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Shortly before 9 am on Sunday 24 October 2010 I found myself standing in a crowd of nearly 15,000 people in the centre of Birmingham.
This was the day of the Birmingham Half-Marathon, and I was in good time for the start of the race. The weather was sunny but still freezing cold after a cloudless night - not ideal conditions in which to wear just a T-shirt and shorts. A friend who ran last year gave me a bin bag to wrap around me while waiting. A handy tip for next year...
The runners were herded into Broad Street behind the start line, roughly grouped by expected finishing time. The race got under way but it took 10 minutes for those in my group to actually cross the line. We immediately stopped again as the road suddenly narrowed and everyone tried to squeeze into the space. Despite the roads being closed to traffic, I was still caught in a human traffic jam.
The course then headed downhill through the Markets area. I found it very hard to judge my speed as the crowd surged along, and if there were any distance markers I couldn't see them because we were heading into the sun. It wasn't until the 3 mile marker that I could tell that I was going more slowly than I had intended.
Things settled down a bit as we headed along the long, straight section of Pershore Road (which is familiar territory to me). The road was still crowded and many people ran on the pavement, but I kept a steady pace and for most of the rest of the race I was gently overtaking other runners who had started too quickly and were tiring.
I got a massive cheer when I passed my church in Selly Park, where our members were camped out in force on the front steps and pavement. (We had 10 runners in the race overall, and there's more about the church's involvement on its website.) I had watched the 2009 event - camcorder in hand - from a wall on the other side of the road, and it was then that the idea of having a go at it myself started to form. I recalled my only previous sporting achievement, when I came 49th in the school steeplechase (enough to earn a house point). My strategy for that modest success was simply to keep going, while most of my fellow sporting no-hopers gave up and walked after a few minutes.
I made a brief attempt at distance running a few years later, but the time required and the lack of a sensible target meant that this did not last long. Here, though, was something that thousands of people of all ages and abilities were able to manage. Surely I could do the same?
There was a huge crowd of spectators further out in Bournville. I had run along these roads dozens of times and was not troubled by a short uphill stretch. The route had changed from 2009 to reduce the number of road closures required in the area - a mistake in my opinion because the local residents had turned out in such force to watch, and they deserved a longer stretch of the race.
Then it was back along Pershore Road for a circuit of Cannon Hill Park. I was getting a bit worried because my legs were tiring faster than I had experienced in training, even though my speed was nothing special. We ploughed on through Balsall Heath where we came upon perhaps the best of the musical support - a Scottish pipe band in full regalia. For a short time I was on holiday in Scotland, far away from my ever-more painful legs.
The route turned on to the Middle Ring Road and through the underpass under Pershore and Bristol Roads. One of the other runners offered me a jelly baby, which was typical of the feeling that "we're all in this together" as we approached the toughest part of the course.
There followed an unremitting climb through the back streets of Edgbaston, with not even a short flat section to recover. I was still going quite well, even overtaking other runners, but by the time I got to the top at Calthorpe Road the thought in my mind was "never again". The road was flat after that but I was now really concerned that my legs would not carry me all the way to the finish. I delayed it as long as I could, but was eventually forced to take a short walking break. To my relief I found that I could then start running again.
After a couple more walking breaks we emerged from the underpass into Broad Street, which was lined with cheering crowds. There was no more walking after that: these people had come to see exhausted runners giving their all to reach the finish line, and that's what they were going to get. I fixed my eyes straight ahead as the familiar landmarks grew nearer. I got to the end and stopped my watch at 2 hours 3 minutes.
To my disappointment, I had to wait to actually cross the finish line due to the crush of people on the other side - so my official time is more than a minute slower than the one I recorded. A runner near me made a vocal protest to one of the organisers complaining about that point and much else besides. We shuffled our way through the post-race processing, handing in our timing chips and collecting souvenir T-shirts before eventually dispersing into the crowds.
Perhaps the best part of the event was cycling home along Pershore Road, which was still closed to traffic as cleanup squads were at work removing the cones and crash barriers. It was pretty much deserted, just as it had been early in the morning, and there was much novelty value in going down the wrong side of the road.
Near to home I came across a friend who had watched the race and we spent a few minutes talking. She said she had enjoyed it and was thinking of having a go herself next year...
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