As the Great North Run fast approaches, our Legal Director Mick Laffey shares his story of how he completed its ‘Elite Wheelchair Race’ in 2017…
Earlier this Summer, in the hope that it might be of help to those just starting to manage their own life with a spinal injury, Mick shared a series of blogs on his story of spinal injury and how at the age of 19 he was diagnosed with a rare condition called AVM and had to begin using a wheelchair.
In this story, Mick recounts crossing the finishing line just ahead of the World and Olympic Champion…
In 2017 BBC North East were asking for people who hadn’t done the Great North Run before to do it for the first time. They wanted to map their journey/progress on screen as a regular segment to the early evening news. I applied, by email, explaining that I was a wheelchair user in case that made a difference.
A BBC reporter rang me almost straight away asking if I was serious and enquiring “if I would really do it?” I said I would and I was invited to meet Brendan Foster with the other three fellow first time “Great North Runners”, all with better reasons to run than my excuse of “seeking a challenge”, a few days later. This was fun as Sir Brendan is from the same town as I am. He knew my dad from school as Pops was in the year above him. He advised us all to train as best we could and to enjoy the experience.
I was then filmed about once a month for the next six months training for the run. They took me down to Tanni Grey-Thompson’s house near Middlesbrough to meet her and her husband – who is himself a respected coach - for a few well-received pointers and tips. I then met another excellent coach called Rick who loaned me a “three-wheeler racing wheelchair” which I hoped would make a difference.
The ‘Elite Wheelchair Race’ itself started at around 10:10am. The elite ladies started at 10:15 and the main race started at 10:40am. I worked out that that meant I started 30 minutes before Mo Farah and the main race.
I also worked out that as the usual winner of the wheelchair race did it in around 45 minutes, and the winner of the road race did it in around 60 minutes that I therefore had 1 hour and 30 minutes to get to South Shields to do it before Sir Mo.
That meant I had to go at half the pace of the winner of the wheelchair race. That must be possible surely? Emboldened by this unrealistic grasp on mathematics I then confidently predicted – live on TV – that my goal for the race was “to get to South Shields before Sir Mo Farah”.
So, that was my training goal. All the way through my interviews with the BBC I mentioned that I wanted to beat Sir Mo. I explained to them that I wanted “a montage” of my training clips before the race to give people a laugh before the race – but they told me to stop being stupid. I was interviewed on TV just before the race and I was asked “how did I think I would do”.
I thought about it and said that “with the training I’ve been doing, with my improvements, with the weight I had lost, over a stone, with my newly acquired three wheeled racing wheelchair, with my new gloves, with all of the positive movements I had had, that I honestly believed I had… No Chance”. I was miles away from the pace I’d need to be.
I’d been going round and round and round the local park hundreds of times to train, always timing myself on a well-known running app. My times were better than they were, but where well off the pace. I had to hope that the adrenalin, and the better road conditions, with fewer turns, on the race route itself, and people shouting “encouragement”, would bring me up to speed.
On the day in question, I remember lining up with the Elite wheelchairs at the front. My coach had introduced me to another competitor saying “Hey Mick, come and meet another of my athletes”. Thinking I was a legend as I’d just been described as an “athlete” for the first time ever, I introduced myself to this young chap. He asked if I’d done the GNR before. I said I hadn’t and that I was doing it to raise money for Breast Cancer Research. I asked if he’d done it before and he said that he had not.
Sensing a common bond, I asked if he’d ever done anything similar. He explained that he “did win the 100m Gold Medal at the Rio Paralympics”. I was talking to Brent Lakatos from Canada. A man with 26 Paralympic and World Championship medals to his name. It was the equivalent of asking Sir Mo Farah if he “did much running”? He thought it was funny I think.
And remember how I said I was with the elite wheelchairs? Oh yes. There were about 25 of us. Two dozen proper wheelchair athletes and an overweight bloke in a borrowed wheelchair at the back of the grid. I had an “elite athlete” wristband and instead of having a number like everybody else, I had my surname on my chair. When I watched it back later on TV I saw the list of entrants as including an “M. Laffey (GBR)” alongside the big lads, which made me chuckle.
Imposter Syndrome kicked in again as I sat there waiting for the gun. Seriously, what was I doing there? The gun went and, like a scene from Back to the Future, the other chairs flew off leaving me eating dust.
By the time I’d wheezed myself to the Tyne Bridge, about a mile and a half away, I was completely alone on the road.
Thousands of people were either side of the road cheering the fat bloke in the Breast Cancer cycling jersey on, and I was the only competitor in the race as far as I could see.
About three miles into the race I was overtaken by one of the elite women who had started five minutes behind us. Over the entire race I may have been overtaken by a few dozen women – but that was it. I wheeled round the entire course – all 13+ miles, on my own.
When I went past the top of Mill Lane, Hebburn, a load of people from my hometown were waiting to cheer me on. Honestly the abuse I received from some of the lads was fantastic. You can imagine. Others watching on were shocked but most laughed at the ridiculous name calling I received. I was chucking away as I passed by my own family who’d set up next to the road and who filmed me going by on their phones. The reception (both good and abusive) I received wheeling past that section that day was one of the best, and funniest, things I can remember in my entire life.
