Monday, 20 September 2010

The Life of a Scribe – An Insider’s View of How Athletes Behave at the Great North Run Weekend...


After weeks of anticipation, the Bupa Great North Run weekend was finally here and I was determined to make this year’s memories far better than those in my last two experiences.

Two years ago, after wrangling an elite entry for the half-marathon aided by my friendships with several of the Nova guys, I ended up embarrassed after pulling up after five miles into the race – a humiliating result later explained by a rather nasty rash– lesson number one, don’t race, let alone in the world’s best 13.1-miler, when you’re on antibiotics!

Last year was a fun experience but nevertheless, a frustrating one as yet again I was resigned to the bit-part act of handing out thousands of leaflets –for free – for a running tours company and oh so wishing that I was really doing what I love the most, reporting and interviewing the athletes.

So hurrah! It’s the 2010 edition and my wish has come true and as they say ‘third time lucky’ and it’s proven the case – I had a ball of a long weekend! and here’s how it unfolded...

Thursday 16th

I arrived at the Gateshead Hilton hotel for the 11am CityGames press conference. Greeted by a bleary-eyed Pete Riley and his fellow NOVA crew, who were evidently worse for wear after supposedly having to stay up late each night at the bar ‘in case the athletes needed them’ – which to be fair is true and they don’t drink that much, NOVA’s head of communications David Hart introduced me to ‘the man behind the voice’ Paul Dickenson.

Inside, only myself, Hart and ‘Captain’ Dave Martin, the company’s media mogul, were in attendance but perhaps it was I that was dumb for I latter found out that the athletes’ quotes and all the news would later be sent out to the national press anyway, but regardless, I enjoyed the event. Dickenson compared the proceedings with his famous soothing and uber-knowledgeable voice . Banter followed between the competitive England and Australia athletics chiefs but John Graves won the battle for the home side, insisting the score would finish at 5-4 to England – let’s see... Australia said they were embarrassed about last year’s performance so bringing out Steve Hooker, Sally Pearson and Craig Mottram was a positive move indeed.

Hooker, with his marvellously long, frizzy strawberry-blonde hair, began the session with tales on how he deals with the pressure after winning nearly everything on offer, his aims for Delhi next month and interestingly, his passion for cooking.

Pearson meanwhile, forgets to tell us that it’s her 24th birthday on Sunday and that her mum’s actually from Kent before the lovely Jenny Meadows becomes the belle of the, er, room and latter takes an interest in my babblings about the pad not far from her and Helen Clitheroe – oh goodness, I hope I’ve not inadvertently invited myself on a run with them.

Cheeky chappy Mark Lewis-Francis is next up and – still buzzing from his Barcelona exploits – he looks lean (but not quite so mean). Last but not least was team captain Andy Turner, who jokingly headlocks Hooker who dared to suggest they’ll lose – Turner revealed he wasn’t looking forward to the final decision potentially going down to the wire in his, the final event of the day.

A photo-opp on the terrace overlooking the river followed and I admit, I felt a little out of place with my tiny pink camera but hey, I’m a fan as well as a journo and need more ‘athletics memories’ to go in my glorious new athletics-centred home office.

The lovely NOVA ladies suddenly produce Hooker and Pearson for an interview so I tried my best to stay cool and professional whilst switching the mic between the pair at ‘er...same question...’ intervals. Next is MLF who exudes a confidence and maturity that the TV cameras fail to capture at times. Explaining how his two children live up north in Manchester while he’s based for training in London with Linford Christie, a tear is almost evident in his eye. That sure is dedication for you and thankfully it’s paying off!

Turner’s slouched and so engrossed with his mocha that I have to ask chief elite-coordinator Andy Caine to bring him over and we chat amongst other things, how we’re both from close areas of Nottingham. Reliving the finest moment of his career to date – his recent Euro victory – Turner actually and very amusingly literally sprints in his seat as he admits to watching the race video every day – aww! He also explains how rather than travelling the extra distance and passing the Olympic stadium to Lee Valley to join coach Cowan too often, he prefers to take his two young daughters to the local track, where they enjoy copying daddy and taking his European medal a-top of the podium.

After a few hours of work in the bar and a comforting email from the AW ed saying he’ll be ready to help if needed from the comfort of his armchair over the weekend, I bumped into the ridiculously-tall Craig ‘Buster’ Mottram, who’s nearing the end of a fortnight’s stay in the UK and looks pretty homesick.

