After Elaine was kindly given her place in this years Great North Run by Sue Ryder (SR Wheatfields) things changed at Winterbourne Towers. Elaine started a savage training plan that would work right up to the week of the actual event. The training plan was a huge step for Elaine as running 5k and 10K was her normal target. I will never forget the day that we took that call, the call to say she had been offered a place in this years Great North Run. It was just sheer excitement. You can read all about Elaine’s experience on her blog “Boothie is doing the Great North Run” here.
So, what about my experience… well, As it don’t do running my contribution was only ever going to be through a lens. You know me by now, if I havent got a camera glued to my face something is seriously wrong. I wanted to take photographs of Elaine coming over the finish line but I knew this was a very remote possibility. For starters, actually catching her running over the line was going to be a chance in a million and that would depend on actually getting a spot anywhere near the finish never mind actually being able to obtain a photo.
If you have read the story on Elaine’s blog “Boothie is doing the Great North Run” then you will understand the reason behind the sponsorship and her attendance at the run. In return for Sue Ryder offering her a place at the event I decided to offer my services as a form of “my personal contribution” As you will probably have seen if you read my blog regularly, I am already familiar with offering my services to charity as my good freinds at Cancer Support Bradford & Airedale will tell you. Sue Ryder and the staff at Wheatfields were very happy with my offer and that the way it was left, right until a couple of weeks before the race. I had assumed that by offering my skills I might actually gain access to a number of prime locations, I was wrong. Fortunately, I found this out before the day and the very kind staff at Sue Ryder suggest I apply for press accreditation as I was actually representing them. I went on to the website of the race and filled in all the necessary fields, click, click and lo and behold the following morning guess what arrives in the post.
Well, what can I say… it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it? I mean, come on guys…front row and press access. This got me all giddy to be truthful. My vision was to get a shot of Mo Farah racing to the finish line…I started drifting away, dreaming of him posing for me with his signature “Mo-bot” at the finish line…woken by the telephone ringing I realised it was all in my dreams. Yes, just a dream. For the next two weeks I lived in hope, hope for the shots and opportunities and hopes for the weather. I guess that was really selfish of me to be truthful, after all the main reason I was going to the north-east was for Elaine. Moral support and all that.
Time flew by, the next ten days actually merged in to what felt like three days. Seemless days and nights that were only separated by a few dark hours. Those hours were spent sleeping and Elaine spent them wide awake like an owl, worrying and fretting about the Great North Run. In hindsight that was the difference really, I knew what I was doing and my confidence at taking photographs enables me to be put in any situation and have the ability to turn something out. Elaine on the other hand was on a whole new grounding. She had never been to Newcastle let alone the Great North Run and this showed the Friday before Sunday’s race. As much as people say they are not worried, I could tell she felt uncomfortable.
Bags were packed on Friday; this was to allow time for checking and double checking. I thought my process of checking camera equipment was thorough but it took on a whole new level when a runner is in the same trip. Clothes for travelling, clothes for going out in, clothes for pre-race, clothes for race, clothes for post race, clothes for travelling home in. That was just the start…knickers, socks, you name it. Every item for every weather possibility. I’ve got to give Elaine ten out of ten, she had it sussed. I went through my usual check list of batteries, cards, sensor cleaned, lenses cleaned etc etc…job done.!
Saturday came and we tried to stay in the same routine. Saturday breakfast is always a treat day and a quick visit to our local patisserie for some french pastries for breakfast. Elaine was working at lunchtime which meant she wouldn’t get home until at least 14:30. This was a good thing, the work would keep her mind off the impending run and stop the nerves getting to her. I think I was wrong. Elaine was never going to stop a customer coming in the shop and shouting on exit “Good luck tomorrow Elaine !”. This is the sheer consequence of putting up a poster asking for sponsorship; everyone now knows when the event is as they get a subtle reminder when ever they go for fish and chips. This made the whole thing so much worse for Elaine. I had spent all week trying to keep her calm and less than twenty-four hours prior to the race the nerves started to tingle. I spent Saturday lunchtime checking the camera gear, you know the routine…Camera 1 …check …Camera 2 check…and so on followed by a lengthy attempt at loading the car. It was quite hard to believe how much luggage was required for a twenty-four hour visit.
