It’s September 2007. Early autumn sunshine filters through the trees on Newcastle’s Town Moor. Fifty-odd thousand excited, slightly nervous joggers, proper runners, chickens, ballet dancers, wheelchair users, Borats and pantomime horses surround you on the start line of the biggest mass participation run in the UK.
What on earth am I doing here?
A 46 year old who had barely run since my mid twenties I had signed up because it felt like a good thing to do. A way I could at least help raise a little awareness and money for the MS Trust, a charity I’d only got to know as a result of my wife, Kathy’s diagnosis with MS four years previously. I still played a bit of 5-a-side, I walked the dog most days, surely a half marathon can’t be too bad, can it?
In what seems like no time Dire Straits’ Local Hero is blaring out from the PA, Sir Bobby Robson is gamely attempting to shake hands with every single one of us and I am alongside one of my best mates on a conveyor belt of smiling, jogging, walking, waving humanity, wearing every colour under the sun. All with a story, all cheerfully determined to do the best they possibly can.
People waving and smiling. On bridges, by the roadside, one gigantic Geordie family and they all seem to be rooting for you – every note is positive, every voice encouraging. Exhilarating and unforgettable.
The deceptively easy run down to the Tyne Bridge, then across – Red Arrows overhead gleaming out of the blue, the roar as they fly over. This is incredible, better than I’d ever imagined. Looking out for Kathy and the kids at the pre-agreed spot – a little hand-rail at the bottom of some steps, just before the road turns left through Gateshead. There they are – a wave, a smile, a photograph. And then uphill, this is real. Moon River on my mental playlist… “wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style, some day”. My Mum’s favourite song, and my Dad’s. He was a runner in his youth, I can hear his voice, feel him with me “Come on Andrew, you can do it”.
Get into a rhythm, stay with it – remember the training, you have prepared for this. The 11 mile run to my brother’s house on a hot day the week before, uphill finish without any water – you can do this.
3 miles. Water.
More smiles, pick up a bottle – a few slurps. Keep focused, keep the rhythm. Remember my friend Brian’s advice from the night before “Enjoy it. Engage with the crowd – they will pull you through”. Wish I’d had the pasta instead of a Calzone pizza, maybe that second beer wasn’t a great idea…
The bands. Another mile, another band – driving you on; you applaud them because they are great and it lifts you.
The guy up on top of his shed with his garden hose spraying down the runners in Hebburn to keep them cool. The strictly unofficial Elvis impersonator belting out Suspicious Minds. The kids handing out lollies or jelly babies. The smiles, the waves.
Everyone looking out for each other, everyone doing it for a reason.
South Shields. You can smell the sea. A reggae band in the roundabout, more and more people cheering and waving. High fives. A steady incline and the runners quieten, focus on the job in hand, keep working, keep the rhythm.
When you think the finish may never come, the road drops and the North Sea is in front of you. 1 mile to go. One flat, wonderful mile. Then 800m, 600, 400… you find yourself breaking into a sprint, this is it. Leave nothing behind, give it everything you’ve got. Oh, and don’t forget the official photographers at the finish – in year one I contrived to look like a breathless, perspiring bulldog chewing a wasp – with a little awareness this can be avoided.
Then as suddenly as it started it’s over. You’re on another human conveyor belt, leave the ankle strap timer, collect the bag, change your shirt and hang the medal around your neck. A mug of hot sweet tea at the MS Trust tent in the Charity Village, a Mars Bar, banana, more smiles, more Red Arrows. Pure euphoria and a sense of real achievement.
And ever since I’ve had to come back, recapture that feeling, do it again and again. All being well this year will be my sixth Great North Run, our son Josh’s third and daughter Hannah’s second. And my long suffering friends in Gosforth will once again be putting us up and feeding us porridge, driving us to the Town Moor and keeping Kathy company while we all assemble to do it one more time.
It is the most positive experience imaginable, so worthwhile in every way. I’ve never done any other mass participation events so I have nothing to compare it to. But there is something about the heady mix of north eastern hospitality and warmth, flawless organization and that fantastic finale by the sea that make the Great North Run very special indeed. If you are thinking about it, do it. You’ll love it.
Sadly I have no advice to offer on training programmes and fitness regimes as frankly I’ve never really stuck to one. My idea of a “warm down” is a pint of Guinness in Durham City on the way home and fish & chips at the Coast 2 Coast chippie in Kirkby Stephen. Buy good shoes, put an eclectic mix on your iPod (I’ll never forget smiling up a really tough hill 5 miles into a training run to God Give me Strength by Elvis Costello) and get a running app for your mobile. If you have a dog, start to run with him (or her) – that’s how all this began for me. And savour every second of the day.
Finally, always remember why you are doing it – to help the MS Trust continue to fund valuable research and offer hope, support, information and advice for people like my amazing wife, Josh and Hannah’s amazing mum, Kathy.
The MS Trust still has a limited number of places available for this year’s Great North Run – find out how to book your place.