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The Great North Run

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Some runners in a race.

It is said that you always remember your first kiss – the anticipation before, the excitement during and the exhilaration afterwards. Much the same can be said of your first Great North Run, although it probably takes a bit longer from start to finish.

The Great North Run, or GNR, is the world's largest half-marathon road race, with a field of up to 50,000 entrants. The field comprises runners of all abilities – elite professional athletes, wheelchair athletes, running club members, joggers and fun runners – all competing over the same course at the same time; anyone can line up with the very best marathon and half-marathon runners in the world.

There are actually three races taking place more or less concurrently – the wheelchair athletes race, the elite women's race and finally the men's and the masses race. All three races start in that order, from the same point, but at staggered time intervals.

Apart from the objective of getting themselves from the start to the finish without the need for medical intervention, most of the runners will also be engaged in raising money for their chosen good causes. For several weeks beforehand they will have been badgering their family, friends, neighbours and indeed anybody they meet to sponsor them to compete in the Great North Run. An astonishing figure of something like £10 million is raised each year for charities by the event.

The Course

The GNR event takes place each year on a Sunday, usually at the end of September, starting from the city of Newcastle1, which is situated on the River Tyne in the northeast of England. The destination, approximately 13.1 miles away, is the coastal town of South Shields, the last mile or so of the race being run along the seafront. The course is over public roads, which are closed for the duration of the race. Well, up to about 5pm, when hopefully all the runners will have passed through.

Pre-race Preparation

Not for you, for the organisers. Shortly before midnight on Saturday the roads commence closure to public access to enable an army of some 2,500 organisers and volunteers to get the course ready for the start only nine or so hours later. The start area is the biggest single task. Aside from assembly of the portable barriers, the start line gantry, the public address system, the facilities for local radio and BBC television coverage, there are 40 or so double-decker buses to be marshalled. These are needed to take the runners' kitbags from the start area to the finish area in South Shields. Then there are the toilet facilities needed – 50,000 excited, nervous people have to be provided for. As an unexpected consequence, the event also holds the record for the number of portable toilets assembled in one place; one side of the motorway, behind the start line, accommodates a single row of cubicles stretching a quarter of a mile.

Although the course itself undulates, there are no real hills to climb. Starting at a height of about 55 metres above sea level, the high point of the course reaches 60 metres at about five miles distance, falling to a low of just under 20 metres at a little over eight miles distance and finishes on the cliffs at South Shields. Just over a mile before the finish, the road goes down a fairly sharp decline, turning left at the bottom and running parallel to the coast. This is where the density of the spectators is at its greatest, all encouraging by cheering and shouting you on to the finish. The psychological lift given to runners by these supporters is immense, and makes that last mile seem one of the easiest to run.

Event History

The Great North Run was the brainchild of Brendan Foster MBE, one of Britain's greatest former middle-distance runners. The first race took place on 28 June, 1981 and 12,000 runners took part. Since that first race, the event has grown and grown, year by year, in size and prestige. In 1981, the first man finished in a time of 01:03:02, the first woman in 01:17:36. In 2002, Kenyan Paul Tergat became the first man to finish in under an hour (00:59:58) and in 2003, Britain's Paula Radcliffe set the women's course record at 01:05:40. The wheelchair athletes' times have reduced almost beyond belief. In 1981, the first wheelchair athlete finished in 01:28:54 and a year later the first female competitor finished in 02:27:29. Compare that with the 2007 race where the men's fastest time was 00:42:35 and the women's 00:50:33.

Getting to the Start

Do not underestimate this. You and 50,000 other runners, together with their families, friends and supporters, are on the same mission as you. Although the mass race start is at 10.40am, you should plan to be on site by 8.30am.

The Newcastle area has an excellent Metro system, but even with the extra trains provided on race day, there are bound to be delays. Unless you live in the area, you are probably going to need to stay overnight before the start. There are companies offering packages that include both overnight accommodation for Saturday (and if required, Sunday) night, and priority transport to a point close to the start area and back to your accommodation again after the race. Remember; you will be 13 miles away from where you started and the same 50,000-plus people will again be on the same mission as you – to leave South Shields. These packages are well worth serious consideration; it can quite easily take over an hour just to get out of one of the car parks at the finish.

On the Start Line

However you get there, you will need to walk to the start area. Then there is a walk of about one mile to the back of the start area, where the baggage buses are parked in a line. Put your bag on any one of these, but do remember the number of the bus you put it on; they are numbered 1 to 40 or so. Do not miss the bus departures. They leave promptly, whether your bag is on or not; indeed if you are still on the bus at its scheduled departure time, you will be baggage taken to the finish area. If you are late, you will be one of a number every year who have to carry their bag with them on the race – do you fancy running a half-marathon carrying a kitbag?

