“I was determined not to wee in a bush”: Northern Soul’s Lyndsey Skinner tackles the Great North Run
“To be honest, I’m knackered.”
If you’d asked me how I felt after I crossed the finish line of this year’s Great North Run, chances are I’d have said something along those lines (punctuated by wheezes, gasps and, quite possibly, a string of expletives). These, however, were not my words, but Mo Farah’s, one of Team GB’s most celebrated and charismatic Olympians of all time. Questioned by the BBC upon winning the elite men’s section of the race, Farah talked about how challenging the Great North Run route is – some consolation for those runners, like myself, who were feeling a bit worse for wear by the finish line.
Nearly 60,000 runners followed in Farah’s footsteps in the world’s largest half marathon from Claremont Road in Newcastle to South Shields on September 11. Runners travelled from across the globe to take part in the iconic run, now in its 36th year. Having lobbed my name into the ballot entry last year and been unsuccessful, I was both thrilled and terrified in equal amounts when, back in February of this year, I received an email confirming my place in the 2016 run.
September seemed an age away in February. I promised myself I’d begin training when the nights grew lighter and the weather was better. But there always seemed to be something other than running to do: drinking alcohol, for instance, flower-pressing, butterfly-pinning, learning Mandarin, or portable chess. Literally, anything at all other than putting on my running shoes and heading out the front door.
The first training run I went on was hard. A couple of years earlier I had begun running semi-regularly, completing a few 10k races and jogging through the suburbs in the East of Newcastle, from Jesmond to Heaton to Byker and back again. But a move of house and change of scenery had disrupted my exercise plans. The arrival of my first car only made matters worse.
I’d grown unfit. After my first run, albeit on a hot day, I was horrified to discover my inability to run for more than ten minutes at a time. Heading home, I was drenched in sweat, bent double with a searing stitch in one side. I felt atrocious. Atrocious enough that it was several weeks before I could bring myself to lace up my shoes and head out again.
My email inbox filled up with messages from the Great Run team. ‘Respect the challenge,’ they screamed. ‘Lyndsey, have you started running yet?’ began another. Eventually, with only two months before the race to go, the panic set in sufficiently to make me start regular training. By the week before the race, I was drinking daily green smoothies packed with spinach, bananas and hemp seeds, carb-loading and ramping up the treadmill in the gym to the highest incline. But was it too late? According to the advice I’d read I should be ‘tapering’, slowly decreasing the length of my runs and spending the majority of time resting. But the furthest I had run up to this point had been 8k. How on earth was I going to do more than 20?
The day of the run dawned bright and sunny. Having declined a house party invitation the evening beforehand, I was up at 5am, drinking hot water and Googling ‘how to run a half marathon on minimal training’ (disclaimer: according to Google, you really shouldn’t). I arrived at the start line on Claremont Road – roughly two miles away from the iconic Tyne Bridge – at just gone 9, and began the vital task of sussing out the portaloo situation. The queues were already some 20 people long. A friend had completed the run the previous year and, having declined to visit the amenities before the race began, had waited for 20 minutes during the run itself for a portable toilet, with the time clocking up on her chip timer all the while. “If I could give you one piece of advice Lyndsey,” she said, sagely, “it would be to wee in a bush.”
I was determined not to wee in a bush.
Walking from the portaloos and baggage buses to the area around the start line, my breath caught as I turned the corner onto the Central Motorway. The sheer scale of people taking part in the run was absolutely staggering. I walked for at least 20 minutes in a straight line to my starting pen (green zone). I knew from the race number I’d been given that there were still some 20,000 people behind me. The atmosphere was electric. Large screens and giant speakers boomed out a warm-up sequence from the front and, for the foreseeable distance, thousands of runners swayed from side to side, lunging, squatting and jumping in unison as a helicopter whirred overheard.
After the start gun was fired, we shuffled slowly forward for the best part of an hour until the crowds ahead had cleared sufficiently for it to be our turn to cross the start line. Having given Olympic winner David Rudisha a high five and wished the lady beside me luck, it was time to concentrate on the task at hand. I ran slowly at first – slower than I’d ever run before, conscious that I had to conserve my energy. Already, a woman in front was walking, but the majority of runners were zipping past, caught up in the energy and excitement of the beginning of the race.
Two miles later, we reached the Tyne Bridge. Running over it, I’m almost embarrassed to say I found myself welling up. It was an incredibly exhilarating experience to be running among a sea of bobbing heads and fluorescent sports vests, many emblazoned with the names and photos of those who were sadly unable to cheer their loved ones along. The metal work of the bridge seemed to sing with the vibrations of thousands of pairs of feet thundering across the Tyne. I looked to the left out over the Millennium bridge, the Baltic art gallery and the Sage. To the right I took in the High Level Bridge and the Swing Bridge. And then we were in Gateshead. I mentally ticked off the first part of the race in my head.
