I never imagined anything would rival the atmosphere and experience of the London Marathon. Then I arrived in Newcastle to do the Great North Run on my birthday…
Despite being born in the north east this is my first visit to Newcastle. It feels like somewhere I must have visited in the past but then I’m sure what I had in my mind before I arrived was entirely based on what I had previously seen on the tv, much of that being images of the iconic run I was about to take part in.
It now seems ridiculous to say, but the nerves I associate with the build up to a full Marathon don’t really manifest in the same way for a half marathon. Although clearly still posing a significant challenge I have made peace with the distance and know that I can pretty consistently get it done in around 2 hours regardless of preparation. As such the day before was enjoyed with little worry about the event to come, in fact excitement rather than nerves built as the day progressed.
We explored the city, rode the metro, visited the coast where the finish area was being setup, enjoyed a substantial meal in Yo Sushi and an evening stroll on the quay side in view of the Tyne Bridge which, until this weekend was one of the very few places I knew featured in the run.
As we strolled back through the city, surrounded by stag and hen parties the sun set on my final day as a 36 year old. Once back in the room the kit was ritually laid out ready for the morning. Tomorrow I would be 37 and a Great North Run finisher…
A good night sleep was brought to an end as I roused before the sun with an awkward feeling in my stomach. The nerves had finally arrived to make sure I arrived at the start sufficiently fired up.
Whether I’m becoming more complacent or just better at dealing with these things I’m not sure, but despite a few butterflies I was still happy to chill into the morning and enjoy the hotel breakfast. I didn’t go for the full English as some people were doing, but I was happy that I could have a bowl of porridge, some fruit and a cup of coffee in the restaurant with Jayne. I hope, should I be lucky enough to get back into London I’ll be calm enough to do this on the morning of that run – On previous occasions the nerves and rituals have dictated a more private preparation.
The city was quiet as we stepped out of the hotel into the unusually warm September morning. Those people that were around were all heading in the same direction each wearing trainers and looking determined. As we made our way down the street towards the nearest metro station and the start line a little way beyond, it got busier. Before long we were in a herd, shuffling through a bottleneck between buildings in the university grounds.
The start is down on the motorway that runs through the city and over Tyne bridge. The park at the top of the slip roads is the collection area for the runners, most appear to be part of several extreme queues for the portaloos thankfully the urinals are much less busy! (Definitely an advantage being a man)
The starting pens are simply epic. I said my good byes to Jayne who was then aiming to get to the finish in time to see me. I made my way down the slip road and began walking along the outside of the starting pens. I was looking for starting pen D which had been allocated to me based on my predicted finish time. At the front gathered the elite and the celebrities, a few familiar faces could be spied through the fence. The walk was endless but I finally got to my entrance. Others weren’t so close, all in all the starting lineup stretches 1000m along the road. The scale of this thing is best realised when you’re told that by the time Mo Farah crosses the finish line there are still people waiting to cross the start line!
The pens are concentrated nervous excitement. Everyone itching to get going, trying to get through their own rituals in quite close quarters. You are in the pens for quite some time. There’s a group warmup which people kind of follow as best they can. They announce the elite lineup who are stood all the way up at the front. The biggest collective activity is the incredible cheer given when Mo Farah is announced. I didn’t see him, certainly didn’t get close to him but it feels special to have been part of the same run as someone who has become a national hero. As it turns out Jayne’s mission was more successful than planned so instead of just making it to the finish to see me, she made it in time to see Mo finish as well:
Anyway on with my 13.1 miles…
It took me 8ish minutes to get to the start line after the klaxon had been sounded. Despite the numbers I was surprised how much space I had from the start. We surged across the line and started the approach to the iconic bridge crossing. Both sides of the motorway are occupied each taking a subtly different route along the first bit of the course. My side almost instantly disappeared into an underpass. Echoing sounds bouncing off the thick concrete and then you hear the first call of the Geordie, “OGGY OGGY OGGY” without breath or hesitation each runner responds, “OI OI OI”. It is clear that fun is high on the agenda. It’s a serious run, but that’s no reason for it not to be a laugh at the same time.
Oggy Oggy Oggy
Oi Oi Oi
Within no time at all the first mile marker is in sight. Shortly after, the Tyne bridge comes into view. Looming high above the Tyne the iconic archway across the river appears smaller than I imagined it would be. The street up to it and paths across are lined with cheering crowds. There’s a buzz in the air, a special feeling that brings back the same emotions I experienced in London. Then it’s over. The only bit of the entire run that I could describe in any detail before hand was the bridge. Now onto the great unknown!
