‘It’s undulating, I’m just putting that out there, it’s challenging. But in a good way, you know? There’s only one bad hill and we can walk up that one, that’s what I’d do. I think it’ll be a bit short of a half marathon but let’s not get tied up in exact distances, let’s just have fun’
Marc Dobson, June 2016
In case you didn’t know it, Marc is a pathological liar when it comes to running. In all other areas of life he is a stand up guy, honest as the day is long and trustworthy to a fault but when it comes to describing running routes he is a bullshitter of the highest order. In fairness to him he knows me well enough to realise that telling me the whole truth and nothing but the truth about a hill is a bad idea. When we did Great Birmingham Run last year I’d heard about the hill at the end, so much so that it became an obsession. For weeks before the run I studied elevation charts, strategised and generally fretted myself into a complete state. When it came to it I completely lost my shit and ended up walking it, not because it was unattainable but because I had created a monolith out of it in my own head. These days I’m better with hills, Birmingham taught me a lesson and along the way I’ve also discovered that running hills not only makes you feel badass it can also break up the monotony of a flat route. Even more than that, hills make you a better runner; whenever I’m in a race and there’s an incline I silently thank the universe for Tynemouth and the hill of hell it takes to get there. But make no mistake, when a Geordie calls a route ‘challenging’ he is shitting you not.
It was our first weekend back in Newcastle since we sold the house and we had been seriously looking forward to it. We had filled the two days with a plans to see friends, visit favourite places and party hard. Our chief plan though was to go for a run with Tony Phoenix Morrison aka Tony the Fridge. Tony is pretty much legendary in the UK running community, a brilliant runner in his own right he has dedicated his recent years to supporting various cancer charities. He has completed hundreds of events including London Marathons and countless Great North Runs carrying a huge Smeg refrigerator on his back. A tough, straight talking Geordie he is fiercely proud of his roots and deservedly won a Pride of Britain award. Over the years I’ve had the honour of becoming friends with Tony and it’s no secret that he is one of my heroes, when I’m having a tough run I often think of Tony bent double with weight and still scrapping along and it gives me the appropriate kick in the ass to keep going.
The King of insane challenges he is currently attempting to run 100 Great North Runs in 100 days a feat bonkers enough for any runner let alone one carrying a massive kitchen appliance on his back. Tony had suggested that Marc and I run with him for one of the days and given that we were due to be in Newcastle we were chomping at the bit to do it.
Then my butt got in the way.
Despite having run 10k since my ass operation on Monday my doctor had insisted I see him (or he see my bumhole, lucky guy) before attempting to run again. Unfortunately by then it was way too late to make the early morning start we needed to run with Tony. I was devastated. And that’s when Marc suggested we go anyway, we would make it to the Tyne Bridge that day if not with Tony at least in spirit. And so later than planned after an impromptu breakfast of a granola bar and a glass of long life milk (totally unprepared for no cooking facilities we basically brought snacks and booze) we left North Shields ferry port and headed towards the City of Newcastle upon Tyne.
I love Newcastle, in fact it goes beyond love, it moves me. It’s a place that has called my name ever since I first crossed the Tyne Bridge and it has continued to call me back my whole life. The fact that I ended up with a Geordie bloke was no surprise whatsoever, his love for his homeland and the river that runs through it speaks to my heart. There’s a special bond, a deep understanding that exists between us through our shared love of our two opposite coastlines and the rivers that our childhoods were built upon. And despite the undeniably deep, proud love I have for Liverpool, the place I long to be most and where we will eventually settle is certain to be the North East. So I was naturally brimming with excitement at the prospect of running alongside the Tyne towards the iconic bridge that has been such an intrinsic part of my running journey and indeed my life. Marc had wanted to clarify that it was a little hilly and that although it was well within my capabilities we should keep the pace down to keep it enjoyable. Yes it would fall just short of a half marathon but there were one or two hilly bits on the way out, steep but very short. It was going to be awesome.
And in his defence it was awesome. Well, as awesome as 16 FREAKING VERTICAL MILES ever could be.
I’ve calmed down now. It took me some time, a very long shower and a large alcoholic drink but I’m cool now. Holy shit though, it was an adventure. We headed out onto an immediate incline which set the tone for the route, passing over the top of the toll gate for the Tyne Tunnel we made our way towards Hadrians Cycleway which would take us through the historic banks of the river onto the stunningly modern quayside of the city. Coming from sea level I knew there would be an inevitable elevation gain, Newcastle is built on some of the steepest hills I have ever found in a city centre and so my rational head told me we had to get up there somehow. We were running against the flow of the river and so edging our way upwards was a natural certainty which I had accepted. What I hadn’t accounted for was the near vertical climb that faced us as we passed alongside the majestic railway bridge.
Determined not to start walking this early on in the run I leaned forwards and pushed onto my tiptoes to scale the sheer slope that soared above us. My heart thumped despite going barely faster than a brisk walking pace and by the time we reached the summit I was drenched in sweat and panting heavily. At less than two miles into the run I was already laughing hysterically about how nonsensically hilly it was. I felt positive though, despite my knee being a little creaky I felt otherwise peaceful inside and as we reached Wallsend and were able to actually touch Hadrians Wall itself I felt overwhelmingly privileged to be running this path.
