22 October 2017
This morning we got up for a run we weren’t sure was going to happen. Hot on the heels of hurricane Ophelia came Storm Brian. It arrived on Friday night, all wind and rain battering the bedroom window. On Saturday morning I did the unthinkable and stayed in bed nursing a cold I’ve picked up from CJ while Commando went to parkrun in the howling gale. Even parkrun was in doubt but, after Commando and Rob, who was RD for the morning, walked round to check for fallen trees, it did go ahead. Meanwhile, a few miles along the coast in Southsea, the Saturday Great South Run events were being cancelled and there were some doubts whether the ten mile race today would go ahead.
Anyone who’s ever walked along the seafront at Southsea knows it’s a windy business at the best of times. Some years back I was actually lifted off my feet by the wind as I walked across Southsea Common. It isn’t an experience I’m not eager to repeat. Add a storm, even one with a seemingly harmless name like Brian, to the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster. When we got up today it looked like the worst of the storm had passed. It was a touch on the windy side but the rain had stopped.
We drove down to Southsea, still not quite sure if there would be a race or not but feeling more and more hopeful as the sun began to come out. The Great South Run, brainchild of former Olympiad and long distance runner Brendan Foster, is one of the biggest races of the year. In fact it’s so big the whole thing is shown on TV. This year, for the first time ever, Commando would be running it. In fact he was one of the pacers, running at a relatively slow, for him, one hour fifty minutes.
Commando being a pacer meant we had to get there ridiculously early for photographs and pre race briefings. We met up with the other Spitfire pacers on the cold, windy seafront by the Blue Reef Aquarium, took a quick team photo, dropped off our stuff and walked off en mass to Costas to get much needed coffee. The word was the race was on!
The VIP changing room was in Southsea Castle. Sadly, not inside the castle building but in a kind of big conservatory building within the castle walls. As the race is sponsored by Duracel, the pacers had to dress up as Duracel bunnies with orange shirts, pink ears, bow ties and fluffy tails. This was the bit I was looking forward to, Commando, not so much. At least the tails were held on with elastic this year, rather than safety pins. Almost all the bunnies were actually Spitfires in disguise, although there were a few token non Spitfires, including Big Dave, the pacer organiser, his son Nick, Mal, who tailed Winchester with me, and a guest Olympic runner.
Along with the bunny costumes, there were flags that fit in special rucksacks. With the windy conditions I wondered if these were such a good idea. The ears seemed to cause the most problems, at least for the men. There was a great deal of adjusting and fiddling about with them. Some people couldn’t seem to manage to get them round the right way.
Amid all the ear fiddling there was a certain amount of hilarity, especially amongst those of us who didn’t have to dress up and were merely there as moral support. Then there was a team briefing. The bunny ears all pricked up and everyone payed close attention.
The next job was a pacer team photo. This wasn’t as easy as expected because the flags caused a few issues getting out of the door but eventually everyone got outside and lined up on the drawbridge outside the castle. As a backdrop it couldn’t be faulted, although getting everyone to look in the same direction and keep their eyes open wasn’t easy. When is it ever?
In fairness, it can’t have been easy standing around in shorts and a thin t-shirt in the cold wind. Even in my arctic coat I was feeling the chill of Storm Brian, or what was left of him. While the pacers all went off for a warm up run to test how well they’d cope with the flags, the rest of us went back inside the castle. We couldn’t help wondering if they’d all come back in one piece or of any of them would get blown away?
Of course, we couldn’t stay inside forever, much as we’d have liked to. An hour after the pacers had run off to warm up and two hours after we’d arrived in Southsea, we went back outside into the cold wind to watch the start of the race. When we arrived Southsea seafront had been deserted. Now it was packed with runners and spectators. Just getting to a suitable spot on the start line was a challenge for Paul, Mitch and I. We’d hoped to meet up with some of the other Spitfire cheer team but it was so crowded finding anyone was impossible. Our only hope was spotting the pacer flags.
There were around twenty thousand people running the race. Add in all the spectators, officials and reporters that makes a pretty big crowd to get through. We did see some Spitfires in the start pens, by pure chance rather than design, and we saw a few pacer flags going past, including Commandos. We also saw some pretty outlandish costumes and I’m not talking about the bunnies here.
In my experience, the start line is never the best place to get photos. It’s always crowded, even at a relatively small event like a CC6. At a big event there’s no way to get anywhere near the finish line either, especially after what happened in Boston a few years back. Last year I’d found a place to stand around the half way mark and this year I decided to go to the same spot, more or less. It took a while to find a clear spot and, by the time I had, the super fast boys and girls had already gone past. It wasn’t long before I was snapping Spitfires as they passed though.
The first pacer flag I spotted belonged to Gerry. He spotted Mitch in the crowd beside me and waved. Somewhere along the way he’d lost his bunny ears. Somehow I had the feeling Southsea was going to be littered with bunny ears and tails once the race was over. The Spitfires kept coming and I tried my best to capture them. It wasn’t an easy job with so many runners and spectators.
Big Dave’s son, Nick, was the next pacer to come past, also minus ears.
A couple of smiling Spitfires later Big Dave arrived, also without his ears. As these are the speedier runners I wondered if the ears had simply flown off because they couldn’t take the pace.
John had managed to hang onto his ears. He was also the first pacer to spot me in the crowd and give me a wave.
The Spitfires were now coming through in groups, which did make taking photos a little easier. Some saw me and waved. Others were in the zone and ran past oblivious of me and my camera. I kept snapping away regardless.
The next pacer was non-Spitfire, Nic, followed by a man dressed as a running shoe and a troupe of Spitfire ladies.
Then came Rob, ears intact, if a little wonky. Behind him the Spitfires looked to be having far too much fun for a serious race. There were smiles, Spitfire arms and waves, plus a group of ancient sailors in tricorn hats and white wigs.
Abigail was the next Spitfire pacer. She still had her ears too and seemed to be having the time of her life. Quite how it’s possible to look so happy and relaxed six miles into a ten mile race beats me.
Behind Abi was Jo, a non-Spitfire but hero of the parkrun set up each week. Kim was hot on her heels along with another knot of Spitfires including Tori and Teresa, who managed a mid run pose for the camera. Amongst all the Spitfires were two Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Their costumes were wonderful but it beats me how they managed to run in them.
Just behind the turtles was Commando. He’d finally managed to get his ears the right way round and seemed happy to see me in the crowd. Tailing him closely were yet more Spitfires.
Although there were more pacers and Spitfires to come the crowds were getting thicker and thicker on the sidelines and getting any photos at all was becoming almost impossible. After several photos that ended up being of the backs of spectators who jumped in front of me I decided it was time to cut my losses and head back to the finish line.
By the time I wove my way through the crowds Commando had already finished the race. He’d loved every minute, with the possible exception of the very end where the lady running beside him narrowly missed him while vomiting. She was more than happy with him grabbing her hand to drag her the last few yards and with her PB result though. Later she even posted on the Great South Run website to thank him, so he didn’t feel so bad about pushing her so hard she was sick.
As there were two separate finish exits, both stupidly crowded, finding all the Spitfires and gathering them for a post race shot turned out to be mission impossible. In the end I gathered those I could and made the best of it. Then it was time to find our car on the crowded Common and head for home. For a race that had been doubtful at the outset, it had turned out to be a good day and all the bunnies came home more or less in once piece, although what happened to all those ears remains a mystery.
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