It was about 24 hours before this year’s Great Birmingham Run that I started to think I should probably have done some more running. In fact, despite having already done one half-marathon back in July (courtesy of the Isoman Triathlon) I have barely run at all this year, with at best half a dozen sessions of 10 km or longer.
Don’t get me wrong, I had no worries about finishing the race as I feel fitter now than at any point in my life, including when I was playing regular rugby at 18. But as I have made clear a few times on here, running is my least favourite discipline of the Swim/Bike/Run trinity, and in general I will always look for alternative training sessions.
This was particularly relevant in the build up to this race, as for a start it was not part of my plans at the beginning of the year. Having previously done the race twice in 2013 & 2014, I gave it a miss last year due to the fact I had wanted to focus on Ironman, and also that because of major roadworks in Birmingham centre the course was going to be changing. I had expected to leave it out again this year, but then something came up which changed all that, which I will come back to later.
So anyway, rather than signing up nice and early and planning ahead, I did not get around to entering until September, giving me a fairly narrow window to train. As I mentioned finishing was not a concern, given it would be my sixth half, three of which as part of long distance triathlons, so knowing my legs would finish up in one piece before the start gave me some advantage. The problem was more the two races before, where I had clocked in times of 2.12 and 2.08 respectively, and being a competitive blogger I knew it would be shameful to come in slower, and thus had to ensure I beat my previous times to achieve something worthwhile. No pressure then.
The other problem was that rather than go by the book / training plan, with 3 or 4 nice runs per week (including a long one on Sunday) blah blah, I just did my normal training – Body Combat, Attack, RPM and so on. This at least ensured my fitness stayed high, but probably did not get my legs into the shape they should have been.
To make things worse / better (depending how you look at it) two weeks before the race I had a Les Mills Live day in Manchester. I won’t go into huge detail here, as it was fairly similar to last year (https://chilechallenge.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/one-live-manchester/) but safe to say it was another fantastic day involving 6 different classes, 5 hours of training, and nearly 4,000 calories blitzed. Ouch & yes! But probably not for my legs, as it took most of the rest of that week to recover.
What about the weekend one week before the race I hear you ask? Well, that was of course the time my gym decided to launch the new quarterly Les Mills releases themselves, necessitating another morning of 3 back-to-back Combat, Pump and Attack classes (in Halloween fancy dress natch!) and another few days of Doms in my legs.
Mid-week tapering with 4 days to go? How about getting asked to play football for your work team in your bi-annual 5-aside tournament in Leicester, with guaranteed ice-hockey style tackles on the pitch and ideal-training-food-curry afterwards. Yep, that happened too.
Hopefully that all gives you a bit of an idea why I felt slightly under-prepared for the race when I was sitting looking at my kit 24 hours beforehand. But still, I was confident enough I had the fitness, all that could get in my way now was the weather…
… so it was with some irony that I woke up on Sunday to the sound of a monsoon outside, as the rain decided to lash it down with the remains of some storm or other doing its rounds through the Midlands. The best laid plans, eh? But I had a new plan, stealing an idea I had found on the race information website.
So quite what any observers would have made of me an hour or so later, crouching in the front seat of my car in an underground parking lot, trying to wriggle into my race shorts and rubbing Vaseline into my chest to avoid chafing, I will never know, but I think the fact that none of the bypassers batted an eyelid must speak volumes about what goes on in Birmingham car parks. If that did not get them, the sight of me stepping out wearing a full black bin bag and striding down Broad Street to shelter from the rain, looking like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Derek Zoolander doing Derelicte in my homemade poncho. Regardless, it did the job, and by the time I reached the new start line – which was some 4 km from where I had parked (20% of the race distance!) – I was still reasonably dry.
