The Great North Run 2018 – There’s life beyond the finish line…

Some love it, some loathe it. Whatever your outlook on the GNR – what many serious folk dismiss as the biggest ‘fun run’ going, as summer draws to a close and September begins, trying to ignore the annual festival, carnival, circus (call it what you want) of running would be like keeping down a double helping of post-Blaydon-Race tripe and convincing those around that it was anything less than foul (I’m sure some do, but they are a different species to most of us…)

The reality is, as August progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that runners on both sides of the fence have been quietly putting in their training and working out their pacing so that, if conditions are right, this could be the year to reach South Shields in a PB time. And I was no different. To be honest, I have become more and more drawn to the fells than the roads in recent years; however, a progression of PBs at all lengths including a 2017 GNR time that was far faster than I ever though I could go have kept the road focus in vision. The Great North Run was actually, like so many others, what first got me into running so building on my PB in this specific race has always felt like a natural goal for the year. The one year I decided to sit out and watch from the side, the feeling of needing to be back amongst the action was such that I was probably amongst the first to put my name in the next ballot. So there I am, assuring Jessie I’d see her at the finish at 12 sharp and heading across the Town Moor to mingle with the masses and join in Brendon’s circus. A good dose of celebrity-spotting, randomly bumping into other familiar runners, being bumped into by everybody else it seemed, catching up with Tigger and Paul who had run down to the start-line festival just for the banter, then catching up with plenty of familiar faces in the start pen, this had all the hallmarks of a top day out. With the training I’d put in and good conditions forecast, I was looking forward already to a beer or two in the pub later in the day to celebrate another great race and, surely, a time to be happy about. How could it go wrong? If anything, this year’s prep was even better than last year. Confidence is everything, I told myself. This was going to be a great race.

For my first experience in zone A, I must admit it felt pretty good to have 54 000 people behind me, and Sir Mo only about four rows in front as we waited for the gun. It was pretty much like any other race – familiar faces to my left and right – only to keep reminding myself that ‘the guy just there’ has a few Olympic golds to his name…

So off we went, and the first few miles were pretty enjoyable. I felt relaxed, was running ahead of pace but not too hard and the support from the thousands of spectators plus plenty of friends on the sideline was inspiring as ever. I passed the 5k mark feeling pretty good in 17:45 so again, comfortably ahead of pace and 12 seconds or so ahead of last year. It’s on. It’s got to be. It felt hotter than I’d hoped so I took water (just a couple of sips then a splash over my head) which seemed a good idea. Didn’t want to lose precious seconds though! Off the Felling Bypass and the usual soreness, thoughts about how it’s maybe becoming hard work but, hey, it always starts to feel like that here so I keep pushing. 10k: 36:21. That’s pretty good, and what I’d hoped for, but maybe it’s going to be harder than I hoped to keep this up. Well, I managed it last year so maybe I just need to keep pushing through. Into the eighth mile and it’s becoming clear that a degree of mental and physical graft will be needed to keep up the pace. Water or no water? I don’t usually… but it is hot… but I think I’m slowing down and don’t want to lose more time if I don’t have to… I choose no water. A cheer from Rob and Lisa gives a welcome boost. It’s hard and it hurts. And I’d love nothing more than to walk. But I’ll hate myself if I do, so keep working through the pain and it’ll stop at some point. Mile 10 and I’m on about 60:10 I think. Had hoped to be under an hour to here. The PB is still on but I need a sub-19 minute 5k to finish – and that includes the dreaded hill… I keep going and somehow make it to the seafront. That last mile. That horrific, diabolical last mile. Just. Keep. Running. How is there still 800m to go??!! Head down. Run. It’ll stop. Run. Look up; is the finish really that far away?? Run.

I’m not running. I’m shivering uncontrollably but I don’t feel cold. Soaked in sweat. Lying in a bed in a huge tent with manic business going on around me. There are others around me. I look to my left, a lady in a blue medical uniform smiles but I’m sure I can detect concern on her face. To my right man in a green uniform is looking at my face, clearly focusing on my darting eyes and clearly panicked face. “You’re okay,” the lady says reassuringly but with a clear edge to her voice.

“Don’t worry,” says the man, “you finished – and you got a great time. You collapsed over the line.”

“We’re just waiting for an ambulance to get you to the hospital as soon as we can,” she says.

I nod clumsily. I try to blurt out thank you but it’s clear to me that speech is not a function I can cope with at the moment. I’m hit with an overwhelming sense of panic that I really don’t have a handle on what’s going on. I know it’s serious but how serious? Does Jessie know? All I want is to see her face and know it’s all going to be okay. I have no idea what my ‘good time’ was and I don’t even want to know. I hate myself for clearly pushing myself so hard that I’ve stupidly done this to myself.

The next few hours are horrible. No sign of Jessie – are her and Eilidh still waiting at the finish, getting overcome with worry that I haven’t appeared? I’m asked many questions many times – name, address, telephone number, that sort of thing. Sometimes I can just about answer, sometimes I can remember but can’t formulate words to be able to answer, sometimes I just can’t remember. I feel colder and weaker. I’m moved onto a stretcher (nearly passing out in the process) and rushed into an ambulance. Blue lights and sirens to the hospital.

After what seems like forever, finally Jessie arrives in the ward (a ward especially cleared out for the GNR). The surge of relief and happiness is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life. Before long, I’ve gained enough strength back to be allowed home. It’s days before I can eat properly again.

Everybody has their limits – and that limit can be different on different days. I should have had more water on the course. An energy gel would have been sensible as well (severe dehydration and hypoglycaemia were the courses apparently). I should have listened to my body more when it was starting to get tough. PBs are nice when they happen, but trying to force one when conditions aren’t right is asking for trouble.

I am indebted to the amazing medical staff at the finish, the paramedics in the ambulance and all at South Tyneside hospital. Every one of them went above and beyond to ensure I was as reassured as possible and look after me amazingly well when they were so stretched and, let’s face it, this could have been avoided. I am also indebted to our friend Jo who, miraculously, was right there to see me collapse in the first place, accompanied me in the first ambulance from the finish line to the medical tent (I have no memory of this), contacted then stayed with Jessie for hours before driving her to the hospital when she’d planned to spend the afternoon cheering other friends across the line.

I’ll be on that start line on the central motorway taking in the atmosphere again, looking forward to another run to South Shields; there’s no denying that. But with a PB from last year to always be proud of, and an experience this year to never forget, it’ll be with a different focus. To stay safe, enjoy my running and be thankful for all that I have. It’s not worth risking for anything, let alone a few seconds or minutes on a race result. The GNR carnival is nothing but a massive fun run – and that’s exactly as it should be.

Matt Hetherington



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