Monday, 19 September 2011

Race Report - Great North Run 2011 (aka The Ballad of Barefoot Dave part 4)

I don’t think I have ever been so nervous before a race.

The night before had put me at ease. By a strange series of events we ended up staying in the Gateshead Hilton, which (unbeknownst to us) happens to be the official race hotel. We mixed with the elite athletes at mealtimes and in the bar, the whole place seemingly given over to the event. I even had the opportunity to meet Mo Farah and bother him for a photograph. I never feel particularly comfortable interrupting celebrities when I see them in a private context, but I just couldn’t resist talking to the newly-crowned 5,000m world champ and getting him to autograph my race number. Evidence:

We swapped tips
But I woke up on race morning with ultimate fear. I’m pretty sure I would have been nervous anyway. The incredible anticipation of finally running the Great North Run, an iconic, aspirational event which I’ve watched on TV for years, was enough to make me jittery with excitement in the days and hours running up to it. But something about the barefoot plan was making me even more nervous. I felt like I had agreed to a duel but left my pistols at home, constantly troubled by that feeling of dread when you get off a train or a bus and realise you’ve left your bag on your seat. Essentially, I spent the race morning observing that to run a half marathon, you need to wear shoes, and I was definitely not...

Then again, I was wearing shoes, of sorts. I went for the Vibrams in the end, and I’m so glad I did. As we shall see.

I decided to walk from the hotel to the start line, a distance of probably about 2.5 miles once I’d got to my starting zone. I needed the time to relax, loosen up, get my head in the game and feel comfortable in the Vibrams. The short walk in the cool morning air was ideal and definitely represented the calm before the storm.

I had hoped to meet Aye Aye Jenny Mackay at the start so we could run together, but our poorly-planned rendez-vous never materialised and sadly we didn’t manage to see each other at all. The crowds were just too enormous. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so many people, ever. With 54,000 runners, the GNR is unfathomably massive in every way, and there was simply no hope of us catching one another. Such is life. I did have the privilege of watching the elite women warm up (in what seemed like a bizarre zoo-like enclosure, athletes pacing like caged lions and us plebs peering in through the bars), and particularly pleased to see the British trio of Clitheroe, Pavey and Yamauchi. After the ubiquitous bag check, queue for the loo and hunt for my starting zone, I was in and ready for the off.

After the sad passing of Flt. Lt. Egging of the Red Arrows a few weeks ago, there had been murmurings that the team might not make an appearance at this year’s GNR. The image of the Red Arrows’ flypast over the Tyne Bridge is a huge part of the GNR’s identity, so it would have been a very sad loss if they weren't able to attend. But rather than pack it in they went one better and made an additional, early flypast over the starting line – flying in the ‘Missing Man’ formation, Red 4 (Flt Lt Egging’s position) trailing red smoke and creating an image of fond remembrance. An inspiring moment.

Ten minutes after the gun fired, I was over the line, and within half a mile I was having to consciously alter my stride to accommodate for the rough, broken road surface and try to protect my ruined ankles. Early twinges in my ankles and the balls of my feet made me nervous, but the atmosphere made it almost impossible to think of anything but utter, unconfined running joy. The runners, the crowds, the Red Arrows, the shouts of ‘Oggy Oggy Oggy’ in tunnels and the sheer scale of the whole mad shebang are indescribable. I can’t tell you – you’ll just have to run this race.

I made it onto the Tyne Bridge just before the Red Arrows got there, crossing the structure with the red, white and blue smoke streaming out overhead. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco was humbling, the Forth Road Bridge during the Scotland Kilomathon was majestic, but the Tyne Bridge, with those pilots overhead, there, then, was a moment that will stay with me for a very long time indeed. I knew Linds would be stationed at the ‘third, no the second, no the third lamppost after the pillar. Or the third one after the bridge. I’ll be next to a lamppost anyway’, toting a camera and ready to snap a great picture. Unfortunately, I am a prat and was a bit overexcited by the whole experience, so I look like this:

From here it was business as usual, with the focus on keeping my poor feet from too much abuse. The miles ticked along at a relatively relaxed pace, averaging 8:45 minutes/mile, roughly the same speed as those around me. And with quite so many people around me, I had very little choice. This race is so densely-packed with runners that you would struggle to break free from the zone you started in, unless you were prepared to invest a lot of time and energy in weaving between other runners. Thank goodness there are so many others, though. The course itself is less-than inspiring for the majority of it, passing through industrial areas, motorway overpasses and repetitive housing estates for miles. However, the riot of colour, noise and passion from the runners brings this fairly drab landscape to life and makes the race all the more amazing. Setting a big race in London or Paris or San Francisco is one thing, because the scenery does most of the work. Here the race is self-affirming; it just works because it’s always been here, not because here is somewhere particularly special. What an amazing achievement.

