Race Report: Great North Run 2021

Race Report: Great North Run 2021

Truth be known the half marathon scares me a little. Or maybe it’s the Great North Run (GNR) that scares me in particular?

As a competitive runner you can mention to anyone (who doesn’t really run) about a race you’ve done and chances are you will get a puzzled, slightly non interested look. Tell them you’ve done the GNR and they’ll ask you what time you ran. Tell them and they’ll instantly form an opinion on your status as a runner…

Quite a few people said to me following my 16.01 5k that it really bodes well for the GNR and Manchester Half but deep down I was fighting an anxiety leading up to the GNR that I simply didn’t feel going into the Quayside 5km.

It could be down to a few things…

1. My mileage is still low, even verging on derogatory for the half marathon. As I explained in the last blog, I have only averaged around 34 miles per week in the 14 weeks leading up to the GNR. Many would argue that is too low to be competitive in the 5k nevermind the half. I am in two minds. Better to do what you can consistently and not get injured. Even in Week 14 I tweaked my left hamstring which worried me until the day before the GNR when it thankfully subsided with ibuprofen and ice. I somewhat accept I am relatively injury prone and try to play the cards I am dealt.

2. The GNR was only my 3rd half and 2nd official half. I’m still inexperienced at this distance. My unofficial HM PB of 1.16.32 in 2019 was done in fine conditions on Newcastle racecourse (7 flat laps) and probably gave me a false sense of what I could do on the tough revised GNR course that still had a large element of the unknown. The Stryd race calculator tool didn’t seem to think the revised undulating course would greatly impact my overall race time, in effect suggesting that the up and downs would cancel each other out. I think all who ran the course would agree there were some particularly tough sections, not least the last few miles when tiredness really kicked in. There was definitely a sting in the tail.

3. I’ve increased my exposure and vulnerability by going more open of late on social media about what I am doing with my running and what I am thinking. Regardless of how few people read my WordPress or watch my YouTube videos I’m out there trumpeting about this and that on the regular. I’m either setting myself up for success or a nasty fall. On balance I enjoy running and writing about it. Doing videos is a new thing and whether I can keep that up remains to be seen but I have to accept it puts me out of my comfort zone. It’s good to have lofty goals and talk about them but if I have widely missed the mark I will call myself out. Manchester will either be a shot over the bow or a sunken ship… Ultimately there are hundreds of very talented Vet 40 male athletes out there who are quietly going about their business waiting for the chance to take the England vest. There are no free dinners in this world and I will have to fight for it and it will depend on how much I really want it, whether I truly have the ability (and a little bit of luck for good measure).

Sunday 12th September

Alarm: 5.45. Up to have 1 banana, 3 slices of soreen and 500ml of water. 2x beetroot shots at 6.15. Purple wee for the rest of the day. Then back for a half hour lie down. Cold shower, ready, more trips to the toilet than I would care to mention. Out of the door at 8am for the 45 minute walk down to Claremont Road…

Bumped into clubmates Sparrow Morley and Chris “Hui” Huitson. Was good to see friendly faces although Sparrow was wearing black leather shoes and I joked, wondering if he was going for some bizarre world record… Luckily he’d packed his running trainers in his bag. He was to be a constant dot on the horizon that was either going too far away or eventually coming back to me. More on that later…

I found the whole walking over the Moor thing to get to the A167 surreal. I felt like I was running late but wasn’t. Just went through with more Orange wavers than fast club runners. Tried very very hard to avoid Alan Robson. Succeeded. Thank Christ.

The warm up was also very surreal. I asked a marshall if there were any toilets on the A167 and he pointed up in the direction of Cowgate. I noticed a handful of people warming up and stretching so I decided to do the same. It was about 9.10. I’d been planning to do my warm up at 9.15 but cracked on. I ended up jogging right up to the fork in the road that leads to Grandstand road. Traffic was still going down there. I can only imagine the drivers were slagging us off… I used to slag Great North Runners off in my partying days.

I got a few little efforts in just trying to get the HR up to the type of intensity I’d be running at the gun. Felt fine. Had a couple of final toilet stops and then headed down to the start. There were a few weird types of number in the pen on the right hand side. Was a bit miffed the Elite men were on the left. Realise now I was stood right next to the Rugby coach who got interviewed on the BBC with Burnham. Dunno what time he ran. Going for a PB apparently.

As always 10 to 20 mins felt longer when you just want to crack on with the run. A lot of nervous energy around.

