestrian traffic, using the kerbs and verges for access. The numerous water points were helping, allowing me to continually replenish and stay hydrated. I even introduced myself to a fellow Running the World member, Joe, proudly wearing the RTW shirt, before continuing ahead.
6 miles in, and rain started to fall. Was this the torrential downpour forecast? Well, we all certainly got a good soaking. But the crowd continued to cheer. The runners, continued to press ahead. And, as Saxon once sang, the bands played on. The rain didn’t stick around long – a refreshing soak to keep us all relatively cool. Weather wise, despite the terrible forecast, this was working out perfectly I was determined to keep inject pace, using occasional bursts of speed to overtake other runners and to keep my mileage and cadence up. The heel pain aside, I wasn’t breathing heavily. A year ago I was struggling to push my kids pram up a large hill because I lacked exercise. Now I seemed to be tackling this race hardened with the rigours of early morning training.
Mile 9 came up. Finally whatever was bothering my heel wore off. I then heard someone cheer my name. I know its on the front of my vest but considering I don’t know anyone in these parts, I summised it would either be a fellow RTW member, spectating the event, or someone with very eagle eyes. The Boost Zone came up and this was awesome – I managed to grab some jelly babies successfully, managing to avoid the carnage that befell another runner and some cola cubes back at roughly mile 4. I swigged at a bottle of Powerade, and then my one weakness appeared before me. A family offering chocolate digestives and bourbon creams. ‘Don’t mind if I do’, I said, before plucking a digestive from the safety of the biscuit box, giving my thanks and then scoffing it whilst trying to maintain 7 minute miles. I’ve never eaten a biscuit at speed before!
Mile 11, and it was crunch time. I was about to pass 11.3 miles, the highest mark I’d ever reached. I was literally on my last legs at the end of that session, but here I was running confidently. Sure, I’m no Mo, or Kenesisa, or Haile, but I was putting myself about in my first half marathon really well. I just stayed focused on me, counting the left-rights, the mid-strikes, motivating myself to push on. I still had strength. I still had endurance.
The view of the sea appeared as I hit the slope to enter the final mile. Redwell Lane it was, and it was darn steep. As I got the bottom, the crowd were really vociferous in their support. Caught up in the atmosphere, I roared ‘Come on!’ at the crowd, and they responded. What a moment. Seriously, I didn’t think they could go any louder. My first time in South Shields, and they were a tremendous lot. Mile 12 came up. Again another spectator urged me on. I was continually energized and now I was trying to inject some pace into the final mile. I briefly called upon my mother, assuring her ‘this is it’ and I sought determination. 800 metres to go. I kicked, but I seemed to be spent. It wasn’t there. I eased off a little bit. Then 400 metres to go. I pushed again. I was straining now but I was putting every last bit in. 200 metres. This was it. The moment I’d imagined in my head time and time again. I’d nearly finished the race. I’d nearly done it. Nearly. I’d deliberately quietened my running app so that it would constantly bleat every five minutes how I was doing. I wanted to be completed anonymous to how well I’d done until I hit the final bend.
Around the corner I went. The clock displayed 1:37:15. I’d done it. I was well inside my estimated time of 1:40:00! I went over the line shouting ‘yes! Get in!’ I nearly leapt into a event marshal out of my pure glee. I managed to find the reserve to bend down and rip out my running chip and deposit it in a bin bag. I remembered to get my phone out of my pocket to stop the app. I didn’t want my finish line photo to be one of me looking at my phone. What a sad product of technological progress that would have made me. Still, it then dawned I hadn’t done 1:37:15. It took around 5 minutes to get over the start line. 1:32:50 it said. Wow. I didn’t just beat my target. I smashed it. I smashed it. I then moved on to collect my water, and my finisher’s bag. I went over for the medal photo, too delirious to realise my medal was still in my bag. Ah well. This was great. I found a few people from the MND Association in the crowd kindly providing the info on where to go. I moved on to the baggage buses and got into my newly acquired Great North Run t-shirt. Ooh, energy bars, supplements, etc. This really was new ground for me. I hadn’t used such products before. Eeee, I’m a runner now. I told the one of the baggage bus ladies my estimated time. I think disbelief was starting to set in. Had I really run in 1:32? Had I reeeeeally run that quick?
I stretched off a little, scoffed at some beef jerky, and moved onward. I began to think I didn’t have a medal until a runner told me it was in the bag. Ah yes, there it was. On it went, and off to the charity village. I proudly met the MND Association staff, including Trudi who’d kept everyone knowingly informed and was so helpful over the weeks and months leading to the race. I scoffed a Mars bar. I put a banana in my pocket. Yes, a banana. Not a euphemism, just that I’d actually willing picked up another banana for consumption. I put some cake in a bag, had a cube of flapjack, and continuing chatting to the team. One hot drink later, I decided to bid adieu and head off for hot food. and eventually to the finishers’ marquee for a pint. I’d met up with one or two of the Running The World guys and then got in the queue for a drink when the official time came through…1:31:29.
Read that again – 1:31:29! In my first Great North Run. My first half marathon. And in only my second competitive race. 1198th out of 41,000 people. Wow. Is pretty much all I could say. I managed to order my pint and then went back to meet and greet more fellow RTW members. I had a brilliant chat with them, sharing our stories about the race and about the areas we all live in, where to hill train when there’s no hills, and about potential future races, when the hallowed RTW flag – which I’d heard much about online – made its appearance after the main two who run the group, Marc and Nicky, arrived into the marquee clutching the flag. I got to sign it and we posed for photos. But no matter who I spoke, disbelief was setting in.
1:31:29. I ‘only’ aimed for 1:40:00. The race had gone perfectly to plan. Even the heel injury that loomed didn’t stop me, I executed my personal race plan perfectly, and broke down another wall. And what’s more, I found GNR sucking me in. I wanted to the Cardiff Half Marathon next year. Now I’ve already registered my interest in next year’s Great North Run and have to say its Newcastle over Cardiff now, pending whether I make it through the ballot and whether I choose to charity place again.
It took me near enough six hours to get home. I got a good soaking on the way to the transfer service, which got stuck in South Shields due to some ridiculous gridlock, followed by further delays caused by an apparent accident further away in Gateshead. I arrived at Newcastle rail station 54 minutes after my original train had departed, and in only a few minutes time for the next one. The sprint to the platform with heavy baggage was worth it after the conductor mercifully told me not to worry about not catching my booked train, heading off to check more tickets and saving me £50 in the process. I had a good wait around Leeds station for a bit, and then eventually I returned home to family, my kids still awake – which I dearly wanted to come home to – with so much to tell my wife. Once my kids had stopped cuddling me, having had to do with Daddy’s first night away from them since they were barely days or weeks old.
I’ve got one more round-up of this weekend to do, which will centre on the reaction afterwards, how the fundraising campaign took on further success, and where I aim from here on in.
Still, if this weekend confirmed one thing, it was this. I am truly a runner now. If Bradford was the toe in the water, this was the litmus test, to find out if my true calling was hundreds, thousands of miles, ridiculously early alarms, wicked shirts & vests, and lycra shorts, colourful shoes and an unbreakable desire to succeed, compete, and achieve. All things I should have continued to do at 16. But there’s no use regretting the past – this weekend was the making of me as a runner. I felt there at one with the running community. I felt I had done what I sought to do. To make a mother proud. To stick it to MND. To prove to myself I belonged. To prove I simply could.
I did all of those things, and found myself wanting to experience it more. It made a new person out of me. Why let all that hard work drop now? Yes. I am a runner.
All in all, Great North Run 2013 – an unforgettable experience.