Our very good friends in Newcastle Stuart and Tracey had kindly offered to put us up for the evening. This meant a night out and a good catch up was in order. For weeks earlier Elaine and I had discussed her dietary requirements the night before the race. A curry at a local establishment was our friends request and who would refuse that…? Elaine did. Indian food was far from conducive to running the next morning, almost on a par with alcohol. After a few telephone calls to the restaurant Stuart managed to convince the chef that if Elaine brought her own food would he be willing to cook it. Well, that was one hell of an offer wasnt it? Afterall, the event the following day was in a good cause . So, the scene was set for a big reunion. We hadn’t seen our friends for a couple of years since they attended our daughter Aimee’s eighteenth birthday party so there was a lot to talk about.
After many checks that all relevant bags were loaded we were ready to depart. Separate bags had to be packed so Elaine could change at the race start and dispose of her clothing accordingly. All was going well northbound on the A1 until we saw a road sign that said Newcastle 46 miles. It was then that I turned to look at Elaine and realised she had turned fifty shades of white. She looked quite ill. She slowly turned to face me and it was then that it came to me, Elaine had just faced the reality of the situation and the next twenty-four hours raced before her eyes. Yes Elaine, you are running the Great North Run tomorrow morning.
We made a very impromptu stop at Washington Services for obvious reasons before heading back on to the northbound A1 for the remaining ten miles to Blaydon on Tyne. I think the last ten miles were the worst of all. Elaine’s nerves were jangling as more and more signs showing advertisements for the Great North Run began appearing. It got worse the nearer to the centre of Newcastle we got. until the grand finale …. a mile marker !! They think its all over…well it was now. I think by this time Elaine had gone beyond being nervous.
We had a great night out at a very nice restaurant called “The Spice Garden” in Winlaton (link here), We chatted and laughed with old friend and met new friends too, had a laugh, told tongue in cheek jokes and soaked up the “Geordie” humour. We headed back to our friends house before closing time feeling that an earlier night might be best considering a six o clock alarm call was planned the following morning. By the time you get back and sit and have a coffee time really ticks by and before you know it bed is calling. So it was goodnight and as much as we said we could make a stealth departure in the morning our hosts were not having any of it and insisted on getting up with us and even cooking us some breakfast. Something that my dearest wife had already planned and had brought with us from West Yorkshire. A cooked breakfast was okay for the photographer but the runner needed a slightly different menu…Porridge was the order of the day. Elaine loses out again.
Sue Ryder had asked me to cover the finish line and document finishers racing for the charity. This meant my departure for South Shields would be around 7am. My drive would be about twenty-five miles as there were no direct roads. Stuart had therefore agreed to drop Elaine off at the start as it was not too far away from where they live. As I woke I could hear that familiar sound of rain hitting windows and felt like closing my eyes believing it was all a dream. It wasn’t a dream; it was raining…heavy too. This was all I needed, I wasnt too fussed about getting wet but photography in the rain of sporting events is not ideal. Action photos need fast shutter speeds, and fast shutter speeds need light. Something there seemed to be a lack of this morning. Breakfast was eaten, and after a quick photo of Elaine we said our goodbyes with a promise to call back on the way home and I set off on my way.
My Sat-Nav was employed to direct me around unfamiliar territory avoiding the roads that were to be closed due to the race. The journey was totally event free and apart from a small jam just before the sea front at South Shields that delayed me about ten minutes I arrived in plenty of time. In hindsight it was probably a little too early but as the saying goes, better early than late. As I drove along the Sea Road the traffic slowed to a crawl and I asked one of the Car Park Marshalls where I could park…errrr he said, I decided to show him my Media Pass and he immediately waved me through the jam and directed me to the top car park nearest the start line. Joy I thought, things seem to be going ok here…having media access might have its plus points.
