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Tough day, tough course
Another year over, another Great Birmingham Run completed making for 9 half marathons since 2010!
As ever, please skip straight to “The Race” if you’d rather not read all the stuff beforehand.
I managed to get a semi-decent night’s sleep and woke up feeling ready for the task at hand. The TV coverage from the Cardiff Half Marathon I ran two weeks ago was playing on Channel 4 and served as perfect pre-race inspiration for a sub-90 minute attempt. I had my usual breakfast of two slices of toast with honey, an energy drink and two beetroot juice shots.
Sometime on the Saturday, possibly at Cannon Hill Parkrun, I was bitten by an insect on my right leg which had caused my right calf and ankle to swell considerably. There was no pain walking or running, but my leg looked visibly fat!
Living only a few hundred metres from the Great Birmingham Run start line has its advantages; I can use my own toilet without queues and I can leave it quite late to walk down to the holding pens.
Elsa, Iain, Lis in the left photo – Derek, Iain, Lis in the right photo
Team Beetroot (Elsa, Iain, Dave, Derek and Oli) arrived in good time, allowing Dave and I to go for a short warm-up run and Oli to go collect his timing chip from the NIA. Oli had only decided to enter the race two weeks beforehand on the back of no run training. He’d done a lot of cycling but non-specific training will only get you so far – he’s braver than I am!
We runners made our way towards the start line and the spectators headed over to the Bullring to stake out a place during the first mile.
It was always mine and Dave’s intention to start from the right-hand side of the road; you get a faster start because you follow immediately after the elites and going for a sub-90 attempt would require every helping hand available. We meandered our way into the right-hand start pens where we spotted some pacers including a sub-90 minute one! Dave and I then decided to venture back towards the left-hand start pens to take advantage of the pacer, so back we went. We bumped into Keith Hill from BRAT; I’d been having some decent battles with Keith at Cannon Hill Parkrun in the early part of the summer where we were both going for sub-20. Both Keith and I had a good chat about how our seasons had gone and also what we had lined up for the rest of the year and in the spring. I spotted several fellow Cannon Hill Parkrunners in the right-hand pen, including Khalid Malik and Helen Bloomer, wishing them luck as they were about to start.
After a short wait for the other side of the road to clear, we were ushered up to the start line for a few photos. Ellie Simmonds fired off her air horn and we were off!
The first mile of the Great Birmingham Run is pretty much downhill before it flattens out. Taking this into account, everybody seemed to storm off at an alarming pace including Dave and me; 6:36 as an opening mile possibly wasn’t the smartest move but knowing that most of the course is uphill in the later stages means that you need to take every advantage that’s handed to you. Looking at various online debriefs of the race, a lot of faster runners adopted the same approach with mixed results.
The sub-90 minute pacer had more or less disappeared from view entirely within half a mile! Dave and I agreed that he probably adopted a positive split strategy, purposely running a faster first half to compensate for the damage from later on. EDIT – I have since found out that the sub-90 minute pacer completed his first mile in 5:54! That’s 10 seconds faster than any recorded mile I’ve ever posted! He missed his target as well, finishing in 1:30:41, so I’m really glad I didn’t try and hang on to him.
Andy and Dave at the Bullring
We approached the Bullring where we saw the gang waiting for us. They’d already seen Oli go by and were confused over why they hadn’t seen us yet. Thankfully, Iain convinced them all that we’d possibly yet to come through and as if by magic, Dave and I appeared.
Exiting Digbeth, a chap caught up to me and said he was a fellow Cannon Hill Parkrunner; he was also a reader of this very blog! Here’s a shout-out to you Nigel! He was hoping to run about 1:34 or so and decided to stay with me for as long as possible before making a call to carry on or ease off slightly.
We ventured on to Pershore Road but sadly, I don’t remember much of this portion of the race. The mile 2 marker seemed slightly off by the time I went through it, so I knew I had to start running a cleaner line to avoid adding excess distance to my race. I’d lost Dave at some stage here and I decided to let him go rather than risk a blow out by trying to catch-up and keep up with him. Nigel and I ran past our first water station and I spotted Richard from Parkrun, shouting out to him.
