Running for ME/CFS no. 56: The End

One of Valerie's pictures of the Red Arrows display.
One of Valerie’s pictures of the Red Arrows display.

So, how went the event? In case you didn’t know, I completed the course in 2 hours, 47 minutes and 50 seconds. That simple fact is for those without the time to read a longer account, but I’d encourage you to drop to the foot of this post for some other information.

For everyone else, here’s a full account of my day on the Great North Run. It could help potential runners to decide whether they want to join such an event and should provide some insight into how such an event plays out for those taking part.

We left home in the southwest around 11:00 on Saturday morning, driving toward Durham. A short break for coffee and overpriced cakes of dubious quality at a necessary but fairly unpleasant motorway service area. Then, following a few dozen miles driving on auto through a length of motorway where bollards and a 50 mile-per-hour speed limit suggested work was being undertaken even though nothing seemed to be happening for most of the way, we finally made it to Durham. The pub where we were to stay for the two nights was quiet. A young lady gave us our key and we paid the politely demanded remainder of the price for the accommodation. On enquiry, we discovered the only food served at night was, Tapas, which wasn’t what we wanted. The room held a double bed, set at an angle, a wardrobe and a small table with tea and coffee making facilities. Standing side by side, we could reach out and touch both walls, so not the largest of bedrooms. The sliding door to the en suite failed to close for the final two inches; fine for claustrophobes, but difficult for those in search of privacy. No matter, we’re unfussy in that regard with each other.

I’d arranged a coach trip to take us to the race and collect us afterwards. It was due to pick us up at County Hall. My online research had revealed a large car park at this facility, but I decided to check out the route and ensure we’d have the right change for parking, since the pick-up point was over a mile and half from the pub. I wasn’t keen on walking in the morning and having to walk back after running 13.1 miles, so I wanted to make sure we’d be able to drive to this point and leave the car there for our return.

Having motored for five hours, we preferred to walk to the Hall and check it out. A pleasant enough outing. We passed a bistro on the way and popped in to book a table for our return walk. One look at our tee-shirts and jeans caused them to decline our custom. No matter, we continued to our destination, where we discovered the car park locked for the weekend. However, a couple of local ladies walking dogs informed us that a portion was often unlocked at weekends and, in any case, just up the road, outside the church, was a lay-by providing free parking all weekend. We thanked them and continued along the road.

Just along from the lay-by, a large pub stood back from the road. It appeared to offer food. We ventured inside the Garden House Inn to be greeted by pleasant and helpful staff who led us to a table, took our order and engaged us in chat as they served us. Discovering I was up for the Great North Run, the staff expressed admiration and wished me well. The food was very good and reasonably priced. I asked if they’d be open for food on the Sunday night. Alas, they would stop serving at 18:00.

We walked back to the pub where we were spending the night and organised breakfast for the morning, only to discover that, although they had other racers staying, they were changing the breakfast start time from 08:00 to 07:30. Not much use to us; we had to be at the pick-up point by 07:20! I asked what other arrangements might be made and was met with a kindly but negative response. ‘Perhaps we could take some food up to our room for the morning?’

Yes! The landlady was delighted to provide us with cereals in cling-filmed bowls, a cafetiere primed with coffee, and a jug of milk, as well as a couple of wrapped cakes. It would suffice.

The night brought a chill to a room without any active heating, though the radiators in the room and bathroom were both turned on. The bed was covered with a duvet that roasted. It was either freeze without the cover or boil with it. We tried both and, remarkably, slept very little.

Breakfast time was welcome and we ate and drank our provisions and set off for the coach. Quiet roads took us to County Hall, where we discovered the gates unlocked and a large part of the car park open and available at no cost. We joined others, the runners dressed in our gear with additional warm clothing to be discarded at the start for local charity shops to collect. Two coaches stood waiting; we joined the first and set off for the start line, whilst the other one waited for later arrivals.

