This October I finally ticked an item off my bucket list and ran the Great West Run, Exeter’s annual half marathon (13.1 miles). I’ve been a student at Exeter University for 6 years now and I’ve seen five Great West Runs go pounding through the streets, often with a member of my extended family amongst the throng. The event has always been particularly poignant for my family as we remember my Uncle Gary, an Edwards family member who used to run. Early this year I decided that this would be the year that I joined them; to remember my Uncle Gary and to challenge myself to do something I had always wanted to do.
I was soon joined on the sign-up list by my boyfriend Sam (whose reason for racing was apparently “boyfriend obligation”) and my parents and my sister, Freya. In all, 9 of my family and friends ran on the 18th! Freya, Sam and I had never run a half marathon before. The training for each of us would be fraught with injury, which we all overcame to compete. I was greatly helped by my long-suffering best friend Matt, who went on many runs around Exeter with me during my training. Together we scoped out the first half of the course along the truly terrifying St. Andrews Road at rush hour, which I would not have been able to do without him! Running the route really paid off on Race Day.
I can still feel the butterflies I felt on Race Day morning, waiting with Sam in Belmont Park for my family to arrive. I had trained so hard, and it all came down to one day. My goal was to complete the race in under two hours. The family appeared and we took some prerace photos and headed to the start line, where we met my Uncle Simon and Debs, AKA Team Edwards support/photography. With some ceremony that was rather lost on people behind the first 200m, the starting pistol was fired and the race was on! We started walking towards the start line with the rest of the crowd; by the time I went through I was running – we were off!
The first half
For the first 6 miles around Exwick and along Stoke Woods the race was rather uneventful, but very quick pace-wise. My mum had run off, my dad was around me somewhere and I had left Freya and Sam behind. None of us had any intention of sticking together! I did really enjoy doubling back on myself along Stoke Woods as it gave me a chance to see my family and friends, especially a friend from home who was running her third half marathon in three weeks!
My first major challenge of the race was when I decided to take the energy drink at half way. Although I hadn’t trained with energy drinks (or even water during a run) I thought I would rather have it than regret not having it later. Immediately I saw my mistake as I brought the cup full of radioactive orange juice up to my mouth and threw it all over my face. I got about one sip of the stuff before discarding it in sticky failure, other runners spluttering around me. At the next drink station I poured a whole bottle of water over me to wash it off!
The Hills Begin
I passed my mum shortly after at about 7 miles as we climbed the long drag along Cowley Bridge Road. She sent me on my way with a “Go on, Em!”, and so I slowly pulled ahead towards the university, but I knew the fun was over. Hills, hills and more hills, from now until the finish. However, I was used to this part of the course – the final 6 miles I had run many many times on my training runs. Soon I felt at ease, I relaxed into my running. I knew exactly when the hills would level out, giving me some respite, and I knew when to kick hard. I saw my supporting family members on the roundabout at the top of Old Tiverton road – it was exactly the lift I needed.
The Final Miles
The run out towards Sainsbury’s wasn’t so bad and I was within time, but I knew what was coming – the nice hill I had run down along Pinhoe Road would become a terrible long slog of a hill that I had to run UP again, and what was more, my dad had caught me up! I heard him shout to another family supporter that I was just ahead – that’s when I turned and saw him, closing down on me sneakily! We ran almost side by side until Posloe bridge, where he said “Don’t wait for me Em, you’ll drop me on the hill”, to which I replied “I’m not waiting for you Dad, I’m going as fast as I can!”. I was really tired now, the last mile and a half was very painful.
The support up Pinhoe Road was phenomenal, loads of families out with mixing bowls full of jelly-babies and other sweets which were gratefully taken and consumed by runners of all sorts (Sam, for example, was given a packet of Love Hearts by a small girl, which he claims got him to the finish line). I think I pulled away from my dad, gaining a seconds-long lead. It was at the last water station that I started to talk to myself.
“Come on Em. Not far and then it’s all downhill!”
Feet blistering, legs aching, body shaking. It was like I was playing QWOP, I had to physically think about moving each muscle.
“There it is, the top of the hill. Nearly there!”
Dad’s just behind me I know he is. This is your home turf, you can DO IT! Suddenly, the top of the hill was reached!
“Now KICK, come on girl, KICK”
My legs had nothing left to give; I was falling upright down Blackboy Road. I normally pride myself on my sprint finish, but after 13 miles I had no more gears to shift. If my dad caught me, he caught me.
Go on, KICK. There’s the 13 mile mark! .1 of a mile to go! Come on, sprint!!!!!!
I did some sort of weird energy-less sprint to the line, pain etched across my face and legs plain ignoring all calls to move faster. There was the clock, ticking away the seconds, and then I was underneath it and it was over. I stopped my watch, and saw 1:49:07!
I moved forward by a couple of metres and tried my very hardest not to faint. All the pain I went through in the last few miles started to dissipate, leaving behind it euphoria and very raw emotions. I turned around to see my dad also wandering around in the finishing pen – he had finished four seconds behind me! I followed the crowd and was given a bottle of water, a medal and a banana by volunteers, who I grinned at inanely and thanked profusely. Soon all the Johnson family joined me, exhausted but overjoyed, drinking water and eating our bananas of victory. We all finished in under two hours.
We waited for the rest of the crew to finish, and what followed was a lethargic whirlwind of photo taking, electrolyte drinking and hobbling around Exeter. Hugs were hugged, dances were danced, tears were shed. What I will take away from the Great West Run is the incredible emotional high I have been on for the last two weeks. I am so so proud of all my family and it was an absolute joy to run and finish with them all. So, thank you, Great West Run, for giving me the chance to push myself and reap the rewards.