At that point, having survived the monsoon and with a forecast of more to come, if a someone had offered me a bet that it would end up nice weather for the race I would have laughed in their face. But they would have been right, as inconceivably, just as we got to the starting area for the group warm up, the sun came out and it started to warm up. Throwing off my old tracksuit (another tip I picked up this year: if I ever spot someone on one of the Birmingham underpasses in a knock-off Rugby World Cup top I will feel I have done my bit!) I lined up in the holding pen alongside 20,000 others and waited for one of my heroes, Commonwealth Gold Medallist and local triathlete Jodie Stimpson to kick us off.
As those who have entered big runs like this before will know, the start can be a bit of an anti-climax, with everyone pumped up & ready, a massive klaxon going off, and then rather than the mass brawl you get in say a triathlon swim, you have a 5 or 10 minute wait whilst you are shuffle down a funnel of barriers towards the line (in a typically polite British fashion of course) before eventually getting to the front, looking down to make sure you start your GPS watch the moment you cross, and actually getting going!
Needless to say, by then all that adrenaline you have had is starting to wear a bit low, so rather than the measured start you have been planning before the race, you hare off at almost twice your cruising speed along with everyone else, before you realise a few minutes later there is no way you can keep it up, and forcing the breaks to conserve some energy. It never fails to amaze me how many people I see walking and looking knackered about 5 minutes into the race, who have already blown their load and are going to have a hell of a next few hours doing the other 95% of the distance. Not that I would ever do that…
Despite this, for the first half of the race, I really was motoring (by my standards anyway). My first kilometre was over in a shade over 5 minutes, and the first 5 kms were 27.11, not far off my best Parkrun time. I even managed to fly up the first mini hill as you veer off the main road just after the 6 km mark (the little kink on the map) which I remember absolutely killing me the first time I did this race, and certainly having to walk a bit the second time around, but this time around I barely slowed and could enjoy the immediate downhill on the other side.
The route through the halfway was much the same, as I focused on keeping my pace below 6 min/km on my TomTom, with a view to trying to achieve a magic 2 hour Finnish. Things were looking up as I hit the 10 km mark at 55.29, another fantastic time for me, well ahead of what I would normally do in training. Perhaps I should have known then it would be too good to be true, but I used it to keep my legs pumping as I looped around Cadbury World and started retracing my steps down Pershore Road.
It is worth mentioning at this point the support you get in this race, which is absolutely fantastic and part of the reason I am happy to do it again and again. This is a road race, and other than a small section early on where you run around some of the less salubrious areas and warehouses of Birmingham, you are going right past people’s houses, sometimes just yards from their front doors (meaning it must be a strange experience for those who fancied a lie in that Sunday). Obviously a bit of good weather helps, but the fact is literally thousands of people turn up to watch, many giving out sweets or drinks to help us crazy runners, and most of the kids offering hi-fives for a bit of extra pace, which I can never turn down.
The second half of the course it where it starts to hurt a bit, as you begin to get a sense of deja vu going past some of the same landmarks the other way. I do like the fact it is a single lap course, having done plenty of triathlons involving multiple loops which really test your patience (although there are rumours this will change to multiple loops next year) and the other fun part of this section of the race is you can spot those from later waves going the other way. At around 12 km I passed my Body Combat instructor going the other way at around the 5 km mark for her, although she did not look happy to see me (not sure if it was more to do with her carrying an injury or the fact I was closer to the finish line…!)
The next part was the only new addition to the race this year, a bonus loop around Edgbaston Cricket Ground, location of my first temp job after finishing uni. This time however I was not serving drinks, and Freddy Flintoff was not smashing a mighty 167 runs, as there was obviously no match on. Now I am sure this sounded a very good idea on paper, but I have to be honest in that the rear section of an empty sports stadium is not actually the prettiest part, so as I ran past the empty bars and bare concrete walls I had to rely on my memory to think about the lovely green pitch and the roar of the crowd. Still, at that point I managed to pass a guy running in full firefighter gear & O2 cylinder (a real one) and Mr Potato Head (not the real one) at that point, and hey, an overtake is an overtake.
