Sunday, 5 October 2008

The agony of the long distance runner, and her boyfriend

14st 5lb; 6.0 units of alcohol yesterday evening; 1,219 days to go (including four Great North Runs); South Shields (eventually).

Throughout the run-up [sic] to today’s Big Event, I had been bombarded with helpful advice on how best to get to South Shields to cheer my beloved as she sprinted triumphantly across the finishing line of the world’s largest half marathon. Drive there early and park, then take the Metro back to the start. Don’t do that, because you’ll never get out of the car park at the end. Drive to North Shields, and use the ferry across the river. Don’t do that, because the ferry service is infrequent and there will be lots and lots of Metro trains, making that a much better bet. Yes, use the Metro there and back, like everyone else. No, don’t do that, because you will never be able to get onto it because of the enormous crowds. And so on and so forth, more or less ad infinitum.

Having experienced the event myself, I can state with some authority that the only sensible ways to be at both the start and finish of the Great North Run on the same day are (a) to run the distance yourself, or (b) to cadge a lift on a passing helicopter, if you don’t share my aversion to that form of transport. Though perhaps the best approach would be to follow the advice of that profoundly irritating Harry Enfield character, Mr “You Didn’t Wanna Do That” and abandon the idea of going to South Shields at all. Ever.

The day started well enough. Yesterday’s torrential rain had stopped, for a kick-off, which was good. In fact it looked pretty much the perfect day for running 13.1 miles, if you were daft enough to want to do that sort of thing: sunny, crisp and cool. We set off from my house bang on schedule at 8.30, allowing masses of time because several helpful people had told me that I Didn’t Wanna drive the LTCB to the start, whatever her charity’s fact sheet might advise, as the massive volume of traffic would ensure that I never got anywhere near it. In fact I found the traffic going into Newcastle so much lighter than usual that I wondered whether the bloody thing had been cancelled. We had so much time in hand that I had the bright idea of calling on one of my cousins in Jesmond until it was time to walk across the Town Moor to the start. The LTCB was corralled in her designated starting zone a good half hour before the 10.30 “lock down”, after which would-be runners were supposed to be sent right to the back of the field as a punishment for their unpunctuality. Though in practice there was no attempt to police this, and I watched scores of participants turning up after the official closing time and simply climbing over the fences into the enclosures.

Warming up with calisthenics and a bit of light photography before the off

Even I have to admit that I was impressed by the atmosphere – the huge size of the crowd, the blaring music and the rabble-rousing commentary as the huge field shuffled forwards to the official start. Not to mention the Red Arrows roaring overhead. I later found out that Tony Blair had fired the starting gun. I wondered whether he was thinking of Gordon Brown as he pulled the trigger.

Really quite an impressive crowd, one has to admit

Having waved the LTCB off, I walked back to my car and repositioned it in the city centre, near to my club where I was supposed to be holding a family lunch party after the race. Then, clutching the LTCB’s bag of post-race essentials, I made my way on foot across the Tyne Bridge to rendezvous with another cousin, whose fiancée and sons were running, and who was staying at the Gateshead Hilton hotel. A few participants in the race were still trickling across the bridge at the time, some hampered by heavy costumes. Another was pushing a wheelchair containing someone with the posture, if not necessarily the brainpower, of Stephen Hawking, and zig-zagging back and forth across the road so that the occupant of the chair could brandish a collecting bucket at the roadside crowd. I could not help noticing that I was making rather more rapid progress across the bridge than any of the people who were actually supposed to be taking part in the race.

My cousin was standing by the Hilton and we popped into the hotel so that I could use the facilities, then sought their advice on the whereabouts of the nearest Metro station. Having been assured that it was “just around the corner” we spurned the offer of a taxi standing right outside and walked to Gateshead station, where we found (a) a long queue of people prevented from making their way onto the dangerously overcrowded platform for South Shields for Elfin Safety reasons, and (b) no way of buying a ticket unless one happened to have exactly the right money. Enquiring of a Metro employee where I might obtain some change, he asked where we were going; and, on being told “South Shields”, he gestured at the massive queue and suggested that we would do far better to go by bus. “That one is going straight to South Shields” he said, with a mendacious sweep of his arm towards a vehicle throbbing gently outside, so we paid £2.50 each and took our seats at the back of a single-decker, which set off promptly and with impressive speed. The only snag being, as it turned out, that it wasn’t going to South Shields at all, but to Heworth Metro station where we were told that the closure of a roundabout for the race meant that we had to cross to “the other side” to continue our journey. We did that, but found no sign of any bus. Indeed, our first enquiries about how to get to South Shields produced the helpful suggestion that we should continue our journey by Metro, when the queue was at least three times longer than at Gateshead, and any train arriving could be guaranteed to be completely full when it did so.