The rain on the windscreen told the story of the pre race opportunities as a photographer…none ! My camera didn’t actually come out of my bag until 10:37am but there was lots to see and people to meet prior to this. I paid a visit to the charity village where Sue Ryder had a tent. I knew there would be a couple of familiar faces here and somewhere I could drop some of my bags before heading towards the finish line. Time was ticking by and I thought it might be best if I made my way to the finish.
I took a wander towards media area to discuss my position with the events staff and the security personnel. As I approached the media platform I was asked for some identification and duly allowed on the stage. I really don’t know what I was thinking but I assumed that the best vantage point would be at the slightly elevated section at the back. The next person on the platform showed me the error of my ways and very kindly pointed out to me that the best place would be at the front. Now he didn’t have to do that and I suppose been the first here he had nothing to lose. We chatted about the subject for a while and he impressed on me how valuable that position in the front corner would be. He insisted that under no circumstances give it away to anyone, be that the BBC or local newspapers. I took heed of his advice and moved my gear right in to the corner and took up my position for the next few hours.
Well, what a view it was too….looking straight down the finish line. Maybe there was now the faintest glimmer of hope, hope that I might actually get my shot of Mr Mo Farah after all. As I waited patiently in my prime slot at the front corner of the media platform I observed the comings and goings of everything from BBC staff, Police Officers and Medical Staff to people wearing A-Boards and cheeky girls with painted faces. You name it, it was there…as the crowd began to swell all the prime positions at the barriers for the finishing straight were filled. The tannoy kept me fully informed about what was going on at the start making me more nervous for poor Elaine.
We had been keeping in touch via text since about 7:30 but this was to have its downfall as I was to find out, much later the very same day. I rang Elaine about twenty minutes before the start gun. She informed me that earlier on she had been very very nervous but now, and once people started arriving she had started relaxing more and more. In fact I got the impression she was really looking forward to it. This was good…I was so proud of her and all she had done.
At 10:54 the first athletes appeared over the horizon looking straight down the finishing straight. This was it..time to get my thinking cap on and start shooting. I had put the Canon 580EXII flash on top of the camera as it would come in really useful when the athletes arrive at the finish line. The weather hadn’t improved much over the last couple of hours but at least it had stopped raining. For the photographically minded amongst you the only way I could achieve decent shutter speeds for sports photography was to shoot at the following settings. ISO640 F4/F5.6 1/400th sec. I am sure you can now see the challenge I was faced with.
This left me with very little depth of field and photographing a moving subject that was heading towards me presented its own problems, with the focussing set on AI-FOCUS I hoped the camera would do the hard work for me.
The first to appear was six times London Marathon winner Mr David Weir CBE charging down the finishing straight in and completing the Great North Run 2013 in 43 minutes 06 seconds. The finishing straight was lined with British soldiers either side of the roadway. The possibility for a great shot using these soldiers for perspective compression was wide open…oh yes this was it…my big moment I started snapping away, composing and re composing my image to get the best that was available. The sound of shutters firing right next to my left ear was quite intense, not quite like gunfire but in my mind somewhat similar. I kept on looking for a single acknowledgement from David as he approached the finish line, just hoping he would raise his arms and roll the final few metres. My expectancy was right, my judgement paid off…as he approached the line he raised his left hand and put pointing finger in the air to acknowledge his presence..That was it, I had got my shot.
He rolled straight past my podium, now it was time to move on to the next finisher. The kept coming and within twenty minutes the wheelchair event was over. I took a huge sign of relief as I took a very brief look at my images through the camera back. YESSSS! They were ok…the lighting conditions were still far from ideal but as any good photographer will know, you have to make the best of what you have got in these situations… The next few minutes saw me preparing myself for the arrival of the elite women. I was happier now and this gave me time to reflect on where Elaine was and whether she was actually moving yet. I would later find out that despite the masses race starting at 10:40 she wouldn’t actually cross the start line until 11:05.
As expected, the first of the Elite women over the horizon was Priscah Jeptoo….here we go again Mark..just do what you are good at I kept saying to myself. It has been quite a few years since I have taken anything at this level and despite me questioning my confidence every so often, I was far from nervous. It was more a case of missing that most valuable shot. It wasnt going to happen…I was clearly confident about that.
