Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Sonia O'Sullivan and her charity 2010 Great North Run...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sonia O'Sullivan and her charity 2010 Great North Run...

Back in 2010, the Irish Olympic Silver medalist Sonia O'Sullivan took part in the 2010 Great North Run for charity. The idea was that she was going to be the last person to start the race and would then proceed to pass out as many other runners as possible. Her aim was to raise money for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research and was also fundraising for the Children’s Leukaemia Association at Cork’s Mercy University Hospital.

This is Sonia's experience in her own words.....
Many people thought I was crazy to start at the very back of the Bupa 30th Great North Run field and try to pass as many runners as possible to raise money for charity. But that was the challenge set me by David Hart, the Communications Director at Great North Run organisers Nova, and it seemed like a great opportunity to not only raise much-needed funds for Leukaemia Research but also see this fantastic event from a totally new perspective.

In the end, I managed to pass 25,313 runners on the busy road from Newcastle to South Shields and it proved an incredible experience. Just a week later I was blazing the trails of the Great Ocean Road outside Melbourne. It was a beautiful sunny morning when I set out on my Australian training run and I didn’t pass a single runner as I zig-zagged between the trees and ran down to the wide open beach that took me up a big hill and then back home. Throughout this 1hr 34min solo run, I kept thinking back to the events on Tyneside the previous Sunday, and the contrast between the two runs could hardly have been any greater. The setting, the number of runners and the weather were all in stark contrast.

I travelled to the GNR start area with the rest of the Leukaemia Research team - the Banana Army as we are known - at what seemed to be the very early hour of 8am – well over three hours before I was expecting to start my race at the back of the field. I thought I’d have plenty of time to relax, even enjoy a few minutes with the Sunday papers, but it didn’t work out that way. It was raining heavily but despite the time and the conditions, there were still plenty of runners around, many covered in plastic macs. Luckily the rain passed for the official team pictures and I was more than also happy to meet runners and pose in a few of their photos too. Race time approached and as the runners began to fill the motorway I got a spot on the TV podium in the middle of the carriageway. You could feel the tension rising, sense the amazing atmosphere building.

Ant and Dec got things going and then proceeded to shake as many hands as possible. It was the strangest feeling to watch the field flow past from the TV gantry but seeing so many runners taking on the challenge for charities close to their hearts gave me goose bumps. With 10 minutes gone I could picture the lead runners already clear of the Tyne Bridge, but still the main field oozed by. After 30 minutes, and with no apparent end in sight to colourful stream of runners, I began to get nervous, wondering how on earth I would be able to pass so many people. But the lights of the sweep car came into view and I knew it was time to get in position.

The clock was now creeping towards 45minutes and I knew the lead women, who had started first, would now be fast approaching the finish line, which suddenly seemed an awfully long way away. At moments like this, you start to think that you should have just joined them at the front. But then you realise that no matter what pace you go or where you start, at some point in the race it will get difficult. That’s when the negative little thoughts in your head start working overtime.

Finally, I am just about to go when I notice two fellas in Sunderland shirts taking their time at the back of the field. It’s clear they want to be the last to start and beat me before I’ve even started. I wave them ahead and as soon as they are across the mat I start running down the road with my chaperone for the day, Gerald Bishop from Low Fell Running Club, knowing I don’t need to go too fast as it will only mean meeting heavy traffic sooner. But within the first mile I am continually hopping on to the kerb to pass people. The noise is amazing with spectators cheering and runners chattering.

My first mile is 6:57 – not too bad; then I realise that both sides of the carriageway are merging with everyone running on a much narrower track across the Tyne Bridge. I am suddenly in the thick of things and so work my way out to the edge, trying not to knock anyone over. Then, everyone is waving hands in the air as we cross the bridge. That lovely picture with the Red Arrows is long gone; I just hope I can get to the finish before they fly by once again. I miss recording my second mile time in all the excitement but once across the bridge a little more space opens up, though it’s still a case of trying to make use of every available route forward – bike paths, pavements, grass verges, anything.

As we approach Mile 3 I stop my watch at 14:57 (the combined time for the second and third miles) and realise that after standing around waiting to get going for so long I now need a pit-stop – but all the loos along the route have big queues. This amazes me as I have never seen this before in a race.
I push on through the rainbow of runners and spot the Angel of the North up ahead, but this one is moving along the road. It takes a few quick calculations to work out the best way past without getting clattered. I decide to duck through and am pleased to see that I have completed Mile 4 in a speedy 6:51.

