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Sunday, 5 December 2010

My Great North Run Incident 2004 (Part 1)

I think its about time that I write about my terrible experience at the Great North Run back in 2004. After all, it was the biggest race of my life and certainly had a big impact on me.

I do have to say it wasn't all bad. Most of the weekend was a fantastic experience. It was really just the way the run ended for me that took the shine off the weekend. This experience was enough to put me off running almost completely for the next couple of years!

The Great North Run 2004 was to be my first half marathon. I had never even run a 10km at that time. My brother Andy and I registered many months before the race date, as you tend to have to for most big running events these days. I paid the distance plenty of respect, putting in many miles of training over the course of the preceding months. Right from the start our aim was to run as close under 1 hour 30 minutes as possible. We measured out our training run distance and during all our training sessions we always aimed to run at or faster than our target race pace for the half marathon. This was always a fairly comfortable pace at lower distances and even as we raised our training run distance, it still felt just about the right target pace for us.

The race weekend finally came with us both feeling very confident that we could achieve our target time. The day before the run we both made sure we ate the right things and drank plenty of water. The morning of the race we had a good breakfast and continued to make hydration a priority, drinking a few pints (if not litres) of water. We joined the masses waiting behind the start line with about 2 hours still to go until the start. We were pretty close to the start line in the area marked out for target times of 1:30 to 1:45. We continued to drink as much as we could, but inevitably by this stage, more was coming out than going in. I think I had to jump over the fence for a comfort break at least 3 or 4 times before the start. And by this stage I had run out of water.

The race started and within about 2 minutes we were across the line and starting to jog. It quickly became very clear that it was going to take a while for the field to spread out enough to run at our target pace. This is where we made our first mistake. Rather than hold position and save some energy until we could run at full speed, we instead started to dodge and weave our way through the runners ahead of us. Often sprinting through small gaps or along kerbs and zig-zagging all over the place, we must have run a few hundred yards extra in the first mile and most of it in a sprint-jog-sprint fashion.

After about a mile and a half we finally found ourselves with some space to run at our own pace, but I could already feel that we had gone off to fast. By three miles we were already back on our target race pace time, even given the 2 minutes to get over the start line and the zig-zagging of the first mile or two. By then I knew we were certainly going too fast. We aimed to slow down for a while but somehow still managed to run faster than our target pace. By the half way point we were on for a finish time of around 1 hour 26 minutes, which seemed far too fast given all our training for 1 hour 30 minutes. Everything considered, I think it would be fair to say I had enjoyed my Great North Run experience up to this stage, but that was about to change.

I remember commenting on how hilly the course seemed to be. There must have been as much downhill as up, as the race ends on the sea front, but the uphill sections seemed to go on for miles at a time. That is one of my strongest lasting memories.

By about the 8 mile marker I could feel that I was in trouble. All the early sprinting and high pace was really starting to take its toll. At this point I told Andy I had to slow. Andy was a far stronger runner than me back in 2004 and he obviously still felt good, as he urged me to carry on and convinced me we could maintain our pace. By this time I was starting to become desperate for water.

By about the 10 mile mark we were noticeably slowing and runners were starting to stream past us. Andy was still strong, but thankfully he refused to leave me even tho. ugh I demanded that he run his own race. Somewhere around the 11 mile mark there was a water point with stacked bottles of water on offer. I was totally exhausted and desperate for water, but it was on the other side of the road and I literally couldn't face changing direction, so I sent Andy for water for me. Unfortunately this water stop came too late, the damage had been done.

I struggled on. I remember seeing a cameraman on a raised platform just before heading down the famous steep slope to the road along the seafront. I may even have managed a smile. This was just before the 12 mile point. I don't remember coming down that hill to the seafront, but I know I must have done. I do remember it feeling a very long way from the 12 mile marker to the 800 yards to go marker. And I do remember sitting at the side of the road next to the "800 yards to go" sign for 8 to 10 minutes (so Andy told me). After that I have no memory. I am told that I made one last big effort to get to the last 100 yards and then Andy and some unknown saintly runner offered their shoulders and helped me towards the line. I would have fallen short had it not been for their help.

I'm told that just before the finish line some kind blokes from the army dashed out to help Andy get me across the line. I have no memory of this whatsoever. As far as I am aware I never saw the finish area of the Great North Run, which to this day leaves me thinking I never really completed the race. I certainly didn't under my own steam.

I'll finish off this account of my Great North Run experience in my next blog post.

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