My charity vest arrived at the very last moment, the morning before the race – I had already given up on it and acquired a club vest (similar to the one in the photo behind my left shoulder, minus the bunny ears!) so that was quite exciting, particularly as it turned out to be a pleasingly complementary colour to match my sports top. On Sunday morning I woke up bright and early to meet Linda who had very kindly volunteered to give me a lift into the city centre, since the trains don’t start running until almost 10am on Sundays. It was very peculiar to arrive in the city and be totally surrounded by people in running gear with a rainbow of coloured numbers pinned to their front. Apparently there were 20,000 of us running the race – that’s a lot of Lycra!
We arrived and managed to track down the other members of our running club (aided by the fact that one member was dressed as Minnie Mouse – her skirt is just visible in the corner of the picture). We took the obligatory group photo, from which I have shamelessly stolen a portion to illustrate this post in the absence of the official photos, and after we’d each stood in the extremely long but suprisingly fast-moving queues for the toilets we headed off to the starting line for the scheduled warm up.
By the time we arrived, half of the runners had already set off in earlier waves based on their predicted speed, but there were still far more people than I think I have ever seen in one place before. Incredibly we managed not to lose anyone other than Linda’s cousin who chose to start with her wave instead of dropping back to join the rest of us in the slow group! The warm up was fun; there was a buzz in the air and we all enthusiastically joined in with the arm waving and knee bending despite not being able to see the demonstrator at the front. Finally, Ellie Simmonds blew an air horn to officially set us on our way and we shuffled forwards before setting off over the starting line at a controlled jog.
The temptation, as I had been warned multiple times, was to get swept up in the crowd and run much too fast for the first few miles. It wasn’t helped by the fact that the first section of the course was mostly downhill, but we carefully slowed ourselves down and although I think we ran the first couple of miles about two minutes faster than my usual pace, we didn’t wear ourselves out.
After four miles, the faster members of our group began to slowly pull ahead and I ran the next stretch just with Linda, who during our training runs was usually only a tiny fraction faster than me. We chatted and enjoyed the cheering, the music and the adorable children who held out their hands to high-five passing runners and squealed with excitement when a recognisable costume came past. Eventually around the 8-mile mark, after I had gratefully accepted a glucose tablet to fend off the threat of light-headedness, Linda pulled irrevocably ahead but by that point I was feeling confident that I could finish the race and enjoying myself enough not to need motivating company.
I had expected it to be hard work and to have to remind myself that I was running for a charity and that it would all be over eventually, but I found myself grinning my head off and really enjoying the experience. Whenever I thought I was about to start flagging, we’d run past a family who had dragged out tables and chairs into the street and were blasting music through a portable CD player or handing out jelly babies and cups of water, and my spirits were lifted again. Linda and I played “spot our running club members” and pointed out interesting costumes to each other (I think my favourites were the leprechaun, the Dalek and the Wolverhampton Bobsleigh Team, who were running inside a wooden bobsleigh complete with eight-foot Jamaican flags and a ghetto blaster).
I’ll admit that parts of the course were tougher than others. For some reason, around the 10th or 11th mile we ran through an almost-deserted housing estate with no music, no water stations, no spectators… nothing except the relentless grind of running and, by that stage, quite a lot of people who had given up and were walking. I was determined that I wouldn’t give in and join them, so I drove myself through by imagining myself telling people afterwards “I ran every step!”, a surprisingly effective technique. When we came to the steepest hill on the course, which people who had run in previous years had bewailed as an unwelcome new addition to the route, I put my head down and powered up at what was quite possibly my fastest pace in the entire race, other than the last 200m. Fortunately, at the crest of the hill the music and crowds started up again, but I still feel that the whole experience would have been improved if that encouragement-black spot hadn’t existed.
I’d been told that the last three miles would be the toughest, but once we’d passed mile ten I kept thinking “for every step you take now, you’ve already taken at least three”. It felt as though I had never done anything except run; that running was all there was. I couldn’t actually imagine what it would be like to stop running, although at around 12 miles I became aware that if someone had put a gun to my head and told me to run faster I probably couldn’t have done it.