So now you've got to the start area in good time, put your bag on the bus and are making your way back against the tide of people still heading towards the buses, and you pass that row of portable toilets. The start area has marker boards showing where you should be starting from, according to your expected finish time – 1hr 30 mins, 1hr 45 mins, 2 hrs and so on, the faster times naturally being closer to the actual start line. The only thing left to do now is to find an unoccupied bit of tarmac in about the right place, and wait for a couple of hours for the race to start.

Which brings us to the subject of what to wear while you wait. Comparatively early on a late September morning in the north-east of England can be a tad chilly, so standing around for a couple of hours in a running vest and shorts while the morning chill wraps itself attentively around your exposed extremities is less than appealing. Some form of outerwear would seem appropriate, but then you don't want to be wearing anything warm or heavy while you are running. The answer? Wear your least favourite warm top while you wait and then casually leave it behind when the race starts. This is actually good practice, as discarded clothing is collected by the clear-up team once the runners have left the start area, and is donated to local charities. About 30 minutes before the start of the main race there are conducted mass warm-up exercises for the eager runners, to try and avoid early-race injuries to muscles due to running from a cold start.

The Start

After the wheelchair athletes and the elite women's races have started, everybody else starts at the same time – or tries to. The runners at the back of the field will be a good half a mile away from the actual start, and it usually takes almost 15 minutes for these runners to cross the line and start their 13.1 mile race. Although there is an official clock showing the current elapsed race time, in past years each runner would start their own wristwatch as they pass the start line, and stop it again as they crossed the finish line. This allowed for the extra time spent getting to the start line after the official race start. Many still do this, although now each runner is issued with an electronic timing tag that attaches to their running shoe. The tag is triggered as they cross the start and finish lines, giving an individual and accurate post-to-post time. If completing the course wasn't tough enough in itself, some people like to add a little difficulty of their own: like running as a team while carrying a boat, or the British Army team of Ghurkhas who run in formation with a full 20-25 kg backpack, or competitors wearing a Teletubby2 outfit or a Shrek costume, or fully-dressed as a Star Wars Stormtrooper. To add to that, try carrying round buckets filled with heavy coins collected from roadside spectators.

They're Off!

Starting on both carriageways of the A167(M) central motorway next to Town Moor, the first mile is gently downhill. Passing under the flyover gives the first opportunity to hear and take part in the famous Oggy, Oggy, Oggy chant. The sound of several hundred people echoing off the concrete walls of the underpass is magnificent. Soon, one of the most exciting and iconic moments of the run looms into view – the dark-green painted ironwork of the famous Tyne Bridge3. Just over two miles after the start, the course turns and follows the Felling Bypass past the international-standard Gateshead Stadium, where many an athletics record has been set. For most of its route to the coast, the course is lined with spectators who turn out in fair weather or foul to see and support the runners. At frequent intervals along the route, you will encounter local bands, who set up and play mainly rock and traditional jazz to entertain runners and spectators alike.

'Newcastle United 1, Sunderland 1'

The intense rivalry between the area's two premier football clubs, Newcastle United and Sunderland, is put aside for the day. Many thousands of the runners will be sporting the red and white striped shirts of Sunderland, and the black and white shirts of Newcastle United. As they pass roadside spectators wearing the colours of their rival club, there may be a bit of banter exchanged, but no ill-feeling is meant and none is taken – for the day only mind; the following Saturday could be different!

Water, Water!

At a number of places along the course there are drinks stations, where bottles of water and energy drinks are handed out. These are at the same time both very welcome and a potential source of injury. The injury risks are two-fold: the plastic screw bottle-tops of the water bottles tend to be discarded over the next half mile or so; it is very easy for a foot to land on one of these, twisting the ankle and bringing about an unexpected early exit from the race. The second risk is from runners suddenly cutting across in front of you (or worse behind you) to get to the water tables, clipping your ankle and tripping you up. It is not always entirely their fault; getting yourself in the right place is not easy. Think of driving in heavy, moving traffic and needing to cross six lanes to get to your exit! Extra vigilance at drinks stations keeps you running longer.

There are also a couple of places where run-though shower stations have been erected. These provide a welcoming cool, fine spray of water. The local kids have been known to improvise a shower with a garden hose! The warmth and friendliness of the people of Tyneside to GNR runners cannot be overstated. Some regularly bake biscuits and small cakes that they offer to passing runners in need of an energy boost. The kids along the roadside are only too happy to share Hi-Fives with you as you pass.

Safety First

With more than 25 years experience of the event, the organisers and volunteers do a great job on the day. This includes provision of both volunteer paramedics and health professionals with rapid access to any point on the course if necessary. Most attention is usually for minor ailments such as sprains and blisters, but sadly there is also the occasional fatality. These are not necessarily the result of poor race preparation by the runner, but sometimes due to undiagnosed serious medical conditions. Anybody with a problem, big or small, will be well looked after by this essential team of experts.