Pershore Road is a good, long straight portion of the race which allowed us to get some good progress under our feet. If you’re running well, Pershore Road should just fly by but if you’re running poorly, it never seems to end.
The changes DID NOT make the course any easier!
The latest addition to the Great Birmingham Run arrived in the form of another hill on Kensington Road. The reason for this new hill on the course was to simplify a part of the route later on in Edgbaston. Mile 12 was originally a flat but twisty-turny affair that introduced some slow-down on what should otherwise be a faster portion of the race. What the organisers did was re-route mile 12 into a shorter, smoother run through Edgbaston and to compensate, they had to introduce some additional distance somewhere else on the course. The Kensington Road hill was a doddle in training but felt hard as nails at race pace. I really had to hunch over and shorten my stride to keep the pace up. I can see the organisers receiving many a request to swap the route back to the 2010-2012 version. The downhill on the other side allowed me to get my cadence up (can’t be sure, left my footpod at home…) but I knew I’d never make up the lost time from the incline.
At some stage, I ended up losing Nigel accidentally. The path narrowed due to maintaining the return route on the other side and we started to catch up to some of the slower orange wave runners from the first wave. I was getting frustrated with the weaving so I saw an opportunity to surge on to the pavement and come out on the other side, not realising Nigel had stayed back.
I spotted Mary from Cannon Hill Parkrun going into Stirchley. I also spotted Dave maybe 30 – 40m ahead of me and I decided to try and reel him back in. Running past Cadbury’s World, I managed to catch him again but our times were still down on target; my Garmin was reporting we were already 1.5 minutes behind and would require a monumental effort in the latter stages to get us back on track for a sub-90 finish. The short but sharp hill in Bournville hit me and I ended up letting Dave go on the return to Stirchley; he was running fresh compared to my less than stellar legs and my mentally tired noggin.
Noticing that my Garmin was starting to show a huge discrepancy from the mile markers, I decided to make a move to correct this. I saw a guy cut a corner by running on the pavement heading back into Stirchley and I followed in pursuit. This seemed to do the trick and the 6 mile marker and my Garmin synced up perfectly again! All I had to do now was to focus on running a clean line and hug the corners to maintain the status quo.
Approaching the 10k marker, I ran past Martin Foster from Bournville Harriers and Parkrun. He looked like he was running a good, controlled race and I wished him well. Running through 10k, Dave had already kindly worked out for me that I needed to achieve 42:48 or so to remain in contention for a sub-90 minute finish. What I actually ran through 10k in was 44:20 or similar, so I knew it was over. I immediately stopped caring about my splits and decided to run based purely on effort, which explains my somewhat erratic splits.
Back on the Pershore Road, I’d caught up to Keith Hill, who seemed to be slowing slightly. I told him to stay with me, which only went and made him surge off again into the distance! I spotted Sean Whan of Kings Heath Running Club and yelled out to him, just catching him as I ran past on the opposite side of the road. I finally managed to feel comfortable here and felt like I was running at a good pace.
Heading towards Cannon Hill Park, I knew my parents would be spectating. I’d practiced with my Mum the day before to pass me an energy gel if I gave her a sign. I gave her the sign and she quickly withdrew the gel! I just about managed to convince her to give me the gel before I ran past and high-fived my Dad whilst passing by.
My Mum played paparazzo to capture this photo
Going into Cannon Hill Park, we ran through the eerie car park again, which was now just a bit wet and miserable from the previous day’s rain. Running the Parkrun route in reverse introduced another hill to contend with for yet more slow down. Free Radio had set up their cheering station in the park and were handing some green sweets of some kind (were they jelly babies?). Mike Green and Barbara Partridge of Kings Heath Running Club saw me for a quick cheer which worked a treat to lift me up. Suz West of Bournville Harriers also gave me a cheer after the tea room for another mental boost. I managed to catch-up to Keith Hill again and hung on to him for a bit longer before letting him escape again by just a few metres, which quickly became 10 and then 20.
