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Great North Run (or 'Escape to South Shields')

PostPosted: Thu Sep 24, 2009 12:57 am
by Gordon Neill
For reasons that I barely understand, I agreed to run in last Sunday’s Great North Run at Newcastle. A friend of a friend of a friend was injured and would I like to take his place? With half a can of pear cider in me, I felt it would have been rude to have refused the offer. So I found myself automatically agreeing, as if I'd just been asked to pass the crisps.

Then I remembered that the thing is a half-marathon. A whole half-marathon. I go jogging every now and then, but it’s a long time since I did 13.1 miles in a single week. Still, I didn’t worry too much. After all, four weeks is a long time. Maybe the thing would get called off due to lack of interest.

But it quickly became obvious that there was plenty of interest. According to the blurb, the Great North Run is the ‘world’s biggest half-marathon’. I’d always assumed that half-marathons were all the same size and, to be honest, my first thought was that I’d rather run in the world’s tiniest half-marathon. But it turned out that ‘biggest’ referred to the number of people who want to run away from Newcastle as fast as possible. 50,000 apparently. After 28 years, it’s a wonder there’s anyone left.

So, with no obvious excuse, I got stuck into some training. I only got up to 8-mile runs but, for an old geezer of 52, I thought I’d pushed myself pretty hard. I had high hopes of being barely adequate for the Great Escape itself. Based on my practice runs, I thought I could do it in under 2 hours. But there were a lot of assumptions in that calculation. Such as not having too much to eat the night before, not drinking wine and beer, not going to bed until after well after midnight, not being woken up by a car alarm at 3.07 am, and not having so many sausages for breakfast. I left the hotel feeling like a modern day Alf Tupper.

Any remaining thoughts of adequacy evaporated in the morning sun as I took in the sight of 49,999 other runners, all looking younger, slimmer and fitter than me. I had a strong suspicion that they’d been cheating, doing some proper training and not eating all those sausages for breakfast, but there seemed little point in complaining to the authorities.

As the elite runners vanished over the horizon, engaged in their own private race, the starting pistol went off for the masses. It was so crowded that I didn’t actually start running for another 30 seconds. It became clear that massed running is a contact sport, with burly blokes pushing their way through, intent on moving up from 47,367th to the coveted 47,366th place. Not that I was doing too badly, as I reckoned that I was politely edging past just as many as those that were passing me. As we rolled downhill towards the Tyne Bridge, I was feeling pretty good.

As we climbed uphill from the Tyne Bridge, I was feeling terrible. It didn’t help that the sun had become unreasonably, unseasonably hot. But the main problem was that, quite simply, sausages don’t roll up a hill, they have to be pushed. I started to wonder just how far I’d covered. There were large signs from Bupa on virtually every lamppost. But, in sharp contrast, there were hardly any mile markers. Indeed, I counted a mere 13 on the entire route, as opposed to the millions of Bupa banners. I couldn’t understand why this sort of mass event is sponsored by a company dedicated to queue jumping. Then, as yet another burly bloke pushed me aside to move into a strategic 47,365th position, I realized that it was actually quite appropriate.

I was starting to struggle as we approached the ten mile mark (I say ‘we’, but the elite runners had, by now, finished, had a shower, eaten a hearty breakfast, cut the grass, and gone shopping with the wife). But at that point we approached something called the ‘Bupa Boost’. Sadly there were no drugs being handed out, just some loud music being pumped out, with a beat slightly ahead of my pace. But it helped. I steadily increased my pace, intent on getting away from that bloody awful noise as fast as possible.

As we got nearer to South Shields and freedom, it became apparent that we were starting to take casualties. At first there was the odd walking wounded. Then, as we turned into the final mile, there were increasing amounts of young men lying at the side of the road and vomiting gently. Despite all the Bupa banners, it was left to the St John’s Ambulance service to take care of the human debris. Presumably none of the runners were carrying a cheque book.

I had thoughts of a glorious finish in the final 400 metres, but my legs had other ideas. As I neared the finishing line, I saw a huge digital clock. ‘9 minutes to two’, it seemed to say. I was a little disappointed as, after calculating the time that we started, it seemed to suggest that I’d taken over 3 hours. Still, I reasoned, it was very hot and I was very slow. It was probably quite a fast time for a slow runner. It took me a few minutes to realize……the clock didn’t say 9 minutes to two. It said I hour 51 minutes.

But there was a bitter disappointment for all those who had hoped to escape the horrors of Newcastle. There was no submarine moored off the coast at South Shields. No dinghy waiting to take us gallant runners back to the free world. Instead, under the watchful gaze of the hated Red Arrows, we found ourselves herded onto buses and taken back to Newcastle to spend another year plotting our escape. Still, I was a happy man. I’d broken the world record for the sausage handicap and finished in a highly credible 47,356th position. And I was feeling quite peckish again…..