The day had arrived. When I signed up for the Great North Run with Tommy’s six months or so ago, it seemed an absolute age away, but now I was edging forward with the assembled runners towards the start line on the Central Motorway, with Andy by my side, hoping I was as prepared for my first half marathon as I should be. Had one 10 mile training run been enough? Should I have gone further, or done it more often? The time for doubt had passed; it was too late now anyway. Deep breath. Ready. Go.
As cricket fans, we were happy to see England player Graeme Swann as honorary starter handing out the high fives, although we weren’t close enough to get one, and we were off down the stretch of road I was driving along two days earlier – a surreal feeling. The footbridges spanning the carriageway were filled with people waving and sending us off like a cruise ship leaving port. The view of the 56,000 runners stretching a kilometre behind the Bupa gantry must have been a sight to behold.
The first couple of miles were everything I had been looking forward to – I was full of energy, my legs felt strong after a week of rest and carb loading, and the atmosphere was buzzing with positivity. We whizzed through the underpasses of the ring road with the traditional shouts of ‘Oggy Oggy Oggy!’ and ‘Oi Oi Oi!’ in response echoing around us. The Red Arrows roared through the sky to see us off to great cheers from runners and spectators alike (their later display at the finish over the sea was truly incredible). We crossed the Tyne Bridge to leave Newcastle behind us and I was overcome with the emotion of what I was doing – I couldn’t believe how far I had come and what I had already achieved, and running over this iconic bridge in this classic event brought a definite lump to my throat. I felt invigorated.
The weather forecast had not been good, and the clouds were foreboding from the very start. There was a strong wind too but fortunately it seemed to be blowing with us rather than against us most of the way. A few spots of drizzle around 4 miles in soon turned to a heavy downpour and the wind blew the rain directly into our faces as we tried to power up a prolonged uphill section. The onslaught was mercifully short-lived but now everyone was soaked to the skin, although we soon started to dry out and the rain didn’t trouble us too much again for the rest of the race.
At the halfway point, indicated by a flashing sign at the side of the road, we were doing well. Andy and I had been weaving through the traffic with conviction, powering forwards into each gap as it opened up before us. Despite a couple of slower miles thanks to the unwelcome conditions and long inclines, we completed the first half of the race in around 61 minutes. There was a moment when I thought if we pushed it enough we could finish in under two hours, but only a couple of miles later this was proving to be wildly optimistic.
Around 8 miles, my pace started to drop as we ploughed up another hill and it was getting harder and harder to push forwards into the gaps between slower runners. At 9.5 miles we passed the Tommy’s cheering station and then into the Boost Zone, where I grabbed a fistful of jelly babies on the way past. The extra motivation and burst of sugar helped for a short time but by 11 miles my legs had grown heavy, my joints felt stiff and my muscles were tightening uncomfortably around my shins and thighs. I plodded forwards on auto-pilot – if I stopped, I knew I wouldn’t get going again. Andy did an admirable job of egging me on, offering constant words of encouragement to get me up the last incline, at the top of which we saw the sea spread out in front of us and I knew we were only a mile or so from the end.
The road suddenly took a steep drop down to the seafront and I cried out in pain as all the pressure went onto my knees and burning shins. The sight of the flashing ’Last Mile’ sign at the bottom of the hill was all I needed – I was going out with a bang, not a whimper. I picked up the pace as best I could as we ran along the finish straight, crowds flanking us on either side and encroaching ever closer into the road. I was aware of uniformed soldiers lining the route, constantly applauding, and I audibly willed myself on as the finish gantry loomed into view. Andy and I passed through the archway hand in hand, arms aloft and relieved – 2 hours 7 minutes.
I was thrilled but filled with emotion; everything hurt and I was just so glad to have made it that I cried on Andy’s shoulder. I staggered along, certain my legs would never recover, but even so, I already knew I would do it again. I had things to work on, aspects of my running to improve, a time to beat. Next year Andy will be running at his faster pace to beat his own best time from 2011, and I’ll be doing it by myself to beat the two hour barrier. I know I can do it now, I know what to expect. The challenge is on. Who’s with me?