Riley’s stressed to the hills trying to organise a last-minute Visa for Gharib, whilst former Irish 1500m Olympian Gareth Turnbull is the epitome of sarcastic humour but a genuinely nice guy, just like the entire posse of former/current internationals forming the NOVA team. Andy and MLF take some flack for returning from a clothes shopping trip.

Too knackered and pre-occupied to run, I admired the runners from the river-view window in my room and enjoyed a meal with my beau, who is moonlighting from his job at Nike to help Caine and Riley over the weekend. England Athletics’ Andy Day greets us on our return to the bar, where he ponders whether his wife actually misses him anymore due to being away so often, next stop’s Doha then Delhi – oh dear.

Friday 17th –

The Nova boys have doubled over night but they need the extra help with most athletes arriving today. Surrounded by information boards, Lucozade drinks and the 2009 event continuously played on a loop on a plasma TV, it could appear to be a scene from an X Factor audition but with no cameras around yet and with the abundance of Lycra and Aussie accents, no worries there. The double-trouble duo of MLF and A-er-T again cause mischief by asking for a ride to the nearby exhibition centre – a whole 400m away.

A dozen or so media turned up for the GNR press conference but it was the radio people, who annoyingly only ever ask athletes what they think to the city, who get preferential treatment. New York City Marathon elite-coordinator David Monti and the Independent’s athletics man Simon Turnbull kept me entertained while the star of the show, the great – and very late – Haile Gebrselassie was yet to appear.

Martin compared this time and starts with Dita who, in an unusually nasal voice, explains that her goal is to run in London 2012 – at aged 42! Sporting identical Asics gear, Mara’s next and reveals her recent travel adventures as well as causing great excitement when hinting that Newcastle would be the city of choice should she ever move back to the UK– Martin duly offered to sell her a house.

The tall and trim Ritz, recently a father for the second time to baby boy Jude, continued the procession with tales of how Haile has been his idol since aged 13 and it’s the first time they will do battle. We additionally all hope that he’s not jinxed himself by divulging the tale of getting stuck in a lift for an hour in Birmingham (before finishing third in the World half last autumn).

Applause greets Haile who begins by re-telling the story of the ’10-year promise’ and reveals how this race, not the New York marathon in November, has been his priority throughout training – Monti must have been happy with that comment. With his usual huge beaming smile, he bounced off for another photo-opp before the world’s media appeared to descend – no wonder he claimed coming the day before is amble, at least then he gets a chance to breathe – and train! Quote of the day undoubtedly “Why not come the day before – I don’t need to see the course, I can’t change it!”

Jenny and hubby-coach Trevor remain romantically glued to the hip, lounging around with stats supremo Mark Butler, who then yabbers away to Greg Rutherford, who in turn, today launched his new website – crafty but smart!

Making my day for remembering me since Manchester in May, Geb and his glorious grin vanish as quickly as he appears. After years of swapping emails, Mara and I were finally introduced and she lived up to all of my expectations for sure.

Parking myself in the cafe in ear and eye-shot of the goss and happenings for this column, I was kept alert by the wonderfully-funny, and now my partner in crime, Day who finally let me crack on to work as well as being shocked at the miserably thin women’s wheelchair field. In between my Dictaphone blasting out (I really need to buy some ear-plugs!) Caine’s buzzing around at a thousand miles per hour, keeping the athletes and their entourages happy.

The GNR Show, I can confirm was far better than last year and AW’s stand had a strong presence. In finally meeting my colleague for the weekend, David Lowes, I found a lovely chap with bags of passion and interesting facts before swiping a few copies of the latest issue to spread around the hotel.

Barcelona marathon representative Rebecca Robinson met me after the GNR fitness show, which she attended due to her role in the NHS. Amazed by her commitment and focus, she explained how in addition to working at a practice in Sheffield, she is also now doing a part-time Masters degree in Nottingham – oh and that’s combined with 80-miles per week – go girl.

Brief chats then ensued with Helen Clitheroe, Hannah England and AW’s top snapper Mark Shearman before Dan Vernon – the brother of runner Steve, promised to take ‘work action’ shots of the Nova team for a forthcoming feature, UKA’s Spencer Barden was spotted looking rather sweaty post-run and Irish but US-based Martin Fagan appeared cheery but tired after a 20-hour journey from Arizona!

Phew! What a day so to the restaurant and bar I strolled to join my ‘Mr Swoosh’ and the Nova team, to re-fuel for the gruelling weekend ahead – couldn’t wait...!

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