We head over to Birmingham early-ish this morning and park at the NIA, which is eerily quiet and only seems to have one entrance open. Parking there has shades of the Birmingham Half last year, just ten thousand people quieter. We see one other runner, who unfortunately sprints off before we can follow him to New Street station, which we struggle to find having left via some back entrance to the car park.
There are few more runners on the train and a few more get on at some of the stops as we head over to Wolverhampton. Once at Wolverhampton station the crowds start to ramp up considerably and we follow the increasing throng to the semi-secret start location at the British Waterways Boatyard, not far from the station.
This is already a fairly unique race experience and it’s about to get even more so. The Birmingham And Black Country Half Marathon is a point to point ‘race’ along the towpath of the Wolverhampton to Birmingham canal. It isn’t really a race at all, due to the narrowness of the towpath it is run as a time trial, with staggered starts over three or more hours. I’ve been given an assembly time of 9.30, whilst L’s is 11.40, over two hours later. So I'll be finished before she starts.
While I stow my kitbag in the baggage van, L sets about getting her start time brought forward. She’s worried about what three hours waiting at the finish might do to my liver and the fact she might have to drive us out of Birmingham city centre.
The start times turn out to be only loosely enforced, e.g. they’re not, and she’s told to basically go for it when she likes. So that’s less time in the pub for me.
After a quick but entertaining pre-race briefing for my start group, we line up in single file and then like a scene from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we disappear through a door in the boatyard wall. As I emerge onto the canal bank and a marshal keys my number into his PDA I fail to realise that I was now 'under orders'. The guy released a second after me is already itching to get started and sighing heavily in my ear hole. Two steps later I practically fall over the timing mat as I fiddle to get my watch started, then we're off. I quickly let Mr Impatient past me.
The single file start works well; it actually makes it much easier to get into a rhythm than in a mass start race. A few runners come past me early on but not once do I feel the urge to push one of them into the canal, although if they try that in the last half a mile I might feel a little different. After the first mile or so, it’s mainly me doing the overtaking and everyone is very courteous as I get the better of them.
The downside is that there’s not exactly a crowd roaring you on as go and at times it felt like a training session or rather it would, if I did any training sessions of this sort of length. There are plenty of marshals to give you a mini-roar but a big city half marathon it certainly isn’t.
Then there’s the wildlife, such as the evil looking swan and its chicks about a mile in. This was followed by a pile of feathers a little further down the track, where someone had perhaps got their own back.
At four miles comes the ‘highlight’, the 329 metre long Coseley Tunnel. They advise that if you are afraid of the dark to bring a head torch or to at least make sure you lift your shades before entering. It’s not really that dark as they have lit it in parts with battery lamps but it’s a bit uneven under foot and I fell down a hole at one point. It was also the only place where single file had to prevail, although some people still insisted on pushing past others in there, which I thought was a bit unnecessary.
Then there’s the random heavy duty hosepipe at five miles to steeplechase over, courtesy of the local fire brigade and the youth of Tipton who have been out on a burning spree but that was about it for obstacles. Totally flat, apart from the many bridges that really messed around with your legs, your pace and made the whole thing harder than you would think.
I missed the first mile marker and they were pretty invisible all the way around, always turned sideways to the course. The girl proclaiming to be the seven mile marker was great. Can all the mile markers do that next year?
The gravel towpath started to grate quite quickly and I began finding as much grass verge to run on as possible. This seemed to chip 30 seconds per mile off my times, although this may have been simply psychological. It was never going to be a PB course for me on that surface.
There were four drinks stations en route with a mix of water and sports drink, although I didn't realise about the sports drink until nine miles in. Some of the drinks stations were utilising barges which saved blocking the towpath, a nice innovation.
I kept a loose eye on my times and seemed set to break 1:45, which I would have been happy with. At the 12 mile marker, it left me nine and half minutes to complete the last 1.1 miles, even having slowed to an eight minute mile pace that was going to be easy peasy. The only problem was it was far further than .1 of a mile from the 13m point to the finish at Brindley Place. I usually reckon on forty five seconds for this last bit, today... two minutes sixteen seconds and no, I didn’t crawl it. Someone with a GPS later told me the course was 13.3 miles. Hmmm.
I’ve finished the race but the trauma isn’t over yet. An impressively painful but helpful massage is followed by what appears to be endless flights of stairs as I attempt to find the showers.
Overall, a well organised half marathon and a bit, that somehow manages that big event atmosphere after all, perhaps it was the well organised finished area. I got my kit bag back, along with a medal and a commemorative goody bag which included a stick of rock, which I was initially unimpressed with, until I realised that it had the race name printed through it. The 25% off at Pitcher and Piano certainly encouraged most people to stick around which helped, we certainly took full advantage. It was just a shame there wasn’t a t-shirt.
Probably not the ideal race for anyone doing their first half but I met some for who it was. One chap, a 17 year old, even told me it was his first race of any kind. I was still reeling from finding a teenager who’d run a half marathon when he told me he’d only done 100 miles in training for it... err that’s much more than me.
In the end, L starts half an hour behind me, which just about gives me enough time for the massage, shower and to get changed before she comes in. Almost enough time, but not quite. I just miss her crossing the line.
Then we set off to find Son, who has come over from Warwick looking for a lift home and probably lunch, which at 25% off at Pitcher and Piano isn’t a problem. If he can stay awake, he looks like he’s been up all night, which he probably has and being kicked out of his accommodation at 10am clearly hasn’t helped.
We get home around four, with Daughter out and Son by now asleep, we’ve just got two neglected dogs to satisfy before we can have some time to ourselves. Two neglected dogs who clearly cannot believe their bad luck when we nip down the Johnsons and White Hart later without them.
(Saturday 2nd July)