Up ahead, Farah cruised in at 1:04, making this his third Great North Run victory in a row. Vivian Cheruiyot stormed down the sea front at South Shields in 1:07:54, and Scotland’s Mark Telford took the winning spot in the elite wheelchair race at 49:03.
But back on the Felling bypass, I wasn’t aware of any of this. The path had suddenly become steeper, but I was settling into my pace. Bands played by the side of the road, and later there were steel drums. The cramp in my left leg had started to slowly disappear. I waved to a camera as I passed by.
At around eight miles – two miles further than the longest distance I had ever run – negative thoughts started swirling around my mind as I began to physically struggle. Why was I doing this? Were my legs strong enough to carry me another five miles? Since when was Gateshead and South Tyneside so hilly? Why had they chosen to stage the run on such a treacherous route anyway? Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? How come the guy in front of me in the full Paddington Bear suit was still looking so sprightly? Why not just give up now? I started to hyperventilate, and I couldn’t catch my breath. My boyfriend had made me a marathon-themed playlist to listen to on the run. I scooped up an earphone and listened in. “Lets get physical, physical” sang Olivia Newton-John, in saccharine tones.
My legs were screaming at me. My right arm, carrying the bottle of water that I’d scooped up from one of the water stations earlier, grew numb and tingly. The sun was blaring down from a white-blue sky and I could feel the pale skin on my legs tingling in the UV rays. An ambulance tore past me, scattering the runners. The number of people walking had increased dramatically by this point, and it took even more of my energy to weave among them, and buckets of resolve not to join them myself.
Then, on an estate near Jarrow, an elderly woman brandishing a tub of jelly babies clocked the exhausted look of malaise on my face and, leaning into the road in front of me, screamed loudly: “Howay man Lyndsey, you can do it, pet! Not much further now flower! You can smell that sea air!” At the time I was too tired to acknowledge that she had said anything, but afterwards I laughed about it, imagining how miserable I must have looked running up that hill in almost a waddle, glumly observing the kind lady with her wonderful Jarrow brogue and her jelly babies in the searing heat as if it were all a bad dream. I may not have realised it at the time, but that person’s encouragement mattered a great deal. I’ve heard it said before that the crowds are what make the Great North Run so special, and now I’d wholeheartedly agree with that statement.
I fixated on the slogans on the back of the other runner’s shirts. ‘The runner in front is curing blood cancer’. ‘For Mam’. ‘Pancreatic cancer is tough. So am I.’ Suddenly, something clicked in my head. My breathing grew easier. My legs obeyed me, moving forwards and backwards. My body was a machine, and it would continue moving until I ran out of petrol. ‘If I were Bernice (my affectionately named Honda Jazz),’ I thought, ‘my petrol warning light would be on, but I’d still have another 30 miles in the tank.’
I had gotten to 11 miles, and I was damned if I was going to start walking now. Up, up, and on, I ran through the outskirts of South Shields, picking up fizzy sweets and orange slices from the crowds with a clear mind.
Then, gloriously, the endless blue of my beloved Northern sea swam into focus, and I pounded the tarmac down onto the sea front. The noise from the crowds was deafening. Orange signs proclaimed ‘800 metres to go’, then ‘500’, then ‘250’. Now I could see the finishing line; now, the end spread out before me like an oasis in a blistering desert.
Dancing Queen blared from the event tannoys. To the strains of a song about a glamorous 17-year-old hitting up the nightclubs of 1970s Sweden, a decidedly unglamorous 25-year-old staggered across the line, unsure of whether to laugh or cry. When I stopped walking my legs trembled, wobbled and finally gave way, like Bambi. I took off my trainers and socks immediately, walking barefoot on blistered feet across the grass. I collected my finisher’s pack and headed to the family meeting point where my parents were waiting for me with a hug and a much needed bottle of Lucozade. “I just ran a half marathon,” I said, and the words sounded surreal even as I uttered them.
Would I do it again? Definitely. For all it was a painful and exhausting experience, looking back it was also utterly exhilarating. I’d barely sat down at home before I was Googling further half marathon events. Despite a decidedly slow time, I was amazed and proud that I’d managed to run the entire distance; that I’d had the perseverance to continue onwards even as my entire body and mind screamed at me to stop. In my heart, I had wanted to finish running, and so my legs kept on carrying me forwards.
In the car on the way home, my dad, suffering a flare up of arthritis from standing still in one place near the finishing line for as long as it took me to run from Newcastle to South Shields, turned and looked at me, slumped on the back seat of the Citroen, my hair scraped back from my face and practically stuck in place with sweat; my aching legs crumpled beneath me and my head thrown back in exhaustion. I had just run 13.1 miles. I’d been running for nearly three hours.
“To be honest, Lyndsey,” he said. “I’m knackered. No more Great North Runs for me.”
Images by Phil Pounder, North East Photographer for Northern Soul
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.