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The roads were still quiet and we were driven the fifteen miles or so to the start. Or, to be more accurate, to a point about 10 minutes walk from the start. I left Valerie on the coach, with the other spectators, to be taken to the race finish. I teamed up with an elderly lady from London, who was there on her own and taking part in her fourteenth Great North Run. We crossed a wide field, avoiding the large herd of heifers, or stopping as numbers of them crossed our path. It was a cool morning, cloudless and sharp, but promising to be fine for the run. I was glad of my extra tee-shirt and the pair of old jogging pants Valerie had discovered lurking in a drawer at home. The elderly lady gave me odd bits of advice, amongst which was a suggestion that I wait a while before venturing to the starting area, as it would be cooler down there.

We entered the actual start area and were given our first bottle of Aqua Pura water. On a bridge, various pieces of technical TV equipment fought for space. Below, the nearest of four large outdoor screens displayed pictures and the voice of a local commentator boomed from huge speakers. Denise Lewis sauntered past on her way to the point where she would later interview various people for the BBC about their participation in the race.

We made our way to the first of many sets of portaloos and then on across the bridge to the road that carried the fleet of baggage buses. Sitting on the wall, we chatted for a while as the sun slowly warmed the air. I then wished my companion good luck and moved further down the road to be closer to the baggage bus for my section of starters. The start is divided into ten blocks, each coloured and holding around 5,700 competitors. My block was pink and was second furthest from the start line. I watched people placing their baggage on the buses and noticed they were double-deckers.

A mother and daughter, sitting on the wall in the sun to eat their breakfast of cold porridge and bananas, not far from where I was standing, advised it might be sensible to get the bag on relatively early, otherwise I’d have to take it upstairs. ‘I doubt you’ll want to climb those stairs at the end of the race to reclaim your bag.’ Hint taken, I placed my backpack on the lower deck and had my hand stamped with a number, 31, by the driver. ‘Just reminding you of your age in case you forget.’ I smiled and noted that the number was the one allocated to that particular bus. A simple device to help run-weary athletes discover the whereabouts of our belongings once the race was done.

I chatted to the mother and daughter for a while. They were from Edinburgh and it was the mother’s first run, though the daughter had done it previously. Like so many others, they were raising funds for a favoured charity. We were in separate sections for the start and I wandered down to the road as the sun had by this time moved so that the row of nearby trees obscured its rays from the wall. I hoped the road, being in a cutting, might prove a little more sheltered from the cool wind.

There were about a couple of hundred people assembled behind the yellow rope that divided our section from that in front. Some were already just in running shorts and tee-shirts, others in various forms of fancy dress but most still wore the warmer garb they’d discard before the start. More portaloos stood in blocks in the reservation between the crash barriers, and temporary fencing formed barriers between the two carriageways, with occasional gaps to allow movement to the toilets.

I chatted with a younger man dressed in a pink ballet skirt, lidded bucket in hand, his number and the outfit declaring the cancer charity for which he was fundraising. He was a local lad who lived in South Shields, not far from the finish, and he’d run the race a few times previously.

This, modified by yours truly, was on my back, so viewers could donate during the race itself.
This, modified by yours truly, was on my back, so viewers could donate during the race itself.

A helicopter chuntered overhead and the commentator invited us to wave up at the TV camera pointing down at us. The giant screen showed various racers being interviewed and ran short loops of bits of information and encouragement. For a time, nothing much happened and we all chatted amongst ourselves to help disperse the slight anxiety and pre-race nerves most felt.

The wheelchair race started and we watched and cheered as these brave souls set off on their wheels to complete the distance under power from their arms alone. More interviews and then another visit to the loo. Queues were now forming at these places and the insides bore witness to the poor hygiene habits of some competitors. I’ve never understood why some people are so careless when visiting public toilets: indications of ignorance or simply a lack of consideration for others.

But the general air was one of warm comradeship as the start time approached.

