Race Review: Virtual Great North Run 2020

Finally getting round to reviewing a virtual race from last September – one of the highlights of my running season in 2020!

I keep referring to this race officially – in Strava logs and the like – as ‘Virtual Great North Run 2020’, as it keeps things neat. However, I fervently hope that there will only ever be one ‘Virtual Great North Run’, that the race can go back to normal(ish) in 2021, and that appending the ‘2020’ will forever be unnecessary!

GNR 2019
A picture from happier times, in South Shields after the Great North Run in 2019.

For most of 2020, despite the fact that in-person races had to cease along with everything else when we went into lockdown in March, I avoided virtual races. Virtual races have been a thing since long before the pandemic – the idea is that you pay the ‘race entry’ fee, run the distance wherever you like, send in your Strava log or similar as proof, and receive a medal in the post for your medal hanger/kitchen drawer/wherever you keep your medals. I’ve never been keen on the idea, because in normal circumstances I don’t see the point. If I’m paying a race entry fee, I want the experience of a real race – the crowds, the adrenaline, the excitement, the music, the fact that I automatically go faster when running with other people, the cheering spectators, the sights along the route, the atmosphere of the finish line… I could go on and on. I really, really miss real races 🙁

For some people, though, virtual races are ideal. There are people who can’t attend races on Sunday mornings due to other commitments, or who don’t like being in crowds – so it’s great that virtual races exist and can cater to these people. I’m just not the target audience, in normal circumstances.

However, we are far from normal circumstances.

The big coronavirus-related anxiety for me over the summer was the question of whether the rescheduled October date for the London Marathon would be going ahead. In a nutshell, as I already blogged lots and lots about this at the time: they took ages to announce; they eventually announced it was going virtual for 2020; I was able to defer my ‘real London Marathon’ place to 2021; I also accepted the invitation to run the virtual race in 2020 as I wanted to do it as a ‘mile(ish) every hour for 24 hours’ challenge. Sorted. I had signed up for my very first virtual race.

Virtual GNR bib
There was the option to print out your own race number. Now framed with all my others!

The Great North Run had cancelled their in-person race and announced they were going virtual for 2020 quite some time before the London announcement. When this announcement was first made (in June, I think?), I didn’t expect to do the virtual. Every cancelled race I had originally been signed up for in 2020 had invited me to do a virtual version in exchange for a race entry fee, and I hadn’t taken any of them up on the offer – because, as explained above, I don’t normally see the point in virtual races.

However, after signing up for the Virtual London Marathon, I felt that it would be a good idea to commit myself to a half marathon length run, as it would be good training – even though I knew I would be running the marathon in a different way that wouldn’t require quite as much all-in-one-go endurance. I had kept meaning to run half marathon length runs over the summer, but none of them had ever transpired due to lack of motivation, so I decided to sign up to the Virtual GNR in order to make sure that I actually did it.

The other reason was that the excitement of planning my 24-hour challenge had made me realise how much I was missing races. A virtual race, while still a glorified training run in my world, would at least help to give some structure to my running over the next couple of months.

GNR t-shirts
T-shirts from previous Great North Weekends (2015-2019). I did the 5k the first year we lived in Newcastle, and have done the full GNR every year since.

A few days after signing up, I happened to bump (not literally, I am a good social distancer) into a running friend while out on my Sunday long run, and as a result was invited to join the informal Sunday GNR training runs that were being organised by members of the local social run group. I’d attended a couple of the group’s formal runs around late February, just before everything shut down, but hadn’t realised that there were still some informally-organised socially distanced runs going on. (They’ve had to stop again since the lockdowns have become stricter over the autumn and winter, sadly!)

Virtual GNR outfit
All set for the Virtual GNR. Club vest and special Lucy Locket Loves GNR leggings on!

I enjoyed the Sunday training runs, which were at a pace that was a bit faster than my usual solo bumbling, but manageable for me, and decided to run the actual race with the group as well. It was a great atmosphere at our ‘starting area’, with perhaps fifteen or twenty people from the group all running in a socially distanced way (this was before even the ‘rule of six’ came in, let alone the return to full lockdown… so much has changed again in the last few months!).

Chalk start line
Start line marked in chalk on the pavement!

The group’s starting pace on the day was a little fast for me, it turned out. The first 5k of the race was the fastest I’d run since before parkrun shut down, and the first 10k of the race was a lifetime 10k PB for me of 1:03:30. This is really promising in terms of my aim to manage a sub-hour 10k in 2021… but was absolutely not something I should have been doing in the first half of a half marathon! I was focusing too much on keeping up with the group rather than running at my own pace – and, as I did know the route, I should maybe have told them to go ahead and fallen back to a more comfortable pace for me.

As a result, I burnt out and fell apart a bit in the second half of the race. The rest of the group gradually disappeared, and at about ten or eleven miles in I told group leader Alan (who was lovely and kept waiting for me) that he could go ahead and I’d finish a bit later. The last couple of miles were pretty difficult and slow and I kept taking walk breaks, which I hadn’t needed to do in a half marathon for some time. Geth came to meet me at about twelve and a half miles, and I just about managed to run-walk to the end of the planned route. My official time as measured by the GNR app was 2:25:29 – only a couple of minutes slower than my PB from the Inverness half in the different world that was early March, so I had to take that as a victory given everything that had happened in 2020! I stopped my watch at about 2 hours 29 minutes once it said I’d done the full half marathon distance, and I think I ran over the planned route finishing line at about 2 hours 32 minutes. All of those times were faster than any other half I’ve done apart from Inverness, so in terms of finish time, I can’t complain.

Virtual GNR t-shirt
The Virtual GNR t-shirt is one of the nicest yet.

I was a little disappointed with myself about the pacing as I like to finish strong in races, but to some extent it was out of my control. I originally planned to do another half marathon distance run before the end of the year, just to see what I could do when completely in charge of my own pacing, but I ended up needing a couple of months to recover from my 24-hour challenge/Virtual London Marathon. I need to build up again over the first few months of 2021.

Virtual GNR medal
Nice heavy medal for the effort too!

Besides, I’ll also be focusing on 10k training for the next couple of months, with the aim of being ready to get that sub-hour result later this year. It doesn’t look likely that I’ll be doing any real races any time soon… but it turns out a virtual race isn’t the end of the world, so I’ve signed up to do a virtual 10k later in January.

I still can’t wait to get back to real races!

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