The Great North Run

This is not a blog about grief and it never will be, but it’s impossible to write this post without touching upon it a little bit. My Mother sadly passed away on the 6th August and the grief is heavy. It’s debilitating and it is physical. I am surprised by just how physical it is and I am exhausted. All of the time. Some days walking is difficult, but I have been forcing myself to run and then walk and then run a bit more as often as I can. The days when I run are really the only days when I manage to sleep at night too so there is added incentive.

The topic of the Great North Run was weighing heavy on my mind as Mum had told me to do it.

A few people messaged me to say, “don’t do, it’s a terrible idea and you have enough on your plate” and they were absolutely right of course. Also a few people messaged me to say “do it. It’s a race unlike any other, but only do it if you can enjoy it”. I had no idea what to do. I decided to leave it and believed that the right answer would present itself, one way or another.

In the weeks after my Mum leaving us, I was lucky to have the support of family and very good friends. The Red Lady was always coming to support me running the Great North Run, if I did it, but she was never going to run it with me. She wasn’t trained for it, last having run a half marathon in 2016 and only running a couple of 10ks this year. One very good friend, I won’t embarrass her by naming her, has contacts at the Great North Run and over coffee when she was checking how I was, asked me if it would help me decide if the Red Lady could get a place to run it with me? I decided it would and she worked her magic and before I could even blink, the Red Lady had a place. The conversation when I spoke to the RL went a bit like this: “so, er, if I could get you a place on the GNR, do you fancy running it with me?”……….”what? that is INSANE! and yes, definitely!”.

So we were doing it.

GNR Celebrity busesWe arrived at the hotel the night before, following a 5 hour train ride, stiff, hungry and wondering what on earth we were playing at! An early night followed, during which I slept for about 45 minutes  and then a 6.45am alarm. At breakfast I was too nervous to eat but forced down some porridge and toast and then we went to wait for the bus and meet our “Team Bodie Hodges” team mates. What an absolutely lovely bunch of people they are. Many of them had run the GNR before and they were full of tales about how incredibly awesome it is. I was excited and nervous. The bus arrived to collect us and with a severe case of “imposter syndrome”, we boarded the bus.

We were deposited around 300 metres past the start line into a VIP area which had private toilets (I need about 74 pre race wees on average so this was magnificent news) and were able to watch the elite women and wheelchair athletes warming up. It was AMAZING.

GNR Nell and Gabby Logan

Dropping my bag off, I finally got to meet Nell McAndrew. What an absolutely lovely lady she is. Completely down to earth, friendly, and chatting like she was An old pal we’d met for a drink in the pub with even though this was the first time I had ever met her. We chat a bit on Instagram but we’d never met and I was so incredibly grateful that she had arranged this whole day for me. I tried to tell myself to stay cool, but I probably wasn’t! I was grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

We were able to mill around near the start line and watch the elite ladies go off. Being 10 metres away from Brigit Kosgei, Mary Keitany and Charlotte Purdue was an absolute highlight and privilege . They look so strong and fast. I could have started in the front row if I’d wanted to for the main race (and a couple of the Team Bodie Hodges did!) but I’m afraid that fear of being trampled to death got the better of me and so the RL and myself bid my team mates farewell and moved about 10 rows further back.

And then we were off.

With neither of us being even close to being half marathon fit, the Red Lady and myself had devised a strategy to get us round in one piece, and hopefully without injury. This was to run the first 3k in one go (in order to stop being crushed by the masses) and then run the rest of the race strictly adhering to run 3 minutes and then walk 1 minute and to keep to the left as much as possible to try and keep out of the way of the speedier runners. However, we needn’t have worried as the start of GNR is on two sides of a road. The elites were on one side and the celebrities and charity runners were on the other side so the first couple of kilometres were fine. Not one person was trampled and we were all smiling.

All was well until the runners came through who were chasing times. It became a bit “pointy elbowed” at this point and we did our best to keep out of their way as they speeded past us. We got into a habit of tucking in tight as soon as the red pacer flags ran past knowing that this was “peak” trample period. I understand what it’s like to go for a time if you’ve trained for long weeks to achieve one, but trampling over a middle aged trundler to achieve one is not ok and runner etiquette should be considered.

I have run quite a few races in my short running career, but I have never, ever, EVER run a race that is as noisy and well supported as the Great North Run. The crowds are SO LOUD that I found myself almost begging for some peace and quiet. Every third person had a tub of jelly babies, haribo or sweets, there were motivational signs, kids demanding high fives, spectators shouting our names, offering us ice-pops, setting us their own impromptu water stations, beer stops (yes at Mile 10 there was a chap filling up cups of Newcastle Brown and handing them out – obviously I had one), handing out cups of Lucozade that they had bought themselves, getting their garden hoses out to spray us and cool us down. It was AMAZING. It was not just for the beginning and end, pretty much the entire route was like this. It was hot and Newcastle was ready to party.