The elite women started, and we cheered again. A man behind me offered me a jelly baby and I took it eagerly. It was around this time, still feeling the chill, I realised I’d had a small breakfast very early and that I was unlikely to gain any further sustenance until the finish, some hours away. I sometimes suffer from hypoglycaemia (a lack of blood sugar that can cause feelings of faintness and dizziness; not sensations conducive to running long distances!). In my shorts (I chose to run in lightweight swimming shorts, as these had proved good during training) I had a couple of sachets of some energy giving gel; a product I’d never tried, but one I’d bought just in case of need. I could feel the early signs of sugar starvation, so I consumed one of the sachets. It worked very quickly and restored my confidence.

Then came an announcement that our warm-up would soon start. There was some laughter and a bit of banter about the likelihood of us all partaking in the exercises now that the sections were becoming crowded with runners, leaving little room for free movement. But the demonstration started and some of us joined in with varying degrees of enthusiasm and ability. We stretched, pounded, rotated, marched and stretched more. It was good to do something active after the time spent simply waiting. I ditched my warm garb onto the grass of the central reservation and continued the warm-up in running shorts and tee-shirt.

Finally, it was time. The names of the elite men were announced and Mo Farah waved at the cameras. We all cheered this famous runner. The elite men would set off and the rest of us would follow at once.

The starting gun fired and the race started. For us, toward the back of the field, nothing happened for quite a while. Then we started to shuffle forward, only to stop again. I considered the coming hours on the road and made a last visit to the portaloos. Glad I did. I had to walk through the central reservation about fifty yard forward of my start position and was then able to join the throng right next to the location of the toilets, which placed me about 40 yards further forward than I’d otherwise have been.

The mass started to actually move as I rejoined it. Several panicked runners dashed over to the nearby slopes and both men and women crouched in full sight between bushes and trees to relieve their nervousness. We started with a shuffle, which developed into a slow walk, then a brisker walk and, just as we reached the start line, we were actually able to jog, slowly.

Our timing chips clicked in as we passed over the start line so that our true race times could be recorded, but I set my stop watch away anyway, so I’d have an idea of my progress along the route.

And the race was on.

For the first mile or so, it was really a matter of keeping pace with those surrounding me, with little opportunity to break free from the crowd, which stretched away into the distance ahead and away into the distance behind. I guess there were some 10,000 runners behind me, possibly a few more.

We came to the iconic Tyne Bridge and were encouraged to wave for the TV cameras, which we all did with enthusiasm. We passed through a road tunnel, where some wag started the ‘oggie, oggie, oggie’ chant to which we all replied with enthusiastic ‘oi, oi, oi’ the sound echoing loudly through the concrete space.

Our first climb came and small gaps opened up in the crowd of runners, allowing some of us to move forward a little. I’d decided to continue the practice I’d employed during my training runs; running for 4 minutes and walking for 1 minute. This meant I overtook a number of people as I ran and was then overtaken by some of them when I walked. But slowly I moved forward through the group and felt I was progressing quite well.

Around me were runners dressed as cartoon characters, Scooby Doo amongst them. Others carried cardboard cut-outs of motor bikes, a couple of young women carried square card surrounds advertising the charity they were collecting for. One or two people were burdened with other devices; one man carrying a full military pack, another with a large car tyre strapped to his back. Brave or foolish, these were souls willing to do a great deal to attract attention and gain sponsors. I was just able and prepared to carry my sponsorship via my tee-shirt and a notice on my back giving out the web address for donations.

The brilliant RAF Red Arrows aerobic team flew over us and we all cheered. The streets and roads were lined with local people and supporters. Their enthusiasm and generosity was amazing. There were folk holding our small plastic bags of jelly babies, young lads with tin trays laden with orange segments, folk wearing surgical gloves and holding out mashed banana to be swept from their fingertips by passing runners.

