As I write this, I’m sat on the train back to London after spending the last two days in Newcastle for the Simplyhealth Great North Run weekend. To be honest I’m actually a bit blown away by how big the event is. Up until about 38 hours ago I was under the impression, like some southern idiot who has no knowledge of anything outside of London (I’m from Lincolnshire by the way, I’m not that bad), that the Simply Health Great North Run was a sizeable regional event, maybe 20,000 people or so. It’s not, it’s massive, like ridiculously.
(This is a long post, so if you’d prefer to read on Apple News, here’s the link)
And it’s not just a half marathon, the event spans the whole weekend and covers a heap of running events ranging for the kid’s mile to the half marathon itself. This year the Quayside base for the weekend also played host to the Great City Games, a day of athletics dotted around the enormous event location, with some of the world’s best athletes.
And that’s just the actual sport, there’s stuff going on all over the place., like food, music, entertainment and all sorts of other stuff.
So yeah, when I was invited over to the event I had planned to spend the Saturday doing a bit of sightseeing. I’d only ever been to Newcastle once before for a stag do. That was about eight years ago, and I can barely remember getting off the train, let alone any of Newcastle’s tourist hotspots.
This was not the weekend for sightseeing though. This was a weekend for running, and it was everywhere. I even found out that there was a 5k race happening on the Saturday which I managed to wangle my way into (I’m not missing the opportunity to do a double medal weekend). Anyway, I’ll break the weekend down into sections – there’s way too much for me to blather on about without some sort of order.
Saturday – The Quayside
The day before the half marathon is essentially a massive festival of running and athletics. Kicking off with the junior and mini Great Run races with distances of 1.5k for the mini race (with parents) and 4k for the junior runners, the latter of which had some ridiculously fast times.
The Great City Games are an annual event that takes place the day before the half marathon. Basically, they’ve built various tracks around the Quayside for different athletic disciplines. The most sizeable being a full 150m running track that forms the centrepiece of the whole event. It’s damn impressive too. My lazy planning for the trip meant I had no idea what the track was, until I accidentally walked down the wrong side of it and ended up getting stuck there for the full duration of a mini mile wave. The upside being that I spent the next ten minutes chatting to a rather nice marshal who explained it all to me.
Events covered pole vaulting, 100m sprints, 150ms, hurdles, 500m and the long jump. The last one there being a pretty momentous occasion, based on the fact it was Greg Rutherford’s last ever long jump attempt, and pretty moving it was too (It’s all on TV, and well worth a watch).
At 5pm I headed over to the start line to take part in the Great City 5k race, a rather nice surprise which meant I could bag two medals before heading home. It was pretty exciting actually, I headed out in the first wave (been getting some fast times lately) and found out that the event was being opened by Katherine Switzer, she even did an interview before the horn sounded (if you don’t know who she is, she illegally entered the Boston marathon in 1967 when women weren’t allowed to compete. She went on to win the New York City Marathon in 1974 (read about her here, seriously, it’s an awesome story).
Anyway, the 5k was a lot tougher than I thought. I managed to finish with a 19.35 time, which is only the third sub 20 I’ve ever got. It was hilly though, and windy, a lot tougher conditions than my PB at Regent’s park last week. A nice touch to finish running across the millennium bridge though, and an absolutely pleasure to have the chance to run in two races over the course of the weekend. Pity I’ve never been a world-class athlete, I’d have tried to get into the 100m as well.
Aside from all that fitness stuff there was also a massive pasta party expo type thing going on, which also doubled as an impressive vantage point for the athletics. There was live music, loads of food (Geordie Bangers are meant to be THE one to go for FYI), kit and a massive replica machine gun on display from the army. That’s just the highlights, there was a load more. Far too much for me to visit all of.
So yeah, a phenomenally busy day of things going on and an awesome precursor to the day after. It all just goes to cement the idea that Great North Run is just part of a weekend that has so many aims, not least the fact that everyone can be involved in some way. It’s a really
Sunday – The Great North Run
As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, I massively underestimated the main event of the weekend. The fact that 60,000 people take part in the race meant that I foolishly assumed it was an easy route. Having ran some of my fastest runs over the previous few weeks, I had my misdirected heart set on another PB. More about that later.
