On my run this weekend I got knocked off my horse. I’ve never felt anything like it, especially not since I’ve been a regular runner. The Great North Run 2014 turned out to be not so great for me. Or perhaps it was better than I thought.
Many years ago, my Dad took me to the city he was born in, for a Newcastle University open day. It was the first uni I’d been to but the instant I stepped out of the car in the shadow of St James’ Park it felt right. Cautious not to get carried away, I tried to reserve judgment until visiting the other unis on my list but I knew there was something special about the place.
I successfully passed the interview and got the grades that enabled me to spend 4 fabulous years in an exciting city and meet lots of interesting people. One of whom was instrumental in sewing a seed in my subconsciousness. It was a seed that took a long while to germinate but is now flourishing and producing seeds of its own.
That seed was running.
Somehow I was convinced, with no athletic background at all, to enter the 2000 Great North Run – my first ever race. It would turn out to be the first of 4 GNR efforts, all well over 2 hours in time and all resulting in painful blisters and tired limbs.
And then I stopped running.
Since then, years passed and I eventually returned to running, this time with enthusiastic vigour! I’ve now been running 3 or 4 times a week for a few years, competed in a variety of races, covered many miles of training and have much better kit helping me to avoid those painful blisters. I’m so hooked into running that I’ve qualified as a UKA Leader in Running Fitness and am half way through the next qualification, Coach in Running Fitness.
For some reason, I felt this year was the right time to return to the Great North Run only for my ballot entry to be unsuccessful. The running gods were watching over me and, through Facebook, I was lucky enough to gain an entry token through Bupa Running.
My running has drastically improved this year – a combination of hard work, joining a running club and also working on my technique. All these improvements at shorter distances and positive training runs gave me hope that my return to Tyneside would result celebration, with a PB at a longer distance. It had all the ingredients for a great story.
Sometimes, no matter certain you are how a story will finish, you just can’t tell when a twist will smack you in the face.
My wife and I travelled up on Saturday, allowing us to take in some of the atmosphere generated from the Great City Games, after suffering from some of the traffic generated by the same! We also headed to the Pasta Party. Never before have I seen something that sums up Britain so succinctly: overly long queues for a relatively insignificant item, just because it’s free.
We quit our first attempt after deciding I was wasting more calories standing in the queue than I would be able to consume from a small bowl of free pasta. We were encouraged to try again after meeting up with an old uni pal who was also running. I’d like to say we weren’t disappointed, but I can’t. Not to sound too like Greg Wallace but the pasta was a little too al dente and the sauce very bland. But hey, it was free so I can’t complain, although I won’t be hurrying back to another pasta party any time soon.
All that was left to do was meet my colleague and her hubby for a quick catch up and (soft) drink before retiring to our student studio for a good night’s sleep.
Never before have I been so excited for a race. I was excited to be back in Toon. I was excited to be taking on my half marathon PB. I was excited to be part of the show that is the Great North Run. I was also very relaxed about the whole thing. I don’t think I was complacent; I trusted my training and recent performances.
A short walk lifted us from our digs close to the Quayside up to the Claremont Road circus. I don’t know how much bigger the race is now compared to the last time I ran in 2005 but it seemed far busier than I remember, a staggering kaleidoscope of charity vests and club tops.
My colleague Nat dropped her bag in the baggage bus and we packed off her hubby and my wife on their challenge to get to South Shields before us. Nat and I went off for the pre-race rest stop.
It’s nice to see portable urinals available for men. I seem to recall that the trees took the brunt all those years ago. Unfortunately for Nat a queue was the only option, and a slow one at that. I’d been inside my starting pen for a good while when I saw Nat on the wrong side of the fence heading for her own starting pen.
The atmosphere was building as we edged slowly forward.
I was delighted to cross the start line just over 4 minutes after Mo and the elites had set off. I appreciate I was in start pen C so there were plenty of people behind that would have waited longer. I was equally delighted (and surprised) to find the flow of runners was free and we had a relatively good amount of space on the wide urban motorway.
Opting to start on the right half of the carriageway gives you a slight climb, rather than a dip, as the motorway splits over itself. Essentially, what goes down must come up and I preferred to take the rise early.
I looked at my watches (yes, I was wearing two – I’ve been testing the TomTom Runner Cardio against the adidas miCoach SmartRun) and my pace was good and I felt amazing. I was going quicker than scheduled but everything felt smooth and effortless so I continued, with my stretch target moving to the front of my mind just as quickly.
As you might have guessed, it transpired that my pace was a little too good and my amazing feeling was just all that pent-up adrenalin. To put it bluntly, I ran the first 5k like a dick. All the advice I give to the runners I lead and coach hadn’t even made it into the house to enable me to throw it out the window.
Of course, it didn’t hit me until it was too late. And boy, did it end up hitting me hard!
I don’t know if I consciously started to slow down or whether the stupidly fast pace and hotter than anticipated sunshine was starting to bite but I was on target pace between 5 and 8k. This probably only made things worse. I was now thinking everything would be ok: I’d set off too fast but I was back in control. Or so I thought.