We came to our first water point and I grabbed a bottle of the Aqua Pura and squirted a few blasts down my throat before placing the bottle in the pouch at my back on the special belt I’d bought. That drink was welcome as the sun was growing quite fierce and the heat was beginning to tell.

Between the fourth and fifth mile markers a row of tables bore bottles of Lucozade Energy drink. I wormed through the crowd and was handed a bottle by willing volunteers. The added energy soon boosted my flagging oomph and I continued the run with greater confidence I would actually finish.

My pink number card bore my name and many people called out encouragement; ‘Come on Stuart, you can do it!’, ‘Well done, Stuart. You’re doing great!’ Many of the children lining the route were eager to participate, holding out their hands for a high five. I must’ve patted at least five hundred such willing little palms on my way along the course.

This was on my front, and carried the timing chip in a little foam box at the back.
This was on my front, and carried the timing chip in a little foam box at the back.

From time to time, progress was delayed by larger groups running or walking together with little room for those behind to get through. But patience usually allowed an opportunity and I never needed to ask anyone to move aside. A man wearing a speaker and carrying a microphone came up behind me, singing as he ran. Some of the others joined in. My puff was all for the race and I merely smiled and nodded my appreciation of his amazing ability to run and sing at the same time!

Ahead, a married couple, fresh from their ceremony, dressed as man and wife, jogged together, making an interesting start to married life. I passed an elderly lady whose gait made it look as though she was moving rather more rapidly than the slow pace she actually achieved. Sight fixed ahead, the major view was of the backs of runners. And there were many different shapes and sizes. I saw slim, willowy, athletic, muscular, sexy, voluptuous and one or two definitely carrying more weight than was healthy; but no-one obese. No surprises there: such excess weight would prevent most with the condition from running almost any distance, of course.

More water points. I’d taken to running for three minutes and walking for one and allowed myself a drink, usually from the Lucozade bottle, during the walking phase. Just two or three sips. It seemed to keep me going and hydrated. It was clear that some weren’t drinking at all and others were drinking half a bottle of water at one go and then tossing it aside. The warmth of the day was, by now, becoming a factor in performance and I was definitely slowing under that sun. It seems it’s quite common for age to accelerate the energy-sapping quality of heat. I fished out the second sachet of energy boosting gel and consumed it. Then I needed water, rather than energy drink, to wash the stickiness from my mouth. Fortunately, another water station was close. I finished off my energy drink and replaced it with a bottle of Aqua Pura and that did the trick.

Many bands played along the way and they, like the cheering and calling from the wonderful crowd, lifted our spirits. And then, as the heat was starting to become an issue, I came in sight of the first shower spray. A small construction, rather like a bus shelter, was fitted with hoses that sprayed a fine mist of cold water from the roof and sides. Many runners avoided this but I followed others through the spray and came out gasping slightly with the shock of cold but grateful for the cooling. I moved better for the next few miles.

At other points along the course, a couple of generous shop keepers and a local gardener had attached garden hoses to taps and were manually spraying up and out with their water, adding to the cooling for those who wished it. I took advantage and thanked them. A few enterprising lads were collecting discarded bottles of water and adding jets from these to the cooling process. Wonderful!

At mile ten I felt my knees going. It wasn’t so much that my legs gave up as they warned me, in no uncertain terms, that I’d better go carefully. I knew I must walk more than run from here if I were to complete the course. And completion was my aim. I wasn’t too concerned about time: I just wanted to finish the race. So, I took to walking and running alternately for two minutes at a time, and allowed myself extra walks for the uphill sections.

At the ten and a half mile point I collected my second bottle of Lucozade energy drink and continued my occasional sips from that. Then came the steepest downhill slope. My training in the hills of the forest had shown that the advice to relax and allow gravity to help the downward stretch was sound and did less damage to joints than an attempt to slow the natural forward movement. Of course, the number of other runners on the hill doing precisely that, slowing down, made it necessary for me to weave my way through and I hope I didn’t alarm any of those I passed at some speed! I heard various comments about the doubtful wisdom of my move, but I made it without accident.

