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Any pro or serious amateur runner knows that race day begins well before the actual day itself. You have the mental and physical torture that is the taper; reducing your mileage yet maintaining the intensity as per your usual weekly training diary. You also have the carbo-loading process where you increase the quantity of carbohydrates in your diet, reducing the protein and fat to prime the muscles. There’s also the need to ensure you get enough sleep, stay illness free etc etc.
I won’t lie – it was a difficult week. I was restless at night and constantly worrying about whether something would ruin me before race day. The weather also didn’t helping, with rain being forecast for Sunday, yet Saturday and Monday immediately on either side were reported as being sunny! This quickly changed into mist and fog, much more welcome than the wet stuff.
Race day finally came and the weather was foggy and misty, just as it was predicted to be. I live about 0.5 miles from the NIA and I couldn’t even see that from my kitchen window! What this did mean was that the roads were dry for traction and there was cloud cover to prevent getting too warm early on.
I had my breakfast of several slices of toast with Nutella and peanut butter. I also had some Rice Krispie Squares and Rowntrees Randoms sweets to pack in some faster sugars. Liquid-wise, I had 250ml of beetroot juice, as I’ve been having for the last few days to improve blood-oxygen capability, and 500ml of my Nectar Fuel energy drink. Altogether, there should have been at least 1000 calories in my breakfast, so plenty to stave off any energy problems.
Elsa, me and Dave – ready to race!
The gang soon arrived; Elsa, Dave and I would be running, with Iain, Lis and Cheryl acting as our supporters and pit crew. Dave and I went for a light jog around the block to warm-up and to help with stretching before heading down to our start area. We parted ways with the rest of the gang heading towards the centre of town and Dave and I joined our white area holding pen. Due to the increased size of the running field (up to 18,000 though later only 12,800 or so runners turned up) both sides of the dual carriageway were used this year. We were fortunately not waiting too long before we were moved forward, with the other side of the carriageway being released first, followed by us. Before long, Dave and I were running towards the start line and our Great Birmingham Run had truly begun.
Being on the left of the carriageway meant we went through the tunnel initially, a tactical choice meaning we avoided that hill at the start. Hills, whether you’re going down or up, are very inefficient for long distance runners because they slow you down or speed you up, raising your stable heart rate. You want to keep this heart rate as constant as possible because once it rises, it’s quite difficult to bring it back down again without significantly slowing down or just stopping.
We had a decent pace to us, clocking in at roughly 8:20 minute miles, which served as a good warm-up to what lay ahead of us. The field was well spaced out but we found ourselves dodging slower runners very early on, which is to be expected. I later found out that our expected finish time would have placed us towards the back of the orange wave; I wondered which would have been more beneficial – running at a constant pace and chasing others or overtaking constantly with a motivational boost that we were clearly faster than everybody around us?
We approached the Bullring where the gang was waiting. I expected to see them nearer to Debenhams where there were fewer people and visibility would have been easier, but alas, they were nowhere to be seen. Rather than focusing on the crowds, we concentrated again on the race in front of us. We later found out that they were waiting nearer to Wagamama and they did see us, though we missed them completely. Dave and I kept our conversations going and the pace felt easy, with our breathing very steady and not laboured at all. It was at this stage where I felt somebody tap my arm and it was none other than my old school friend, Jaswant AKA Jazzy C! Jaswant is unaware (because I’ve yet to tell him), but he was part of the reason I got into long distance running in the first place. I remember several years ago seeing photos of him completing the inaugural Birmingham half marathon thinking what a feat it was because neither of us were particularly fit or healthy at school. I thought to myself, “If he could do it, so could I!” and thus began my journey. I knew Jaswant would be running that day and had hoped to meet up with him before or after the race, but being able to bump into him mid-run was just as good. We had a quick chat and he offered me several of his energy gels; I’m sure he must have taken a few already because he looked very jittery! He’d also mentioned that he hadn’t trained properly for this race and beating his 1:38 PB would be nigh on impossible, so we wished him well as he sped off into the distance.
We were firmly on the Pershore Road at this stage, keeping regular check on our pace and also how we were feeling. Our pace was comfortable for both of us and we continued to venture on. I recognised Sean Whan of Kings Heath Running Club in the distance. He’s a familiar sight to me now because for the last few months, we’ve been racing each other at the Cannon Hill Parkrun. I tapped his arm and had a quick chat with him and he introduced me to a couple of his club mates that he was running with. He also tried to enlist me to the club mid-run, selling me their Tuesday interval sessions and Thursday hill rep sessions. The more I think about it, the more I want to try the club out because it’s one I’ve been looking at for the last few years. The club vibe I get from them is that they’re not elite but there is a good breadth of ability within the club to run with. A few weeks ago after a Parkrun, Sean said that I’d be a good fit for the club and I think I would benefit from it greatly, especially on the speed front. I wished him and the club well and Dave and I ploughed on with our race.
