What a Difference a Decade Makes… The Great North Run 2016 – Part 1: The WHY.
I last ran the GNR in 2006, when I was a very different person. I was in a legal career I hated, in a marriage that left me feeling like Dory, swimming around a fish bowl having forgotten what she was even looking for. I lived in a corporate suburb of Wakefield like one of those Aliens hiding out in underpants (parents of young children will get the reference.) Wakefield being the ‘pants’ and me being the ‘alien’ – obviously. Most of my days commenced with a daily dose of Prozac and ended in a blur of rose wine. In 2006, I limped over the GNR finish line in 2 hours 14 minutes and 17 seconds, and I was spent.
It’s now 2016, and I felt an urge to take part in this year’s GNR. Why? So many reasons. Because I wanted to remind myself what all the fuss was about; because I wanted my 2016 self to experience what my 2006 self had seen – only through new eyes. Cleaner, fresher, happier – hell, even honest eyes. Would I see things the same way? Would I still have to stop and walk at mile 6, unable to continue chugging my wine-fuelled, sluggish body along at a meagre ten-minute mile pace? I’m ten years older. What’s changed in that time?
So I made it my mission to secure a place this year. To cut an otherwise rambling tale short, I ended up running as Gav. He was injured – his continued run of race calamities putting an end to his GNR 2016.
With his number pinned firmly to my vest, having first removed the offensively large ‘GAVIN’ print so as to avoid any bemused ‘well, you can kind of see remnants of a tash, though, if you look closely,’ glances, I left Gav at the car park and headed off to the start line.
I stopped to cross the street just as two apprehensive, heavy fairies hopped out of a taxi. A couple walked towards me hand-in-hand, looking deadly serious in their mutual silence whilst wearing prominent pink kitten ears. I turned a corner and hit a sea of people, and all the memories came flooding back. THIS IS THE MAGIC. Just like ten years ago, this is it.
It seems like a lifetime ago that I was here and experiencing this for the first time. The sensory overload grabs me; the emotional assault and the battery of noise, movement and colour washes over me like a small child in a wave pool. I look to my left: there’s a guy naked other than a fluorescent green mankini. He’s stepping gingerly into a matching tutu; near to him are two identical, slightly chubby Elvis’s, bejewelled and dazzling in silent unison, contemplating their fate. I look up at the sky – it’s a perfect blue and it matches my shorts.
As I’m following the crowd, I realise I’m walking behind two girls with long, furry kitten tails swinging from their synchronised Lycra pants. I suddenly stop and wonder, ‘Where the hell am I going?’
In front of me is a man chatting to his friend. He’s wearing a 1980s sweatband without any hint of irony. I glance down over the bridge and see the start line, with splatterings of colourful people barely moving. Just as I walk past, an interviewer looks to be engrossed in a heavy pre-race conversation with Paddington Bear. He’s come over from deepest Peru for the occasion.
I find a patch of sun-dried grass along the banking and I sit down. Batman and Robin are taking selfies to my right, whilst others like me are sitting and watching. We’re silenced by the human spectacle we are all a part of. I think back to that half marathon right here ten years ago, and being shocked at the fact that people were relieving themselves up and down the grass banking. “These people are PISSING in public! Without any attempt to hide the fact!” I get up and quickly scurry behind a thinly-branched tree and unashamedly pull down my pants for yet another nervous wee. When in Rome and all that…
Our friends are running today. Tom and Cheryl lost their daughter last year. Tom is running. They are heroes, although they don’t wear fluorescent mankinis or batman capes. They don’t run with white goods strapped to their back, and yet they have a dignified strength that wipes the floor with any of the caped crusaders in superhero films.
Paddington strolls past me, and I wonder if he wishes he’d chosen a cooler costume. A small ginger haired lad runs after him, hollering after the Peruvian bear. “Paddington, PADDINGTON!” he screeches excitedly with his arms flailing, but Paddington walks on.
The heart-wrenching stories are being broadcast over the sound system, whilst the BFG-size TV screen spans the road as it show interviewers nodding patronisingly at Kelly who has lost six stone since she was inspired by another runner, another year. She’s still got a way to go, but she’s on the right track. I don’t know whether to feel inspired or just sad. Everyone’s got a story, but how much more can any of us take in of this plethora of juxtaposed, hopeful pain? I wonder where Tom is. I wonder what he’s feeling. He’s not on the rotating TV screen, or in a Paddington suit. He’s just thinking about how he’ll get through the next couple of hours knowing he’s doing it in the absence of his beautiful daughter.
A girl sitting by herself next to me tentatively asks, “Excuse me, but where do we go to find our starting pens?” I can’t help but wonder how she’s found herself here. The pens are directly in front of us, and we could roll down the banking into them. She goes on to ask what time we should head down. Inside, I weep a little, but at least she’s here and she’s doing this. It would be far easier not to.
I get up and have a final wee behind another sparse bush, and then I make a break for my pen…
To Be Continued…