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June 25, 2014

Tales of a virgin half-marathoner

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I’ve run on and off ever since those bleak cross-country days at school, when they sent you out in all weathers in a vest and shorts, and you came back spattered head to toe in mud, drenched to the skin or with thighs the colour of beetroot from the bitter cold.

Every now and then, through university, after work or on weekends, I’ve dusted off my trainers and forced myself to run, never making it more than a couple of miles at a time and never being able to keep it going for more than a couple of weeks.

In my late twenties I left the UK and relocated to Vienna, Austria. Sport just seemed to get left behind. Until a few years later, when my wife and I caught the exercise bug and started to hit the gym three or four times a week. In the space of a few months I lost 18kg. Full of enthusiasm, I decided to give running another shot, determined to stick at it this time.

I quickly got up to about 10km, running through the Prater in Vienna. It was fun, but I soon realised that gym-fit was not street-fit. And again, the appeal soon wore off.

Fast forward to 2012. My brother-in-law is a pretty fit bloke; his sport is athletics, he plays squash, has a lot of running experience and has run in several events. That year he persuaded me to apply for an entry in the Bupa Great North Run, one of the world’s biggest half marathons, and knowing that entries are not always successful, I applied. And in February I heard that my application had been successful – I was in!

I chose to run for charity; Wakefield Hospice, where my father, who fell victim to prostate cancer, was so well taken care of in his final days. Running for charity was a huge source of motivation, and from the day I started training at the end of February (and it gets very cold in Austria!), I kept on training with consistency right through the winter and the summer, a consistency I had never achieved before.

With no real plan, I started slow, building up from 5ks, adding on a little more each time, moving to regular 10ks for a while, then 12, then 15, 18, and slowly, slowly up to 21km. I was training alone, taking it steady and increasing the mileage as I felt able to. I trained hard and regularly but still at my own pace, even running while away on holiday in Italy (but running by the sea is no real hardship!). I built up the mileage to about 25km by the end of the summer, just so I had some sort of cushion come race day.

I must have submitted a horrendously slow anticipated time for the half marathon in my application, because I was allocated a starting slot right at the back. But at the time I applied, I really had no clue as to what I was or wasn’t capable of. By the time I put in a couple of simulated half marathons in training, I was expecting to finish in around 2hrs 10 minutes – not fast by any means, but my aim was simply to enjoy the race, to finish comfortably and to avoid collapsing in a heap at the finish line!

The Great North Run takes place in September. Race day was cold, it was raining, but I had been advised to take along an old sweater to throw away at the start. I was joining my brother-in-law and his friend for the run, but they were starting much further up the field. We split some time before the start to find our respective grid slots. It took me some time to walk to the back of the field and slot in among the rest of the stragglers! I was feeling good, but I still didn’t know what to expect.

Then came the start, but I was so far back it took a full 40 minutes for the crowd to move forward and reach the actual start line! And I had discarded my sweater much too early! As my race began, I got a high-five from Greg Rutherford, who won Olympic gold in the long jump, the first of many high-fives along the route. Cool!

I felt good, so good I couldn’t quite believe my pace. I was overtaking left, right and centre. But I was so far back that my course was literally a zig-zag through the field, right through to the finish. I reckon I must have added on an extra kilometre! The run across the Tyne Bridge was spectacular, the crowd were great and gave us runners encouragement from start to finish. At one point I passed Tony the Fridge, the guy who runs for charity with a refrigerator on his back! With 1km to go, I gave it all I had, sprinting hard along the coast road as the Red Arrows flew overhead. I came in at 2:01:13 – frustratingly just over the 2hr mark, but still around 10 minutes faster than I had anticipated. I knew I could have done better, had I not had to zig-zag through the field the whole way. The benchmark had been set for the next half-marathon!

Ever since then, I have continued to train. Consistently. And it’s fun. Of course there are days when you don’t feel like training, and that’s fine. I may not be fast, either, but I love hitting the trail or running round the nearby Wienerwaldsee, a man-made lake close to where we live. And I’ve also found that having a goal, like running for charity, really helps to motivate you. Since that first run in Newcastle I’ve run the Vienna half-marathon twice, and right now I’m gearing up for my second Bupa Great North Run this September.

I’m running for a different charity this year, the Soi Dog Foundation, which was established in 2003 to address the tragic plight of the neglected and homeless animals in Phuket and other provinces throughout Thailand.

You can help Soi Dog UK continue to make a difference by sponsoring me at

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/jamiegray

For more information about Soi Dog UK visit https://www.soidog.org

or follow Soi Dog on Facebook

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