Since we’re in the middle of a modest heatwave I thought “Flaming June” would be a good title for a blog post. Until a few years ago I always thought that “Flaming June” was some sort of folk expression or quotation from a poem, but it is instead the title of this Pre-Raphaelite painting by Frederic Leighton of a lady wearing what looks like a dress made out of old curtains. Apparently the oleander branch seen in the upper right symbolizes the fragile link between sleep and death. It looks to me like she must be attending a lecture…
But I’m rambling. This has been an exhausting week, probably because I a few days off last week and have come back to one of the busiest periods of the academic year. The examination period is over so there are scripts to mark, examiners’ meetings, class lists and the like, all parts of the arcane business of academic life. In fact I’ll be spending the first three days of next week in Cambridge where I’m External Examiner for Physics, and I have a lot to do here before I go.
In between all the meetings I had to attend yesterday I noticed that it was the 9th of June, a date of enormous cultural significance for those of us born on Tyneside, as Geordie Ridley’s famous music hall song The Blaydon Races begins “I went to Blaydon Races, ’twas on the 9th of June… The original Blaydon Races were horse races and site of the course is long since gone, but the name has recently been resurrected as a road race involving people on foot rather than on horseback. Incidentally, the usual “Whit Week” holiday in late May or early June is still referred to on Tyneside as “Race Week”.
All this reminded me of the occasion – over twenty years ago – when I entered the Great North Run for the first time. Nowadays this race – the biggest mass participation half-marathon race in the world, with 50,000 competitors – is run in September, but in those days it was held in June. As it happened, there was also a heatwave the first time I did it. I remember lining up at 9.30 on a Sunday morning on the start grid (I was number eleven thousand and something) while the stewards went round pleading with all the participants to take plenty of water as they went around as it was going to be very hot indeed and they didn’t want people suffering from dehydration.
In those days I was quite a keen long-distance runner and was fairly fit. I wasn’t that concerned about the heat but took the advice to heart and determined to stop at all the water stations on the way from Newcastle to South Shields. When we started I also took care not to go off too fast over the first mile or so, which is basically all downhill from the Town Moor to the Tyne Bridge. Not that you could go fast anyway, as the track was so crowded with runners.
I remember the wonderful feeling as we emerged onto the Tyne Bridge and took in the splendid view of the bridges along the river. When we got to Gateshead the crowds were out in large numbers cheering everyone on and I felt completely elated. The first water station was near Gateshead athletics stadium, and I took a drink there as I did at the next, and the next. After Gateshead the route heads towards the Felling bypass at about 4-5 miles and then the runners can see a long climb in front of them. A large thermometer showed the temperature on the road to be about 45 Celsius. Fortunately the people living in houses either side of the road were out in their front gardens offering encouragement and sometimes had their hoses out to shower people as they went past. At one point there was a fire engine that had made an impromptu fountain by the side of the road too.
Unfortunately, as I near the ten mile mark I started to feel a bit strange. I had never actually taken on water while I was running before this race; I never felt the need for it when on training runs. My stomach wasn’t used to the water sloshing around while I was running. I felt quite sick by the time we got to the top of the climb but when I saw the sea and felt its breath on my face I cheered up and descended the steep downward slope towards the seafront near Marsden Rock.
There’s a good mile and a half along the seafront to the finish, however, and I was definitely struggling really badly by then. I could see the finish line but it felt like it wasn’t getting any closer. I slowed to a crawl but kept going, finally reaching the grandstand where a large crowd shouted encouragement. I must have looked dreadful because I heard several people shouting out my number along with “keep going, son” and “you’re nearly there”.
Eventually I got to the finish line but the feeder lanes were quite busy then – I was finishing at about the peak time of about 1hr 50 – so I was forced to slow right down because of the people in front of me.
As I crossed the line, I stopped running and was immediately overcome with nausea. I bent over, hands on my knees and emptied the contents of my stomach – mainly water – all over the grass. I felt absolutely dreadful but, after a quick check from the St John Ambulance crew who were on hand, I recovered and found my folks who were nearby. After we got home and I had a shower I felt fine.
About a week later, when I had returned to my flat in London a letter arrived for me. I opened it up and found a small passport-sized photograph, with the caption “YOUR MOMENT OF TRIUMPH”. It turns out there was an automatic camera near the finishing line that snapped everyone crossing it along with a shot of the digital clock showing their finishing time. The idea is that you could order a blow-up of the picture for £25 to put on your wall.
In my case, though, the picture showed not a moment of splendid athletic achievement, but a bedraggled creature puking uncontrollably while those around him looked on in disgust. I didn’t order the blow-up of my throw-up.
Over the years I did the Great North Run a number of times – six or seven, I don’t remember exactly – and a few marathons too, but the strain of running on the roads around London gradually told on my knees and I had to stop because of recurrent pain and swelling. Eventually, a few years ago I surrendered to the inevitable and had arthroscopic surgery to sort out the damage to my knee joints. That seems to have fixed the problem, but my running days are over.Follow @telescoper