Great South Run
The Great South Run, for the last 24 of its 25 year history, is a 10-mile (16k) run that takes place in Portsmouth (known informally as 'Pompey'). Obviously anyone looking at a satellite image of England from space would see that the predominant north/south divide is the Solent, the stretch of water that separates the Mainland from the Isle of Wight, and Portsmouth, though coastal, is the wrong side of that divide. However, Portsmouth is actually located on Portsea Island, and except at low tide (if you ignore the bridges) is not part of the mainland, so we'll let the organisers off.
The Great South Run is the world's most popular 10-mile run, and was this year celebrating its 25th year, the last 24 of which have been held in Portsmouth after the inaugural run took place in Southampton in 1990. As well as the main 10-mile race, a children's race and 5k race are held the day before. The race itself is one of the International Association of Athletics Federations' Gold Label races.
Although the race boasts of being the world's flatest 10-mile run, there is one thing that it is notorious for – quite possibly being the windiest.
With the first and last two miles of the course taking place along the Esplanade of Southsea seafront, the Great South Run is famed for its strong headwind. There is an undiluted, undefended sea breeze that strikes runners, pushing against them when they are the most tired. World record-holding professional runners have said:
[In 2002] I went down on the Friday… and went for a 90-minute run and it was blowing an absolute gale. It was the worst possible conditions you could imagine.
- Sonia O'Sullivan, 2002 & 2003 Women's Race winner, who set the unbroken 10-mile World Record at the Great South Run in 2002.
Kenyan athlete Florence Kiplagat, the half-marathon world record holder and world cross country champion, described the course in 2013 with the words,
I was trying to push all the way but I've never run against such a strong wind. I struggled in the last two miles. I didn't seem to be going anywhere.
Fellow Kenyan athlete Emmaluel Bett, male 2013 winner, the same year said,
The course was nice but it was very windy and became tougher for me as the race went on… I tried to push the pace against the wind in the last two miles, but it was very difficult.
Yep, that was the course for me.
It's Loads of Fuss on a Rail Replacement Bus
All the information about taking part emphasised that as roads would be closed, the best way to get to Pompey to take part in the Great South Run would be to utilise public transport, especially trains. Hovertravel advertised that they'd be providing extra services to Southsea from the Isle of Wight to help runners. South West Trains, on the other hand, helpfully announced that all trains from Eastleigh to Pompey would be cancelled due to the Wrong Type of Engineering Works.
As my wife and kids had originally wanted to cheer me on, we planned on leaving extra early to ensure we could get a parking spot. Unfortunately at around 12:30am my daughter was sick, and again through the course of the night, although my wife allowed me to sleep through the night unaware. When I woke up, her temperature meant that we couldn't take her to Pompey to stand for hours in the blustery wind, and so while my family stayed at home, I went to Pompey by myself.
Basically this involved walking to the station, arriving for 7am. Fortunately the clocks had gone back that day, so I had got up and had breakfast at 5am and had a second breakfast of honey on toast at 6am, allowing me plenty of time to get to the station at 7, where I caught the rail replacement bus to Fareham in order to catch the next train actually running to Portsmouth & Southsea Station (sadly the trains weren't running to the closest station to the start line, Portsmouth Harbour). The station was full of fellow runners, pretty much everyone on the heavily crowded train, when it arrived at Fareham, wore running tops. The train managed to get to Portsmouth & Southsea around 9am, and after a 15-minute walk I arrived at the run assembly area.
Pompey & Circumstance
So at 9am I was there where I needed to be, on Southsea Common close to Southsea Castle, the D-Day Museum, Aquarium and Pyramids leisure centre, with a 2-hour gap to fill before my wave started off. I was in Green wave, the largest, and last, wave of runners. When I signed up I hadn't done any real long distance running before, only 5k Parkruns, so when I applied I didn't know what time to put down. As the form said that the average time for new starters was 2 hours, I put that in the box. This meant I'd start at the back in the last lot to set off following the Elite Women, the wheelchair races, the Elite Men, Orange Wave, White Wave, and Blind races.