At the bottom of the hill we came at last to the final mile. The map showed this as a continual downhill stretch at a gentle gradient. But the first part was actually a gentle climb instead. No matter. I walked until I could detect a change to down and then started to jog again. But the legs, in spite of the added encouragement given by the crowd lining both sides of the finishing stretch, weren’t cooperating. I had to slow and walk for some distance. We reached the 800 metres marker and I started running again. But it was still too far to continue. The 400 metres marker appeared and I ran from there; well, I hobbled at a greater pace than walking. There were shouts from the crowd, ‘Nearly there, Stuart.’ ‘You’re almost done, Stuart.’ ‘Come on, Stuart, you can do it!’ And, as the 200 metre marker went by, I managed to find the strength to pick up the pace and pass a few other runners. As I ran under the finish gate I raised my arms several times in glee and joy at having completed the run. The timer over the gate measured 3 hours, 25 minutes and 55 seconds. Disappointing. But I’d forgotten that the timer had started counting from the time Mo Farah set off, and I’d been many minutes behind him, of course before I reached the start line. I forgot to consult my stopwatch and left it running.

I chose the right hand of the 4 finish funnels and made it to the final Aqua Pura hand out. Then I joined the queue for my finisher’s medal, where a young lady gave me a congratulatory smile as she placed the ribbon over my head. The weight of the medal surprised me: I was expecting plastic, but discovered a substantial metal commemorative piece instead. Well done the sponsors, Morrisons.

At this point I took out my mobile phone from the small pouch on my running belt. But I couldn’t read the screen without my glasses, so I asked one of the helpers in the ‘goody bag’ line if she would find and call my wife. She did so willingly and handed me the phone as it was ringing. I told Valerie I’d finished and we arranged to meet up at the Family Reunion point. I hoped she’d heard me say I’d gather my baggage and get changed first, but couldn’t be sure, as her phone signal was rather poor.

The contents of the gift bag.
The contents of the gift bag.

The baggage buses were parked half a mile away through a huge throng of people. As well I spared Valerie this trek as she’s claustrophobic and hates being in crowds. The double-deckers were gathered together like paving blocks forming a footpath, with narrow ways between. Fortunately, mine was close to the front but at the far side of the array. I squeezed through and found my backpack and went in search of a changing place. I thought I’d seen a sign, but could find nothing through the milling crowds. With 57,000 runners, a gathering of their supporters, and a good mix of local spectators and volunteers, there must’ve been somewhere near a quarter of a million people on that seafront site; something around the population of a small city in a small area.

I saw a guy carrying a goodie bag and changed into day clothes so I asked him where he’d changed. ‘Couldn’t find the changing area, so I did it just round there.’ I followed his pointing finger and found a white van parked between a couple of smaller marquees. There was a grass area behind the van, where a small group of orange clad council workers were eating their lunch. The open end of the space overlooked the coach park, where many hundreds of people where wandering. Hardly private, but I was beyond caring by this time. I sat on the grass, unpacked my towel, deodorant, and fresh clothes. At one point, I tried to stand to change from shorts into jeans, but my towel was too small to wrap and, in any case, I almost collapsed into a heap anyway. Finally, I made myself decent and then approached the council workers so one of them could call Valerie for me again, intending to spare her the walk through the crowds. This time, I got no reply from her phone, so I set off through the throng, dodging excited kids, loving partners, weary runners and onlookers until I spotted the Family Reunion point. Here, the meeting places were marked with the initial of the entrant’s surname, so I made my way up the hill toward point ‘A’.

Valerie spotted me before I noticed her and I saw her waving arm and we approached each other through the crowd. We hugged and she congratulated me on my achievement. I showed her the medal. She was full of praise.

