Or, In Which Beth High-Fived An Olympic Gold Medallist.
But we’ll come to that.
This past Sunday was the BUPA Great North Run 2012, a half marathon that I was running partly as my goal race this year and partly to raise money for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
If someone were to write down the three cardial rules of distance running, they would probably look a little like this:
- Respect The Distance
It’s borderline suicidal to think that you can run 13.1 miles on no training. I didn’t — but I did start a brand new job with long hours and a longer commute, and I spent most of August and early September considering it an achievement if I made it home from work without falling asleep on the train, let alone heading out for a run afterwards. I still ran, but not so often as I’d have liked and my longest long run was 6.2 miles.
In the ten days (ish) before a half marathon, your training starts winding down. Your runs are shorter. You rest. In short, by race day, you’re bouncing off the walls with all the pent-up energy from just wanting to get out and run. I don’t quite know how I should have tapered from what I might hilariously refer to as my training plan (see above), but I’m pretty sure that being on-call for four of the five days before the race wasn’t it.
- Nothing New On Race Day
Then, I left my running shoes behind the printer at work when I left for Newcastle. I know. I was on the phone to every running store in the city by nine o’clock on Saturday morning.
The universe may have been telling me not to run this race. I wasn’t really listening.
I wasn’t setting out to break records, here. I wasn’t setting out even to break my own PB (3:04:27, set at my first and only half marathon, in Glasgow 2010). I was heading to the start line with legs that I was fairly certain could get me to at least eight miles, the safety net of knowing that I could walk the entire thing if I needed to, a pocket stuffed full of Compeed patches, and a healthy dollop of sheer bloodymindedness, and my one and only goal was to get to the end in one piece. The Great North Run has been a bucket list race for a long long time and through three rounds of failed ballot applications. There had never been any chance — short of breaking both my legs — that I might not turn up, and, now that I’ve done it, I am so glad.
The Great North Run is the biggest half marathon in the world. There were 55,000 people registered to run on Sunday. In all but the smallest races, a back-of-the-pack runner will take a few minutes to get across the start line. In this race, it started a full three quarters of an hour before I got going. But even shuffling slowly forward and getting steadily drizzled on and becoming increasingly desperate to pee (again), the atmosphere was electric. I saw Tony the Fridge. I saw someone running in a full penguin costume and someone else running dressed as Jesus, complete with a wooden crucifix on his back. I got choked up when Local Hero was played and again when the Red Arrows did their first flypast. I got peeks, on the big screens, of the Olympians and Paralympians who were up front with the guns. This was the best race I had ever done, and I was still a mile away from the start line.
My race plan was to run three miles and walk a half mile. I theorised that I can do anything for three miles, which is true enough. I tried not to think about how well that theory might be holding up by the time I’d run three lots of three miles in a row.
And then I ran across the start line, hit the start button on my Garmin, and high-fived Mo Farah.
I’m going to say that again in case you didn’t read it properly:
I HIGH-FIVED MO FARAH! MO FARAH!
The high from that lasted all the way through the first three miles, and it got me through them quite nicely — so nicely that I really couldn’t tell you much about them. I remember running across the Tyne Bridge and it being everything I’d hoped that that part would be. I remember that I hadn’t been sure of the route through Gateshead and being pleased to find out that it didn’t involve the rotten hill up to the Sage. I think I remember that the rain stopped at some point. Mostly, I remember that I was still so thrilled about Mo that I was giving a high-five to every kid who offered me one, and there were a lot of kids, all of them out there in the rain to cheer on the running nutters.
I have no recollection whatsoever of the 3 mile marker, but it must have happened because I took a half mile walk break. I didn’t feel as if I needed one at that point, but I knew that I would kick myself later if I didn’t take it. I hit the 5K chip mat in 39:34, which included the two minute dash into a portaloo that I had taken almost immediately after the start line.
