A Supporter's Story

World Mtn running

Whilst carrying out my role as one of the Team Managers for the Great Britain and Northern Ireland Mountain Running team this weekend, I started thinking about all of those that would be supporting running friends and family at events all over the country, including the Great North Run.

When you support a runner or a team of runners, you tend to just get on with it and not really think about what you do or how you do it but a couple of tricky incidents made me think about skills that are acquired and utilised as a team manager or runner's support and I'm sure I'm not the only one who has a story to tell, from this weekend, of helping to calm nerves, checking and carrying kit and getting myself from start to finish whilst also finding time to shout and encourage!

Of course, the support starts long before the actual event, but this blog is about what happened on race day, for me yesterday, with those critical moments highlighted. My primary role was to support the junior women in the first race - go to the start with them and try to get to the finish before them.

It was a very early start with a bus to catch to the start, breakfast before that and a check that everything was packed in bags including race numbers, running vests, racing shoes, spare pins....

Some of the things that you tune into, without really realising it, are the feelings of the runners you are supporting. Things can change on the morning of a race - individuals can become more quiet or more chatty than usual and body language can send signals that show a level of nervousness. As a team manager, it is important to recognise a healthy level of nervousness but be able to help if the nerves are too much. I try to have topics of conversation up my sleeve in order to be able to calm and perhaps distract a runner if necessary. Yesterday morning, I found myself digging some of these topics out whilst travelling to the start, on the bus, and whilst hanging around before it was time to warm up. Having said that, some of the other competitors were particularly talkative on the bus and that provided some entertainment for some of the time!

Once we arrived at the start 'arena' we needed to find a base to park ourselves and our kit until it was time to warm up and then go into the 'call room; (which in Mountain Running is normally a cordened off area of the meadow or field by the start). This can be a race, in its own right, to find the best spot that is dry and comfortable.. I found just the place - a dry levee where we could sit on the side with our feet in the ditch - it was a shame it was right next to the portaloo - but in some ways that was a good thing! Talking of which, as team support, you also have to remember the toilet roll - it's surprising how quickly those portaloos run out!

Unfortunately, the kit bags, that were to be taken to the finish, had to be dropped off half an hour before the start to be transported up the mountain so another aspect of my role was to collect the final items of kit and, somehow, get them up the mountain too. We had been told that a bus would take us to the finish and collect us ten minutes after the start but I didn't really trust the timings and was concerned that I wouldn't get up to the finish in time so I had a 'plan B' up my sleeve!

With ten minutes to go, the team took off their final items of kit and changed into race shoes before going into the call room. I packed up all of this remaining kit and, with bags hanging off both shoulders and arms I got myself in prime position to watch the start and also look for better start positions that I could direct the girls to. The teams are lined up, one behind the other, so that every team has one runner at the front of the line with the others in single file behind. We have a full team of four but some countries only have one or two and so there are opportunities for our team members to find a spot just behind the front row.

It wasn't long before the final countdown, the gun was fired and the race was underway - not only their race but my race to get to the top before them any which way I could. I flew out of the start arena to the road where cars had been stopped until the race had started (because the runners were using the road for their final stride-outs). I saw a car with a couple in the front seat and quickly jumped in the back with a smile and a request that they give me a lift to the top. "No, no, we have two more people to get into the car" they objected...damn! ...I quickly got out and scanned the other vehicles for space. There - I could see another with two guys in the front. I did the same thing. "Can you take me to the top of the junior women's race?" There was an attempt at rejection again.."No - we're not going there, we're going to the top of the junor men's race." "Well then you have to be going past the finish of the junior women's so I will jump out when we get there". "Well ok but you will have to be quick to get out and we are going to drive very fast and you need to understand that". "Well good! Because I want to get there before the runners!" (The running route was far more direct than the road, which slaloms up the hill and contours around the steep slopes).

The only way I could describe the journey to the top was like some sort of mountain car rally! I'm not sure whether the road was closed to traffic coming down but I hope so because, when we weren't overtaking on the left hand side (In Bulgaria where they drive on the right). someone else was over taking us on the left hand side and you could not see around the bends! I was laughing to myself as we tore around the bends though. Over the years, I have developed the cheek and the confidence to impose myself on strangers in order to get to where I need to be. There is no use hanging back and waiting for buses when there are empty cars going in the direction that I need to go in!

Happily, I was dropped where I needed to be and had a good 5 minutes to spare before the leaders emerged from the final climb. My role now was to shout and encourage our runners through the final 400m, when their legs had turned to jelly and they needed to dig very, very deep and keep working all the way through to the finish. Each of them ran their hearts out and we couldn't have asked for more but now the skill of the team manager was to congratulate those that were over the moon with the outcome whilst being sensitive to those that were disappointed. Yesterday we had mixed fortunes with some very good results and some performances that were below par and it is important to have that heightened awareness of how each runner is feeling and how their emotions are playing out. We also had a runner whose effort had been so great that she needed medical attention and that had to be dealt with too. (I'm happy to say that she made a great recovery).

There were three more races that day - Junior Men, Senior Women and Senior Men. Once the Junior Women had cooled down, recovered and were ready to enjoy the rest of the day, I moved further up the course to support the other teams. Their races were longer than the first race and so it didn't feel quite so manic and, later in the day, I enjoyed a serene journey back down the mountain in a chair lift - quite different from the rally up the mountain earlier on! As I floated back down, enjoying the scenery, I thought about all of those supporters back home at the Great North Run. I bet there are lots more stories of supporters getting from Newcastle to South Shields, carrying bags, celebrating fabulous runs and perhaps mopping up tears.

Here's to the supporters of every team and every runner - keep up the good work - they could probably do it without us, but I don't think they'd want to!