26. Great North Run

great-north-run-at-tyne-bridge.jpgIt’s 7 am and Durham’s massive Cathedral is rising through the mist as I head for the station to join a ragged assembly of runners awaiting the early train.

There’s a wonderful view of the city as we pull away, and I have to quash the spontaneously rising bars of Roger Whittaker’s ‘I’m leaving old Durham town‘ resolutely from my brain. That’s one song I don’t relish reverberating round my mind on the long run later today.

A quick glimpse of the sculpture of the Angel of the North atop a frosty field, and then we’re into the southern outskirts of Newcastle, passing Billy Elliot back-to-back terraces, desolate factories and empty parks, before the view opens up to reveal the fog lifting under sunshine over the lined bridges of the River Tyne. A metro train scurries just below us into Central Station like some cheekily overgrown Lego set.

There’s time for a quick raid on Costa Coffee for a latte and lemon muffin. You won’t find this combination in any of Hal Higdon’s pre-race plans, but to each their own. Already it’s feeling like a special day and so I decide to celebrate with a second muffin, which on this one day tastes just as good as the first.

I take the Metro to Haymarket. The offered destinations include a tempting journey ‘from Cullercoats to Whitley Bay‘, a trip immortalised by Dire Straits on ‘Making Movies‘. It’s an intriguing thought now that guitar front-man Mark Knopfler will be running here today, but sadly he’s nowhere in sight as I leave the train. In fact I’ve no idea where to go, but there’s no problem to follow the straggling line of runners as we head up through the university. The place is otherwise deserted as we pass the Union, since most good students will surely only have left it a few hours before.

A crowd is gathered ahead on a bridge affording the first view of the course. The race begins on a blank motorway cutting north of the city. It’s hardly picturesque, but strangely it’s by far the best start-line of any race I have ever entered. Above all, there’s plenty of space, a sunny bank to rest on and some handy trees for the inevitable pre-race pit stops as the excitement builds. For once in my life I am ridiculously early, and I have time to mill around, soak up the atmosphere, and meet some of my fellow runners. And there are hordes and hordes of them, as the announcer confirms that this will be a world record half marathon, with 47 500 runners taking part from 28 countries.

This is, above all, a race for the masses. And amongst the usual crop of lean-faced and thin-legged club runners are the office teams of giggling first-time ladies, all in matching white named tee-shirts and brand new trainers. Nearby I find a whole troop of squaddies celebrating their recent return from Iraq, half a dozen fairies, a startlingly life-sized and bronze make-upped replica of the Angel of the North, and a pantomime lion. I get pictures and talk to them all, as well as the guy with the tee-shirt which reads ‘The older I get, the better I was‘. A truth for the start line if ever there were one.

Spirits are high, and this is by far the best party I’ve been to in years, backed by a solid medley of Saturday afternoon football ground classics from the PA. Then Freddie Mercury fades and the road and massed numbers of 50 000 fall movingly silent for the football hymn ‘Abide with Me‘. An old couple with glistening eyes hold hands across the crowd in front of me, and I turn round to see tears pouring down the cheeks of a whole group ‘Running in Memory of John, 1968-2002‘. Like me, they’re in the colours of Cancer Research UK, and there are 3 000 of us amongst the throng today. Together we’ll raise £ 750 000, which seems not too bad at around 50 grand per mile. Then the reflective mood lifts as the music changes and I join them – Animal, Pete, Spider, Sue and The Fly – for another photo, our turquoise tee-shirts matching the brilliant early autumn sky above us.

We’re reminded that Paula Radcliffe has left the start by now, accompanied initially at least by a couple of the world’s best athletes, whom she will soon manage to leave 2 minutes, that’s almost half a mile, behind in her wake. But from here it seems remarkable, if not impossible, that we are actually taking part in a race. This is truly a celebration of just being alive on such a fantastic morning, and fast running seems a very distant concept. But for form’s sake I line up towards the back of the 8 minute milers / 1 hour 45 half marathoners, and start to think about the journey ahead.

Finally we’re off, or rather we’re not. It takes a good 10 minutes for anything to happen at all, and another full minute to cross the line. We jog promisingly the first few hundred yards, down into the pits of an underpass, where a loud cheer greets a nervously smiling but embarrassed runner on my left as she dashes to find relief behind an inadequately skinny concrete pillar. There’s some walking amongst the jogging, and it’s 10:26 for the first mile, making this probably the slowest mile I have run in my lengthening but devotedly undistinguished career in international athletics.

Then we emerge again into the sunshine, with a massed crowd high above us lining the pavements and bridges. Something is wrong, though, for strangely we’re running in complete silence except for the patter of trainers on the tarmac. Somebody has clearly forgotten to tell the spectators here that they’re supposed to clap, or cheer, or do something. They just watch us, and we run. It’s an eerie experience, and for the first time I get the feeling that unlike the London Marathon, where the million-strong crowd dominate the whole day, here quite simply all of the atmosphere here is from within the race, and from the runners themselves.