How would I fill in the time? Well, on the rail replacement bus I had thoroughly read the leaflet about the race they'd sent me, and it said that the chief concern was lack of hydration. Apparently, runners' urine had to be straw. I found this rather puzzling, as though I'd heard of Rumplestiltskin turning straw into gold and of course Jesus turning water into wine, I'd never heard of urine turning into straw. But it said that if a runners' water wasn't straw, it meant that they needed to drink more water. As everywhere I went bottles of water were being given away, that wasn't a problem. When there's little else to do except drink the free bottles of water and wait, that's what I did. I also dropped off my bag in the baggage area. As I knew that this would be a room in which bags were left unsupervised, I hadn't taken any valuables such as wallet, camera, keys or phone with me. All I had with me after I'd dropped off the backpack containing a towel (it is important to know where your towel is) and change of old clothes was my running shirt, shorts, normal socks, running shoes, watch, glasses, return train ticket, a bankcard, handkerchief, loose change and a small pack of glucose tablets.
Around 10am I decided to find my wave's assembly area. I'd read Participating in a Mass Run and it said that if you go to your assembly area, being in a crowd (and everyone's body heat) will warm you up. Nope, didn't happen. It was still very windy, and all warmth was blown away. I did manage to get very close to the start of the assembly area, though. While in the assembly area I did get a view of the television screen in the distance, and saw them interviewing Hugh Dennis, who had played The Book when I saw The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show Live. Around 10am the event was broadcast on Channel 5, although sadly the coverage concentrated only on the actual athletes, rather than us fun runners. At 10:15am the first runners left, the Elite Women.
Soon after, at 10:20am, the first Mass Warm Up began for the first wave of runners, the Orange Wave. So crammed in with thousands of other runners with barely enough room to breathe, we started doing warm-up exercises and stretches as best we could. We were still feeling very cold. Many of the more experienced runners were wearing bin bags – a disposable layer of clothing to help protect them from the wind. Then, at 10:35am the elite men and the Orange Wave were off, followed by the White wave warm up at 10:40. Again we Greenies joined in, hoping to get warm, before the White wave starting off at 10:48am. By this time I was regretting drinking so much of the free water, yet there was no possibility of fighting against the crammed crowd to make my way to the portaloos.
Then at 10:52am we in the Green wave moved from our assembly area to line up behind the starting line, where we had our own warm up at 10:55am. By this time we all knew what we were doing, but still it didn’t help warm us up that much. We could then see that the Royal Marines were providing a fanfare to help announce the start, with the actual start of the wave given by British athlete and two-time winner (2006, 2012) Jo Pavey. Then, finally, at 11:05am our wave's start went, and after waving at Jo Pavey as I crossed the start line within a minute of the wave's start, I was off!
Green for Go!
I like it, I like it, I like it, I like it
I li-li-li-like it
Li-li-li like it
Here we go,
Starting the Great South Run
Off I ran along the esplanade, and before I could say 'My hovercraft is full of eels' I was passing the Aquarium, the towering Portsmouth War Memorial and even the Mr Bean baby pier and hovercraft terminal. As I had started close to the front of the wave running was very pleasant, and not as cramped or claustrophobic as I feared, but with the runners nicely spaced out2. Yet it was before the first mile marker that I passed the first White Wave straggler, even though they had set off 15-minutes before me.
I reached the 1 Mile Marker just past Portsmouth Cathedral, and though gadget-owners erupted in a cacophony of bleeps and beeps, I went for the old-fashioned approach to celebrating the completion of the first milestone – I jumped up in the air holding one finger aloft.