To help me in my quest I had set up my phone to record my progress via the running App I mentioned above. When I got to the top of a hill in Jarrow I had a downhill stretch of around a third of a mile. I literally flew down that bit. I was doing about 30 mph as I tore past one of the elite women athletes. I felt great and got a bit excited crying out “Wheeeeee!” as I flew past her. She seemed to look down to her left as I went past and she must have wondered what on earth it was until she saw me.
Looking back later, that section of the track had a little crown on it on my running app as I did it in the second fastest time in recorded history. This intrigued me. Obviously, it knew I was running in the GNR but it thought I was an actual runner – not someone in a go kart flying down a hill. I did that section in about three minutes from memory. The main point was who could have beaten that? Someone must have been in a car as they’d apparently done it in half the time I had taken!
I pushed on in the race and booled past people. Some recognised me and shouted out my name. I responded every time laughing as I went. It was a really great experience. As I have said I was completely alone on the track for most of the time, and people could see me coming/lumbering into view from a fair distance.
Then I came to the John Reid Road, which GNR veterans will tell you is a constant, though slight, uphill climb. I have spoken already about how I hate hills – and this was no exception. I pushed on and passed Tanni Grey-Thompson who was giving out water. She laughed at me and wished me well as I struggled past. Just then I heard a noise. The elite woman athlete who I had passed by earlier had caught up as the hill was now in her favour and against me. As she passed, she looked down at me and said “Wheeeeeee!” which made me laugh. I worried that that had been caught on camera by one of the camera motorbikes – imagine that – out of context it may have looked as though she was taking the Mick, but I assure you it was entirely understandable.
Not long thereafter I realised that there were only a few miles to go and there was no sign of Mo Farah. I got to the dreaded descent at Marsden which is a steep downhill with a sharp left turn at the bottom. They have bales of straw at the bottom to stop wheelchair users who can’t stop from flying off into the sea.
In an almost Yoda type moment I recalled my coach Rick saying to me “pump your brakes! PUMP YOUR BRAKES!!!” to stop me from skidding or locking up. I did so, pumping my brakes as I gained speed going down this very steep and frightening hill. When I reached the bottom I hung a left and one of my wheels lifted off the ground. It felt like it was right up but was probably only an inch or two. I nearly died, and I was disappointed as so much of my momentum had been lost. I could have freewheeled for a good way if I’d been allowed to but the left hander had slowed me right down.
Then again, I was on the final straight – and I could see the finish line. And there was no sign of Farah.
In the days leading up to the race itself, the organisers had rung me and said they were concerned that I might “take Sir Mo out” if I saw him overtake me. I told them I wasn’t taking it that seriously! Then again, I now found myself a mile from home with no sign of the main man behind me.
As I got closer and closer to the finish the crowds were building and they were going crazy. I was really touched. I thought that it was really great that they were cheering me on in my quest.
Then I heard the tannoy announcement saying “here he comes, the world and Olympic champion, Sir Mo Farah….” And realised that they were very much NOT cheering me and were instead cheering the legend who was by now right behind me.
I was pushing as fast as I could, but about 100 yards from the finish line the officials stepped out in front of me and pushed me off to the side, to the “normal” finishing line on the grass. They didn’t want me going across the line with Sir Mo as it would spoil the picture. To be clear they stop the wheelchair users from crossing the main finishing line after about an hour – so I was never going to be allowed over it – but I was pushed off to the side just before crossing ahead of Sir Mo Farah.
I claimed the moral victory – especially when the BBC showed all of this in their evening bulletin as they’d been waiting for me and had filmed the lot!
I met Sir Mo after the race. He was great and took my phone to do a selfie of us. Brendan Foster thought it was hilarious and was full of how I’d beaten him – albeit with a huge 30 minute head start. I mentioned that I was at a slight weight disadvantage too.
At the end I was able to utilise my “elite athlete” wristband and turn right into the “VIP area” which was amazing whilst I awaited my comrades who ran alongside me for the BBC. They all made it and were euphoric at the end, having achieved their own goals which, as I have said, were far more worthy than mine. I just wanted to see if I could do it and give myself a challenge.
I’d completed the GNR in 1 hour 32 minutes. For perspective, the wheelchair winner did it in 44 minutes. Brent Lakatos had been in the lead but told me thereafter that he’d mistaken the finish line for an earlier point and stopped early – or he would have won. What a sickener for him.
The moral of this story is that you can do the GNR in a wheelchair. Even if someone pushes you round, certainly up the hills!! You can do it if you have to. And it’s a laugh. Please don’t think it’s the end because you need a mobility aid. It just changes your perspective.
I remember training with the North East Bulls Wheelchair rugby team for example. When you first hit the court, you feel really self-conscious and uncomfortable. After about 10 minutes of playing, interaction and abuse from the other players I felt just as if I was playing 5-a-side with the lads in the old days. It’s just the same, just sitting down.
I watched my GNR odyssey on TV as I recorded the news segments. And I raised £1,650 in the end for Breast Cancer Research – in memory of some of the friends I mentioned in my last blog.
I lost a stone in weight when training for it – which has sadly made a reappearance – but the fact is I did what I’d set out to do – and why not?
If I can do it. You can do it.
And that’s definitely the end now! – no more!
Mick Laffey – September 2023