I’m reflecting on this thoughtful discovery, when I look up to see we’ve run the 2 miles to reach the Tyne Bridge. Older sister and design prototype for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, she boasts the same sweeping design and green web of girders familiar from so many friends’ postcards of the ‘Old Coat Hanger‘ herself, but is seemingly on about one-tenth of the scale.

It matters not, for this is one of the highlights of the race, and it’s actually hard to see the Tyne below for the spectators lining the bridge. That’s more like it, and I phone my own older sister briefly to mark the moment. She’s not exactly moved to be likened to a bridge, but she wishes me luck in a fairly sporting fashion nevertheless.

The road rises ahead, and we enter Gateshead as I dodge to avoid two walkers ambling contentedly down the middle of the road. 47 497 others are likewise forced to navigate around them. More weaving ensues, this time past a mobile roadblock of five runners in Leukaemia tee-shirts, doing a respectable 12 minute mile pace. That’s fine, but what are they doing in this part of the stream ? Dual carriageways, roundabouts, traffic islands, smiling policemen, a long straggly crowd. More uphills. It doesn’t really change for the next four or five miles or so.

There must have been some short downhill patches in that stretch, but if there were, somehow I didn’t notice them. The road seems to rise relentlessly ahead of me. I run slowly, with more weaving and taking photographs now and again. But at 59:07 to 6 miles, that’s almost 10 minute miling, and I’m aware I’ll have to pick it up considerably to get inside a respectable 2 hour time.

We run through Jarrow, home of the 1930s hunger marchers who famously walked to London during the Great Depression. The indomitable spirit of the North East. There are more crowds here, schoolkids and families waving and smiling as we pass. Toddlers in pushchairs dressed in the black and white stripes of Newcastle United with Newcy Brown Ale logos on the front. I try a few high fives and hesitant ‘Why aye, chicken pies‘ in what I hope to be a respectful Geordie tribute.

Nine, ten miles go by with lots more weaving, and innumerable brief forays onto the pavement to pass those of the slower runners who slalom most effectively ahead of me. Mile eleven is sternly uphill all the way. I pass a lady standing at her gate giving out ginger biscuits. I decide to miss the last water stop for the sake of my time.

Then suddenly, the view opens out to reveal the slate blue North Sea below, and we dash down a steep descent to be greeted by a roar of spectators lining the seafront ahead. The sight of the home straight lifts the pace all around me, which is just as well, since with 1.1 miles left there’s just 8:23 to go.

It’s a flat and fast last mile to South Shields. The finish gantries creep slowly towards me as I burn some elegant parabolas into the tarmac. At last I’m breathless for the first time in the entire race, but it’s the mental effort of plotting an efficient course that is most tiring. It’s like running in blind panic down the moving walkway in the airport towards your plane. You know your flight is about to leave, but you’re stuck amidst a gaggle of strolling holidaymakers headed aimlessly towards the Malaga gate ahead of you. Exactly like that, but it goes on for 1.1 miles.

I decide not to look at my watch, just keep going, keep concentrating to avoid a collision or a fall. I cross the line, and my watch reads 2:00:19. A full minute a mile outside my best. Oh well, but who cares when there are so many smiles all around me.

I find the beer tent, where I chill for a while watching the BBC coverage and Paula’s finish in an unbelievable 1:05:40, destined to be termed an unofficial world best. Not because it was an unfair contest of speed, but because the course is nominally downhill. Not when I ran it, it wasn’t …. I digest this plainly ridiculous and astounding fact along with a mountain of pasta, five cups of tea and a suitcase-sized slice of cheesecake. Then I head to the Cancer Research UK hospitality tent and do the same all over again.

It’s 2.30 pm now, and time to start my long homeward trek. I’m blissfully unaware at this stage that I’m about to follow the Great North Run with the Great North Metro Queue, (over 2 hours, that one) and then the Great North M1 Traffic Jam. I’ll finally reach home in over 10 hours’ time. But none of this really matters now, or even later for that matter. None of this can do anything to wipe the memory of what has been a fantastic day, and a wonderful event. The Great North Run – yes, it’s more about the human race than a running race, and it’s even better for being just like that.

I’m just leaving the finish as the live band are playing their final number, the one the Great North Run has adopted as its own. And corny or not, Lindisfarne’s lyrics keep me going through the next 300 miles south to London in a way that Roger Whittaker’s never could:

I’ve travelled the land
With a guitar in my hand

And am I ever open for some fun

And I’ve made some mistakes
Had my share of the breaks
Seen the boys on the make and on the run

And I run for home, run as fast as I can
A running man, running for home
I run for home, run as fast as I can
A running man, running for home.

Lindisfarne – June 1978


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57. Blackpool Marathon: Welcome to the Pleasuredome
68. The Beautiful South – Great South Run 2004
131. Brighton Rock
51. London Calling

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