A long one. Be warned.
I feel like I start all my race reviews at the moment with ‘I’m not even sure where to start’. This year has been momentous for me, and I’ve been able to improve so quickly that my brain hasn’t really been able to keep up and so I’m finding it all a bit difficult to process. But with the GNR in particular, there’s been so much going on behind it and so much riding on it. Despite everything that’s happened over the last few months, I was still doubting myself right up until race morning.
My half marathon graph over the last three years has been a sort of horrible slide into doom:
- Inverness March 2020: set a new PB of 2:23:42 as I was in really good shape training for the London Marathon in April 2020… which didn’t happen.
- Virtual GNR September 2020: ran this one with the proto-TMBR group, with whom I’d been training on Sundays. The group’s pace ended up being too fast for me, and so I ran an at-the-time 10k PB in the first half, died a death in the second, staggered in at 2:25:29 (on the race app) / 2:32ish (across the finish line) feeling the complete opposite way to how I had felt at the end of Inverness, and didn’t run with TMBR again for nearly two years (as I felt I was too slow).
- Virtual EMF Half May 2021: planned a lapped route for me and Geth to do this one after it went virtual, but could not plan for the weather, which switched from winter to summer about three days before the event. Hot uncomfortable plod that took me 2:56:52.
- GNR September 2021: the year when we all ran halfway to South Shields and then back again. I was using it as a training run for the London Marathon, but would still have liked to have done a lot better than 2:51:14.
- Sheffield March 2022: due to injuries and the beginning of my really bad spondylitis spell, this was a really painful one with lots of low points, meaning that just getting sub-3 (2:58:44) was a victory.
- GNR September 2022: one of the two big races of 2022 that were both completely ruined by spondylitis flare-ups. A horrible 3:30:26 (my slowest since my first GNR in 2016) that I’d rather forget.
- Winter Warmer Half February 2023: another awful spondylitis-ridden experience where I started slow, was quickly left behind by the small field, and had to walk from about three miles in. My 3:27:51 finish was barely any better than the previous year’s GNR, and was the catalyst for deferring my spring marathon and going back to the hospital consultants to seek better treatment for my condition.
Last month did see a big uptick to this graph. I managed half marathon distance at the Saturn event and finished in 2:38:12 at easy pace, which was extremely promising. But I was still anxious about being able to run properly in a dedicated half that I’d set as one of my goal races for the year. I was convinced the spondylitis was going to scupper me somehow, and was agonising over whether to take extra water for the heat, as a heavy running belt has sometimes contributed to my back issues in the past. (I eventually settled on filling my water bottles half full as I couldn’t risk not having water between stations, but this did cause a lot of extra anxiety.)
Geth and I gave ourselves plenty of time to get to the start so that we could get our bags on the buses and meet up with TMBR folks before heading to the pens. It was nice to be able to chat to people beforehand as it eased my anxiety a bit, and I actually also appreciated having some time to myself in the start pen (Geth had decided to start further up this year). I had not enjoyed being in the pen by myself in the past… but that was when I was back in the pink wave and stuck on the start line for over an hour after the elites had gone! I started at a respectable 11:35am this year, only 35 minutes after the gun. It would definitely be appreciated though if we could start a lot earlier in future, especially on a hot day like it was this year.
I definitely felt the heat, but I was determined it wouldn’t be the factor that broke my race. I’d trained really hard this summer (because it was the first summer I’d actually been able to train without pain), so I did not plan to take it easy in the hot weather like all the race communications were advising. My goal pace was 10:15 min miles and that’s what I tried to run. I set off a bit fast (fairly unavoidable at the GNR due to the downhill start) and then settled into a steady effort.
There were water stations every two miles (unusual – I think they laid on an extra one due to the weather). I had a Clif Shot Blok on the start line and then one just before every water station so that I could wash it down. The water bottles I grabbed at the stations were used for a roughly 50-50 ratio of drinking / pouring over head, and I didn’t need my carried water until the later stages of the race.
I was amazed by how fast the miles seemed to be ticking past. Of course it wasn’t comfortable, but it was manageable. I told myself to dig hard on every uphill, knowing that there would soon be a downhill to counteract it. I never once stopped or walked – just ran, just kept going.
My Nike Vaporflys did brilliantly. I knew beforehand it was a bit of a risk to wear them, as I’d only really tried them out on one fast parkrun, but they’d been so incredibly comfortable as well as fast that I felt they were the best option, even for a longer race. I’ve never run a half marathon without getting my usual foot pain before. It blows my mind that speedy carbon plate shoes might be the solution to something that has dogged me for years – something that none of my numerous pairs of super-cushioned wide-fit plod shoes have ever been able to fix – but I’ll happily take it.
I always find some extra speed on the last mile along the seafront, even in bad years. This was a good year. With 150 metres to go to the line, the Red Arrows flew over my head into South Shields to start their finish line display. I had never seen the finish line display before. I never thought I would, because I thought I would always be too slow.
I sprinted to finish in just under 2 hours and 15 minutes – 2:14:52. I watched the Red Arrows as I collected my water, medal and goody bag, decided not to queue for a membership photo this year as I was already cold (the clouds had arrived and I was soaking wet from having dumped so much water over myself during the race), and made the trek to the baggage buses to collect my bag. A sit down and a change into warm clothes later, the Red Arrows were still going. I can’t stress enough how special it was to see them.
I then went back up to the meeting point to find Geth, and we sat down for another half hour or so to rehydrate. After that, we began our journey back to Newcastle. Much has been shared online about the nightmare everyone had getting out of South Shields that afternoon, so I’ll summarise ours in list form (times approximate):
- 3:05pm: joined long but rapidly moving bus queue
- 3:25pm: ominous-looking large and extremely black cloud appeared above us, covering whole of South Shields
- 3:30pm: heavens opened to release rain so utterly torrential our umbrellas were almost useless
- 3:35pm: felt sick and threw up twice in queue
- 3:40pm: queue started noticeably slowing down as buses became less and less frequent
- 3:50pm: queue came to a grinding halt with no more buses appearing (we were nearly at the front by this point)
- 4:40pm: we finally found out why (all the roads were flooded due to the storm and no buses or metro trains could get into South Shields)
- 4:50pm: they decided to recruit the baggage bus drivers to get us back to Newcastle (thank you baggage bus drivers!)
- 5:10pm: we finally got on a bus (a very slow bus due to the now-gridlocked roads but I was so happy to be sat down)
- 6:50pm: bus arrived at Haymarket station after nearly two hours
- 6:55pm: thankfully straightforward metro back to our local station (other than Geth now shivering so much he had to give me his bag so I could retrieve the now-damp metro tickets)
- 7:05pm: soggy walk home
- 7:25pm: home, nearly six hours after finishing the race
Not ideal, really. Hopefully we’ll never have those random extreme weather events on race day again.
Some more positive stats about my finishing time (2:14:52)!
- 8 minutes and 50 seconds off my previous half PB (2:23:42 at Inverness, March 2020)
- 21 minutes and 40 seconds off my previous GNR course PB (2:36:32 in 2019)
- first nonstop half (no stopping or walking) since Inverness, March 2020
- 1 hour, 15 minutes and 34 seconds faster than GNR 2022 (what a difference a year makes…)
I’ve blogged before about how I was in my best running shape ever in spring 2020, training for the London Marathon, and then… pandemic. It’s been a long three-and-a-half-year journey to get back to that level of fitness, and there were a lot of times when I wasn’t sure I ever would. But perhaps I’m even surpassing that now, and I can finally look forward rather than back. I’m so excited to see what I can do.