The Great North Run is the world's biggest half marathon and we caught up with Anne Wilson, who has completed every event since its inception in 1981, to find out how the day itself pans out and just what makes it so special.
Anne, a retired headteacher from North Tyneside, has become one of the most recognisable figures on the run, dressed as Minnie Mouse and raising money for charity.
As one of only a handful of women to have taken part every year, she's ideally placed to inspire others as she explains the enduring popularity of a North East institution - all 13 miles of it...
1 The first - and still the best
It is a half marathon, but it is also much more than that. Now, in the North East, it is the culmination of a weekend of amazing sporting activity including the junior and mini runs for children, the Great North 5k and international athletics in the Great North City Games. It is also the inspiration for the amazing GNR cultural programme. It is the original, the flagship event, whose offspring includes numerous other ‘Great Runs’ both in the UK and in Africa, as well as walks, swims and bike rides. To most of us though it is just OUR GNR!
2 The 'All Runs Club'
2014 saw the millionth finisher, but 3,502 of those finishes belong to the 103 members of the ‘All Runs Club’. There are four women and 99 men who have completed every Run. We range in age from 52 to 82 and in 2014 our times ranged from 1:33 to 4:19. The one thing we have in common is our commitment to the GNR. We love it! The atmosphere at the start, in our ‘pen’ at the front, is one of excitement, anticipation, and happiness that we’ve made it for another year. Pretty much the same as everyone else!
3 Sensory overload
Standing on the bridge at the start and looking back along the carriageway at fifty thousand people is the most amazing experience. It is a kaleidoscope of colour (except for cold or wet days when the prevailing colour is black, courtesy of black bin liners). There is a cacophony of sound from the non-stop music and chat coming from the speaker system competing with thousands of people talking to each other. There is an assault on the sense of smell as liniment and muscle-rub vie with perfume, cologne and aftershave. And then there are the queues – for toilets; baggage buses and just to cross the start line. An experience!
4 Fancy that
There is every colour and style of outfit imaginable, from the nearly naked (thongs, Speedos and the odd fig leaf) through ‘proper’ running club vests & shorts, to charity tops and the most amazing fancy dress costumes. For the past 32 years I have worn fancy dress, and have dressed as Minnie Mouse for the last 22 years. Why? It’s fun, it makes people smile, the kids love it and nobody cares if you walk a bit. Highly recommend it.
5 Off to a flyer
There have been memorable starts – Mike Neville firing a massive field gun to start the first Run in 1981; the silence when we remembered Princess Diana in 1997, and again in 2001 to remember the victims of 9/11. We had Status Quo rocking it out on a stage in the middle of the runners in 1998, Paul Collingwood parading the Ashes in 2005 and a host of Olympic and Paralympic gold medallists waving us off in 2012. What memories!
6 Iconic images
After the ‘oggi oggi’ shouts in the underpass we move on to the Tyne Bridge – the iconic highlight of the route, and the place where we are treated to a fly past by the Red Arrows. What a thrill!
7 The support
Then there are the spectators. Some are there to look for friends and family, others just to look, cheer us on, give us sweets, orange segments, ice lollies, and even hugs. Many have never missed a race, turning out whatever the weather to play their part in the Run. They bring their chairs, children, even dogs…..and provide the atmosphere that makes the Run really special for everyone. Also they bring money - lots of it - ready to share it out amongst those runners collecting for numerous charities. What support!
8 Run to the beat
Also along the route are the ‘Bands on the Run’, ranging from rock bands, jazz, steel pans, drummers and, of course, Elvis – alive and well in either a bus shelter or tent near the 11 mile mark. There is even a ‘wall of sound’ at 10 miles…very good for speeding you up to get away from the racket...but they do give out jelly babies here! Rock on!
9 Unsung heroes
There is amazing support from St. John’s and the Red Cross who provide first aid along the route, supplemented by medics on bikes in the final 4 miles and even hospital facilities at the finish. Other great support from scout and guide groups who man the drinks stations and happily hand out water to us. A huge treat is seeing Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson who regularly helps at one of the water stations. A star!
10 Tears and laughter
Then it’s the finish...relief, joy, pain, tears and laughter - a whole range of emotions. We’ve done it...check the time...collect goody bag...put medal around neck...smile at complete strangers. Forget that the first time you saw the tee shirt and medal they were being worn by runners on their way home when you still had two miles to go! That’s life!
11 Charities are the biggest winners
Head to the charity village - in my case to the St Oswald’s Hospice tent - for a welcome coffee, chocolate biscuit and sit down...plus more hugs as I’ve supported this charity for many years. The biggest winners in the GNR are the charities. Well deserved!
Click here to visit Anne's JustGiving page for the St Oswald's Hospice.
Then, for me, it’s walk to the Metro, queue, then travel home - enjoying the camaraderie with everyone sharing their stories and experiences. Great fun!
13 A fun and joyous event
At my age, and after 34 years of Great North Runs, why do I still do it? Because I can...because I have a record to maintain...but mainly because I love it. It is my incentive throughout the year to get out and exercise and I enjoy doing my bit to keep the 'All Runs Club' together and produce our newsletter. Finally, although it is now an international event for world-class athletes it is still, at heart, a fun and joyous event. After all, where else could you find an elderly Mickey & Minnie Mouse competing in the same event as former World Record holder Haile Gebrselassie or Britain’s Olympic champion Mo Farah? Go for it!
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