The best moment on Sunday was right at the end. A middle aged Geordie gentlemen handing out the medals to exhausted half marathon runners took one look at my vividly red face and sweat drenched bull costume and just said:
And proceeded to shake my sweaty hand (poor man) before ushering me past into the ‘collect your T shirt’ line.
That was what Sunday was about for me really. Respect – for complete strangers who you have never met before and probably will not meet again. It flies in the face of game theory but then again it is one of the things – together with a highly developed imagination (some animals clearly do have some powers in this regard but not to the same extent we have – we are a class above) – that makes human beings special.
I felt many things on Sunday, including pain, being far too hot (a cheerful sign at half way round the run declared that the temperature was a mere seventeen degrees, which was blatantly not true) and anger focused at myself for not fixing some things about my costume in advance that would have made things a whole lot easier (preparation was never my strongest point). I also felt lots of love and a reminder of what I will miss from the great North Run; after twenty two consecutive years it is time to stop (and I really mean it this time).
I will not miss all the sitting around at the start (you really do need to get there early). I will miss the Red Arrows a bit, but I’ll see them elsewhere. The various landmarks and both depressing and invigorating mile markers (for the record, the 8 mile one is particularly good, appearing out of nowhere just when you are beginning to despair of it). The packed sweaty train ride back to the car can also be consigned to memory.
But the atmosphere among the vast majority of runners, that is irreplaceable. I really struggled in the heat and it was very obvious I was having a hard time. But I lost count of the times in those latter miles when people of all ages slapped me on the back and/or gave encouragement – often commenting on how glad they were not to be wearing what I was and how hot I must be. I think there is a clear element of ‘thank goodness that poor wretch is not me’ coming out but the support is quite genuine. As I struggled I suddenly remembered better years when I have done the same to people obviously at the end of their energy and, in particular the latter stages, a drive to see fellow participants make it to the finish, even if you have to carry them across it – and this does indeed happen all the time.
I once remember a 10K race which finished in a field, in which kids were kicking a football. I was coming into the finish as the ball strayed in my direction – I was enjoying the run and kicked it back to the lads, whereupon I was a bit surprised to find a complete stranger telling me off for ‘not taking the run seriously’. This is the opposite to the approach most people thankfully take to the Great North Run. Unless you are an elite athlete there is no way that a personal best is going to come out of the race – it is not the easiest of courses and too many runners to allow you to run freely. It is a race about completing it, not the time. It is also a race about community, both the community formed of the runners (as noted above) and for the local communities the race runs through. This is a big thing for these communities. In Marsden, near the finish, pretty much everyone seems to turn out and the atmosphere is more carnival than road race. To be frank, it is the big event of the year for this community and boy do they embrace it – and the participants. In the last few miles you could feast on unofficial supplies including oranges, jelly babies and (to the vast amusement of some of my fellow runners) custard creams. If you slowed to slap the hand of every child along the route that held theirs out you would never finish – but it is very easy to do so as they are so excited by the whole thing. For a second you are a minor celebrity – just about the right period of time for that I feel.
So I will miss this, but now my place will be taken by someone else, hopefully someone for whom this will be a new and landmark experience. If you do like running, give it a go. Just remember that it is much, much more than a road race.