On his third or fourth attempt my cousin eventually persuaded someone to direct us to the correct bus stop, some way from the station, from which we might stand a statistically significant chance of continuing our journey. This proved to be outside an unprepossessing pub, and came complete with a short, ragged and demoralized queue that looked as though it might qualify for listing by English Heritage if it hung around much longer. After a while a bus duly arrived, but an inspector (a breed I had believed to be long extinct) appeared from nowhere to explain that it could not take us to South Shields as its driver had to return to Newcastle, and it would be more than his job was worth to do anything else. He promised that another driver would be with us shortly to take the now abandoned bus onwards, and promptly buggered off. We were immediately behind a party of Welsh women who were close to tears as they realized that they were going to miss their daughter/granddaughter/niece crossing the finish line, to see which they had, by the sound of things, endured an arduous journey from the valleys of Carmarthenshire. Only to fall, so to speak, at the very last hurdle. Though they did at least cheer us up by telling us that they had tried to hire a taxi and been told by the driver that he did not have a hope in hell of getting anywhere near South Shields, which made us feel better about our lost opportunity outside the Hilton.

A yellow double-decker turned up after a further life-sapping delay and took us to South Shields Metro station, where there were absolutely no helpful signs telling us how to get to the finish; and, perhaps more surprisingly, no throng of people to follow there. The bloke at the back of the taxi rank suggested that we would do well to take a cab as it was a fair old way, but his colleague at the front evidently did not want the business, as he claimed that it was “just round the corner and a couple of hundred yards”. Naturally the first bloke was telling the truth. My cousin had been receiving texts asking where the hell he was even before we got off the bus, and had surprisingly had the presence of mind to delete his first response, “Having a nightmare journey.” Which, he spotted in the nick of time, might be fairly unlikely to elicit the sympathy of someone who had just run all the way.

So we stepped out as fast as we could and eventually made it to the inadequately signposted Great North Run "charity village", where I expected the LTCB to have been standing outside her charity’s tent looking a her watch for quite some time. But she was distinctly absent from the group of successful runners being feted and photographed by the charity’s staff. Attempts to ring her were defeated by the severe overloading of the mobile telephone system, which seemed to be under the same sort of strain I experienced in the West End of London on the day those bombs went off in July 2005. She finally limped in the best part of an hour after I had expected her to arrive, clearly in considerable pain from her foot and seriously disappointed with her finishing time of 2hrs 50mins. After she had recuperated with a polystyrene cup of sweet, milky tea and an unwanted pep talk from some earnest charity worker, we hobbled off and joined the world’s longest bus queue in an attempt to get back to Newcastle. We finally boarded a yellow double-decker, loading of which was painfully slow as everyone scrabbled for the £2.70 fare, like pensioners at a supermarket checkout. Then, when we were finally ready to go, the sodding bus was blocked in by some twat of a driver who had slewed his bus across the road in front of ours. It must have taken a good ten minutes for an inspector to come along with the intelligence to stop people boarding and ask the other driver to pull forward to let our bus depart.

We eventually reached Newcastle Haymarket at 4.30, half an hour too late for the magnificent roast lunch at my club to which we had been much looking forward. But all was not lost; there was always Burger King at the Central Station, and the delightful opportunity to dine on a bench on platform three as we awaited the 5.30 train to York. When it arrived it offered the classic East Coast Main Line combination of a huge crowd battling onto a train on which every seat was already occupied or reserved. I lost sight of the LTCB in the crush, but felt confident that at least no-one could have stood on her foot as I would have heard the resulting scream out on the platform. Indeed, I would probably have heard it at home, 40 miles away.

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