There were many highlights, too many to mention, but Elvis, singing karaoke in the middle of the road at mile 11(ish) was definitely one of them. The Red Lady and I danced past him and sang a bit too.

But it wasn’t just the spectators having a great time, the runners were too. Newcastle has a lot of bridges and under passes and so everytime we went under one, it is apparently law that we all shout “Oggie oggie oggie…….”. After about 57 rounds of this, I was ready to hit the open roads.

Running over the Tyne Bridge was epic and it was then, for the first time, that I got a sense of just how many people there were running the race. We could see runners as far as the eye could see and for the first time on the race, I felt a bit emotional.

Our 3/1 strategy worked remarkably well, on the whole. We had promised each other that we would strictly stick to the gameplan, otherwise, we knew that we would end up walking more than we wanted. I kept an eye on my Garmin watch and was in charge of shouting run and walk. 3 minutes is not a long time to run and I quickly got into a routine. As we ran, by the time I first glanced at my watch, it was usually showing that we’d been running 90 seconds, then I would look again and we only had 20-30 seconds left. 60 seconds was enough time to recover and RL was very good at reigning me in when I would go off too quickly at the start of each 3 minute segment. I tried not to think about the distances only the next 3 minutes. 10k rolled around and I have to tell you that it was the best, easiest and most enjoyable 10k I have ever run (running is always more enjoyable when you don’t care how fast you are going). We didn’t chat much whilst running, but chatted plenty whilst walking, often laughing about something we had just seen. I knew that kilometres 10-16 would feel tough so just tried to focus and on the whole it was ok although clearly it wasn’t entirely comfortable.

GNR Mile 10 ALONE High Res

Around the 10-11 mile mark, I felt tearful suddenly and this threatened everything because 3/1 works because your breathing is regulated, but crying really messes up your breathing, and I could feel proper snotty, gut wrenching tears bubbling under the surface. I confided in my buddy what was happening and we decided to take a couple of longer walk breaks to get things back under control, which we did. 2 walk breaks of 2 minutes and we were back in business.

We were now into the final 3 miles and we were tired but could feel the end was close. At the end of the GNR, you see the sea, then go down a very steep hill (which hurt my knees, ankles and boobs as the bounce factor on a steep downward hill should not be underestimated) and then you turn onto the final stretch towards the finish line for the final mile. We cheered when we saw the sea. I could hardly believe that we were already nearly there, but the final mile felt long. My legs were tired and my feet were burning.

If the crowds along the route were loud, they were nothing compared with the final straight. I couldn’t hear anything that the RL was saying to me at all. They were 10 deep at the barrier and people were sat on a Grandstand clapping and cheering us in. We crossed the line and I absolutely sobbed my heart out. We completed the race in 3 hours, 6 minutes and 15 seconds. It was slow, but I genuinely didn’t care a jot. It was magnificent and I truly count the GNR as one of my greatest ever achievements.

GNR finishing on my own

It is now that I must pay tribute to the Red Lady. Not only for agreeing to run a race with me that she wasn’t trained for (she’s mad), but also for how incredibly happy and smiley she was throughout the entire race. As we chugged along, she practically skipped, almost dancing and grinned the whole way through the experience.

We both lost our Mums this year to cancer and so we both had moments of pain during the race but we got through it together.

After the race, being in the VIP pavilion, we had a shower (yes, a SHOWER) something to eat and then we were on a coach that was given a police escort back to the hotel afterwards (as the roads were all still closed!)

I bid my team mates farewell and we went back to the hotel to head to the airport.

It was the most enjoyable race I have ever run. More importantly, it has re-ignited my love affair with running which has been absent for many months now. The Red Lady has told me it had the same effect on her. Therefore, we are both signed up to run it again next year but have made each other the promise that the GNR will always be our “happy” race and we will never rush it. It will never be our PB course, because there are too many kids to high five and too many beers to drink en route…. I will also be running for Team Bodie Hodges next year again and intend to raise some money for them.

Fearless Westonbirt Sept 2019

For the rest of this year I have only one plan. Keep running. I’m not going to put myself under any pressure for times but I’m just going to take each day as it comes and hopefully complete a few races. Life is for living and it should be enjoyed. I ran a 10k at Westonbirt at the weekend (slowly using 3/1 again) and I also have a place for the Cardiff Half marathon at the beginning of October.

One day at a time and keep moving forward. There are times in life when training hard and pushing for fast times are right but there are also times when they are not.

I have some plans forming for next year already, but for now until Christmas, the only plan I have is to keep moving forward and try and smile as much as possible.