The GNR was one of the best days of my life. I was representing Saint Lucia alongside 177 international runners as part of the organisers' goal to have a runner from each of the 193 countries in the world. The excitement had already been whipped up locally, thanks to the Ealing Eagles publicity machine and being featured in the Gazette and Ealing Today. I had also been contacted by journalists in St. Lucia who ran their own social media campaign to get the country behind me and I was featured in a news story on a St. Lucian radio station. Fame at last!
On the eve of the race, the GNR organisers laid on a reception, which was a fantastic opportunity to meet the other international runners. I met Paul Jones (fellow Eagle) and his wife Marija who was representing Macedonia. Appearances by Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe, Tirunesh Dibaba and other sporting legends made us feel like VIPs for the night.
On the morning of the race, I was ushered into the VIP start area which had a VIP baggage-check, loos, an array of cameras, media personnel and familiar faces from TV and sport. The sporting celebs were all happily posing for photos and chatting to the international runners. I took to the VIP lifestyle easily, casually exchanging running anecdotes with some bloke who turned out to be Ricky from the Kaiser Chiefs and getting last-minute race tips from Nell McAndrew. Minutes before the start, Tanya Farah (wife of Mo) took her place right next to me on the start line and then we were off. I started on the front line at the same time as the elite men - a moment that I will remember and dine on for the rest of my life.
For those wanting to know something about the course, there are undulations throughout, with the most challenging one at the end but none of them rival Greenford Avenue (you know what I mean). Lots of loos, water and energy drinks stations, and at least three showers to run through on a blisteringly hot day. Crowd support was strong all the way along the route, with various bands and cheerleaders, culminating in 5-deep spectators along the last mile. This race had the local spectator-support of EHM, with kids handing jelly babies, others handing out bagels and lollies, but it was just on a massive scale. There was bunching at some points, particularly from mile 10 onwards, which could be a pain for the very fast runners seeking PB glory. The final mile is a scenic downhill seascape and a well-supported run along the seafront. My finish time of 2:52:16 was 20 minutes slower than my PB and it was my most enjoyable run ever.
Here are my top ten glorious moments at the Great North Run:
1) Being on the start line because I am never likely to experience the buzz of leading 57,000 runners at the world's biggest half marathon ever again.
2) The advantage of being on the start line is that I had a very brief moment of actually spotting Mo Farah in his shiny sunglasses running way ahead of me. I got the best buzz of the day just thinking of the sheer unreality of the situation.
3) The thrill of the Red Arrows flying overhead as I crossed the Tyne Bridge. I remembered speaking to a man on the start line who ran the Great North Run 36 times from the age of 5. He said he had never once experienced the Red Arrows flying over Tyne Bridge. I felt privileged.
4) Running through the cool, dark underpass as shouts of Oggy Oggy Oggy Oi Oi Oi reverberated through the walls.
6) That incredulous moment when Marge Simpson, Spiderman, the Ninja Turtles and the blokes in the animal print speedos whizzed past with the 1.25 pacer! Note, I have never seen a 1.25 pacer in a race.
7) The crowd support and encouragement from other runners was electric. I heard 'Go Ealing' 'Go Eagles' 'St. Lucia' (clearly some flag geeks amongst the Newcastle supporters). I was impressed with the Mile 10 beer stand with the sign 'only three miles to go, might as well grab a beer."
8) The moment somewhere after hilly Mile 9 which when I decided to forget about a PB, just slow down, take in the atmosphere and spend some time with Elvis in a Love Me Tender sing-off!
9) The glorious sight of deep blue sea when I got to the top of the last hill and the stunning aerial acrobatics of the Red Arrows which zipped past me all the way to the finish line.
10) Finally, one of my most emotional moments was helping international runner who had stopped and staying with her and running the last 800 metres together.
Once I crossed the finish line, I was directed to the VIP area where delicious hot food, cold drinks, massages, fluffy white towels and warm showers awaited. Thank you Ealing Eagles for being part of my special journey to the Great North Run as an international athlete. I would also like to thank Mark Yabsley for being such a wonderful coach, meetings and words of support throughout my preparation. After the euphoria of completing my first half, Ealing Half Marathon on 2015 and the excellent Marrakesh Half, I struggled to find a purpose for running in 2016. The Great North Run gave me that elusive thing, that every runner craves, a joyful running experience, which has left me thirsting for more.
Other Eagles running on the day were Paul Jones, David Hennessy, James Linney and Ben Cale (apologies to anyone we missed!). Pictures below are from Che, Marija and Paul.