I’d written my plan on my left inside arm. Basically said “15km @  344-352w / 6.1km @ 356-364w”. Also wrote the word “stoic”. It’s funny I’d seen someone share a piss take on Instagram saying the “Daily Stoic” book by Ryan Holiday is part of the fitness influencers starter kit… I didn’t find it funny on the basis that if more people read the Daily Stoic, understood it and employed the basic ideas the world would 100% be a better place… Just about managed to decide I am definitely not a fitness influencer. Or maybe I am?

Finally the gun went and I struggled to run slow enough whilst seemingly watching 100s of runners (including orange wavers) disappearing off into the distance.

Easy opening miles, me left with Tyne Bridge vest (Official GNR picture)

I will pat myself on the back and say I did a bloody good job holding back. I knew it as I felt like I was jogging and not breathing. Of course down to the Tyne Bridge is very downhill so feels artificially easy. Almost disconcertingly so. Even so my power quickly ticked up to 342, 344, 345, 346w and into my planned target zone sooner than I thought it might…

Was nice to say hello to Patrick Houghton of North Shields Poly. Growing up he lived on the street adjacent to me in Waldridge Park Estate, Chester le Street. Despite our proximity our paths in life didn’t cross that much (mainly because we went to different schools) but still nice to say hello, usually whilst out in a race. We would see-saw back and forth quite a bit in the first 6 miles, mainly because I was deliberately backing off on uphills and slightly working the downhills. This is the essence of trying to maintain constant power. You simply have to slow down on uphills and pick up on the downhills (hitting a power target downhill is very challenging and needs to be practiced cautiously)…

Coming over the Tyne Bridge the support was already amazing. The ramp up after the bridge and my power was already at 354w and higher than plan. I had a choice to make and I couldn’t make it. And so I kept on pretty much at an average of 354 or 355w for the rest of the race…

This intensity had me go through 5km exactly at the sharp end of my plan. I had myself go through 5km in 18.00 or maybe 18.01 (official split 17.59). This was dead on a 1.16 half. Brilliant I thought, this is genius…so comfy.

Suddenly my nerves and anxieties were gone. I was able to just think about getting some water in. I took some sips at the first water station and poured some over my head, arms and legs. I’m not sure why I did the latter. Probably not necessary as it wasn’t warm. I only did this again once. I refused water and also chucked the gel I was carrying at about 7 or 8 miles. The chucking of the gel was over the top. I was almost angry at myself for even considering carrying it. I knew I never had the stomach for it.

Coming to the turn around point at approx 6 miles things started getting very interesting and certainly the race complexion in my mind changed dramatically. This felt like the real start of the race.

I think everyone enjoyed seeing themselves on the big screen here quite a lot. It was my own first loss of concentration and I nearly fluffed the u turn in my desire to big up myself on screen. What a knob…

By this point I was closing on Steven Medd of Gateshead and I was also joined by club mates Tim Kelso and Chris West. Tim said hello and I returned the greeting. It made me think we were both running well within ourselves. I knew I was but, that said, I already noticed more of a head wind going this direction back for Newcastle and we still had 5k to the 15k point where I was due to turn the screws. But unfortunately my 10km split gave me a jolt…

I think I looked down at something like 36m 5xs (official split 36.42)! Dear god, I had ran the 2nd 5k about 50s slower than the first! Although I didn’t panic I started plotting a pick up almost immediately.

The only thing that stopped me was the fact a decent sized group of maybe 5 or 6 or more (including me, Tim and Chris) had formed. I felt a bit of an opportunity to pick up the pace as a group. I perhaps cheekily asked Tim if he had a finishing time in mind. I think he thought I meant what was our current average pace. Chris didn’t know and Tim ventured 5.50s… I didn’t do any mental maths to confirm the 10k split but I knew I was overall down on a 76 minute half marathon. For some reason I didn’t remind myself that a negative split was exactly the original plan! I think I let it get to me. I think I was sensing I was going to struggle to pick up… I had lost trust in the plan because I hadn’t followed it properly!

The course at this point felt generous.

What happened next changed the course of the race for me and maybe others around me too. From what I could gather an Elvet Strider rocketed by our group which seemingly included a club mate of his. He shouted something. That led to his club mate somehow clipping Tim from behind quite badly. I heard the groan but credit to Tim for recovering. The whole thing made me decide I wasn’t hanging around in the group any longer. I immediately took after the Elvet Strider.

Although I think he went onto run sub 76mins (and I didn’t catch him), this move did lead me to a sustained advance through the field to the finish. But critically I had ditched my plan of waiting until 15km for the pick up. Actually, 15km was probably the turning point in terms of course difficulty with what seemed like the toughest of the climbs to get back up to Town Moor.