Soon after we ran along the part of Pompey I know best, passing Gunwharf Quays and the 170-metre-tall Spinnaker Tower. This was followed by the Hard, the interchange area where Portsmouth Harbour Railway Station, the Isle of Wight and Gosport ferries and various buses and coaches are based. Here the Rose & Thistle Pipe Band were based, supposedly to entertain the runners, but they didn't play a note as I ran past.
Soon after I entered Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard, running by HMS Warrior, HMS Victory, the new Mary Rose museum and the National Museum of the Royal Navy gallery. After that I carried on by the minesweepers and frigates of the Royal Navy in parts of the dockyard not normally open to the public. Leaving the dockyard, the Band of Her Majesty's Royal Marines began to play the Liberty March, more famously known as the Monty Python Theme. This seemed to announce, Go on, relax, have fun, enjoy yourself and so that's exactly what I did.
Soon after I passed the 2-Mile Mark, and so that warranted another leap into the air, with one finger from each hand pointing to the heavens in celebration.
If You're Happy and You Know It Slap My Hand
I had expected there to be crowds cheering runners on at the start and at the finish, and maybe at a few other key places such as Gunwharf Quays, but no, the whole route was lined from start to finish with onlookers clapping, cheering and encouraging. It was then I realised that the real stars of the run weren't the runners, but the supporters. There they were, standing in the wind for more than an hour to wave at complete strangers running past, and at most, hoping for a five-second glimpse of their loved one rushing past. Lots of the children had their hands out, hoping to slap or high-five runners rushing past. I decided then and there that I'd not ignore anyone on the right-side of the route who wanted their hand slapped, as my way of showing support and gratitude for their being there. And it really was very rewarding. There were several cases of small children tentatively holding their little hands out for a high-five, but looking disappointed when their hands were not spotted and they were ignored, yet when they saw me sticking my hand out and heading for them giving a bright smile.
I did have to zigzag quite a lot to slap all the hands I spotted, but I was enjoying the moment. If I hadn't done so I probably would have finished a minute or more sooner, but I'd like to think that I helped the spectators to enjoy the day too. The race must be more interesting to support if it's interactive. Many of the spectators contributed to the festival atmosphere themselves; dressing up, playing music and even giving out food and drink. One fellow notably showed everyone a life-size cardboard cut-out of Marilyn Monroe while honking a bulb horn, because, as he said, it would put a spring in our step.
Of course, some of the fun of the race is seeing the runners in assorted costumes. While running I saw a 2-man submarine, Fred Flintstone, Gandalf, a stormtrooper (but not the droids he was looking for), Daffy Duck, giant teddy bears, bees, two Power Rangers, a large number of men and women in tutus as well as a gingerbread man who was determined to run, run as fast as he can.
You do run run run
You do run run.
Soon after I passed the three mile mark the route joined the Winston Churchill Avenue. This is a wide dual carriageway where runners head East for about a third of a mile, go around a roundabout, and then head West on the opposite carriageway for a third of a mile. I ran along waving at all the people running in the opposite direction, occasionally exchanging a slapped hand too.
Water, water everywhere (and lots of dropped drinks)
Soon the route reached the first water area, where bottles of water were being distributed. Here there was a long table filled with bottles of water, and numerous helpers in blue t-shirts handing the bottles out to those running past. By the table and for the next couple hundred yards, the road was covered in plastic bottle tops that had been pulled off the sports-top bottles and dropped on the floor, which burst like bubblewrap as you ran on top of them. I took and gratefully drank a bottle, even though I was already bursting for the loo, and found a skip in which to put the now-empty bottle in.
Then I rounded the roundabout and headed back the way I'd come, still waving at the people heading in the opposite direction to me. Inexplicably, there was a lack of 'Oggy Oggy Oggy? Oi! Oi! Oi!' action, but at least there was more catchy music, as well as more bottle tops to run on top of on the way back along the busy road, as more water bottles were being distributed. At least two runners were picking up the discarded but still fairly full bottles from the road and using them in a waterfight.