Marc, as always when we run in the North East brought the road alive with snippets of local history and tales of his own childhood so we were transported throughout time to the Newcastle of recent past right through to Roman times. It’s wonderful to run with someone who knows so much and is so passionate about an area that you are not as familiar with and many of the uphill outward miles passed me by in a blur of images as I imagined the Swan Hunter Shipyards as they once were and the river in its heyday (much like the River Mersey of yesteryear) bustling and industrious.
And it was an immensely beautiful route, the fields were littered with a million bright faced daisies and the pathways busy with cheerful cyclists (yes, they do exist) and morning walkers greeting us with their unmistakably affable, Geordie ‘Hallo!’. The river ran to the left hand side of us below a tall cliff face which gave the whole vista a dramatic and impressive backdrop. As we approached the five mile point I watched Marc begin to look at his watch and then peer around, when I asked him if everything was OK he replied that he may have slightly misjudged the distance. I reassured him that it was fine, I mean who cares if it only turns out to be 12 or even 11 miles? It wasn’t about distance after all and anyway, despite some mega slopes much of the outward run had seemed reassuringly flat.
It was only when we were still running a mile later and the city still seemed a fair way off did my suspicions begin to become aroused. Whether or not it was coincidence or psychosomatic it was also at this point that I realised my shoes were painfully rubbing. As we reached the six and a half mile point I stopped to assess what was going on with my foot. When I pulled my shoe off what looked like half of Crosby beach fell out and I realised my toes were covered in sand. Although it felt painful I couldn’t see any obvious damage so after a thorough dusting down I stopped being a whiny little bitch and cracked on. But the minute I started running again I knew it was too late, the mother of all blisters was gestating and preparing to unleash its reign of misery on my big toe. I asked Marc how much further we had to run but his replies were worryingly vague, my petitions were met with comments like ‘hmm, not far’ and ‘yeah, not too long now’ followed by a distinct furtiveness and lack of eye contact. The little Geordie bastard was lying through his arse.
By the time we came off the path and the bridge was in view Marc said ‘how would you feel if it ended up being 16 miles all in? No more than that.’ I looked at him in disbelief then laughed until my stomach hurt because this whole thing had just the right amount of ridiculousness to fit us perfectly. What insane dickheads would do an off the cuff 16 mile run on a sweaty, early menopausal sleepless night and an insubstantial breakfast with nothing to hydrate and fuel them but one English pound? Err…that sounds exactly like us. We ran on towards the bridge stopping for a brief wee break at Pitcher and Piano, our favourite pub on the quayside. We grabbed a cheap bottle of water in Greggs then got our bridge selfie, it felt like a achievement, like one way or another we had made it. The only issue now was that we also had to get back.
One thing I’ve learnt about Newcastle and it’s something the locals laugh heartily and proudly when I say it is this…
There is no downhill whatsoever in the whole fucking county.
Seriously, I have never known a place like it. No matter what direction you go in from no matter what altitude you always end up on an ascent. I swear to God the place is built on a bloody seesaw. What I realised in slow, horrifying increments was that the reassuringly flat sections of the run on the way out were in reality downhill. And there must have been a shitload of them because the return leg felt like one gigantic, constant incline punctuated by massive fuck off mountains. By mile 11 I began to feel a little delirious because I found myself giggling and feeling strangely positive. My toe was pretty much in agony by now and I was having to concentrate hard to keep my foot hitting the ground firmly instead of the left handed tilt it was now naturally falling. I think it was this pain that actually served as a distraction from any fatigue because stamina wise I was still feeling pretty strong. By the half marathon point Marc was beginning to feel it, he’s trying to ignore a metatarsal injury at the moment but the length of the run wouldn’t allow it and it sapped his strength. Served the lying little shit right, thanks karma.
As we rounded off the path and headed into the final, still inexplicably uphill mile everything began to hurt a little bit but I suddenly felt deeply proud of the two of us and utterly triumphant. Finally, finally we reached a downhill section which led us back to the ferry port and as our Garmins buzzed in unison we whooped and high fived each other, we’d just run 16 miles without any plan or preparation and we’d made it.
But oh god my foot was hurting. For the rest of the day we remained somewhat incredulous, giggling every time we talked about it. I strapped my toe up and we both gulped down painkillers with our pub lunch before collapsing back to the hotel for a nap. When I woke I watched a video message that Tony Phoenix Morrison had posted for me on Facebook dedicating his gruelling run that morning to me and I crumpled into tears.
Later that evening we met up with our dear friends and took the kids to The Hoppings, a huge travelling fair. Marc and I decided to go on the Stargazer, an impossibly high tower with swings that swooped out to the sides.
I was half petrified as we were pulled upwards, higher and higher into the cool night sky.
As we soared around holding each other’s hands tightly we gazed down on the incredible view and across the city that Marc calls his own and that has left its own imprint on my soul. It was scary to climb so high and it took some bravery to get up there but once we accepted the fear and stopped holding our breath we could open our eyes and appreciate the land with all its hills and valleys.
A climb is always tough, whether it be on a road or in life and some inclines scare us more than others. It’s only when you’ve braved the ascent and stand at the top and can you look outwards and truly understand the road that you’ve been travelling. And even if the onward journey is uphill, so strong will you have grown that your own spirit will tower higher, no matter how heavy the load you may be carrying.