The next chunk of three miles felt harder. I’m not particularly surprised — looking at the course map, the first two miles are all on an incline, which I had known and then clearly promptly forgotten, and go up to the highest point of the course at the Black Bull Junction. Still, I never really felt as if I wanted to walk during this stretch and I kept saying to myself, “You are running the Great North Run,” which was all I ever needed to bring a ridiculous grin back onto my face. This got me past the 10K mat, which I hit in 1:19:51, and almost to the halfway point, which was marked on the A194 by a billboard welcoming runners to South Tyneside and telling us to enjoy the second half. The distance I had covered in training had come and gone, but I was still moving and feeling strong.
I walked from what my Garmin told me was 6.5 miles up to the 7 mile marker. I needed the walk, I think, but my hip flexors tightened up while I was walking and getting going again sucked. I wanted to walk a lot in the next two miles. I didn’t. I was feeling it, but no worse than I had expected, and I was in no actual pain. I kept telling myself that nothing bad would happen if I kept running, that the only thing that would happen if I stopped running at this point was that I’d be slower, and that I’d get my next walk break at ten miles and how awesome would it be to get to that marker. This is what people mean when they say that running is a mental sport.
Just after the 9 mile marker, two things happened.
The first thing was that I went across the 15K mat. I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, but it clocked a 2:01:45 split, which, if nothing else, showed that I was running a fairly steady pace, even if it didn’t feel like that. The second thing was that I got to the Bupa Boost Zone. I didn’t know about this, and it’s a difficult thing to describe to anyone who hasn’t been in it. It’s about half a mile of noise, music, wonderful wonderful hands offering jelly babies and Vaseline, and a Red Arrow circling overhead, and it was exactly what I needed. If you had told me last week that Rhianna and three jelly babies were what I’d need at nine miles, I’d have laughed in your face, but, for whatever reason, it put me back on a high and got me safely through to ten miles. From there, we were into the residential parts of South Shields with lovely cold showers and lovely lovely people with orange slices and water and, for reasons that I couldn’t possibly begin to speculate on, there was also an Elvis impersonator. I found this hilarious. Have you ever heard a less likely running tune than Love Me Tender?
By this time, despite everything that nearly hadn’t got me to the start line, I had worked out that I was back on for a PB and maybe for a sub-3:00 finish — with that 15K split, that should maybe have been a given, but you always have to remember that the last ‘quarter’ of a half marathon is actually 6K, not 5K, and I remembered that I had blown up really badly in the last 6K at Glasgow. A sub-3:00 in a half marathon may not seem like a fast time to you and it isn’t, not compared to other people, but the only person I’m ever racing against in any race is myself.
Just before 11 miles, I took a very short walk break up a little hill and to take on some more water. The approach to the 12 mile marker is down a short sharp incline to the seafront, and, as I tossed away my water bottle and started running again, I swore in chorus with the woman next to me. It was one of those downhills that is oh-so-much-worse than any uphill that came before it. And then you turn onto the seafront, and the crowd support that had never faltered the whole way around the course, never, not even on the dual carriageways and not even in the rain, on South Shields seafront, the crowds erupted.
There are a series of Asics advertisements that were around during the Olympics, and I saw them this weekend on billboards all over Newcastle and at different points along the route. “I am made of everything that got me to the start line, not just the next 13 miles.” “I am made of all the finish lines I said were my last.” But there was one that I’d seen a lot of, that I saw hung across a bridge back in Gateshead and that I thought of again in South Shields, and it sums up the end of this amazing race better than anything else I’ve seen: “I am made of every stranger who cheered my name.” There were people who I’d never seen before and who I’ll never see again, hours and hours after Wilson Kipsang and Tirunesh Dibaba had actually won the thing, standing at the side of the road and screaming me home.
I crossed the finish line in 2:53:52, a personal best by over ten minutes, arms in the air and absolutely on top of the world.
Later, after I’d found my cheering squad and my backpack and what I felt were well-deserved chips and tea, we came across this sign hung outside a local guest house, presumably meant for some other Beth:
Well, it would have been rude not to.
Thanks to BUPA. Thanks to the first aid crews and the marshals and the folk manning water stations and the Metro staff and the baggage bus drivers. Thanks to Mo Farah, to Greg Rutherford and Kat Copeland and Ellie Simmonds and Nicola Adams. Thanks to every single person who came out to support us. What an incredible event. What an astonishing day. I’ll be back.