It’s a breezy day in Portsmouth, with a stiff breeze whipping up shingle beach. The Isle of Wight ferries are plying to and fro across the marble grey water of the Solent, as I shiver wind-propelled along the promenade towards the pier.
There’s a simple D-Day memorial just by Southsea’s boating pond, and I cross the road to read it. From this very beach, it says, a multi-national force embarked on the 6th June, 1944 on their great adventure to liberate Europe.
My grandfather was with them that day, almost sixty years ago. He’d already landed at Salerno in Italy the year before, having swum the last kilometre to the shore in full battle kit when his landing craft was sunk.
It must have been a fearful enterprise to imagine going through all that again on the Normandy beaches, and now I reflect on how much all of us in this undistinguished seaside town, in these islands and in the free world, remain indebted for the courage shown on that chilly June morning.
I meet my friend Paul at the start line. Unlike me, he has some real talent for this game. He was a sprinter at school, whilst I was always second-last around the playing fields. And whilst my standard contribution to his running is mostly telling him to slow down, it was a tactic that worked well the time he ran his first race here. That day I was able to keep him going when he ran out of gas down the finishing straight.
But this year, I know it’s going to be different. After a long winter he spent mostly injured, somehow we got him through a single 15 miler in late March which proved enough for him to sail round the Paris Marathon at his first attempt. This year, Paul is a marathon runner, and I know that will make a huge difference.
And sure enough, as we line up, he tells me he’s feeling great today. He has run well this week. He feels prepared. He’s looking forward to the race. I translate all this to mean a fast time for him, and a struggle for me to keep up. I decide on a strategy not to hold him back too much from the start, to ride out the consequent pain in the middle, and to hang on for as long as I can towards the finish.
After fighting the crowds for 13.1 miles in Newcastle three weeks ago, I’m determined that today is going to be different. So we’re way forward this time, and we really have a great start. It feels fast across Southsea Common, past the Naval Memorial to 8:07 the first mile, but it’s just a bit keen this early. 8:25 feels more comfortable for the second. We run across the cobbles into the Naval Dockyard for the next mile, past Lord Nelson’s great ship HMS Victory, which still looks ready to sail today for all of its 200 years. Round the wharves and past two aircraft carriers lined up bow-to-bow. There are no nameplates in sight, but with only three in the British Navy – Ark Royal, Illustrious and Invincible – you can perm any two from three.
With all that maritime glory, it’s a slower next mile, so we pick it up again around the town centre. Mile 5 goes by and maybe I’m convincing Paul that I can actually keep this up. It’s convincing me that’s going to be harder. We push on back towards the start gantry where we can see the leaders loop by when we briefly hit the seafront again. Sure enough, Sonia O’Sullivan races by the other way right on cue as she hits nine miles to our six. She’s well on her way to defending her title, whilst I’m well on the way to wishing we’d started out just a little slower today.
We’re full into the wind now, but the twisting streets and Victorian villas of Southsea give some merciful shelter. If I’d already given up on our increasingly one-sided coversation somewhere back towards the harbour, now I lose concentration as well as a few metres on Paul as I let myself get boxed in on the kerb. I kick to catch up and urge him to go, but manage to cling on until we turn back onto the seafront. At last we’ve a tailwind, but my legs quickly reach their usual meagre speed limit as Paul rushes ahead past the Royal Navy Commando Museum. We’re back beside the Embarkation Beach here, with just a mile and a half to run.
It’s that familiar dull grey fog of grim concentration now, and I’m counting every breath of my burning lungs as I pass a photographer at mile 9. Can’t make a pretty sight with drooling mouth and blank eyes, willing an end to this sometime soon, please. Finally it’s four hundred yards, two hundred. Surely I can back off now, and it’ll only make a few seconds difference….? I fight hard not to give in to the temptation as I kick one last time into the finish straight, which is far far too long for comfort (they always are). Somehow I reach the line still at a trance-like full pelt, and try to breathe again as I collect my third HMS Victory medal.
The time is my best for this distance, 1:22:22, at least forgetting that I once ran 10 seconds faster en route to a half marathon PB (however did I manage that ?). It’s no surprise that Paul has taken a minute off me in the last two miles. But he’s pleased with his time, and with those fast-twitch sprinter’s muscles which had evaded me so long ago back in the gene pool. We celebrate a good run by slugging down hot mugs of tea and a well-earned Sunday morning bacon sandwich with HP sauce.
So what of the Great South Run ? Well, it’s much of everything that the Great North Run isn’t. At 12 000 runners it’s about a quarter of the size. It’s flat. It’s fast (despite the wind). It’s well organised. There’s an atmosphere, but it’s nothing approaching a party. There are plans afoot to expand towards a much bigger event rivalling its bigger sister, maybe finishing at Portsmouth’s new Premiership soccer stadium. But until that day, I’ll return here to enjoy a fun run that is still a running race at heart.
And each time I come, I’ll thank my Grandad for helping to keep this beach a great place to run.
68. The Beautiful South – Great South Run 2004
56. Paris – a view from the Champs de Mars
122. Cephallonia dreaming
65. In the footsteps of Brunel: Bristol Half Marathon
26. Great North Run