A week after setting what, for me, seemed like a half-marathon PB for the ages at the Oxford Half-Marathon, I was back in action at my home race, the 2015 Great Birmingham Run.
Oxford had been my big PB shot, and it had been a great success. I’d targeted 01:35:00-01:37:00 and actually ran 01:32:43, with which I was absolutely amazed and delighted. With that hill at mile eleven, Birmingham is not a PB course anyway, so this run was simply for the fun of it – and the tweetup with fellow UKRunChat runners beforehand.
However, it’s also a race with which I have some history…
Unfinished Business/The Curse of the Great Birmingham Run
I ran the very first Birmingham Half-Marathon in 2008, and again in 2009. Back in those days I only used to run three races per year and, being my home race as well, it was a very big deal. For weeks (months) life was built around gearing up for it, running it, and celebrating it afterwards. Of course, the problem of putting all my eggs in one basket like that is that when things go wrong – as they did in 2010 – it can bring a whole year’s worth of training, preparation and expectations crashing down.
In those first few years the race was organised by the council, and they didn’t really have the experience or expertise to do it well. There were route changes every year, and that 2010 race was a disorganised shambles: chaos and congestion at the start, overcrowding on the course, and chaos and congestion at the finish. I’d spent months training for a sub-01:50:00 PB, and although I did PB at 01:51:28, the frustration and disappointment of the whole experience, plus other personal/work issues, actually stopped me running entirely for a while.
Rightly so, that was the end of the Birmingham Half-Marathon. The council handed it over to the Great Run people, and it was reinvented as the Great Birmingham Run.
I ignored it completely in 2011, then went as a spectator in 2012. The Great Run team seemed to have done a much better job of organising it, including a properly managed staggered start, so in 2013 I was persuaded to enter again.
And then tore my right gluteus medius pretty badly two weeks before the event. That was my first DNS.
I entered again in 2014, but the Curse of the Great Birmingham Run struck once more. After failing at the London Marathon that April I’d built myself up to go for a massive PB, but I’d overdone it and lapsed into overtraining. I also came down with a cold and chest infection (plus a few personal problems), so that was DNS number two.
And so to this year.
This would be the point at which to veer off into another ‘redemption run’ story. But in reality I’d targeted other races as ‘A’ races and PB shots, so this was just for fun. Plus the now-usual UKRunChat tweetup, of course.
As always, being part of such a supportive running community makes me very happy. From left to right in the photo below there’s me, Carlos and Abby , sisters Lucy and Amy, David, Al and Bill. Although we only met up a little while before the race, we formed a close-knit little group, even in the relatively short time we were together. Bill and I had already talked for quite a while before everyone else arrived, and David (@jedi58) and I had met up at lots of races already this year, plus the UKRunChat Eastbourne training weekend, so meeting him is always good. I hadn’t seen Amy (@amy__everett) since Eastbourne either, so meeting up again was lovely.
After the tweetup David and I headed to the start together. David has always been a faster runner than me, but we now run a very similar pace. Starting together made sense, plus there’s a certain satisfaction in having two UKRunChat Community Members of the Month side-by-side. Ambassadors, don’t you know.
The television helicopter hovering overhead added to the atmosphere. Big race, live on Channel 5. (Yes, I know. But, still.)
Logistically, even after four years and a change of management, some of the challenges of an event the size of the Great Birmingham Run – now expanded from an already whopping 13000 runners back then to 20000 this year – remain. My past experiences of congestion at the start made me very wary of being too far back in the pens, yet an insufficient number of portaloos meant that this was unavoidable. We were lucky to get to the start with just a minute or two to spare before the pens were to be closed. There were hundreds of runners queuing behind us who either didn’t make the start or the pre-run pit stop they needed.
Race strategy was a question mark. Being my home race, I had the advantage of knowing the course very well indeed. In fact, in the past I’ve very deliberately trained on parts of it repeatedly, including that hill (without the underpass). I knew that the consistent splits I’d been able to aim for and achieve at Oxford were out of the question, so the choice was either to run a controlled pace and leave plenty for the various hills, or go out with the hammer down from the start to make up for the inevitable time lost on the hills.
