Great North Fun – one runner’s experience

By Liz Cartmell
Liz Cartmell after the run

Last New Years’ eve, fuelled with hope, good cheer and too much drink, I told anyone who would listen that I was entering for the Great North Run. My best mate was aghast: ‘But Liz – you couldn’t run when we were at school. What on earth makes you think you can do it now?’

Well, quite frankly, nothing – except the conviction that if anything could spur me onto an act of unparalleled foolhardiness, it was the need to raise money for MNDA. Since my brother’s diagnosis in 2007, the Association had provided unfailing support in every possible way – and I desperately wanted to give something back.

My initial hopes seemed dashed when I was unsuccessful in the public ballot – but the MNDA swept to my rescue by offering me a Golden bond place. I was elated – and then terrified. What on earth had I done? I couldn’t run for a bus, let alone 13 miles. But I decided there was no backing out – I’d told far too many people and, besides, someone had finally invented a sports bra which did what it said on the tin – I had no excuses left.

I headed down to my local running shop where I was put through an act of ritual humiliation. Told to take off my shoes and socks and roll up my trousers (revealing a pair of embarrassingly wintry legs), I was set to run on a treadmill in the middle of the shop window. My running gait was filmed and analysed, I was relieved of £90 and propelled back into the street with the assurance that, once I got started, I would love it – and would probably never want to stop. Before I knew it, I’d be back for the rest of the gear. Hmmm.

Once home I downloaded my personal programme from the Great North Run website and began training in earnest. I’d been very cautious in the online training room and was given a schedule geared to a 90-year-old with a heart condition. I spent the first few weeks building up with agonizing slowness to a whole 20 minutes. But I was getting there and, to my amazement, I even started to look forward to my runs.

There were quite a few setbacks in the guise of a wide range of injuries (my husband thought I was having an affair with my physiotherapist) and any number of times when I nearly picked up the phone and pulled out of the race – but all I had to do was think of my brother and my resolve was strengthened.

Two weeks before the race I ran just short of 9 miles – it was my longest distance and it took what felt like an eternity. As I sat in a hip bath full of iced water (post-run advice from the MND running guru – or is he just a sadist?) I decided I was as ready as I was ever going to be. In the few days before the race I psyched myself up and piled into the pasta. I’d got just short of £1000 on my JustGiving page along with lots of encouraging messages – I really had no option but to give it my best shot.

The day of the race dawned grey and drizzly. I jumped on and off the Metro and followed the crowds until I joined the longest toilet queue I’d ever seen. Another mile trek found me at my assembly point right at the very back of the dual carriageway. I slid into place, five rows up from the race sweep vehicle, and eyed the competition. On one side I was flanked by the Angel of the North and, on the other, a banana and a bottle of milk stout. The bottle of milk stout reassured me that this wasn’t the race to try for my PB (personal best) – it was far too crowded with people wearing daft fancy dress. (‘PB?’ I thought, ‘I’ll just be glad to get round in one piece’.)

The starting gun fired – we were off – not. Forty five minutes later I finally reached the start line. People were queuing to add to Ant and Dec’s blisters but I decided to get going before I keeled over with nervous exhaustion. The first couple of miles were spent bobbing and weaving amongst the other runners – not least the Angel of the North who had used a scale of 1:1 for his wingspan. By the time I reached the Tyne Bridge I was starting to relax and really enjoy myself – secure in the knowledge that Haile Gebrselassie had almost certainly finished and that I didn’t need to worry anymore about beating him. The atmosphere was incredible – bands played, the crowd cheered and lovely volunteers offered drinks at regular intervals. I was feeling good and the first few miles seemed to fly by.

At 5 miles I was a little sobered by a huge overhead road sign that flashed with the message ‘Feeling tired? Train better next year’. But actually I was OK and feeling pretty hopeful that I could finish this thing. At 6 miles it occurred to me I was hungry – it seemed a very long time since that morning’s porridge and bananas. But help came once again from the crowd – in the shape of jelly babies, home made biscuits and slices of orange which were all proffered and gratefully received. I almost cried when a little girl gave me her last tic-tac.

By 8 miles things were beginning to take their toll – ambulances started to flash up and down and I began to spot runners who had keeled over on the grass verge. Mental note: don’t overdo it. St John’s volunteers lined the way and held out slatherings of Vaseline for any bits that were starting to rub. I ran behind one young man whose comedy bra was far too tight – he was suffering from some serious chafing and was all too grateful for the offered grease. By 9 miles my body registered that this was its threshold and I began a mix of running, walking and hobbling. In South Shields, families brought sofas and chairs out to line the way and lend support and encouragement – more food, wet wipes and even the odd hosepipe spray were on offer.

By 10 miles the latter wasn’t really needed as the rain had set in with a vengeance. But no matter, not far now to 12 miles and that fantastic run down the shorefront. A downhill straight gave me a second wind and the sight of my cheering family at the last half mile lent me all the energy I needed to keep going. I really don’t think I could have managed that last run without them. Crossing the finish line, 2 hours and 44 minutes later (OK, so I won’t need measuring for a tracksuit for the 2012 Olympics), I felt incredible. After an emotional reunion with my family, it was off to the MND tent where everyone was feted like a celebrity – a truly warm welcome with lashings of tea and lovely food to boot. Thank you!

Once home, and nursing my blisters, the total has risen to £1600 – and it’s still coming in. That’s more than £100 per mile and more than £500 per blister – each of which has been generously repaid.

Would I do it again? Well, it would be great to raise some more money for MND, and to try to give Paula a run for her money, but my mum says I’m not allowed. So it’s over to you for next year…

Liz Cartmell

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