Jeptoo appeared and I started tapping away at the shutter to get the shot I wanted. I was hoping for some kind hand gesture similar to what David Weir had instigated but it wasnt happening.
I zoomed back out and aimed for the finish line shot of Jeptoo. The weather was slowly brightening up and giving me a little more light to play with. In my head I was saying to myself…come on Jeptoo I want some sort of facial expression as you cross the finish line. I didn’t get the facial expression but she raised her arms quite triumphantly just before hitting the finishing tape. Yes, I got the shot….things we going well. What could dampen this day?
Time ticked by and the Elite women came over the line one by one, my initial assignment had been to shoot the Sue Ryder runners but this felt like it would just over shadowed everything. Next was the Elite men which according to the huge screens around the finish area looked to be very close affair. In between the gaps I could feel my phone vibrating in my pocket, I took it out to reveal 20 plus messages from friends and family..most just reading a few words “JUST SEEN YOU ON TELLY” …oh no, but I supposed this was to be expected. One in particular was a picture message which is shown below. Two points if you can recognise the photographer below? And no, his name is not Samsung.
Okay, my secret was out..No, seriously, it was no secret. I was loving this, things were really looking up. The weather was brightening even more now and it was time for the bit I was really looking forward too. As Mo Farah and Kenenisa Bekele rounded the bend on to the final straight they were absolutely neck and neck. Nothing separated them. This was going to be a proper sprint to the finish between these two. 400mm on the camera was not quite enough to capture the full expression at a distance of 100m but as they came closer the fight for first place became more intense. The image I am going to show you below isn’t a finish line image, but just 10 metres from the finish. I personally think this tells the story of the elite mens race and shows so much emotion. Mo Farah’s face says so much as he stares defeat while Bekele’s wry smile looks quietly confident.
Well, the shots I took in that final few seconds of the race to the line I was ecstatically happy with. Not perfect in terms of lighting but they really showed what this day was about. The mens elite athletes assembled just in front of the press gantry as they recovered from the final sprint. Mo Farah talked briefly with Kenenisa Bekele and as he turned away I took the initiative to shout his name. MO ! MO ! I shouted…I then mimicked his notorious “Mo-bot” to which he then turned to face me and duly performed the same “Mobot” by return. This was it…this was THE shot that I wanted. I was so glad I had put that flash on the top of my camera now…at a distance of three metres was my BIG shot. Yes, I got it….and I was damned happy with it. In a sheer fit of excitement I took a photo of the camera back and uploaded it straight to my Facebook page. I know, I know..its a little soft, but so what. I was excited, I had just achieved something that I could have only dreamed and hoped about a few hours ago.
How could things get any better than this. Above is the “In-Camera” preview and below is my final edit of this shot. If only Mo had won the Great North Run then this shot could have been so much more iconic. The Red Arrows screamed overhead flying the length of the finishing straight and then splitting it in two with a fly by from the sea-side. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, it looked fantastic. I was so glad I was here and to be part of this felt awesome.
It was quite difficult to motivate myself after that. I had got what I really wanted, anything else would feel just second best wouldn’t it. However, like I said earlier..I couldn’t forget the real reason I was here. My task was to capture the Sue Ryder runners. This was more difficult than as first expected. For starters, once the Elite Men had completed the race they altered the finish line and diverted the runners off to the side in to lanes to make the processing of the masses quicker. This in turn, rendered the vantage point I had so gratefully obtained in to nothing more than a viewing platform for the sea front. If I was going to get a photo of my lovely wife I would have to find another location. Myself and a couple of the other photographers repositioned to a spot just beyond the line where ropes spanned the road and diverted the runners. This was a good spot and would hopefully allow me a good view of the Sue Ryder runners and of course my lovely wife Elaine.
Things were not as clear-cut, the five or six lanes to the finish line were doing their job very well as there were no queues, however standing by lane six (the furthest away if you were a runner and the longest route to the finish) had its drawbacks. Simply put, very few of the runners were using it and in a bizarre twist every time they opened the far lane the Sue Ryder runners happened to appear. This left me with very little if any at all chance of getting a decent photo. Time moved on and the two-hour fifteen mark arrived since the 10:40 start….I was scanning the finish for my Elaine but no sign. Having never run the Great North Run before Elaine could only estimate her time and a two-hour fifteen was her guess.