Soon after leaving Winston Churchill Avenue I waved a hand in the air to celebrate the halfway mark. Half a mile later the route passed the small flat above a Chinese Restaurant next to the zebra crossing where my namesake Peter Sellers was born. Soon after I reached the distinctive Queen's Hotel at the five and a half mile point, where orange-flavoured Lucozade Sport was distributed.
At the 6-mile barrier the route for a third of a mile shares the same road as the last third of a mile of the entire course, with a steel samba band in the middle. More high-fives saluting those who were about to finish while I had four more miles to go, starting off by rounding the canoe lake and along the common. The number of runners around me were now noticeably more white wave runners rather than green wave, as I could tell by glancing at their race number. At the 6½ mile point was located a run-through shower. As I've never experienced one before, for the novelty value I gave it a try. It involved a tunnel-like structure that produced a fine mist to try and cool runners down, sort of the running equivalent of a carwash, only without the rollers or brushes.
Just before the 7-mile mark was the final water distribution point of the run, which meant that when I got to the 7-mile mark itself my hands were full carrying a bottle, and I was unable to stick up the appropriate number of fingers to celebrate. There were also the first on-route toilets, a group of 3 portaloos. After seeing the length of the queue, I decided it would be quicker to just carry on running.
However we were now entering a residential area full of even more cheering crowds – not that there had been any sections along the route without people supporting us. Yet it wasn't long before the easternmost point of the run was reached, and the race reached the seafront, heading back along the esplanade for the infamous final two-mile stretch against the wind to the finish.
Well the wind exploded with a mighty gush
As it blew away the sun
And the first one said to the last one there
I hope you're having fun
Great South Run
Great South Run
And the Gaoler Man
And Sailor Sam
Cheered on everyone
On the Great South Run
Great South Run
This was it – the last two miles. Just a straight line along the coast to go, against the wind. Next to the Royal Marines Museum and Yomper Statue, the Royal Marines (celebrating their 350th Anniversary) were based. The Royal Marines are, of course, highly trained in how to deliver aid and vital supplies to those weary and in need, skills they put to good use on the day by distributing jelly babies to the runners passing by. These were definitely the tastiest sweets I've ever eaten, yet grabbing handfuls of jelly babies at a run obviously was a very difficult task for many runners; for a hundred yards afterwards the entire road surface was a layer of trampled jelly babies, running on which was a rather unique, if squishy, experience.
I don't know whether it was the adrenaline kicking in, or perhaps I was fully under the influence of jelly babies, but I began roaring towards the finish. Looking around I'd say over two thirds of those runners around me were wearing the white of the earlier wave, just under a third were in Green like me and there was now even an occasional runner in orange. This really boosted my confidence, making me feel confident in my running and encouraging me to push harder and faster to the finish. I began weaving around those in front, overtaking whenever I could. After the ninth mile I began to hear the sound of the Samba band again, seeing the 6th Milers on the opposite side of the road. After waving at those running the route I had been down so long ago, I began increasing my stride, and sprinted to the finish.
You Can Run, But You Can't Hide
After crossing the finish I walked through the finish funnel to have my timer chip removed from my shoe, and be presented with my finish bag that included a finisher's t-shirt and medal. I went back to the Pyramids swimming pool to collect my bag and headed home. On the rail replacement bus back I looked through the bag to see the goodies I had been given, which included very strange food snack things, a bottle of a well-known brand of sports drink, and what every runners wants immediately after a race; a small sachet of Worcestershire sauce.
When I got home I had a proper shower and got changed out of my running clothes and into my brand new Great South Run Finisher's T-Shirt. I then cuddled my daughter on the sofa, however she promptly vomited all over the new t-shirt. There's possibly a moral there.
Still, I came 6,096th at a time of 1:30:52, which out of a field of 25-30,000 runners I think is impressive. Before the run I had hoped for 1:40, which would have been running a 10 minute/mile but surprisingly I found running pretty much a 9-minute/mile pace comfortable all the way.
I might well do some more running in the future...