Can you spot me?
As I put the river behind me I heard a rumble in the air. The sound of the Red Arrows approaching to do their traditional fly over the bridge. I was still close enough to have them pass directly overhead. Looking up I shed my usual runners bitch face and smiled the widest smile as the jets rocketed over and disappeared almost as quickly as they had arrived. What a way to be spending my birthday!
The run continues along the main road between Newcastle and South Shields. At no point on the run are you far away from cheering support or the regular chanting of the Oggy. There are bands set up at key junctions, roundabouts etc each delivering their own brand of music to keep the rhythm of the run positive and energetic. Should you become hungry there is no shortage Jelley Babies, fruit or ice pops on offer from the generous public.
It was a very warm day considering we are now in September. It started catching a few people out with some collapsed on the side of the road and in at least one unfortunate case requiring ambulance attention. For me the first half was completed in relative comfort. The second half (of any run in my experience) is where the game really starts. Regardless of how positive the crowds are the voice of doubt begins to creep in and as a consequence the pace suffers. As the coast approached I was certainly beginning to feel it. Before the final drop down to the level of the beach comes a long gradual climb, so gradual it’s hardly noticeable. These are the worst hills. A lot would stay clear of steep inclines but at least with those your brain can make sense of the feedback it is getting. The gradual inclines tricks you into thinking it is easy when actually your legs are gradually brimming with lactic acid. As a consequence the 12th mile took its toll as my pace dropped to barely faster than a quick walk. I knew that the final mile started at the bottom of the big drop so I tricked my mind into thinking this was the goal and then I’d simply have a casual mile as a victory parade along the seafront.
My slump ended at the top of the big hill. I broke back into a reasonable pace and took the hill on. It was steep and I was certainly pleased to be heading down. It did enough to get my legs turning over again so by the time I was at the bottom a new rhythm had been found. The coast road was once again full of spectators all cheering, shouting names, waving flags, holding banners. Realising how close to the end I was sent tingles of excitement through my body, a shiver erupted and for the briefest of moments I was cooled by it. Then the heat returned and I realised the flippancy of my thoughts on the final mile. Yes I was close but a mile is a mile and this one was going to take its toll. I knew Jayne was on the side somewhere near, but with hundreds of faces shouting and screaming from both sides it all became a bit of a blur. I was clutching a water bottle, I could have done with the contents inside me but at that moment the heat was becoming unbearable so I emptied it gradually over my head, neck and back in the hope it would restore some ability to focus.
With 800m to go I knew it was achievable but also that it was going to be a long 800m. I so desperately wanted to stop, walk a little bit, but I couldn’t, I had to keep running. The crowds were emitting enough energy to get me to the line. Then I heard a familiar voice. Jayne was there in the crowd. I was almost past her by the time my brain connected the voice to the location. I had just enough time to glance across. Energised by the briefest contact I could now go for the line.
400m to go. The end was in sight. One lap of a track. Keep pushing, keep breathing. People were wobbling off to each side but I needed to keep going.
The masses finish just off the road, a big gantry setup with several lanes to funnel the 50,000 people through to glory. As I turned off the road my legs were spent. It took every ounce of whatever was fuelling me at that point to keep going for those last few metres.
It was done. I was over the line. The clock stopped at 1:59:29 (exactly an hour slower than Mo!) I wanted to break 2 hours again, I did by the skin of my teeth. It would have been nice to beat my PB set a couple of weeks earlier, but I’ll happily accept setting records in training if it means the events can be enjoyed a little bit more.
The finish is in a glorious location looking out over the sea. The runners are funnelled through a series of collection points to pick up the all important medal, then a goody bag with the t-shirt before finally posing for a finishing photo.
By the time I made it through each of these stages the pain of the final couple of miles was gone. The beauty of a half marathon for me is it presents a challenge during, but doesn’t result in the prolonged recovery you would expect after a full marathon. A good drink, chance to cool down and lower the heart rate and I’m typically good to go again.
As I enjoyed the views I wandered around the finishing area in search of Jayne. As we met the rumbling from the skies started again as the Red Arrows returned to entertain the crowds as a reward for everyone’s achievements. They put on a spectacular show and it made a magical end to an epic experience.
I can’t fault the experience other than it being over too quickly. I am seriously tempted to join the club to guarantee my entry for the next 3 years. Certainly a birthday I won’t forget in a hurry!
I’m a Great North Runner now you see