It was another twenty minutes before I saw my lovely wife. She saw me too and turned and waved with a beaming smile. It was then that it hit me, the whole emotion of the day, the whole reason why she was doing this and the fact that we rarely spend three hours apart just came over me all in one split second.
She had done it ! Elaine had completed her mission to finish the Great North Run…she finished a little slower than expected but the sheer wet drenched her feet and subsequently gave her blisters, something she couldn’t have prepared for. Two Hours Thirty One Minutes and Seventeen Seconds of sheer hard work and I was so proud. So proud that I have the honesty to admit that I shed a tear at that very moment as emotion got the better of me.
I packed up my things and made my way down to the finish area which was way beyond the line. The weather had improved slightly but black clouds on the horizon looked quite threatening. I stood waiting for Elaine for what seemed like thirty minutes. My phone was almost out of battery but I decided to make the call. Afterall, she had no idea where my car was, she had no idea where I was so how on earth could we possibly meet up again. I spoke briefly with her and told her I would wait at the very end of the finish line where the St Johns Ambulance staff were. Thats ok, she said. I’ve just got to collect my rucksack from the baggage buses and I will come and meet you.
Nearly an hour and a half later and I was still stood there, by this time the rain was pouring down and my umbrella which had been conveniently stored along the back of my camera kit bag came in to use. One of the things that is probably a golden rule when arranging to meet up with someone is to never leave the place you agree. The chances are you will miss each other. Guess what? I decided to move. My phone had now switched off due to lack of power and I was left with two choices. Do I head for the car at the bottom of the hill and charge my phone or do I head for the Sue Ryder tent and wait there. I tried to think what Elaine would do, It was a no brainer really as she didn’t know where the car was. So I headed for the Sue Ryder tent.
It wasnt actually too far from where I had been stood. Once there It was nice to see familiar faces and sit down to shelter from the rain and have hot tea and biscuits. Time ticked by and I explained my predicament to the Sue Ryder staff…I was offered the use of a mobile phone and I tried ringing Elaine. Her phone must have run out of battery too….or to coin a phrase “died” as my grandson reliably informs me. As the rain continued to pour down as much as I was incredibly comfortable I began to wonder what had happened to Elaine. She had quite an area to cover if she was looking for me as the whole venue was a good five or six square kilometres. I will sit tight I thought. Within seconds of me contemplating a familiar face popped through the closed flap on the marquee. The words echoed out “Where the hell have you been?” I know….maybe I should have waited but nearly two hours had gone by since that phone call. The instant rage soon turned to cuddles, kisses and even a few tears. It was an emotional time.
We sat and had a cup of tea, chatted about what we had both seen and since the rain had stopped we headed for the car and hopefully a bite to eat. By the time we got back to the car we were still exchanging experiences and happenings of the days events. The best sight of all had to be the Burger Van on the sea front. We both looked at each other, nodded and agreed…Food! We sat in the car and changed out of our wet clothes, the preparation was worth it in the end. After collecting our food we sat back in the car in comfort. It was then that an image unfolded in front of my eyes. It was one of those moments that should my camera be in my hand I would have rattled off twenty to thirty images. In front of my eyes was an image that really epitomised the whole day. Two young children were chasing on the beach with two discarded foil capes from the run. They were running up and down the beach flying them like kites as they ran. Against the back drop of the North Sea and the blue sky it looked fantastic. My camera was all packed away by now and in the boot of the car. I couldn’t move another inch, had I made an effort by the time I had changed lenses and got set up the moment would have been gone.
There was one final image to take however, and it was left to my mobile phone to grab this one. Elaine with her finishers medal for the Great North Run 2013. As her husband I cannot tell you how proud I am of you. You can read all about Elaine’s quest on her blog here
This is dedicated to in loving memory of Anne Eileen Fawcett, Daughter, Sister, Mother, Grandmother, Partner and Friend.
I love and miss you more everyday, but I know you never left me. xx
5/5/55 – 13/10/12