The toughest mile of the course is next – and you can see the effect a hill has on everyone – but bigger gaps are now starting to emerge and I make good progress along a grass verge (I prefer to run on grass than roads). I am loving the experience now, weaving through clowns, sunflowers, nuns, a zebra, a number of soldiers weighed down with heavy backpacks and a donkey carrying what seems to be an even heavier load. The challenge of a 13.1 mile race isn’t enough for some people. They believe the experience must be as difficult as possible as they pursue their quest to raise as much as they can for their chosen charity. I’m delighted to get through this uphill mile in 6:56 and, like everyone else, can now relax a little on the downhill stretch that follows. But it’s no time to lose your concentration, a fact that is hammered home when a girl I am about to pass suddenly raises an arm to wave to a spectator, nearly taking my nose off. We are both reduced to a fit of giggles and I’m alarmed to see runners passing me. That’s not in the race plan!

Further down the hill and the route narrows, again making it difficult to pass and I have to bob and weave forwards. Even so, this proves to be my best mile yet at 6:43. I am now thoroughly enjoying the race and never thought it would be possible to maintain steady sub-seven minute mile progress.
As we approach halfway I stop for a quick chat with the BBC. I tell them that I’m happy and enjoying things and it’s definitely not as bad as I expected … little did I know I would soon be eating my words!

Mile 7 goes well though in 6:51 and I’m glad to be running at a decent pace, the very sporting Gerald still at my side. But it’s at this point that all the weaving, starting and stopping, kerb hopping and grass running starts to take its toll, and so I tuck in behind Gerald as he navigates the path ahead.
Every now and then we lose each other but it’s not too difficult to pair up again as we are the fastest movers through this section of the field and inevitably one of us gets stopped in our tracks by a superhero, cartoon character or even The Stig (hasn’t it registered with him yet that he can now take off his helmet as we all know his identity?)

Gerald is a decent runner so we have been having a chat most of the way and it is great to have someone to share the laughs with along the way and not feel like you are laughing aloud to yourself. Last year, Gerald ran with James Cracknell in a speedy 1hr 17min – it’s a more casual pace this year but challenging in a different way.

All the traffic means we have to slow down and so we get through miles 8 and 9 14:54. After competing in eight Great North Runs, it’s always at the 10-mile mark that I find the race becomes really difficult; you are nearly there but with 5km still to do, the road begins to rise through a series of roundabouts as you move through South Shields. However, the roundabouts also offer a good opportunity to make some progress. Most people seem to swing wide on them, so I take the inside line, spurred on by the live bands whose music really inspires you onwards. The music can create a euphoric mood and I remember experiencing the same feeling when I ran really fast in the 2002 GNR. The bands really do give you a spring in your step. Even so, progress becomes hard with so many runners on the road at this point, a fact that surprises me, and I complete Mile 10 in 7:03 and the following one in 7:01.

My favorite mile is the 12th as it never seems that long and ends with that amazing downhill approach to the final stretch along the coast. You can smell the sea air! I complete the mile in 7:07.
I get some space as I run wide on to the seafront but then it becomes crowded again as everyone tries to push on as fast as they can. A few people look like they may have gone a bit too hard too early as they are sitting on the kerb almost within touching distance of the finish. Hopefully, they’ll all manage to get going again and complete the race.

Gerald and I are now within 400m and I have plenty left in my legs so I gear up for a big sprint but there is no space to get through, so I head for the grass finishing line where I won my first GNR in 1998. I cross the line with the clock reading 2:19, but when I account for the 44 minute wait to get started, my quick chat with Katharine Merry on the BBC platform at halfway and a little comfort break too, my watch reads 1:32.40 and the official chip time comes in at 1:34.53.

I am not at all obsessed with numbers and times, I just like to know my progression along the way, and you need that final finishing time to help set your goals for next year. However, I’m unlikely to challenge my fastest GNR of 67.17 in 2011 and so may have to settle for something in between, though I might opt for the clear road next time! If there is anyone out there who wants to swap starting positions with me and be last off, remember the target is 25,313 runners.

Good Luck to the next challenger!............Sonia O'Sullivan

If you enjoyed reading Sonia's account of her race, you can make a donation to the Children’s Leukaemia Association at Cork’s Mercy University Hospital.

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