We made our way to the less crowded, if longer route along the sea front from the reunion area toward the car park where our coach to Durham awaited us. We chatted along the way, noting the various people and commenting on our experiences of the day. Valerie had been unable to find a place in sight of the big screen at the finish and the massed crowds made the finish itself untenable for her. She’d found a small bench on a rise near one of the medical tents. It overlooked the funnel system at the finish and she could turn to look out over the sea. She’d been joined by various people for short periods during the day, but most of the time she’d been on her own. Her view of the Red Arrows’ display had been superb and she’d used my camera to try to get some shots.

We walked the road to the coach and boarded. Gradually the coach filled up and the driver arrived. We got about a hundred yards from the car park entrance and came upon gridlock. We could see ahead that there was space beyond the cars and coaches for traffic to move, but some unseen obstruction appeared to be causing a delay. The stewards seemed unable to deal with the situation and eventually a police van arrived with four uniformed officers. Within minutes we were all on our way.

The journey to Durham was easy, with many detours from the direct route navigated with experience by our driver. The car park at County Hall was still unlocked. We walked, or by this time, I hobbled, to our car, stuffed our baggage in the boot and set off for the pub. As we approached the roundabout at the car park entrance, I had a brainwave and suggested we try the nearby pub where we’d eaten the previous night. It was easy to park the car and we were greeted with enthusiasm by the staff, who remembered I’d been running and asked how I’d done. It was only then that I consulted my phone and discovered the automated text message that gave my actual race time of 2 hours, 47 minutes and 50 seconds. I was delighted I’d achieved a sub 3 hour finish.

We ate a splendid meal, drove back to the pub where we were staying and organised breakfast for the morning. We bought a bottle of Cava from the bar, collected glasses, and went up to our room, where Valerie ran a bath for me, as she watched the back end of the BBC coverage of the race highlights on the TV. The bath relaxed my muscles and we sat in bed drinking bubbly and watching whatever the TV had to offer until weariness took us to sleep. So ended the event.

The finisher's medal.
The finisher’s medal.

Other race stats: Out of 57,000 runners, I finished 34390 in the race, was male runner number 20439 to finish, was the 273rd runner in the age group 65-69 and was finisher number 227 in the males aged 65-69.

I offer this detailed account for those who’ve never taken part in such an event in the hope that it’ll give some idea of the reality of the process and the way the day works. If you want to take part next year, go to the website here and put down your name. You’re not committed at this stage. Only if you get through the ballot will you learn in February 2016 of your success. Then you’ll need to use this site to organise accommodation and transport. And don’t forget to use the training site to ensure you’re fully fit for the run. Good luck if you decide to go ahead with the challenge.

Me? It’s now the Thursday following the Sunday run. I had a night stopover at my brother’s house on the way back home and arrived back at our house on Tuesday evening. Since then we’ve had visitors; good friends who were in the area on Wednesday. I’ve done very little physical, but have taken a couple of walks. My legs are my own again, but the damaged knee is playing up a little so I’m wearing the sturdy support I used for the race.

I’m still hoping to achieve my target of £500 for Action For M.E. At the time of writing this, I’m up to 51% of that target. Now I’ve actually run the race, please donate to the cause I’m raising money for: Action For M.E. helped me through the trials of 10 years with ME/CFS, so I want to give them something back. For those who missed my offer to all who give to my fundraising, go to post number 50 via this link. There you’ll find an offer of a free eBook from my entire published range. Have a look and then, please, follow the link to the JustGiving site and give a couple of pounds, dollars, euros, or any other currency.

You can also buy the book detailing my experience of ME/CFS and giving advice for sufferers and their carers and families, ‘M.E. and me; Chronic Fatigue: My Recovery After 10 Years’, by clicking the title or here, or through the links on my ‘Published Works’ tab on this website. Half the profits go to the same charity.

This is intended as the last post on the subject, but there’s a possibility I may revisit it at some time if other events suggest it would be appropriate. In the meantime, thank you for your attention. And please continue to visit my blog and read the posts on matters to do with writing and reading.

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