Strava mile splits

Making the move I could still see clubmate Sparrow down the road and he became the challenge to catch. I picked off some other runners in between (9th mile was quickest of the day in 5:31 but also lost most elevation) but I finally caught Sparrow just after 10 miles (10th mile in 5:56 and probably the hardest of the day. For reference Molly Seidel ran 5:5× this mile). I think the 10 mile split was about 58 or 59 minutes which I was pretty disheartened by. Sparrow seemed to be slowing quite markedly. I probably annoyed him somewhat by demanding he pick up, get on my heels and work together to the finish.

We were now on the fast descent back to the Tyne Bridge. One of the on course entertainment stations was blasting James Brown and it really lifted me as I love James Brown.

The crowds were amazing here.

I knew it was going to get very tough again after the Tyne Bridge. Horribly, coming up the hill I considered giving up, stepping off and throwing in the towel. I don’t know where this came from. I don’t think I’d realised the effort I’d put in that 10th mile before the Tyne Bridge. I’d put in a surge and perhaps it had done me in. I just tried to remind myself that everyone would be feeling very similar at this stage of the race.

Stepping off not an option (Pic: Ben Hall)

Luckily I got through the dooms day scenario of giving up as the crowds in the City Centre were giving amazing encouragement.

Coming up to Earls Grey monument I saw good friend Michael Hedley who gave me a huge cheer.

Pushing up to Earl Grey (Official GNR pic)

I picked up down John Dobson Street and passed the Civic Centre. I passed another couple of runners including a young Jarrow runner. Again I asked them to get on my heels and work together til the end. I should have just focused on myself. Just then the Red Arrows flew across. What a boost.

The Red Arrows were about to go over… (Official GNR pic)

I was approaching the last 800m. My mind wandered back to the 2017 Great North Run. I remembered how long that 800m had felt then. And this felt like one hell of a drag again. But I tried to remind myself that I only had a few minutes of running to go.

I don’t think it helped that I didn’t see the 400m sign as it was on the right as opposed to the left where the 800m sign had been. The 200m sign was approaching. The crowds were great here and I saw the Army line the sides of the road.

Final push to the finish! (Official GNR pic)

I heard the tannoy announcer saying something like “these are the fast club runners, these are elite athletes too, give them a huge cheer!”. That was nice but a quick glance at the watch and I couldn’t help but give a sigh to myself as I knew 1.16.x was now gone…

I just tried to maintain my concentration and work the arms. My main aim now was to not let anyone pass me.

Unfortunately I failed in this endeavour. One runner who I had passed just before Earl Grey had stuck to task and beat me by 1s.

Nothing really else to give! (Official GNR pic)
Official chip finishing position and time

Making my way back to the finishers village I was spent. I’m not sure I had much more to give on the day on that course. Although I’d not strictly speaking stuck to plan, the end result in my view was the same. I’d averaged 355w for the run and finished in 1:17:46. The Stryd prediction based on 355w was 1:16:40 +/- 2mins. So my result was well within that range. I now see that the course undulations led to the slower than expected time.

There is a tinge of disappointment (even though it’s an official PB) which is perhaps unwarranted but it does sow the seed of doubt about Manchester. I find it hard to remember I was practicing a sub maximal plan. And although it felt far from sub maximal I will get stronger for this race.

Coming 12th in the v40 age bracket reminds me how hard the challenge is that I have set. But all I can do now is turn my attention to Manchester and focus.

As I finish this blog a week after the GNR I have had far from a good recovery week, ending up in the Walk in centre on Wednesday with a serious allergic reaction to a sting (head to toe in hives) and a trip to the Covid test centre for a PCR test having developed a sore throat and cough on Friday following a particularly busy work week. With only 12km of training completed this week I am indeed panicky about Manchester now. But I have to remind myself life is life. Running with a chesty cough is simply not worth it. My best chance is to rest and recover and see how things go. But it has been frustrating to miss the Northern 6 stage on Saturday and now the opening fixture of the cross country at Wrekenton is also in question.

I’ll finish with a shout out to the Tyne Bridge Harriers mens team for an excellent 11th place in Redcar, qualifying comfortably for the Nationals. Also, well done to Tim Kelso for sticking to task so well – looking forward to meeting up in Manchester! I’d also like to thank my partner Jasmine for supporting me with my running and being there at the end of the GNR when my mind was somewhat scrambled, when I just needed a pint!

Much love x

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