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Reflections on the Great North Run

September 22, 2010

My first Great North Run was in 1991. For complicated reasons, I ran it under false pretences while underage with literally 4 days notice and no training at all. This left me unable to walk properly for several days afterwards. Since then, I have run quite a few of them (all, I hasten to add, under my own name) and I completed the 30th Great North Run on Sunday (and my n’th, where ‘n’ is probably around 13ish). My time was 1:58:18 which is better than I might have hoped, given my threadbare training schedule, but still just over twice the course record. I lost a few vital seconds at the start telling Dec (or possibly Ant) that he should be running it.

Curiously, over time I’ve developed an increasing emotional experience to the occasion, to the extent that I’m in danger of getting a little tearful when they play “Abide With Me” over the PA. This is because the Great North Run is like a little beacon of decency in an otherwise irrational and unpleasant world. It brings out the best of us.

I’ve thought this for a long time, but I remember having quite a clear feeling about it at the run a couple of years ago. If I recall correctly, Nick Griffin had been in the news, probably putting forward his odious and xenophobic vision of what it was to be British. I remember surveying the field – people of a variety of creeds, colours, sexes and sexualities united by a strange compulsion to run 13.1 miles – and thinking “No, **** you Nick Griffin, this is what being British is about”. Or words to that effect.

And it really is a great day out. The route is lined with cheering spectators all the way from the centre of Newcastle to the coast at South Shields. Bands play by side of the route – a bunch of kids with kettledrums here, a blues-rock band there, a brass band somewhere else, a Darkness-esque metal band complete with spandex on a roundabout, and a random Elvis impersonator around the 11 mile mark. There are runners of all shapes and sizes, those who have elected to run dressed as dinosaurs, superheroes or, for reasons I can’t fathom, a tent. A few years ago, my running companions and I ran it dressed as the Three Amigos in aid of Cystic Fibrosis which was entertaining, though the sombreros didn’t do much for our aerodynamics.

The event is not perfect – nothing is. There are criticisms that can be made of it, mainly concerns about the BUPA sponsorship and unhappiness at the way places are allocated through the ballot with most reserved for charities. Seasoned runners get exasperated with people who put down unrealistic predicted times on their applications to get placed near the front at the start, only to start walking within a mile or so thus getting in the way (there’s nothing wrong with walking per se, but it would be good if the organisers could identify these people from previous years and start them nearer the back).

But while I think there is some merit to these criticisms, it would be churlish to allow them to diminish the experience of the run. It is hard not to be moved by the number of people running it to raise money for their chosen causes  (one of my running companions spotted someone with a note pinned to the back of their T-shirt saying that they were running it in remembrance of their mother and realised, from the dates, that she’d died two days before the race – that must have taken some spirit). Elsewhere people are running in memory of children, friends and spouses, raising money for charities and hospitals.

That the run gets such support from the people of Newcastle who turn out in droves to watch and cheer is also immensely heartening, given the traumatic history of the region. Economically hit by the closure of the shipyards and decline of industry in the 80s (thanks, Thatcher), it is likely to be hit again by the Government’s proposed cuts to public services (thanks in advance, Cameron). One could easily get the impression that the London-based media darlings consider the north to be another country (a friend overheard someone in Mayfair opine that “The problems with this country are the North and the poor. Maybe we should just get rid of them”). The Great North Run experience is something of which the region can be deservedly proud, for it has clearly blazed a trail now emulated by towns right across the country.

In closing then, the Great North Run is a wonderful and admirable event. In a world in which terrible and stupid things seem to happen on a daily basis, for one day in the north-east every year one can see humanity at its best. I’m hoping that I’ll still be taking part in another 30 years time.

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