It was at this stage where Dave and I shook hands and decided to part ways. I didn’t want to push Dave too hard, conscious that he had only recently committed to running the race, despite a good fitness base to begin with. His height and leg stride however would have made up for any discrepancy between our own natural paces. He was also conscious that he didn’t want to hold me back if I wanted to speed off. Quite funnily, I noticed we were still side-by-side after the next mile or so and we just agreed to continue running together. We approached our first water station and I almost missed it entirely. The first water station at races is always a nightmare to navigate because everybody is desperate for something to drink, whether they need it or not. All race advice I’ve ever seen has always recommended skipping the first water station in longer races if you’re already well hydrated. Dave and I grabbed some water anyway and had a few sips before throwing it away or pouring some over my head to wake me up. We both commented how much waste there is from these races but there’s no ideal solution really; if you switch to cups then you can have more frequent drink stations but the slower runners would still complain that they need to hang on to a bottle for security.
Our pace was slowly creeping up and we were now averaging roughly 8:12 to 8:15 minute miles, so we were well on our way now. The next few miles proved to be quite forgettable with few things happening or worth remembering. We continued to check up on each other regularly and kept the conversation going, which remained steady, a good indicator that we were coping well. We continued to overtake people, though rarely being overtaken and before we knew it, we were approaching Bournville because the road started to twist and climb. You could smell the chocolate in the air from the nearby Cadburys World factory; I’m sure some free chocolate wouldn’t have gone amiss at this stage! I recall overtaking our second set of Batman and Robins, which pleased me greatly, though we still had another set of Mario and Luigis to beat. The road really started to climb now that we were firmly in Bournville, the first taster that this race is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. We turned on to a heavily cambered street, where I recommended we stick to the centre to avoid injury.
We were now on our second water station and third drinks station of the day, again taking just a few sips before chucking the bottles away. The weather was perfect for long distance running, offering valuable cloud cover with the roads dry and the air cool so the body isn’t wasting energy or sweat to dissipate excess heat. I’d more or less stopped sweating by this point, though my sunglasses were fogging up more regularly now, forcing me to take them off to air periodically.
The 10km marker quickly crept up on us and caught me off guard, thinking it said 10 miles instead! I knew I enjoyed Dave’s company and conversation because of how easy everything felt, taking away the need to focus on the next mile marker, which I normally do at races.
We decided to pick the pace up, following my Plan B strategy, now clocking in at rough 8:00 minute miles. The average pace had crept up to 8:05 minutes per mile, so I knew we would comfortably finish in less than 1 hour 50 minutes at this rate. The change in pace did us both good and remained feeling comfortable. We had fully warmed up by this stage and it was a confidence booster to overtake even more people at this greater speed. What I did notice was that there were more runners going at our speed now, with one particular girl acting as a good pace maker for us. Frustratingly though, were larger groups of runners going maybe three people wide making it difficult to overtake. Dave and I would run side by side, but we would split up if we needed to overtake so as not to inconvenience others.
The green and pink runners were coming through strong on the other side of the Pershore Road now, so we attempted to keep an eye out for Elsa and her personal trainer, Jenny. Elsa being dressed in black made spotting her quite difficult and it was Elsa spotting Dave that caught our attention! She later commented that she was surprised to see us still running together – as surprised as we both were I’m sure.
I mentioned to Dave that a highlight of the return trip up Pershore Road for me was a Chinese guy that would stand at the side of the road with an old-fashioned bicycle horn, cheering everybody on shouting out “You’re the best!” to absolutely each and every runner going past. I saw him in 2010’s race and again in 2011 and I was quite disappointed he wasn’t at his usual spot for 2012. I did later find out via Facebook that he’d relocated to Cannon Hill Park to cheer people on and others also found his enthusiasm incredibly infectious. Other selfless people also deserve a huge round of applause because running 13.1 miles can be a mind numbing task and having crowd support to break up some of the monotony is a huge boost for us runners. If you’re going to stand at the side of the road, don’t be a wallflower and make as much noise as you can!
