Last Sunday I took on the Great North Run with Lucozade Sport as the first race of my autumn half marathon challenge. Following on from the London Marathon this year I was looking for a new goal and decided to take on the half marathon distance. While that may seem a bit contradictory because it’s a reduction in the distance from my last goal, I wanted to see what would happen if I trained differently to how I have done differently and put the 13.1 mile distance up in lights in its own right, rather than just a stopping point on the way to a marathon. In real terms? It was time to pick up the speed and find my fastest half marathon.
I’ve already mentioned that I had planned to run both the Great North Run and the Copenhagen Half Marathon, but since then I’ve added another one to the list, simultaneously scratching off an item from my London bucket list: the Royal Parks Half Marathon. I’ve been running with the London NRC for a few months now, so to be offered a spot in the race in recognition of the hard work and miles I’ve put down with them was a really exciting moment.
So, what’s the plan? Fast, Faster, Fastest of course. I’m trying to progressively run each half marathon faster than the last. This has meant careful consideration of both training and race day plans.
For the past six weeks, I’ve adopted a different style of training. Gone are my quick-paced run commutes and the long weekend runs that are a staple of my normal marathon training, and in their place have been progression runs, speed sessions and more work on the track. By the end of Week One I’d already sussed that the 60 minute recovery runs were going to be my favourite part of the plan, but by the time I arrived at Newcastle Central Station on Saturday the 10th of September it felt like a cross between getting my exam results and the night before a big party. It was time to see what the build-up and anticipation would mean at crunch time.
The journey to Newcastle started a few weeks beforehand with a refresher course in hydration and nutrition alongside Laura, Georgia, and Kieran. Lucozade reminded us of the basics on carb-loading, protein recovery and hydration in the week beforehand, and dealt with our questions on timing your fuel sources and adapting your race strategy to the length of a half marathon. During a marathon I have previously always used gels (roughly every 40 minutes after mile six), and for half marathons had taken a few jelly babies for if I felt the need, which has normally been around the mile eight mark. I’ve found that sweets do work for me for when I just need that zap of energy over a distance, whereas I definitely like to use gels more regularly during a marathon. I decided to adapt this strategy to the Great North Run and use Lucozade Sport Elite Jelly Beans, and start topping up my energy levels every three miles as necessary after the six mile mark.
After this we headed out onto the busy sun-soaked embankment for a short run, dodging and weaving around pedestrians as we went in what turned out to be very good practice for the packed Great North Run course. I’d heard a lot about how this was the most popular half marathon in the world and how busy the roads would be, but having run the London marathon twice I thought it couldn’t really be that bad.
Cut to a few weeks later, it was definitely that busy. I headed up the afternoon before with Laura and met up with Kieran, Twice the Health and the heavily-delayed Georgia for a carb-loading meal, before settling in for an early night at our hotel overlooking the Tyne Bridge. Arriving in Newcastle with lots of junior runners cloaked in their foil blankets and looking thoroughly pleased with themselves was a really infectiously enthusiastic start to what transpired to be one of the best running events I’ve ever been to, with 57,000 other runners including a double double Olympic gold medallist alongside. Knowing that Mo Farah was out there trying to reach his own goal of winning the Great North Run only provided extra inspiration and motivation and made sure the day felt extra special. This wasn’t the day for frustration, tantrums or burn outs, but running in tune with your body and enjoying the experience. Needless to say I didn’t bother even taking my headphones as I wanted to soak up the race without the distraction of Justin Bieber.
My plan for the race was relatively simple – four 5km variations and a final fastest km. However, planning and execution are two separate things, and what I couldn’t plan for was the nature of the hills and where they occurred in my fast/slow plan. I found this a really helpful framework because it stopped me going off too quickly at the beginning, and it made the race pass so quickly that by the time I was on my final variation I felt like I’d only been running a short time. The variation goal was 4:45min/km for 3km and then 5:15 min/km for 2km. I also used the slower intervals as an opportunity to refuel with my jelly beans, meaning my nutrition was consistently timed and perfect for helping me launch back into the faster paces and give me the energy to get around the course. I found the size of the jelly beans really manageable for eating on the go, and more importantly they tasted delicious meaning that correct nutrition for the race didn’t feel like a chore or something I wanted to forget about. It really helped keep me on track for my goal.
The route of the Great North Run isn’t necessarily what you’d call inspiring as, no matter which way you slice it, the majority of it is run along a dual carriage way. However, the atmosphere from the word go was incredible, and two highlights for me pretty early on were the giant UNLIMITED MO billboard sign, and the famous crossing of the Tyne Bridge. I wanted to get my phone out and start taking photos it was so amazing.
The first variation ticked over like this as the buzz of starting meant I really had to focus myself on the pace and not push on with the general enthusiasm. However, going into the fast 3km of the second variation I came across the main challenge of the day: uphill and totally exposed to the sun roads. The combination of heat and hills meant pushing felt really tricky, but having the mental plan in place of my variations and having practiced some difficult interval runs I knew I could pull through, remembering always that what goes up must come down. The downhill recovery was glorious.
I made sure to take on water at each station using my tried and tested marathon-plan, which is based on no science but the science of experience: two sips per station max. and then throw the bottle away, until the last station before the end where I let myself drink as much as I want knowing the end is around the corner.
This was how most of the race went by, pushing and pulling back the pace, until I entered what is always my personal “I’ve had enough of this now” zone – miles 9 to 11. This was not helped by the dull ache that was building in my glute. It recalled a pain I’d had training for the London Marathon two years ago and I had a long forgotten physio session echoing in my mind about the importance of glute activation. By the time the final water station came by I knew I had to stop and stretch. Whilst trying to make that sort of call about stopping for loo, a stretch, or even just recovery, is often mentally agonising, once you’ve made the decision it’s normally pretty easy to stay calm, accept that you have had to stop and get on with the task at hand – which for me was to lean on a traffic cone and stretch out those glutes.
After this I kept running in the recovery variation as the pain was more manageable, and let myself just enjoy the slower paced run to the seaside with the crowds now thickened out to an amazing degree. Until I hit the final km. From there I knew the plan had worked. I knew I was on a negative split and that this final fast km was mine for the taking. I ran. I smiled. I did the Mobot. I crossed the finish line and fell head first into a pile of flapjacks, my all time favourite post-race treat, and felt the incredible satisfaction of achieving something new and worked for. I knew I wasn’t going out for a PB, but managing to control the race and not give into the pressure to run fast and burn out as I am somewhat prone to doing, felt better than any PB.
Thank you so much to Lucozade Sport for inviting me to take on the challenge and giving me the information and support to achieve my Great North Run goal.
Next stop: Copenhagen Half.
The Great North Run: My View
- This is not a flat course, and while inevitably some sections are downhill, it is not a downhill course either. I loved it for what it was, but I wouldn’t hedge your bets on achieving a PB here.
- This is the best half marathon I have ever run in terms of course support, organisation and atmosphere. The only race I would compare it to was the London Marathon. I’ve run half marathons before where there have been stretches of either no support or apathetic bystanders. It felt like all of Newcastle was out for us, handing out sweets, ice pops (a genius idea) and high fives.
- Pull out the headphones – you don’t need music for this one. Stimulation by on course bands, crowd support and red arrows overhead is all you need.
- This is a must-run for anyone based in Britain who enjoys the half marathon distance. It’s one I can see myself doing time and time again should I get lucky in the ballot, and the support on the course and the atmosphere really signifies what I love about running. Everyone is there for the love of it and to demonstrate hard work in action, it’s not about the PB or the personal glory.