Well, it's done.
The 2014 Great North Run, with over 57,000 entrants, took place yesterday. The main race kicked off at 10:40 and finished for Mo Farah an hour later at 11:40. At about 11:00 I was just crossing the start line and my race finished nearly 4 hours later at about 3pm. My time of 3:56 isn't going to trouble any history books but it does mean that my personal best at the half-marathon is now the half-marathon and I reckon that's the main thing (well, I would wouldn't I?).
It was hard. Real hard. I didn't complete my intended training programme but I take some solace from the fact that even if I had I wouldn't have had a prayer. The little guide-book that comes with you running number makes it clear that you should be able to run 8 miles comfortably by race day otherwise you are unlikely to finish. Well, I could run 5 miles comfortably but like I say, even if I could do 8 miles nothing could have prepared me for this. For one simple reason - I live in Lincolnshire. We don't do hills. The GNR is (despite what the elevation profile claims) just one big massive hill. The only meaningful downhill comes just before you turn on to the seafront (at about 11.5 miles) and is the entire uphill you've just done, only downhill and compressed into 50 yards which by this time is absolute murder on your knees - think going down a steep hill in 1st gear in a car with no brakes.
Having already realised I didn't have a chance of completing the distance by running I had decided to go for the Run/Walk strategy advocated by former US Olympian Jeff Galloway. Basically you run for a bit and walk for a bit. I did 2.5/1 intervals (run for 2 and a half minutes and walk for a minute) repeated throughout the race. At the beginning it proved psychologically difficult - I couldn't bring myself to start walking after 2 and a half minutes when I had effectively only just started and was running through the centre of Newcastle with throngs of people cheering me on. Also, I wanted to be sure to run over the Tyne Bridge (which is at about 2 miles). So I ended up running the first 3 miles before dropping into my strategy. This meant I had a bit of walking "in the bank" which was to prove useful later on.
Once on the other side of the Tyne you sweep round left and eventually hit Gateshead Stadium at about 3 miles. At this point someone in the crowd helpfully shouted out that Mo had won. "You'll be pleased to hear Mo won," she said. Well I was pleased that Mo had one. I wasn't pleased, however, to learn that some sod had already finished when I still had 10 miles to go.
This is also a notable point because this is where all my troubles began. As you leave Gateshead Stadium you begin a slow uphill climb which is about 3 miles long. This is sheer murder. I was really starting to fell ill as I hit the summit. I'm not sure what pain in your kidneys means after running 6 miles but I don't think it's anything good. Fortunately we hit the Lucozade Sport station at this point and, whether by placebo or genuine goodness, that really sorted me out. Then came the BBC interview station (the BBC had all packed up and gone by the time I got there but at least the loos were available) and the sign telling me I'd come halfway. Mixed emotions about this one but I think overall it helped.
Past a pub with a band playing on the roof, then up (yes up) a motorway exit ramp to the next section. Miles 7 - 10 are a bit of a painful blur - there were more bands (including one playing Johnny B Goode with a veteran lead guitarist who came dancing round me with his wireless guitar. I tried to think of some witty response but ended up just smiling wearily and plodding on). At mile 10 was another Lucozade stop (no I'm not being paid by them but I have ditched my scepticism of sports drinks) featuring a band who started singing my name - a nice little extra spur.
You then hit South Shields and another long, slow climb (although not quite as bad as that first one). Most of the spectators were on beer and cider by now (no-one offered me any, just orange segments) but were consistently supportive and friendly. Having your name displayed so people can shout out personal encouragement is really very motivational. At the end of the climb was a massive pub, packed with folk all yelling and screaming and then the aforementioned steep drop to the seafront. A sharp left turn and you're on the home straight.
Now, the home straight. I know people who have done the GNR and the consistent message is that the home straight is a killer. You think you've finished when you hit the seafront but you haven't. I was ready for a long finish. What I wasn't ready for was the organisers producing some sort of distortion in SpaceTime. Yes dear Reader - a mile along the seafront in South Shields is significantly longer than a mile anywhere else in the Universe. Stephen Hawking needs to get on this one - the solution to the Unified Field Theory lies in South Tyneside.
You start running. "Maybe I'll just run all the way in from here," I thought to myself. Then I hit the 12 miles post. "Hang on, I thought I was over 12 miles already! It's 13 and a bit miles. How much is 'and a bit?' Right, I'll walk a bit and then run home," I had already taken off my headphones at this point. I hadn't been listening to music; you really don't need to with so much going on all the way round. I had been listening to my iPhone Running App telling me when to walk and when to run but when I hit the seafront I'd taken them off - a bit like Luke Skywalker disengaging the targeting computer at the end of Star Wars only the Force was definitely not with me.
As I was running home I then came to the 20 kilometre post. "Hang on," I thought, " a half-marathon is 21k - there's still a chuffing k to go! Right, I'll walk a bit and then run home."
Then I came to the finish line. Only, no - it was the purple (a new colour) "800m left" sign. "OK, just 2 laps of a running track - I'll walk a bit then run home." At this point I entered a grudge match with a Minion running alongside me (a grudge match I'm pretty sure he remains unaware of).
I finally came to the finish line. No - it was the "400m left" sign, "right - I'm definitely running from here!" I passed the two Arthitis Research ladies I'd been following for 5 miles, and drew level with the Minion (Stuart, I think it was).
The came the Sprint Finish (and yes ladies and gentlemen, it does deserve capitals). Earlier in the year, at the Woodhall Spa 10K, I had attempted a sprint finish. I even told my legs to sprint. The reply came back promptly, "err...no thanks boss." There had simply been nothing left, no more energy to give. Yesterday however I amazed myself - there was something left; I fair flew across the line. If you bother to look up my time on the website you'll see that 3 or 4 people finished within the 4-5 seconds after me. Well I flew past them all at the finish, including Stuart. In your face, Stuart!
So there it is. Did I enjoy it? I really don't know. I think I enjoyed miles 0-3 and 10-13 with the bit in the middle being part boring and part horrific. I'm glad (and a little proud) that I did it but I'm not sure I want to do it again unless I'm significantly fitter (and leaner). I had been considering the New York Half in March but will now need to check the hilliness or if they do a 10K. There's certainly no way I'll ever consider a marathon - the very idea that yesterday was half distance chills me to the bone.
Tips for future GNR entrants:
2. The toilets right at the start line are a little quieter than the others (although still expect to queue for 15 minutes)
3. If you start at the back (pink zone) it'll take you 20-30 minutes to walk from the start line to your start position
4. It's a very, very uphill course. Make sure you've done some serious strength and stamina training - Lincolnshire training will not do!
5. Don't run with music - the atmosphere is fantastic and you'll rarely experience the like
6. When you hit the seafront, you're nowhere near the end
7. Consider your exit strategy; the event is just too big for South Shields and transport links cope poorly. We got the bus to the Ferry and then went to the Supermarket opposite, where taxis pull up to take people and their shopping home. The Metro queue was 4 hours, the Ferry 1.5 hours. Alternately , park near South Shields and get the Metro in for the start
8. If you've any doubt about your ability to finish, go for the run/walk
Thanks to Stuart, the ARC ladies, Superman in the wheelchair (and the impressive fella who pushed him) and my right knee for holding out.
What's the next challenge? Possible the New York Half Marathon but the first thing is to lose weight, which this process has singularly failed to achieve. I need to get my pace up but my poor legs just won't do it - I still can't actually run fast enough to get out of breath! Next training scheme is a "Run for weight loss" programme.
I'll let you know how it goes.
Watch this space.......