Just after 8k I got a big slap! All of a sudden I felt a wave of heat rising up my body. I pulled to the side and eased right off. I knew I needed to calm my heart rate down to have any chance of carrying on to the finish. Less than a minute at easy pace was enough to reset the balance and I was soon back on target pace. I was a little more cautious but still felt pretty good. I dismissed it as a brief scare.
That was until I reached 13km. I hit a wall. I’ve never hit a wall before. I’d taken on water, I’d taken my half way gel. Who left this wall in my way?
The course seemed to continually be stretching upwards towards the horizon. Every drinks station, fuel station and water spray seemed to throw me off my rhythm rather than settle me down. Even the whistling charity supporters were starting to get to me. I was losing this battle and by the 18km mark I’d slowed to a walk four times and was close to throwing in the towel. The only reason I hadn’t, was the fact that it would just prolong the torture if I walked the rest of the way.
I was struggling to get back to any semblance of a rhythm. My legs were so heavy I could hardly lift them off the ground. I wasn’t the only one struggling and that may have rescued my race. I found myself walking alongside a chap who I’d discover was one half of a pair of running twins – Huddersfield’s answer to the Brownlee brothers maybe.
For the first time in the race, my Running Leader kicked in, encouraging him to keep the walk as brisk as possible. It seemed I kept it so brisk that he was soon up to a jog so I naturally joined him. It felt slow but I felt back in control. I don’t know at what point my compatriot fell off my shoulder but, I’m sorry, I couldn’t look round now. All my effort was now focussed on the last two and a half kilometres.
The sharp final downhill arrived quicker than expected and then I knew it was the last slog.
The crowds had been great all the way along, offering words of encouragement alongside a smorgasbord of questionable nutrition options, and they just got greater as we neared the finish. I thought the volume at the turn on to the seafront was loud until, with every hundred metres it rose still further. The roar of the final few hundred metres was enough to keep my legs going but, despite searching, I couldn’t find my usual turbo boost for the finish.
As you might imagine for a race with 57,000 runners, the finish area is vast – which is a good thing by the way. The openness provides the required breathing and thinking space after such a challenging race. I slowly wandered to pick up my goody bag as I wondered what I’d been playing at during the race.
Steadying myself on the perimeter fence of the calm finish zone, I stretched out whilst peering into the maelstrom of the “outside”. More packed than an airport arrival gate, the other side of the fence was claustrophobic with friends and family watching out for their loved ones returning from battle.
With composure still returning to my body and mind, I set off in the direction of the forest of letters that formed the official meeting points to wait for my wife. These meeting points are now common-place at the big races but I had two issues with them:
1. It wasn’t easy to find the “W” – the letters didn’t all stretch in one row but were in two or three and, with the hill falling gently towards the sea I couldn’t actually see what direction the “W” was.
2. With such a huge entrant level, and so many supporters, the area was soon packed which still made reuniting difficult.
While I was waiting for my most avid supporter I ate and drank what I could in an attempt to start to regain some resemblance of normality. I couldn’t believe how much I had been knocked for six by the race; I’ve completed half marathons before, I’ve covered the distance (and more) in training runs, I’ve run in hotter conditions, I’ve run on hillier places. But I was absolutely spent. The foil blanket and now-intermittent sunshine was just about keeping me warm.
A long sit down and a hot dog with curly fries courtesy of my wife went a long way to pushing me back towards normality and soon I felt ready to take on the two-mile walk back to the South Shields Metro station. Having experienced the mass exodus of South Shields on race day before I was already braced for the Metro queues. If you haven’t done it before, be prepared to wait a long while – it took us 40 minutes from joining the back of the queue until we got on a train.
On returning to Central Station there was just enough chance to meet up with Nat and Stuart for a quick hello-goodbye before they caught their train back up to Aberdeen.
A nice hot shower was motivation enough for another short walk, this time back to our digs, and had the added benefit of ensuring my legs didn’t seize up completely. My post race recovery was completed by a quick jaunt down to the Quayside for a luxurious Chateaubriand at Mal Maison Newcastle: great service, great food and great company. What a treat!
It’s taken me a couple of days to put this post together which is unusual for me – normally I rattle them off in one sitting but this seem to reflect the impact that the 2014 Great North Run had on me physically. It is only today that I feel (just about) back to normal.
Never before has any run taken so much from me. On reflection, perhaps no other run has given me so much too.
I’ve had a fantastic year of increasing pace and falling times. Almost every race has resulted in a PB performance and I was so certain that I would be celebrating my greatest ever PB at the greatest half marathon. A whole range of things conspired to mean this wasn’t to be, not least my over-confidence and early race greed.
Sometimes you need to have a bad race so you can learn from the mistakes and from the experience and come back stronger. I’m lucky to be able to get back on the horse and am now refocused on the Oxford Half Marathon in just over 4 weeks time. My toolbox of new lessons is ready, the most important of which is the age-old trick of patient pacing.
Don’t get me wrong, the Great North Run is a fantastic running experience and one that perhaps everyone should try at least once. With 5 medals around my neck I’m not sure I’ll be hurrying back but there’s a little piece of unfinished business that I think will need to be settled at some point!