Tuesday 7 October 2008

The pure hell of the Great North Run

This is the column that nearly did not get written.

I have come close to chucking in the towel several times in recent weeks, dazed by the sheer pace of events. Added to which, in a real world where Gordon Brown invites Peter Mandelson to join his cabinet, how can anyone hope to raise a smile by conjuring up some surreally implausible fiction?

But these challenges were not the thing that so nearly defeated me. No, I was simply utterly exhausted after the Great North Run.

I apologise for the fact that anyone who knows me will now have tea all down their shirt, and be gasping for breath. I should make it clear straight away that I did not actually do the run. Dear me, no. If you had suggested that before Sunday I would have fixed you with a Paddington Bear stare and said something predictably sarcastic like “I only look stupid.”

But after attempting to get to South Shields and back by public transport to see the end of the race, I can finally see the point of covering the distance on foot: it’s easier and quicker.

You might think that a wiseacre like me would just have watched it all on television. And so I would, if I had the remotest general interest in running. But when your beloved is actually taking part in the event and has handed you her bag full of post-race essentials, with strict instructions to meet her near the finish, you don’t have a lot of choice.

I was at the start, too, and surprised myself by being bowled over by the truly fantastic atmosphere. What a publicity triumph for Newcastle, I thought, and what a pleasant change from the media focus on St James’ Park and Northern Rock.

But that was before I had failed to get on the overcrowded Metro, been turfed off a bus in Heworth, talked to some Welsh ladies in the resulting queue who were close to tears about missing their daughters crossing the finishing line, and foolishly tried looking for some helpful signage when I finally made it to South Shields.

I am even less convinced that we have the right infrastructure to move 52,000 people and their families, friends and supporters out of South Tyneside on a single afternoon. Even the mobile phone system could not cope; I have not had so much difficulty making a call since I found myself in the West End of London on the day those bombs went off in July 2005.

On the other hand, it is only fair to say that my partner enjoyed it so much that she wants to do it again next year. And this despite hobbling across the finishing line with one foot so swollen that she did not dare take her running shoes off before fighting her way onto her standing-room-only train to York.

She had made the critical mistake, a couple of weeks before, of going to a rugby club ball with a partner who cannot dance to save his life, and taking to the floor alone. Whereupon 15 stone of drunken rugby player stamped on her foot with the sort of enthusiasm he presumably normally reserves for flattening opponents’ hands in collapsed scrums.

No point going to the doctor, she said. He’ll only tell me not to run on it. And that’s not an option when Maggie’s Centres are relying on me to help raise money for their wonderful work supporting people living with cancer. She’s not wrong, either. It’s a great cause.

Almost good enough to get me in training for 2009. But not quite, I think, given that my participation would almost certainly cost the healthcare system more than I could ever hope to raise. I’ll see you in the bus queue instead.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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