The Great North Run is the world’s largest half marathon. It is famed for it’s atmosphere as 60,000 people make their way from Newcastle to South Shields and this year I was going to be among them. However, despite running numerous half marathons over the years, this was a prime example of how not to prepare!
Despite it’s size and the fact that I lived in the North East for four years, for some reason GNR had never captured my imagination in the same way that the London Marathon had. However, earlier this year my social feeds were full of ads to enter the ballot and wanting a new challenge after last year, I signed up, not expecting to get in first time. I was wrong!
When the success email came through I had every thought of training for a PB. After almost 2 years of marathon training, I liked the regime and structure and the start date in June was pencilled in my diary.
I didn’t approach the training block in the best of conditions as ironically after staying injury free for two years, I picked up a slight foot problem. But with 12 weeks training, I was confident I could find my way back to full fitness. At the end of week one I took a day trip to Berlin (my first overseas trip in 3.5yrs) and managed to catch Covid for the first time, not a great start.
It was over a week until I tested negative and then another 10 days until I dared try running. Being asthmatic meant that I could still feel it on my lungs. This put paid to thoughts of a PB but there were still quite a few weeks to go. However, with the target removed, I found my mojo was lacking somewhat and training was “minimal”! This manifested itself with a three week period with zero runs that I only broke two weeks before race day. At one week before the race I did manage a 15km at a pace that would put me on course for a 1:43.
Three days before the race, news broke of the death of the Queen. At that point I was convinced we’d see the race cancelled. This was further enhanced when all the weekend football was cancelled, including my sons first match of the season. I guess I wasn’t the only one who was surprised when it was announced it would go ahead after all.
By this point my mind was all rattled. I had been angry and frustrated that the race might be cancelled but at the same time, it would have been an easy out given my lack of training. That afternoon I made the decision to withdraw.
I had messaged the friend I was due to stay with but plans were about to take another turn. Saturday morning my brother in law text me. He had booked a hotel near the start line and had a spare bed for me. The decision to run was back on. I rushed to pull together all of my kit and then headed off for the 220 mile drive up to Newcastle, via Leeds to pick him up.
After a brief stop off in Durham to reminisce, as it has been 20 years since I started uni there, we got to Newcastle and started to see the signs. My brother in law had run it twice before, once pre covid and then again last year in the alternate covid friendly course. Now we were here, it started to feel normal and after a big pasta dinner, we settled down for the night.
Race day came and I was feeling good. That is right up until I started to get dressed. I was starting to lay out my kit, considering even posting a flat lay online, but where were my shorts? After digging into every corner of my bag I phoned home. Sure enough my shorts and socks that I planned on wearing were exactly where I had left them at home. Obviously in my rush, I’d taken them out the bag at one stage and never replaced them.
What now? There was no chance of buying new shorts before the race. All I had were the cargo shorts I had travelled up in or a slightly thicker pair of tracksuit bottoms I had to keep warm pre and post race. The only socks I had were my compression ones. They were going to have to do. Not really keeping with the mantra of nothing new on race day.
After a light breakfast we headed for the starting area. We were staying no more than 10mins walk away so before we knew it we were there. It was a slightly strange atmosphere. There was excitement and strange outfits as normal, but the sombre atmosphere was there as well. At this stage my brother in law and me said our good byes and good luck and headed to our respective pens. It was here I started to feel really self conscious about my kit. I was among many club and other decent runners and I looked like I had just rocked up off the street. I just wanted to get going and fortunately after the speeches, a minutes silence and the national anthem we were off. I was in wave 3 and we started to move quite quickly. The elite athletes had almost finished in South Shields before my brother in law crossed the start line.
Despite of all the issues with lack of training, wrong mindset and missing kit I still thought I had a sub 1:45 in me so I headed off at a steady pace. Within 2km though it was clear this was going to be a tough run. I was already starting to overheat and sweat buckets before I even got to the Tyne Bridge. What followed was just knuckling down to get through the miles.
I was taking on water (both to drink and tip over myself) at every station and yet, as the temperature started to rise with the sun breaking through, it was getting tougher. Way back when, when I first applied for the race, I had assumed it would be more downhill as you ended up at the coast. I’d been warned it wasn’t but as I pushed up the biggest hill from about 5km-8km I really was seeing this. I did manage to get into more of a rhythm and as I went through halfway I was still just about on target. However, as I hit 15km and another incline I just couldn’t keep pushing. I could feel myself dehydrating and the pain of chafing was becoming unbearable, so I started to walk. From then until I was on the seafront it was a bit of run/jog/walk repeat.
I finally crossed the line in 1:53:32, my 2nd slowest ever half marathon race. Oddly though I was less annoyed than I have been in the past. Other races I have been better prepared but screwed up my race plan. This time, I’d screwed everything else up so the fact that I’d still finished it was an achievement.
With my brother in law still close to 2hrs away from the finish, I was able to find a nice spot at the 400m to go sign to watch him finish. It was here that I finally got to experience what the GNR is really about. Everyone talks about how good the support is. The trouble is even though I was aware it was there, I was struggling so much from so early on that I hadn’t appreciated it. Seeing the streams of people finishing was really enjoyable and helped me to come to terms with the race I had just had.
Usually the first question I ask myself post race is would I do it again? As I crossed the line at GNR I’d have said no but as I have had time to reflect and speak to others who were running, I realise my poor prep really did I missed out on the true experience.
In short, if you are planning on running the GNR (or any other race for that matter) then do not follow my approach
- Make sure you have trained and not missed weeks of prep
- Make sure you are mentally prepared and not considering dropping out
- Don’t forget your kit