By Joe Barry, heart patient and Great North Run challenger.
I was born in October 1996 in Leeds. Everyone expected me to be a regular baby with no problems, however when I was born I was blue and the doctors quickly realised something was wrong.
Luckily, there was a cardiologist in the hospital at the time. After some tests, he found that I had transposition of the great arteries (TGA). He was able to perform surgery to purposefully create a hole between the atria of the heart to allow oxygenated blood to mix with un-oxygenated blood, which allowed me to remain stable while I awaited surgery. At 18 days old, the surgeon performed the switch operation to place the two arteries in the correct position.
As I grew older, the pulmonary artery became increasingly narrow, and surgeons performed another two open-heart surgeries, which were three-five years apart. This widened it using bovine pericardial patches. In 2011, I had a pacemaker fitted because I developed Bradycardia, was going dizzy and randomly collapsing, along with a stent in the right branch of my pulmonary artery.
In 2015, I had a fourth open-heart surgery, to replace my stenotic pulmonary valve, with another human heart valve.
Growing up, PE was something I couldn’t take part in because of my health. However, after my last open-heart surgery, I finished my A-Levels, and in 2016 I came to Newcastle to study Biomedical Science at Northumbria University. It was the first time in my life that I actually felt normal. I wasn’t tired all the time, I had energy, and I felt like I could live a normal life. I could put the fact I have a heart condition to the back of my mind.
The weekend I came to Newcastle to start university was the same weekend as the Great North Run, a 13.1 mile run from Newcastle to the coast. The city was packed from the students coming to university, along with the 60,000 runners taking part in the run.
Seeing the buzz from the Great North Run made me wonder if I could ever take part in it. At my next heart appointment, I asked my cardiologist if he thought I would be able to start running to get fitter and maybe take part in the Great North Run. He agreed that my heart had had enough time to heal and, if I listened to my body, he didn’t object to it.
In April 2017 I registered to run for Tiny Tickers in the Great North Run. I wanted to run for this charity because of their aim to improve the early detection of babies with congenital heart conditions. I was extremely lucky to have a cardiologist visiting the hospital when I was born, because my own heart condition was missed during my mum’s pregnancy. I wanted to do something to help prevent that happening to other babies.
Only after I had signed up to run did I realise that I didn’t even know where to start with training. I had never even completed a one mile run before, never mind a half marathon.
I began training in April, knowing it would take me a long time to train. The first couple of weeks, I started by running one mile, and I wasn’t even able to complete those runs without having to stop and walk some of it.
Over the next few weeks and months, I became more confident and was able to slowly built up the distance and speed of my runs. When I came home from university for the summer, I was running 5-10k, three to four times a week – that’s when I started to think that I could actually finish it. I always said throughout training that I didn’t care about what time I finished, I just wanted to pass the finish line.
I went back to Newcastle at the end of August, a couple of weeks before the Great North Run, and seeing the sign on the side of the Tyne Bridge when driving over it made it feel very real. The next time I would be on the Tyne Bridge, I was going to be running across it.
All through training I hadn’t been able to run more than eight miles, so I wasn’t expecting to be able to run the entire race, I was prepared to have to take breaks and walk some of it whenever I needed it. On the day I felt confident, the whole city was buzzing with excitement and heading to the start line, I was so nervous, but the atmosphere helped rid me of the nerves quickly. It took around one hour to get to the start line and put the chip on. My number activated as soon as I crossed it to start my time.
On the run I had never seen anything like it before, there were hundreds of people lining the streets and bridges cheering, handing out sweets, ice-lollies, water, cheering peoples names, and playing music all along the route. At the time I didn’t have my phone or a watch to keep track of my distance or time, I just wanted to take it all in. Running it I felt good, I kept a steady pace and before I knew it I was able to run, mile by mile, to the finish line.
When I could see the signs counting down from 800m, all the way to the finish line it was very emotional. From not being able to run one mile without stopping, to completing 13.1 miles was something I never thought I’d be able to do. It was only at the finish line, and when I met up with my mum, that I could go onto the app and check my time. I managed to run it in two hours and 21 minutes! At the time I didn’t care whether it was good or bad, I was just happy to finish and finally sit down.
The following few years, I completed my Undergraduate degree and then my Master’s degree in Medical Microbiology at Newcastle University. I then decided I wanted to study for a PhD in Microbial Biotechnology, also at Newcastle University.
Alongside university, I worked part-time in a restaurant. One of the friends I worked with, Anya, mentioned that she wanted to take part in the Great North Run. I’m coming towards the end of my PhD and, I imagine I’ll be leaving Newcastle in the next year, so I thought it would be the last chance I had to potentially run it for a second time. I said I would run with her if she wanted to. A few weeks passed and we both still wanted to run it. So, we signed up to run for Tiny Tickers.
I didn’t think training for it again would be too difficult, but I knew I had a long way to go before running a half marathon again. I had kept up with running through university, but my average runs weren’t too long, around 2-3 miles. We were both busy in our final year of university, so I was worried I wouldn’t have the time to train.
I started training around three months before the run. Like before, I understood I needed to build up distance, and then speed. I found it quite easy to build up my distance compared to training last time, which made me feel confident that I could possibly beat the time I got in 2017.
Training went well, I had a few knee injuries early on, but that was easily fixed with a new pair of running trainers. I knew I wanted to go on a 10-12km run around two weeks before the day. I set off running in sunshine, then around 15 minutes into the run it started torrential raining and flash flooding across Newcastle. Looking back, it was just preparation for the thunderstorms that would happen during the journey back to Newcastle from South Shields!
Around one week before race day, the UK suddenly decided it wanted to break a record for the hottest September. For a long-distance run, the ideal temperature is 10-14 degrees Celsius, however it was forecast to be sunny with highs of 23 – 25!
Every day leading up to race day I was checking the weather to see if it would get cooler, but it never did. Because of the weather, I became less interested in beating my previous time, I just wanted to finish the race.
On the day, most people were hiding in the shade from the trees next to the central motorway where the start line was. It was HOT! We hadn’t even set off yet and most people were sweating from just standing in the sun. Like last time it took us both around one hour to get to the start line. We set off and after three miles, the heat was already getting to us both.
People were still out lining the streets and bridges, only this time there were hose pipes and children with water guns ready. Around seven to eight miles in, the sun went behind clouds and it was finally cooling down a bit – but it was still 17 to 18 degrees!
Towards the end I checked my watch and knew I wasn’t going to beat my previous time, because of the heat early in the race. I still managed to finish it in two hours and 27 minutes, which I was extremely happy with. Anya finished it only three minutes behind me!
The same emotions I felt the first time I ran it came back; I had just finished running a half marathon, but for a second time! This time it was particularly emotional because I was able to run it with one of my best friends, and it was potentially the last time I will run it.
Although I said that in 2017, so I’ll never say never!
Would you also like to run for tiny hearts? Find out more here.