The first time I remember actually ‘going out for run’ rather than just running because it was faster than walking was when I was around 10 years old.
My Dad had been a keen amateur boxer when he was younger and, although he had stopped boxing shortly after my sister came along, he still kept up the training. Once my sister was old enough, we decided that we would join our Dad on one of his runs. In actuality, my Dad finished his normal run by himself and then added on a mile loop at the end that we could manage with him.
My sister took to this far better than I did. If I remember correctly she ended up doing a couple of laps that day and continued to join my Dad on future outings. I however, did not. I just couldn’t understand why my Dad always seemed keen to go out and do something that was so obviously discomforting. I finished that first mile with my Dad, walked back into the house, plonked myself down onto the sofa and decided running was definitely not for me.
Fast forward 20 years and here I am stood on the start line of The Great North Run. My first ever half-marathon.
To say I was stood on the start line is a bit of an exaggeration. With 57000 other runners lined up, I was a good way back from the actual start. I was also very much unprepared.
I’d been offered a charity place by my friend, Amy, who works for the MS Research and Relief Fund (MSRRF) and I had jumped at the opportunity as it was a great excuse for me to raise some money for a superb charity. At the time my training was going quite well and, by my estimations, I would be running farther than 13.1 miles on my weekly long runs by the time the GNR came around.
To make a long story short, this hadn’t panned out and I had barely managed a couple of 8 milers and a solitary 10 mile run with my Dad.
“Well, it’s too late to do anything about that now” I thought as I chatted to another runner was who attempting their 16th GNR. My only hope was to go out steady and try not to embarrass myself too much. If I could finish without passing out (or dying) I’d count it as a success. If I could do both of those things and make it to the finish in under 2 hours, I’d be over the moon.
A gunshot shook me from my reverie as the elite runners set off at a blistering speed. I still don’t understand how they can keep up my sprinting pace for an entire 13.1 miles.
The rest of the crowd slowly started to trudge forward toward the starting line and with each step the excitement in the atmosphere heightened. People started jumping up and down, performing some last-minute stretches and patting each other on the back. The crowd shouted cries of encouragement and as we crossed the white line, the crowd in front of me started to fan out, creating space to actually run. We were off.
I’d been told by a friend to keep left at the start as you got to miss the first hill and go through the underpass instead. I did as I was told and headed underground. Someone not far ahead shouted out “Oggy oggy oggy”. It echoed off the concrete walls so that everyone in the underpass could hear it. Within seconds there was a thousand or more voices responding with “Oi, oi, oi”. It was incredible! That many people, shouting in unison in what was essentially a large concrete box was deafening.
My Garmin watch buzzed away on my wrist and as I glanced down I noticed it was alerting me that I was going a little slow for my target pace. I thought this was a little odd as it felt about right, but I presumed that it was probably due to the crowds boxing me in a little so sped up and pushed onwards.
As I exited the underground I realised that not only had I overtaken the 2:00:00 pacer, I’d just shot past the 1:50:00 pacer too. Then it dawned on me. The underpass had messed up the GPS readings on my Garmin. Then, as if to confirm my suspicions, the watch updated and showed I had been running far too fast since I entered the underground about 2 miles back. No wonder I thought it was a hard slog up to this point. Thankfully I had some hills coming up so the flex time I’d earned would come in handy for those.
The next few miles were great. Spurred on by the cheers of the crowd, I felt great. A slight tightening of the my calves but other than that I felt good. I was also still a good 8 minutes ahead of where I needed to be for a 2:00:00 finish. Every square inch of pavement along the route was jam-packed with supporters handing out jelly babies and orange slices. There was even live music at each of the major roundabouts. It is definitely the best atmosphere of any of the running events I’ve been to.
As I crossed the half way point the previous tightness in my calves was becoming more severe and it was definitely starting to slow me down. I can only imagine it was related my earlier sprint through the underpass. Thankfully I still had some flex time from that same sprint, so my target was still in sight.
As we cruised along through miles 8 and 9, the atmosphere of the runners around me changed somewhat. No longer were the laughs and cheers as frequent. Most people now seemed to be focusing on just keeping their legs moving. Occasionally someone would attempt an ‘Oggy oggy oggy, only for it to be met with either silence or a half-hearted, single “oi”.
At mile 10 there was a group handing out beer shots. Normally I’d have been first in line, but after 10 miles of running(which was now officially my farthest run) beer was the last thing I wanted. I started to make my way over to the water stop when the tightness in my calves decided to turn into full-blown cramp. My right calf was rock solid and incredibly sore. I hobbled to the side of the road and gave it a few thumps to see if it would loosen off. It would not. There wasn’t much that could be done so I grabbed a bottle of water and shuffled onwards, hoping it would ease up as I moved.
Over the next couple of miles I was in quite a lot of pain and the tightness hadn’t faded one bit. It was so tight and so painful that stretching out my foot was almost impossible. I was also crawling along at a snail’s pace. I had lost all of my flex time and had now fallen behind where I was wanting to be by this point of the race.
As we approached the end there’s a lovely steep downhill section that I was able to use and re-gain some of my lost momentum. Unfortunately it was too little, too late. As I crossed the 12 mile marker and made my way down the final straight, my watch alerted me that I had just passed 2:00:00. I was devastated. I had been on target the entire way and had actually felt in decent form up until the cramp set in. Then within a matter of minutes it had all gone belly-up. I almost thought about stopping and walking the last stretch as there was no use in rushing now. The guy to my right obviously had the same idea and as I approached him he attempted to slow to a walk. The crowd had other ideas. There were thousands of spectators lined up along this final straight and as soon as anyone attempted to walk, they would shout out your name (from your race number) along with cheers of encouragement. I don’t think anyone managed more than a few steps of walking before being encouraged (or shamed) into running again.
I kept going, despite the protests from my legs, and slowly made my way over the finish line in 2:06:01. As soon as I stopped moving both calves seized entirely and I had to hobble, straight-legged, to the volunteers handing out the medals and then onto the MSRRF charity tent. As soon as I got there, I slumped into a chair and was promptly handed a cup of coffee and a chocolate biscuit. Heaven!
After my fourth (maybe fifth) biscuit I started reflecting on my run. I had completed my primary goal of completing a half marathon. And, not counting a quick stop to punch my legs into submission, I had done so without walking at all. Unfortunately I had missed out on my secondary goal of crossing the line in under 2 hours and that has bugged ever since.
Another thing that I realised while sitting there was that I would definitely be running another half-marathon, and soon(ish).
And next time there’s no way I’m going over that 2 hour mark!