On Sunday, I ran in my first BUPA Great South Run. Billed as one of the top 10 mile races in the world, it was the first big marquee event in which I’d ever participated, the field had over 25,000 runners including elite athletes from around the world. And it was the longest distance I’d ever run in my life.
In stark contrast to many of the smaller races I’ve done over the past few months (including one where they logged the results on a clipboard), the Great South Run was a big production including live TV coverage, elite athletes, DJs, organised warm-ups, and traffic. And as the UK braced for the arrival of a major storm later in the evening, it was also the first race where preparing to brave the elements was part of my pre-race planning.
When I arrived on the coast, it was clear the winds were already picking up as the storm neared, my car rocked back and forth in the gusts. To avoid the traffic, I’d arrived with time to kill before the race and took a cue from many of my fellow runners, staying huddled in the warmth of my car. I’d ventured outside once to assess the situation and go to the loo, quickly deciding there was no way I was standing outside shivering for over an hour while I waited for the start. As it turned out, the early clouds cleared and it was dry and sunny for most of the race. The only element I fought was the wind and as I later discovered that was more than enough.
I’ve never been in such a big crowd of runners and the energy at the start was electric. A man on a big hydraulic lift led all 25,000 of us through some warmup exercises and watching that many people lunge, stretch, and swing their arms in unison is a sight. As we were in close quarters, it was also a challenge not to punch the person next to you in the face. And the fact that I knew that way up ahead (a long way up ahead of me) were some of the world’s top athletes, well it made me feel like a proper athlete, and not just a recreational runner.
After the elite runners and the faster runners started the race, my group, the White Wave, moved from the back to the start. The race organisers did a fantastic job of herding everyone and getting the race started on time. Finally underway, the first mile led us along the seafront where we had our first taste of the tough winds, the cross winds pushed me sideways. Even though there were 25,000 runners in the field, the race actually felt less crowded than some of the other races I’ve done. In most places the course was wide and I never felt like I got stuck behind other runners. And it was a nice super flat road course, hooray!
This race around Portsmouth was actually a pilgrimage of sorts. Ironically, I grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia, and this was my first trip to its namesake, Portsmouth, England. And as I ran around the city I couldn’t help but understand the connection that the early settlers must have made with the harbor and the shipyards defining much of the landscape.
The crowds that came out to support all the runners were just amazing. Everywhere along the race route it was lined with spectators cheering us on. There were kids with outstretched hands delivering high fives, drum bands, and even bagpipes. Without a doubt, the high I experienced from the atmosphere and the other runners pulled me around the course during those moments when I felt my energy dip.
And it did dip. Maybe it was the fact that everything after 10K was uncharted territory for me, further than I’d ever run before. As my leg had been a bit borked over the past month, I’d only fit in one long training run. It was at about 7 miles when I hit a bit of a wall and wondered if I could really do this. Mentally and physically I hadn’t trained enough at longer distances.
To keep myself from starting out too quickly, I started at a slower pace dividing the race up into 3 x 5K runs, and running each in progression with a 1K run all out at the end. And looking back at my splits, I did keep up my targets until about 14K. That’s when I made the turn onto the seafront and my pace fell off a cliff.
Before the event, I’d read stories about how tough the last two miles of this race were. But on this day, the pre-race announcer warned us that the wind on that final stretch would be even more challenging that normal. He wasn’t kidding. The wind was rushing off the sea and directly in our faces, headwinds gusting at gale force. I struggled sometimes to even run upright, bending forward into the wind. I tried to tuck in behind someone bigger then me attempting to break the wind. Jim “Cancer Surgeon,” as the back of his bright blue running vest identified him, provided some relief. Parts of me wanted to stop. But as I ran those last few hundred meters into gale force winds my thoughts took me to the heroic efforts of Julie Moss, crawling across the Ironman finish line and that put everything in perspective. I could do this, and really, it was just a little breeze.
So I crossed the finish line in 1:33:40 with my hands raised in the air and smile on my sand covered face. I just missed my goal of 1:30 but I’m still pleased with my result. I always remind myself that no matter what my time, it’s the taking part that matters and getting out there and running in the first place is an achievement on its own. And as a friend pointed out, it’s a personal best for 10 miles!
A few things I’ve taken away from this race:
- I want more of the high I felt running in such a big event. Despite the conditions, this was my favorite race yet and I know the atmosphere is what pushed me harder and made the experience more fun.
- Staying in good running shape means mixing things up a bit in your workout routine, and doing more than just running. A month ago I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to run the entire course. But a visit to the osteopath and a new yoga habit have already made a difference in my strength and flexibility. I ran the whole race without stopping and felt pretty good the next day.
- I have decided to make peace with getting passed by people running in fancy dress. In this race there were two bumblebees, one parrot, one Power Ranger, one gingerbread man, and one Batman.
- I know I’ve totally been bitten by the running bug. I said to myself, “You know a half-marathon is only 3 more miles. That’s not that far.” And so…
To finish off my 12 month running challenge, instead of another 10K, I’ll be running the Reading Half Marathon in March. And I am genuinely excited about training for this event. Plus it’s got a big stadium finish! I’ve also filled out the rest of my race schedule with 10K races that primarily keep me close to home.
So friends, join me in a race! Or if you can’t join me, sponsor me. I’d love to smash my fundraising goal between now and March.