In fact that is another thing I like about this race, as whereas in triathlons I am usually the guy who turns up for fun, comes out in the top half of the swim before getting smashed by everyone on the bike and run, in a mass participation race I actually do alright and actually manage to overtake people on foot. This might seem strange as it is of course a fun run, but overtaking is a real motivator (when you are doing the taking at least!) and definitely helps with a bit of an extra speed boost.
Next up on the course is the park, which involves a small hill, but more importantly the radio stand, where you get some loud music and importantly some carb drink. Whilst I am not a qualified sports nutritionist, it is one of my interests, and I like to use myself as a bit of a human guinea pig to test out different combinations during training to come out with something to at least get me through longer distance races. Here my fuelling strategy for the race had been to have an energy gel at the start, then three more spread out over 30 mins or so, with just water at the fuel stations, which had worked alright for a bit, but been based on the assumption that it would be a cold and wet race. Of course that was not to be, and with the sun out and wearing a black long-sleeved top, I was loosing fluids much faster than usual, so found myself gulping back blue Gatorade (or whatever was sponsoring the race this year, I cared not) knowing I needed all I could get for what was coming up.
Yes, the final stage of the race could mean only one thing, looming in at kilometre 16 like an active volcano: The Hill. Perhaps the most famous part of the Great Birmingham Run, and described in the Channel 5 commentary by long distance legend Dave Moorcroft as ‘one of the most savage in UK athletics’, this kicks in around three-quarters of the way through the race (i.e. when you are most tired and need a bit of a hand) and goes on for pretty much the rest of the course. Observe my elevation profile above for a graphic illustration. Before I first did this race I used to wonder what all the fuss was about, having driven along the road in question many times without noticing any particular steepness, but on foot it is a whole different ball game, as I found out to my cost the first time I did the race. And the second. And indeed this time as well, as despite being fit enough to tackle the first kilometre section under the bridge (and are handed an orange segment by supporters for your troubles), it just went on and on.
Despite the pain of the hill, I do have mixed emotions to hear they are going to scrap it next year in favour of a different route, as it is the run’s USP and gives those of us who conqueror it something in the way of bragging rights, so it will be interesting to see what happens next time.
Still I can proudly say that for the first time ever, I did not walk at all. Sure I did that strange sort of shuffling run athletes do when they look like they have just done a Paula Radcliffe where you barely seem to be going forwards, but as far as I am concerned it was still running, and I am pretty proud of it. Needless to say the worst and hardest section of the whole race was the exact moment you go past my work office by Five Ways, at the summit of the hill where you have absolutely no energy left to even give it a wave. Or at least some sort of gesture.
By this point I knew my hopes of a 2 hour finish were gone, having been over the 7 min/km mark towards the end of the ascent, but with the pressure now off I could at least enjoy the end, so after being given the largest ever handful of jelly babies (to the point that they overfilled my mouth and I couldn’t actually breathe) by the kind cheerleaders at the boost section for the final km, I switched to a power song on my headphones and put on the afterburners onto Broad Street and into the finish chute with a trademark final sprint over the line.
My final time was 2.03 hours, agonisingly close to beating that two hour mark, but I guess still leaving something for me to aim at in future with a bit more training. On the positive side, my previous times were 2.08 in 2014 & 2.12 in 2013, so I managed to knock off a huge 5 minutes from my PB, and I could technically extrapolate my time to around 1.58 if I was to do this again next year.
But I won’t be doing this race again next year, at least not this distance anyway. That reason I mentioned earlier about why I signed up for this race in the first place? Well I am a firm believer in facing my fears, and could not turn down the opportunity to enter the first Birmingham Marathon, which is going to take place next October at the same time as the half-marathon, although parts of it will be on a brand new course. It is going to be a huge personal challenge for me, but in the end that is what this is all about, and I have to say I am pretty damn excited about running further than I ever have in my life. Better get training!