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I'm getting used to it now... the annual street carnival that is the Great Birmingham Run!
For my third half-marathon I had a whole, injury-free year to prepare and seek to improve on last year's performance. But I had to take a break starting early in July when Miriam and I spent 5 weeks in South America - first in Argentina, then in Bolivia - where daytimes were fully occupied and it did not feel safe to go out at night. As it turned out the layoff did not set me back by much but it meant that I had to spend the few weeks before the race prioritising distance rather than speed.
My main training priority was to have enough in the tank to get me up what I call "Haile's Hill": the unremitting climb near the end of the course that even the great Gebrselassie struggled with. I ensured that my training routes - of ever increasing length - had a similar uphill stretch near the end.
The heavy overnight rain had dried up by the time I set off on my bike along a largely deserted Pershore Road. Early arrivals at Christ Church were putting up gazebos and another friendly face, Alison, was among the helpers setting up a water station further along. My first destination was Centenary Square, where I had been invited to a rendezvous with Bishop Maurice and some other Christian competitors. Although in his 70's, Maurice is consistently faster than me. I saw him briefly at one point in the race but he was some way ahead of me and I was once again unable to catch him.
For the first time I met Abbie, a postgraduate student who has recently joined Christ Church. We walked down to the start area, where runners were segregated by estimated time, and joined the "white" wave. My plan was to start near the back of the group to avoid being swept along by runners who wanted to go more quickly than I could sustain, but the numbers were so great that I could not work out my relative position.
We had to wait for about a quarter of an hour before the elite and fast club runners were started way ahead of us, then some more minutes before the mighty army, massed on both sides of the dual carriageway, shuffled forwards towards the start line.
It was at this point that the scale of the event really hit home: in front of me, runners as far as the eye could see, and the knowledge that there were as least as many further behind. The commentary relayed on loudspeakers reminded us that this is now the second largest half-marathon in the country, and at this stage it certainly felt like it.
As the course headed downhill through the Markets area I was careful to limit my speed. I was being overtaken all the time but this did not concern me as I was determined to stick to my plan. I must admit to feeling a little smug later on when I cruised past competitors who had "crashed and burned" even before the halfway point. In fact I was probably going about as fast as I could comfortably manage and I did not feel the kind of energy that had led me to exhaust myself early the previous year.
Another inhibiting factor was the knowledge that we had an extra hill to contend with this year. Soon after entering Selly Park we turned off Pershore Road for a longish climb up Kensington Road. At the turn I was pleased to see Cathie, who chairs the board of trustees of Friends of Amani UK. I would have to wait for a more suitable occasion to tell her that I had raised over £500 in sponsorship for my entry in the race, some through a JustGiving page and a lot more by paper sponsorship forms.
Thanks to my training - and the fact that it was still early in the race - the hill did not give me any particular problem and I turned down Selly Park Road to rejoin Pershore Road. Here I had my first encounter with the supporters from Christ Church who had stationed themselves at the corner. There was more support outside the Baptist Church - hello Mark! then on past the end of my road - a quick high-five with Paul! Hello John! And so the crowds and noise continued through Stirchley and into Bournville (hello Peter and Louise!) where the cheering supporters lined Linden Road and Mary Vale Road.
A nice touch is that the number labels worn by the runners have their first names on so that spectators can personalise their encouragement. Groups of children held their hands out and I was able to slide my own hand from one to another in sequence. The joy of street racing! You don't get that at the Olympics.
I reached the 10km point (a timing station) just before the hour mark. With another 11km to go I would have had to up the pace considerably to finish within 2 hours and with Haile's Hill still to come I knew that I did not have the resources to do that. I was content to keep a nice steady pace and give myself the best chance of making it to the finish.
I was now back on Pershore Road for the return leg. After refuelling at a water station I passed another gang of church members outside Fitness First and continued on past Christ Church, to huge applause which drowned out the jazz band. Miriam was in the crowd somewhere but it was all rather a blur as I sped past.
The spectators thinned out as I left Selly Park but there was a large encampment of Oasis Church members outside the cricket ground to provide a boost at the turn into Cannon Hill Park. This was the start of a long - mainly gently uphill - stretch along the path past the bandstand. There was some support here in the form of a motivating snatch of Chariots of Fire from a radio station's outside broadcast unit (why did the slow motion sequence come into my mind?) and this brought me to the next water station. My recollection now is that I still had half a bottle from the previous station and I did not take another. If so, it was a mistake!
Heavy showers had been forecast for the race, and I thought that they were about to start as the clouds came over at the approach to the start line. In fact the rain held off and as the course wound its way through Balsall Heath - where there was hardly a spectator in sight - I realised that it was getting uncomfortably hot. There was little overtaking going on now as the pack turned on to the Middle Ring Road and down into the underpass. I felt tired but still confident that I could make it to the top of the approaching hill. I knew that there was another water station halfway up and drained the bottle I was still carrying. I waved to the spectators watching from the roundabout high overhead, trying to divert my attention away from my rapidly-tiring legs.
I had learned to approach hills slowly and then gently accelerate to a speed that felt comfortable. The climb was hard, as I expected, but I had trained for it and received a much-needed boost in the form of the anticipated water bottle. At the top of the hill a large crowd of spectators gave noisy encouragement and it was with great relief that I turned the corner on to Calthorpe Road. Straight and level! I continued at a gentle pace approaching the 12 mile mark. Could I recover from the climb?
I was now feeling very short of water and even shorter of energy, even after some distance on the flat, and at times I was going no faster than walking pace. I disposed of the now empty water bottle in the final underpass that led on to Broad Street. Even the sight of the 800 metres sign did not cheer me, because I've been there before, and it feels like the longest 800 metres in the world.
As I emerged into Broad Street I could not manage even a flicker of response when someone sprinted past me with a late burst of energy. But it was impossible not to pick up speed - if gradually - in response to the ever-growing volume of support from the crowd as the finish line approached. At last I stopped my watch at 2 hours, 9 minutes and 24 seconds. Not the time I had hoped for, but consistent with the times achieved in my last training runs.
A little further along Broad Street I approached a spectator and asked him to take a photo of me on my phone. The man standing next to him then introduced himself as a reporter from the Birmingham Mail and asked if he could record a short interview. I told him that it had been a tough race but I was happy with my time, and also mentioned that I was running for Amani Children's Home.
And I was happy with my time: I felt that it was the best that I could have achieved given the training I had done. But if I had built up to the race without a break, and worked harder on improving my speed... could I have done better then? Perhaps I will find out next year.
This event is huge, demanding and absolutely compelling!
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