With my PB already achieved last week, there was no pressure. I was free to run for fun, so I decided to just go with how I felt at each particular mile. Of course, anyone who knows me will know that the most fun in running is to go either as far as I can or as fast as I can. So I did the latter, just for the fun of it.
Which was just as well, since there was a noticeable contrast with the previous week. The weather was very different. The surroundings were very different. From the beauty of Oxford and its part-countryside route in dreamy, golden autumn sunshine to the industrial urban grime of Birmingham on a suitably grim, grey and cold day. Oh dear. Is this my home city?
There’s surprisingly little to say about the race itself. Again, despite a four year gap and a change of management, the first three miles were a reminder of why I’d avoided it in the past. Those early miles were way too crowded and I wasn’t quite able to stay on pace. I found out later that a couple of friends had fallen during the run, and this didn’t surprise me.
David went out fast and I couldn’t stay with him. After three or four miles the route left the city centre and headed out into the residential suburbs, which was more pleasant. The overcrowding eased and I was able to run more freely. The overriding sensation was how easy it was and how comfortable I felt. I held a tiny bit back on the hills, but otherwise I was sub-seven minute miling without really stretching myself.
Like Oxford, the short distance of a half-marathon meant that the end of the race crept up on me quickly. I had plenty in the tank, and by mile nine, as we rounded Edgbaston cricket ground, I’d spent miles reminding myself to back out of pushing too hard in order to be able to get up the hill at eleven miles.
Which turned out to be pretty easy too. I went up it at 07:30 minute mile pace. I even passed David, though this is a flattering illusion as he’d been suffering with two colds in three weeks and was struggling with his breathing as a result.
At the finish I felt very strong, with lots still in the tank. For the first time I even tried racing another runner in a sprint finish. There was a definite frisson of excitement with this. For me, when I’m running I’m always racing – racing myself, racing my previous times, racing for a PB. And, I suppose, yes, racing for the best possible position I can finish in, but that’s usually irrelevant as I’m always a few hundred places down the pack (in a big race like this).
This time, there was – I don’t know – something different about the feel of it. The way the guy felt he had to respond when I took his place. As though he saw me as a threat. As though I was a good enough runner to actually be a threat. While I’ve always been extremely competitive with myself, driven to beat my own times, I’ve never been competitive with other people – I love the comradeship, camaraderie and community among fellow runners. But suddenly, in that moment, I found myself competing. I wanted that finishing position. I didn’t get it; the guy fought back and pulled away from me quite easily. But that sudden flash of competition felt amazing.
I crossed the finish line, aware of the spectators cheering me on and the TV cameras, disappointed that it had all come to a finish so soon and feeling as though I could happily carry on for miles. My Garmin gave me 01:32:15, twenty-eight seconds faster than Oxford, which I’d previously thought was a PB for the ages. I wasn’t even very surprised; it had felt a good enough run for that. So I’d accidentally run a new PB, and on a course that was a great deal more challenging. Very happy indeed. Later, I found that I’d even managed a couple of seconds of television fame as I crossed the finish line.
David finished just a few seconds behind me (and went on to PB at 01:31:06 at the Leicester Half-Marathon the following week), and with Bill joining us, we stood and chatted for a long time at the finish line. Eventually we went our separate ways and headed home.
So, after the Robin Hood marathon in September, Oxford the previous week and now Birmingham, three of my four autumn races were now done. I was left with a couple of things to reflect on, which I hadn’t expected. The first is the possibility of going sub-90 at half-marathon next year, which I never would have believed possible – but with two 01:32:[xx] half-marathons run, I really do appear to have the pace.
The second was just how much I’d enjoyed that fleeting moment of racing. With my last race of 2015 just three weeks away – Rockingham 10k; an end-of-season 10k PB shot plus massive UKRunChat tweetup; a major ‘A’ race – my mind began to turn to how I might adapt my training over the winter to capitalise on such a good result. Or whether I was getting just a bit ahead of myself for even thinking that.