And yet when we pulled back into the city centre and ran the last 500 metres, I found a sudden burst of energy and elation. The streets were lined with people cheering, clapping, waving signs and yelling personal encouragement to any runner who got close enough for them to read the name on their badge. For the last 200m I pushed up into a sprint, with such a huge smile on my face that the radio commentator began talking about how wonderful it was to watch people who thought they’d spent all their energy find one last reserve for a sprint to the finish.
As I crossed the finish line I couldn’t believe my eyes: the official timer clock announced that for pink wave starters, the time was 2 hours and 35 minutes, plus a quantity of seconds I didn’t have time to notice before I had passed it. I had been aiming for a finish time of 2 hours 45 minutes and had lain awake on Friday night worrying that I hadn’t done enough training to actually achieve my goal, so to not just achieve it but to better it by such a big margin was an incredible feeling. I wove my way around the other people who had finished with me, most of whom were walking, but I couldn’t get my legs to stop running quite yet. I jogged along the path until I finally had to force myself to stop in order to pull my timer chip off my shoes and drop it into a bag held out by one of the myriad smartly-dressed Scouts. I took a bottle of water from another group of volunteers and bumped into Fiona from our little group, who had finished just ahead of me. We made our way along the surprisingly lengthy walk back to the main race station, collecting our goodie bag en route.
The first thing I came across when I delved inside was a cereal bar which was very nearly vegan – and indeed entirely vegan if you fall into the “honey doesn’t count” camp. Whilst I haven’t yet made up my mind on the issue, I knew I wasn’t going to make it back to the baggage point to collect my peanut butter sandwich and banana before I felt the effects of having run over 13 miles and not eaten for more than six hours, so I ate it. Then I gave away the chocolate bar and milk-based protein bar before I was tempted!
There were so many things about the entire day that I found incredible. The people who were running against the odds: people who looked fairly unfit but completely determined to keep going, the woman who set off at the same time as me but who I passed on the dual-direction stretch eight miles later, still grimly pushing herself in her wheelchair about five miles behind, the impressive-but-probably-foolhardy people wearing costumes that looked unbearably uncomfortable.
And then there was the weather, which had spent the week playing “how bad can the forecast get before you give up?” and then turned out to be almost perfect on the day. Not a speck of rain until more than half an hour after I’d finished, by which point I’d just retrieved my bag and coat. The efficient organisation of the event, including charity donation bags in which to collect up the abandoned jackets and hats and a clever road-sweeper for gathering up dumped water bottles. I was a little taken aback at the sea of almost-full Powerade bottles which had been flung to the ground not far from the water station in the 10th mile, though. There must have been 500 or more of them, with only a few sips drunk before they were abandoned. Surely it would have been possible to hand out small paper cups with a few mouthfuls of drink in them?
We all finished and made our way to the pre-arranged meeting point in a nearby bar for a drink and a debrief. I suspect it was a very good day for the city’s pubs! I ended up staying quite a lot longer than I’d anticipated, and due to that and delays on the trains I only had half an hour at home to shower, eat a Nakd bar and dry my hair before Susannah picked me up to go to a Taize service in the city. I regaled her with tales of the race on the journey, which turned into something of an adventure thanks to an unhelpful satnav and a very convoluted road system. The service, which for anyone who has never been to one is basically a group of people singing in various different languages in a peaceful room with candles, was exactly what I needed after the flurry of activity the day had been, and afterwards I was introduced to someone else who had also run the race that morning and we compared aches and pains. Then Susannah and I headed off to meet another of her friends for curry, where after a bit of discussion with the waiter I managed to procure a delicious vegan meal which I wolfed down. I caused much hilarity thanks to my inability to stand up, sit down, walk down stairs or in any way move without an involuntary “ow!” with every step.
It was quite hard to sleep on Sunday night, thanks to the unbelievable soreness of my legs. After waking up every two hours for most of the night I caved in and staggered to the bathroom to find some Ibuprofen, which allowed me to get three hours of unbroken sleep. It will not surprise anyone that I caught the train to university on Monday morning! But it did surprise a few people, including me, that on Monday evening I donned my running gear once more and went for a slow, short run around the block with another of the half-marathoners from the club. Then we joined the rest of the crew in the bar to listen to each others’ stories of aches, pains and fundraising triumph. Another of the unexpectedly wonderful things about this half marathon is that it has helped me to cement some budding friendships; I finally feel like I have made friends here. Friends who have talked me into doing the Great North Run next year… oh dear.