The Finish and After

At the end of the last mile, the course turns off the road onto the grass area known locally as the Leas, where it is but a few yards to the finish line. Crossing the line, checking your watch and joining your fellow runners being funnelled into lanes, the endorphins in your body are really pumping. This is the exhilaration period, when if somebody said 'Let's run back again', you'd more than likely be up for it. In the finish lanes, your electronic tags are collected and you are marshalled to the 'goodie bag' collection area. Your goodie bag contains a commemorative T-shirt, your finisher's medal, a foil space blanket, a carton of drink, a piece of fruit, a snack bar and often other small hand-outs. By now the endorphins have gone home and your legs start to ache. Poor timing on their part, as you must now walk to where the baggage buses are parked to retrieve your kitbag, containing (hopefully) a change of clothing and shoes. Then you are free to find your friends/car/coach/way home. There is a 'friends meeting point', with prominent boards displaying the letters A to Z – intended to be the first letter of your last name – where you have agreed to meet the people waiting for you. Beware, it may not be easy to spot them, or for them to spot you, but hopefully you'll make it.

Other Things to See and Do in the Area

It would be a shame to visit this fine region solely for the race. It is well worth allowing an extra day or so, if you can, to explore. Newcastle has a lively city centre, but this should not be on your agenda the night before the race. Drinking alcohol dehydrates the body; dehydration will, at the very least, seriously affect your running, and can literally be a killer. Within only a few miles of the city lie three great icons of the north-east of England: The Angel of the North, Hadrian's Wall and Durham Cathedral.

The Angel of the North

Just to the south of Newcastle at Gateshead, on a hill by the side of the A1 trunk road, stands the Angel of the North. This huge, 20 metre tall modern sculpture, made of specially coated steel, is the work of artist Antony Gormley. Imagine a jumbo jet stood upright on its tail, but with the wings projecting at right angles to the body, rather than being swept back, and you have a fair image of the Angel. The wings measure 54 metres in length; the complete sculpture weighs 200 tonnes, and is designed to withstand wind speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour – just as well given its exposed location. First unveiled in 1998, the Angel courted great controversy, but has now, for the most part, been proudly adopted by the local people. Parking at the site of the Angel itself is rather limited, but you get a fine view if you are travelling southwards on the A1(M) motorway past the site.

Durham Cathedral

Continuing a few miles south from Newcastle on the A1(M) motorway is the beautiful city of Durham, famous for its Norman cathedral. It is situated high up on land formed by a loop in the River Wear. Building work started in 1093 and was completed initially within the incredibly short period of only 40 years. Later additions have been made, culminating in the 15th Century central tower.

Hadrian's Wall

Older even than Durham Cathedral is Hadrian's Wall. Running 70 or so miles from Wallsend in the east to the Solway Firth in the west, the wall was built in 122 AD on the instruction of Emperor Hadrian, to defend the northern boundary of the Roman province of Britannia from attacks by the Pict people living to the north. Now a World Heritage site, from the Newcastle end of the wall it crosses the beautiful, wild countryside of Northumberland. Although substantially intact in only a few places, there is continuous evidence of the route of the wall from one end to the other. Popular visitor places are Fort Housesteads and Vindolanda. Originally the wall had garrison forts every mile. Housesteads is the most complete Roman fort in Britain. Vinolanda is an active archaeological site, and was both a Roman fort and a civilian settlement. Close by Housesteads is the Twice Brewed Inn.

In addition to these three there is the Beamish Open Air Museum. This 300 acre site recreates life in this part of the country as it was at two different times in history: the 1820s and 1913. Everything you see on the site, including the buildings of the 1913 Town, was carefully dismantled, brought to the site and reassembled. You can catch an authentic period tram that will take you to the main street of The Town. The 1820s are represented by the Georgian period Pockerley Manor and its farm.

Fascinating Facts

  • Every postcode in the UK is represented on the start line.
  • In 2001, Victoria Walton became the 500,000th GNR runner to cross the finish line.
  • Over 80,000 litres of water will be drunk by runners during the race.
  • In one race, a competitor from the back of the start area dropped out before crossing the start line, having jogged half a mile.
1Let us get it clear from the start that the correct pronunciation of Newcastle is with the stress on the second syllable, ie New-castle. And that second syllable is pronounced 'CASSLE', not 'CARSELL'.2Characters from a pre-school children's TV programme.3Actually one of several bridges across the river in Newcastle. The newest of them, the Millennium Bridge, is easily visible as you cross the Tyne Bridge.

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