The course is point to point. So, unlike most half marathons in the UK, you start in a completely different place than where you finish. The start line is situated to the east of Newcastle city centre, the finish is 13.1 miles away in the coastal town of South Shields. The promise of actually travelling from somewhere to another place entirely is pretty nice when you’re racing. It adds a sense of purpose to it, unlike a course where you circle a single point. It does however mean that there are certain logistical considerations like transport and baggage. Normally I bang out a half marathon in the morning and be home for lunch. The Great North Run is going to take up a bigger chunk of the day. Like the London Marathon, It’s not so much a race as a large-scale event.
What’s the course like?
Well, with an event that sees 60,000 people running in the same direction, you’re going to need a lot of space. The result is that the majority of the course travels along pretty major roads. This is obviously a good thing for safety and just obvious logistics. If there was even one tight funnel during an event of this scale, you’re going to have some major issues.
The downside of that is a modicum on monotony. That alone isn’t too bad for a half marathon distance but add to that a constant undulating course that you can see stretch out for at least a mile in front of you for most of the time, and you have a pretty tough old route. It’s definitely not the nice flat course I’d already preplanned in my head.
This is not some small-county half marathon where you’re running alone through endless country lanes though. For the whole way the road is lined with cheering crowds. During the London Marathon you expect it because the whole thing takes place in heavily populated streets, but for people to be lining dual carriageways for miles, I really wasn’t expecting it at all. It’s ridiculously motivating (as well as a bit heart-warming – I don’t think most of them were even there for anyone in particular, they were just supporting everyone).
Did I enjoy it?
Hell yeah. There aren’t many events of this scale in the country and the whole thing seems to sweep up everyone into a frenzy of excitement. When you love running as much as I do, seeing a whole city overwhelmed by the sport is an amazing experience.
I mean, it was hard, don’t get me wrong. I was three minutes off getting a PB and I even had to stop a couple of times because I was mentally having a tough time. I couldn’t count the number of times people shouted my name though (it’s written on the bib, that hardly ever happens in races that I normally do. I often think that I don’t care about the crowds, but when you’re really at a low point a simple smile and a shout from a stranger can make an enormous difference.
The end of the race is the real icing on the cake. A beautiful 300 metre descent that suddenly appears over the lip of a hill and takes you down to the east coast. A moment of complete relief and joy after one of the toughest sections of the race. Add to that a one kilometre straight down the coastline with literally thousands of people cheering from either side, it’s one hell of a finish (although it seems a lot longer than one kilometre – be warned).
Why is it such an important event?
When I was younger, runners went running and did races. There were no massively engulfing events that dragged running into the general social mindset. The Great North Run is a lot more than a race, it’s an occasion that normalises running and turns it into something that everyone wants to be involved with.
The London Marathon is an amazingly important event, and one that sparks inspiration on a global scale. The Great North Run is more than that though, it’s a whole weekend of trying to include everyone in the benefits of running. Whether you’re sitting and watching world-class athletes running 100m on television, jogging for a mile with your kids or pushing yourself for PB in one of the world’s biggest races, it all boils down to the same core message about the value of running. And it makes it look amazing.
If even a fifth of the people who take part in the weekend in some way take up running consistently, then that’s one hell of an important benefit to everyone (I think it will be a far higher percentage than that though).
So yeah, my first trip up to the Great North Run was a pretty amazing experience. Two races, a weekend of experiences, met a load of nice, like-minded people and got to spend some time in a city I’d never really seen before. Whether you’re northern/southern a runner or a non-runner, the weekend is well worth being part of. Entries for next year’s event aren’t open yet, but you can sign up for a useful reminder here.
Oh yeah, and well done to any of you lot that took part in any of the events and thanks to the amazingly friendly crew over at Simplyhealth who let me join their running team. If you want to see my Instagram story over the weekend, here you go.
Simplyhealth is title partner of the Great Run Series and is supporting runners every step of the way by helping people make the most of life through better everyday health. For training advice, please visit www.greatrun.org/training-simplyhealth
Picture Credits: Tom Wheatley, The Great North Run