We turned the corner on to Edgbaston Road, the home of Edgbaston Cricket Ground and also where my parents would be waiting for me with another bottle of Nectar Fuel. I spotted my Mum but my Dad was nowhere to be found, so I assumed he had trouble parking and could only drop my Mum off. I waved to her with both arms, catching her attention and as a sign to prepare for the bottle pass. We’d both practiced this the day before and in the past so we wouldn’t drop it accidentally. All the preparation paid off and the pass and grab were as smooth as butter. I took a few sips and carried the bottle with me into Cannon Hill Park. Dave asked if I really needed the extra Nectar Fuel and I probably didn’t, though the concentrated glucose and fructose would have helped top off the rapidly depleting glycogen levels. That and it was a way of getting my parents involved in my running, with their efforts greatly appreciated that day.
Running into Cannon Hill Park is always a weird experience. You go in via the main carpark and there’s nobody around and the tall trees block out a lot of natural light, making it feel like a trail run through a forest rather than a big city half marathon. I could hear the Rocky theme being played through the speakers from the Free Radio station in the centre of the park, a nice pick me up and athletic inspiration, given my fascination with the Rocky movies. This came only minutes after hearing an acoustic rendition of the Rocky theme being played by one of the bands on the route. Once we entered the park through the gates, everything transformed and the crowds started to appear again. Cannon Hill Park has to be a huge boost for many people, offering a change of scenery, water and drinks stations, music and more. Elsa and I had attended the previous day’s Parkrun where we were told Fergal would be waiting at his usual corner to cheer us all on. Fergal is one of the best things about the Cannon Hill Parkrun, motivating everybody to keep going and it’s something I look forward to each week. Just hearing his cheers makes my pace pick up by a good noticeable 15 seconds or so! I saw him to our right and called out to him and he cheered us on, yelling out mile 10 wasn’t far; optimistic because we had only just passed through mile 9! One notable thing that caught my attention was a man with a box of oranges on offer; needless to say, I declined to take one!
Dave and I left Cannon Hill Park and our pace was still steady, but quick. We were on the approach to the much talked about mist shower that had been added to cool us runners down. We debated going through and decided that we may as well, given that it was an opportunity to do so. I can’t say it was particularly refreshing, though a novelty nonetheless. I recall having to slow us both down around here in the race because our immediate pace had escalated to around 7:45 minute miles. In any other flat half marathon, this would have been the right point to pick up the pace again but knowing that we had some hills coming up meant that we needed to keep something back to conquer what Haille Gebrsellasie mentioned had proven quite tough for him last year. We also had a swift downhill section on the Lee Bank Middleway to help bank a little bit of time and absorb some of the pace damage from the later hills. We started to climb the Middleway hill and for the first time, I noticed that I was actually going faster than Dave. Because of my shorter stature, I have to take many more steps to run at the same pace as taller runners. I have a fairly high leg cadence rate (leg turnover rate to everybody else out there), averaging about 170 steps per minute (roughly 85 per foot) which is beneficial during sprints and hill climbs where my higher rate of contact with the ground is actually favoured, keeping my pace steady.
The hill levelled out as we turned left on to a fairly non-descript street. Knowing what was lurking around the next corner and I consumed my one and only energy gel to prepare myself. I swear you could hear collective groans as everybody began their ascent up the hill. We really had to concentrate here to keep our pace up, though this was effort well spent because according to our mile splits, we ran this portion of the race as fast as our opening miles despite gravity working against us. There were noticeably more people supporting us on this hill, which seemed never ending. My hamstrings were starting to ache a little from the lactic acid build up but we pushed on, running past a charity cheerleading team that yelled right in my ear as we approached the brow of the hill, perking me up again unexpectedly.
It was at this stage where I looked at our pace and we were averaging 8:00 minute miles, a phenomenal feat given that we’d started out at 8:20 minute miles and had just beaten several tough hills. We had a rough 1.5 miles left to go at this stage of the race and our elapsed time hovered around 1 hour 34 minutes and I knew a 1:45 finish was quickly slipping away, if not impossible by now. I told Dave that 1:45 was “off the cards” and that we should aim for a 1:48/1:49 finish. Throwing caution to the wind, we picked up our pace again and stormed through Edgbaston. This is a frustrating part of the race for many, due to all the twists and turns to make up the total 13.1 mile distance, adding more opportunities to slow down after already losing time on the hills.
