Phileas French

Travel Writer

Phileas French

Phileas French

Travel Writer | Exploring every country in the world, one adventure at a time

My Great North Run

Great North Run

Bit of a break from the usual content of my travel posts, but after completing the world’s biggest half marathon for charity (in two hours and 28 minutes, just to get that in there), I thought it might be helpful to give some sense of what the experience is like.

As the race drew near, I found myself getting far more nervous about whether I would get to the start line in good time and if there would be enough places to get water and go to the bathroom than about competing in the race itself. I’d been disorganised about booking a room, which is very much a rookie mistake. We ended up in the Travelodge Seaton Burn. The staff were extremely friendly but it’s very basic, and sees you coming with pricing around the race. We went up to Newcastle for two nights, and the first was a third the price of the £150 we paid for the night before the race.

The serious downside, however, was that the hotel was nowhere near walking distance to the start line, in fact about six miles from it, which left me prey to anxiety about getting there for the 10.30 cut-off point. I shared an 8.30 taxi with some other competitor guests, which dropped us a ten minute walk from the start line before the road closures kicked in.

I’m not the type who enjoys getting to places 90 minutes before they need to, and it had started to rain. I’d decided to run with just a pouch rather than a backpack, and soon I’d been forced to successfully forage a bin liner as a makeshift poncho. The weather was Biblical the day of the race: high winds, driving rain and cold. It’s hard to say how you can plan for weather like that, beyond accepting that in a British half marathon it’s on the table, even in mid-September.

There were thousands of other people milling around damply and nervously who didn’t really know what to do either. When they blasted out the hymn Abide With Me and suggested we take the time to think about why we were running, I felt totally overcome with the sadness about why I was running, in memory of my terribly missed mum after we lost her to cancer two years ago. It didn’t strike me as motivating and I hadn’t planned to spend the half marathon in tears. Fortunately, the mournful music was soon replaced by vintage rock and a strange man encouraging us to do stretches.

It was my first marathon and I’d naively guessed when asked on the entry form that I would finish in two and a half hours, assuming this was just the entry form making conversation rather than information that would be used to place me way back the kilometre long start line. I’m not going to claim that if I’d said 20 minutes that’s the time I would have done, but nevertheless, the race is so unbelievably busy, saying that time did feel like a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s not easy outpacing everyone around you consistently, and guessing 2.5 hours puts you in the same bracket as the people running in gorilla suits with collection buckets. No amateur wants to be placed so unrealistically far forward that they’re holding up the elite runners, but if I had my time over, I would have said two hours and ten minutes.

Zones are colour-coded and being in Pink Zone J means you wait 45 minutes longer than Mo Farah does to cross the start line. That wait can feel pretty long in the drizzle gazing at Portaloos.  Still, the atmosphere is building, and waving at the helicams and cheering on the elite runners during their televised start is good fun. There’s a lot of humour once things get started properly, and the biggest cheer of the day went to a honey shot of a middle-aged, bespectacled man solemnly trotting along in lime and mandarin drag.

When you finally do cross the start line, after shuffling towards it for the best part of an hour, you start properly running straight away, which surprised me. If anything, you suddenly have to rein yourself in and pace yourself, which is an odd feeling after champing at the bit for so long. There’s plenty of spectators to cheer you on, some mild inclines, and then you’re two-ish miles in and making the iconic bridge crossing over the Tyne. The three mile marker meant a lot to me, because I felt absolutely fine despite the howling gale, and I was actually managing to enjoy myself.

It was less fun six miles later tramping through housing estates, and I felt grumpy about some local kids using the complimentary water stations as fodder for target practice with us, causing me to dodge jets of mineral water. It might be a friendly gesture in Indian summer conditions, but on a day like 15 September 2013 it made my already uncomfortably soaked clothing that bit worse. I grizzled about this later to one of my best friends and a multiple marathon veteran, Liz. She rightly pointed out that at least it’s nice to have spectator support all along the Great North Run route, which isn’t the case with some other events.

I was determined not to need to stop for the bathroom (I didn’t) and consequently I’d been wary of partaking too much of the free beverages. Much to my regret, I didn’t see any of the legendary Newcastle Brown Ale being handed out, which would have amused me greatly, but by the 10 mile marker, I was clutching for the Lucozade and accepting fistfuls of jelly babies from strangers. I spotted someone handing out what looked like lemon sherbet powder to some runners, creating a hilariously sticky mess on their palms when they grabbed at it.

The 11th mile was the worst. The race is hilly, and even though I’d been deliberately training on gradients, it’s hard not to let it break your stride. It was the closest I came to properly stopping for a bit, but then two little miracles happened. Another Anthony Nolan runner ran by and patted me on the back encouragingly. Then the sky cleared and the Red Arrows flew over and made a heart in the sky. After that how could I not force myself on again?

The final mile is blissfully downhill and along the gorgeous South Shields coastline. The cheering crowd high-fiving you and shouting your name in encouragement (it’s on your shirt!) is totally wonderful. I properly sprinted the last kilometre and crossing the finish line was one of the best moments of my life. The charity I picked to run for, Anthony Nolan, is genuinely worthy, and it felt amazing to have managed to finish the race for them, and for my mum. It's a nightmare getting out of South Shields afterwards but I was so grateful to find Jonathan, Estella and Electra waiting for me there and cuddling me in congratulation.

In summary:

Book your hotel the minute you’ve booked your place on the race

Don’t worry about bringing any refreshments because it’s all there and free

There are plenty of Portaloos around if you need them but expect very lengthy waits for the facilities at the start line

Be slightly optimistic when you guess your completion time

Don’t struggle against the crowds, enjoy them

Bring your own bin liner

It’s a brilliant experience, I’m by no means a runner but I loved it

Bring your lovely family to cheer you along
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Tuesday, 25 February 2020