With a vastly varied road surface I was struggling to find rhythm and comfort in the Vibrams, at some points resorting to running on the white lines in search of something a little softer than the nasty road. I struggled with everything from rough tarmac to concrete to areas where the rain had washed grit onto the road. But I was managing the pain and discomfort relatively well.

Until the heavens opened.

I’ve blogged before about how well the Vibrams work in the dry, but in the wet the thick rubber lives up to its name and rubs, viciously, all the way down to the bone and out the other side, then several inches into the road, too. It’s agony. The rain started as just a thin, welcome drizzle, then proceeded into a crescendo of massive, heavy rainfall that sent spectators scurrying to bus shelters and elicited a range of impassioned responses from runners.

I was probably 9 miles in when the rain really kicked in, and I knew that I really didn’t have far to go. Based on the time-honoured maxim that if you run faster it’s over quicker, I picked up the pace and started an overtaking campaign. There are some nasty hills in the GNR, but nothing compared to San Francisco or my months of training in Edinburgh, so I felt confident in pushing up the hills and planning to cruise down, a strategy which worked reasonably well until the very last descent to the seafront. In the wet, the Vibrams become slick and unpredictable, and I came off the crest of the last hill at full whack, only to find myself hurtling down the other side and very, very close to falling over onto my face. After some manic arm-waving I managed to slow down and take the sharp turn at the bottom without incident, but it put the fear of God into me and I took a few moments to recover.

Some distance before I reached the sea, a spectator had shouted ‘only a mile to go!’ and I had got rather excited and sped up. If pushed, I could have summoned my knowledge of the course which would have told me that the 12 mile marker was still some way off, but I wanted to believe him and allowed my feet to think about some respite. When the 12 mile point did finally arrive it really was all over bar the shouting and I joined in with a few others who had picked up the pace for the final furlong.

800 to go, 400 to go, 200 to go, finish. A last-gasp sprint for the camera to finish in 1:54:44 and then a slow, laboured walk to collect a medal, t-shirt and eventually be released back into society. Linds was waiting for me at our agreed RV where we eventually managed to meet up with Louise and swap a few war stories, me hobbling around trying to adjust to the incredible pain in my feet. I wasn’t brave enough to take off the Vibrams for some time, knowing that a combination of the ache from the impact, blisters from the sore spots and probably some skin missing from the rubbing points would be pretty awful to witness. They were better than I thought, in the end. But not much. My toes ache. My calves are very tight. My feet basically feel like I ran a half marathon barefoot yesterday...

Even with my leisurely pace I came in 9,169th place from a field of 37,491 finishers, which puts me in the top 24%. This is definitely more of an indication of the slow average finish time rather than my own impressive performance, as the race is clearly popular with beginners, and it was a shame to see so many ambulances tending to those who probably hadn’t respected the challenge they were undertaking. The drop-out rate is enormous: 54k places for 37k finishers.

Would I run another road race in the Vibrams? Probably not. But I am glad that I ran this race at a necessarily slower pace, purely to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the company of so many other runners. And it was a pleasure and an honour to run for the Alzheimer’s Society. Thank you for your support, I am delighted to see that after a flurry of last-minute donations (possibly from people hedging their bets?) that I have reached my £500 target. You could still help me surpass it if you felt really cool and groovy – check out Thanks so much, it’s been immense.

Happy running


2011 to date - miles: 940.95, parkruns: 6, races: 5, miles biked: 83.24, metres swum: 1225 


  1. Ahh, crud. Sorry, I posted a comment on one of your earlier posts, not sure if you will have picked it up, so I've reposted here.

    I ran to the half way point totally and truly barefooted then switched to minimals. Biggest hazard was the plastic bottle tops which had been trodden on and smashed into splinters. Not a single blister.

  2. Hi Dave, congrats on your run, I'm definitely not brave enough to try running 'truly' barefooted any time soon. The broken plastic was a nightmare, I was having to be very careful at aid stations too...

    Any more barefoot plans coming up?

  3. Best fun I've had in ages. Fun went once the minimals went back on.

    I really want to do the Keswick to Barrow barefooted, just to prove it's possible. But It might be out of reach for now.