On Sunday I did the Great North Run. It was the second time I’ve run it but I’ve also enjoyed the event as a supporter in the past. And it gets me every time. It is truly the most uplifting, exhilarating, good feeling, supportive event that I’ve had the privilege to participate in. Many of you will have watched the coverage on the BBC and been swept up in the atmosphere – it’s palpable through the TV screen – but actually being there is very special indeed.
I’ve run in plenty of events in recent times and – by and large – they all feel good, so what’s so special about the GNR?
It’s that the people of Newcastle, Gateshead and South Shields own this race. They adopt you for the day and their generosity of spirit knows no bounds. You aren’t just a visitor – you’re one of theirs. It’s their gift to you – freely bestowed, gladly and humbly received. It’s the sea of smiling faces and the friendly calling out to you when you need that extra boost as you run past and they read your name from your bib. They aren’t your own Mum or Dad – but today they could be. Your own folks might be hundreds of miles away – but someone calling for you makes them family.
It’s the children all the way along the route with their permanently outstretched arms waiting for you to high-five them as you run past (I reckon I’d be at least five minutes faster on my finish time if I didn’t do this – but I don’t care – it’s every bit as important to me as running). It’s the feeling of familiarity – of ‘home’ – as you reach regular markers along the way; the kids of Felling handing out ice pops, the glorious women at mile nine offering plates of biscuits (just when you’re feeling desperate and have raised a wry eyebrow at the sign for the crematorium!), or those a bit further on with trays piled high with orange segments – the smell of which alone keeps you going for a mile. Or the sticky handfuls of jelly babies (just in the nick of time when your sugar level has gone through the floor). Then – just when you regret not running through the shower station and are about to overheat – there’s some wonderful bloke with his garden hose standing at the end of his yard ready to spray you if you raise your hand as you run past. And when you think you can’t run anymore a lovely woman shouts ‘C’mon Pet – make the North proud’ and so you keep going (even though you’re now sobbing at her kindness) because you can’t let her AND THE WHOLE OF THE NORTH down – let alone yourself now can you?!
And when you aren’t smiling and laughing at all of the good humour and support, you’re running with tears streaming down your face for every message that you read on the back of your fellow runners’ shirts that make you pause for thought: ‘For Mum’, ‘Miss You Dad’, ‘Little Jamie’, ‘We love you Bex’. Hoping that aside from your own charity, on some level you’re showing your support for everyone’s personal cause, private tragedy and hope for the future just through the solidarity of joining other runners on the start line and sweating your way through the 13.2 miles while willing everyone else to do the same. And for all the well-known national charities with teams of runners raising much needed funds, there are hundreds of small charities too for causes you’ve never heard of and this absolutely makes you feel ashamed so you promise yourself to Google them afterwards and raise your own awareness in a bid to somehow show your respect for everyone who has challenged themselves to raise funds on this day. And it’s a promise you absolutely keep.
It’s the volunteers along the way. The reassuring St John Ambulance folk spending hours dolloping Vaseline into grabbing hands of chafed and sore runners as they pass with a cheery question ‘one lump or two Love?!’. It’s the bands on the run who give you back your rhythm when your legs begin to feel like they don’t belong to you anymore (and either I only run at one speed or they only have one song – but that fabulous band on the roundabout at the turning for the Tyne Tunnel were playing Mustang Sally when I got to them last year too!).
It’s the fact that when you trip or stumble, someone you’ve never met before, and won’t ever see again picks you up and checks you’re ok, despite the fact they’ve just added 5 seconds to their time. Or that when you’re desperately trying to gain some speed and dodging through the crowd banging elbows and scuffing heels – no-one minds because you’re all doing the same thing – so a smile and a ‘sorry mate’ – is all it takes. It’s the effort put into the cheeky, funny homemade signs along the way that keep you going – ‘There’s a Pint at the End’ was my favourite this year.
And at the end of the race standing in line to get your medal – this year the woman doing the honours for my queue wasn’t just handing them out, she was presenting them to each and every runner as though we were on a podium. It didn’t bother her a jot that it was taking her twice as long – it just mattered to her that we had our own moment. And we did – each of us felt every bit as triumphant as Mo Farrah in a fleeting moment of recognition that WE’D DONE IT TOO!
My Dad said after I’d got home – that ‘this is what sport is really about’, and he’s right. Yes – essentially it’s a bloody big running race for all abilities, all shapes and sizes but it’s so much more than that. While the elite compete for records, the rest of us compete as a collective – it’s about finishing as one – for sure it’s our own personal day, our own personal cause, our own personal result – but not at the expense of someone else’s. In a sense it’s only because you’re achieving your goal that I’m able to achieve mine. We do it together. Your goal might be running, it might be volunteering, it might be baking biscuits, giving out jelly babies or just shouting out names until you’re hoarse and smiling until your cheeks ache. But the goals are achieved together and that’s what makes it special. It’s community in the biggest sense of the word. And while I’m sure this is replicated in lots of similar events around the world and I applaud them all – this is the one where my heart lies. It’s a day that reminds me what it is to be part of something. And it’s the best feeling to be part of something. And that shared experience is simply – humanity. And we lose sight of that all too often in our daily lives. The people of Newcastle, Gateshead and South Shields I salute you for setting us such a great example, it’s an honour to take part in the Great North Run.
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