We passed by the final mile marker and doing some quick maths, a 1:45 finish was now possible again if we went all out and ran our fastest mile split. We were really going for it now, with the immediate pace on my GPS watch reading 7:00 minute miles. We were on the home stretch, running towards Five Ways underpass when I noticed a runner with “Gurpreet” on his back. An old school friend of mine, Oli, was also running that day for a charitable cause and I knew he was in the white group too (we still hadn’t passed any orange wave runners) and I sped up to catch a glimpse of his face. Low and behold, it was Oli! I caught his attention and shook his hand, offering a momentary break from the pressure that was piling on to finish within 1 hour and 45 minutes. Oli wasn’t looking too good and said he needed support to get him through. I told him to stick with Dave and I, and to use us as pacemakers and we’d see him through to the finish. We all concentrated and focused as we descended into the underpass before coming back up the other side on Broad Street.
Dave and I sprinting down Broad Street towards the finish line
We were firmly on home turf now and surprisingly, there were people on both sides of the underpass as we came up. Normally, the crowds are kept behind barriers but the left hand side crowds were right next to us as we ran down Broad Street. Checking my right, Dave was still by my side and Oli wasn’t far behind. I kicked up the pace again and began to sprint down Broad Street. Thankfully this time, the gang were exactly where we asked them to be, standing near the Novotel and Sainsburys, so we waved and fired off a few Mobots and Usain Bolts. Seeing everybody gave me that final lift that I needed to shift gears again. With 400m left, the blood was coursing through my legs, with my arms and heart pumping as fast as they could, helping me overtake at least 50 or so people as I approached the finish. The end was clearly in sight now and I went for broke, hoping my efforts were enough to net me a finish starting with 1:45.
I crossed the finish line and pressed pause on my GPS watch, huffing and puffing from the sprint and my mind in a blind panic – had I done it? Looking at my watch, those magical numbers of 1:45:23 appeared and I had to do a double take before I was sure. My fist went through the air with a resounding “Yeeees!” before I had to sit down again. A volunteer came over to see if I was OK and I gave them a thumbs up and told them I just needed to catch my breath. Dave crossed the line seconds afterwards and told me he’d netted a 1:45:27 finish, but couldn’t keep up with my sprint during the final leg. Oli then came in shortly afterwards and thanked us for the support. We walked towards the timing chip collection area and the organisers’ claims of the chips being easy to remove after a 13.1 mile race are wildly overestimated. I had to really tug at mine to break it free and return it. We kept moving and stretched against a wall, where I tol Dave about my first half marathon when I did not stretch afterwards, turning a 5 minute walk home from the bus stop into a 20 minute one! We said our farewells to Oli and grabbed our goodie bags; there was a distinct chill in the air now, despite the sun coming out to play so we unwrapped the space blankets ASAP.
This year’s finisher’s medal
Navigating back to the gang was relatively simple, cutting through the ICC and Brindley Place. We shared our good news and war stories with everybody, thanking them for their support. They were surprised to see Dave and I finish together given our original plan to split up after the first few miles. If all of this long distance racing has taught me anything, the importance of planning a strategy should be on the top of anybody’s list if they’re aiming for a particular time; they should also be flexible enough to change the plan if needs be. Dave and I running together had a mutual benefit for both of us and I would totally welcome running future races with him again.
We were now waiting for Elsa and Jenny to appear and the green wave runners had started to filter through. It wasn’t until this point where we all commented on how close the crowd was to the runners as they exited the underpass, not giving them enough space to jostle for position. One security guard attempted to disperse the crowd, though failed miserably. Deciding that if you can’t beat them, join them; I headed towards the crowd to wait for Elsa to pass. Following my own advice, I started cheering for everybody as they ran by. I saw a few familiar faces running, including the Man in the Middle, who I buy breakfast sandwiches from, and the vegan runner from Parkrun.
Elsa and Jenny eventually showed up and I joined them for the final stretch down Broad Street, my second time that day. Unwittingly, I’d gotten in the way of Iain’s photo of Elsa (sorry!) as we went past. A colleague of mine that was waiting for her husband had seen me go by on the second occasion, noting that I must have finished because I had my jacket on and had no race number. We crossed the finish line and Elsa had also scored a PB of 2:28, beating her previous best by a few minutes for her retirement run.
Looking back on Sunday, it was a perfect day of running for everybody concerned. We had perfect weather, bumped into old and new friends and achieved or even surpassed our goals we had laid out for ourselves that morning. I would love to run in Birmingham again and entries for the 2013 race have already opened for applications. I have applied for a ballot place with the Royal Parks Half Marathon in London for October, so we’ll see whether I’m successful or not in January and plan accordingly. I’m now busy trying to convince Elsa not to retire from half marathons and also Dave to join me on the Bath Half Marathon, maybe even Parkrun.
For those interested, the Nike+ data for Dave and I can be found by clicking here.
Thank you Birmingham, you were beautiful!