What a difference a decade makes… The Great North Run 2016: Part 2
Once in the safety of my pen, I did my usual bit of pointless jiggling up and down, taken directly from the Ministry of Silly Warm-ups. A small, unassuming lady shot me a nervous smile, and we struck up an equally nervous conversation. “It’s horrible, this bit, isn’t it?” I ventured, sensing her angst.
“Yeah – I know. I just want to get going now!” She replied, with another clear 45 minutes still to go. She was called Jean.
We discussed previous GNRs we’d taken part in, and mutually coached each other into somehow taming the inner chimp that whispered mockingly into our ears, “You can’t do this, you fool! Quick – make an about-turn and exit stage left.” As we spoke to each other and understood that our chimps were regurgitating exactly the same self-doubting mantra, it seemed to help.
We shuffled a bit further forward, having mustered up the confidence to inch that bit closer to the start line. Another petite, cheerful lady joined us in our pre-race polite chatter. She was chirpy – almost agitated with adrenaline as she matter-of-factly dropped into the conversation, “It’s my first GNR since the cancer. I couldn’t run it last year – I was having an emergency hysterectomy. They took out all my lymph glands too, just to make sure.”
Myself and Unassuming Jean were momentarily silenced, whilst chirpy, agitated lady continued. “I was lucky, really. They found it (the cancer) when it was 1.8cm long. Any longer and I’d have had to go through endless rounds of radiotherapy and chemo. In fact, I’d still be going through all of that now!” she said, like it was the most normal conversation in the world. I’d only just noticed that she was wearing a Cancer Research vest.
Chirpy Lady was quite clearly beside herself with nerves, to the point where she admitted feeling entirely nauseous. Initially, I couldn’t understand why. “Bloody hell,” I said to her, making a gesture towards her Cancer Research vest, “You’ve just beaten cancer, you’re fit & well enough to be here and stand on the start line – in a fast pen – and yet you’re nervous about a half marathon? Surely you feel invincible!” I didn’t want to appear ignorant or stupid, but I no doubt managed both.
“I know all that,” she replied, with a beaming, nervous smile. “But the truth of it is, I don’t want the cancer to have taken my running from me. I want to prove to myself that I’m at least as fast as I was before the cancer came. I was fast, then.” Suddenly, I got it. I understood.
I felt pathetic and scolded myself. What right have you got to indulge in any more ridiculous self-doubt? You haven’t had cancer. You haven’t lost a child. Your vest doesn’t have a picture of a deceased close relative on the back of it. My thought process continued, Whatever happens, I am so entirely and utterly thankful to be standing here in the sunshine, amidst the overly-serious Paddington Bears and the Chubby Fairies – and to simply be a part of this.
We said our ‘good lucks’ and before long, we were off.
The first mile I spent tripping up over misplaced, slower runners, in spite of being in a fast starting pen. Who are these people? How are they not further back? It worked in my favour though, as the skipping about slowed my early pace down. And anyway, someone may well have had exactly the same thoughts about me back in 2006.
In fact, the first few miles were a joy, my legs having forgotten entirely about the 20 mile race from the previous weekend. Ever since that pummeling, I’d questioned HOW. How on earth can my legs do this? How can they recover and run this thing, after last weekend almost broke me? I simply didn’t know. But, after my thrill of witnessing Paddington being interviewed, watching Mankini Man tweak the fluorescent strap from around his balls, and hearing Chirpy Lady’s victory over cancer, I couldn’t bring myself to care.
Mile 4 and I was happily trotting alongside the 1:35 pacer. He looked to be floating, hovering slightly off the ground, with a small gang of cling-ons working much harder just to hang on to the back of his shorts. I giggled to myself as one friendly guy who was running laboriously next to him asked, ‘So, what kind of time would you normally do a half in, then?‘ to which the answer came back ‘Oh, about 1:04.‘ That would explain things, then. Friendly Man shut up.
Mile 6 came and I’d already run through a couple of showers and thrown water over myself to try and cool down. I glanced at my watch, and the pace was good. Bloody Hell, Rach. You’re doing alright here! I even had the inclination to wave excitedly at the overhead cameras as I ran past, reveling in the GNR happy vibe. This is ACE!! I’d reluctantly overtaken 1:35 pacer guy, warning myself from getting too giddy – surely my already fatigued legs would protest at some point?
And then it happened. Somewhere between mile 8 and 9 my legs realised they’d had enough. They simply couldn’t be arsed to continue, and I quickly went from bouncing along to battling them within the space of a drinks station. How could the tide turn so quickly? My head dropped as I knew I’d entered the Battle Zone. And there I was, thinking I’d possibly got away with it. Nope – it’s game on. Head down; feel the pace slipping away; fight the constant nagging urge to stop; have conversations with some other mystical part of my psyche to try and stay positive and get through this.
Around mile 10, Pacer Guy and his Minions cruised past me. Only ever so slightly ahead in terms of pace, but mentally some damage was done. Ahhh shit. There goes any chance of a 1:35 time, then. I adopted the role of cling-on to one of his minions.
The last three miles hurt, and the tiniest of inclines felt like mountains. Every time I checked out my Garmin in an attempt to wish the miles away, I only saw minuscule fractions pass by. But I know that place. I’ve been there so many times before. In that at least, there is some small comfort. To feel familiarity with an internal, invisible battle. Perhaps that sums up my running? No magic inspiration appeared, and the minuscule mile fractions willfully refused to gain any momentum.
Coming in to the last mile was the worst of all. So near the end, and yet the desire to stop was overwhelming. Normally, I would hope to have something left – if not a sprint finish, then at the very least not a limp finish. This one was an unequivocal limper.
I looked up at the clock as I approached the mats. No way! It’s showing 1:35! My clinging on to Mr Pacer’s minions must have had some of the desired effect.
My time: 1:35:17. Not a PB (that stands at 1:30) but considering that the last time I passed the finishing line in South Shields it was in a time of 2:14:07 – a decade ago – I’ll take that.
I wonder what difference another decade will make?