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Behind me, nearly 2 hours of increasingly hard running through the streets of Birmingham.
On each side of me, a cheering crowd stretching away into the distance.
Most importantly, 800 metres ahead of me and tantalisingly hidden round a bend, the finish line of the 2012 Great Birmingham Run.
I had reached this point exactly 2 years earlier as I neared the end of the 2010 Birmingham Half-Marathon, already disappointed that I was going to finish in a slower time than I had expected. Injury deprived me of the opportunity to do better in 2011, but since my recovery I had steadily built up my speed and distance with the aim of having enough in the tank to get me round the course in under 2 hours.
I had nearly made it... but the clock was ticking down!
The day started quietly as I cycled towards the city centre along Pershore Road, which was already closed to traffic in preparation for the race. Through the morning fog I saw water stations being set up, the jazz band outside my church getting their equipment ready and stewards standing in the cold at traffic barriers.
The fog lifted later in the morning and was eventually replaced by sunshine, but it was bad enough to ground the TV helicopter and disrupt the coverage.
The race had come under new management since my previous entry, and I found the start area much better organised. Runners were segregated by expected time and I was in the group after the elite and fast club runners. I looked around for anyone I knew and met up with Emma, who like me was aiming for a time under 2 hours. She is on the staff at St Martin's in the Bull Ring, whose gospel choir we would pass a few minutes into the race.
Our group surged over the start line and headed off towards St Martin's and the Markets area. This part of the course was downhill and even after the road flattened out I found myself in a fast group of runners and continued at their pace. My GPS running watch told me that I was going faster than I had intended. After a few minutes I had to make a tactical decision: should I keep going at this pace and accept that I would have to slow down near the end, or ease off now and leave more in reserve for the final uphill stretch?
I took the "do or die" option: keep going as fast as I could comfortably manage and bank the time I was saving, trusting that the training I had done would give me enough strength to make it to the end.
As we headed into Selly Park - my home turf - the watching crowds built up and I looked out for people I knew. I passed the band outside the Selly Park Tavern and headed on past Christ Church where an army of supporters gave me a huge cheer. A little further on, sons Martin and Adrian and daughter-in-law Sumaya were walking along the pavement, but not looking at me. No time to stop and say hello! On into Stirchley, and a right turn into Bournville Lane for the first real uphill section: not long, but enough to slow us all down. The people of Bournville had turned out in huge numbers to support the race.
At this point I was caught up by a bishop who had beaten me by 10 minutes in my previous race despite being more than 20 years older than me. Maurice had returned from Egypt only the previous day but was evidently having no difficulty in adapting to local conditions. We chatted for a couple of minutes before he pulled away and headed off to beat me once again.
The return leg brought us back through Stirchley and past the Fitness First gym where more church members were packed behind the barriers. I reached the half way point of the course way ahead of the clock, but the pace was starting to hurt now. On the other side of the road thousands of runners were still heading on their outward journey. I drew what encouragement I could from the crowd support, knowing that the best part was behind me.
Cannon Hill Park is a wonderful place to visit but I have never much enjoyed running there. I kept up a reasonable pace but was feeling my reserves draining faster than I would have liked. The course followed a long loop through the park, then on through the relatively quiet back streets of Balsall Heath, eventually arriving at the Middle Ring Road - a dual carriageway designed for rather faster traffic than it was carrying today. Spectators shouted encouragement from the roundabout far above us as we went through an underpass.
I was now certain that I could not run all the way to the finish, even at a jog, but I still had plenty of time in hand. A little way into the long uphill section I began to alternate between running and walking. A generous householder handed out cups of squash from his front garden, but I decided instead to take a bottle from the official water station further ahead. My mood was brightened by a drumming band, all kitted out in yellow, stationed at a charity stall. An even more welcome sight was the top of the hill which was now in view straight ahead.
My watch was telling me that I was still within my target time, even at this reduced pace. We were on the flat now, but I continued to take short walking breaks. This was not the time to admire Edgbaston's fine Georgian architecture, and the runners were too tired to acknowledge the efforts of the residents who had turned out to support us.
One final underpass brought me to Broad Street and the final (downhill!) run-in. The crowds got thicker and noisier as I approached the finish line from where a loudspeaker commentary urged us on. I passed a female runner, head bowed and strength completely gone, being carried on the shoulders of two other runners. I was shocked to hear later on in the day that there had been a death at the event, but it was subsequently announced that the tragic casualty was male and therefore not the person I saw.
At last I crossed the line, exactly 30 seconds within the target I had been waiting for 2 years to beat.
Naturally I was pleased at this achievement, but was a bit disappointed at my inability to run all the way round. There is no way of knowing whether I would have done better if I had tried to run at a more even pace throughout. Let's just say that I now have a new target to aim for if (when?) I have a go next year.
Hills of South Birmingham, you have been warned... I'm on my way!
I decided to use the race to raise funds for the Amani Children's Home, which provides care for street children in the town of Moshi, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. This is a project which my church supports, and a friend is a trustee of the UK charity which helps to fund it.
Thanks to the generosity of friends, family and work colleagues I raised over £500 in sponsorship, through a combination of a Justgiving page and traditional paper methods. However you donated, thank you to everyone!
The Great Birmingham Run is one of those rare community occasions when complete strangers can just start talking to each other on the street. The crowds especially turned out in Selly Park, Stirchley and Bournville and the bands playing at various points around the course - 3 of them provided by my own church - added to the street party atmosphere. Many other community organisations and charities organised stalls and entertainment along the route. And I can't forget the stewards who kept their lonely vigil for so many hours before and after the event.
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