Leaving the park I arrived at another, you’ve guessed it, hill! Only a short one, mind, but when you’re already tired it’s the last thing you need.
Balsall Heath presented nice wide roads and I started to run with two girls just ahead of me. They must have had no idea I was behind them because they kept cutting into my path. People need to look over their shoulders if they’re going to change their line suddenly! I actually started to point in the direction I wanted to move in, indicating like you would whilst driving which seemed to work quite well. The shower in Balsall Heath was brilliant at cooling me down. Despite the overcast skies, my face was very warm and I reckon I must have been quite dehydrated as the race progressed.
The Leebank Middleway gave me a moment of recovery on its downhill portion before I had to grit my teeth for a tough mile of hills. Two guys behind me started saying they were going to push it until the end, not knowing the mother of all hills was coming up; I warned them about it just in time and they slowed themselves down slightly as we exited the Middleway.
Approaching the Charlotte Road – St James Road hills, I began to get my energy gel ready but only went and dropped it on the floor! For a moment, I wondered whether I should have stopped to pick it up or let it go? I really could have done with a sugar hit to help me through to the end, but suddenly stopping in the middle of the road probably would have caused a pile up…
The hill hit me hard. I was tired and an annoying head wind was working hard against me. I’d have tolerated the hill or wind in isolation, but not both and I reckon I was close t breaking point. I hunched forward again and pushed to get through the hill as quickly as possible, with the logic that the slower I went, the more time I would waste there. Reaching the top, I was almost completely shot and I had to slow down temporarily to catch my breath and recompose myself.
Just a mile and a bit remained before the end, so I tried to lift my pace. It was here where Bupa debuted their “Boost Zone”, which consisted of jelly babies, music and Vaseline. I felt somewhat cheated by this, because it appeared that we lost an energy drink station at mile 4 in exchange for this! An earlier energy drink stop would have been far more beneficial. If a runner had made it to mile 12, surely they could make it to the end without jelly babies and Vaseline?
Making it on to Hagley Road, I tried to lift my pace again. I couldn’t tell if I was actually going faster because everybody else around me seemed to be doing the same thing. Going under Five Ways island, I decided to start an “Oggy Oggy Oggy” chant and people actually responded with “Oi Oi Oi”!
Dave, Andy and Oli on the home stretch of the Great Birmingham Run
Coming up on the other side, the gang would be somewhere on the right between Gatecrasher and the traffic lights. We spotted each other and I fired off a few Mobots; apparently, I wasn’t looking too good compared to the fresh looking Dave that was just ahead of me. I began to lift my pace again, noting that my watch had ticked over into 1:34:XX territory; I would have been happy with a sub-1:35 performance so I began to sprint from 400m left to go. I visualised the last 400m of Parkrun and noted that this was all downhill. I kicked hard with 200m left to go and managed to overtake a good few people, crossing the line in 1:34:45 – my fastest ever Great Birmingham Run/Birmingham Half Marathon by some 11 minutes!
I still finished in the top 6% or so
The sprint had made me go anaerobic and I had to hang on to the side barrier for support. A paramedic asked if I was OK and recalling my finish at the Cardiff Half, I assertively said I was “fine” and caught my breath back after a minute or so. I caught up with Dave who had PBd with 1:33:07 – a 4 minute all time PB on a tough day and course.
We removed our timing chips and caught up with Nigel afterwards. Nigel ran a good time too and we wished him well until the next Cannon Hill Parkrun.
I like this year’s t-shirt design, but not so keen on the fabric
We collected our goodie bags and managed to bump into Seth from Parkrun and also Birmingham City Striders. He’d run a time of 1:33:22, which was great considering he’d only recently run a very good 1:32 three weeks ago at the Nottingham Half Marathon. James from Parkrun also bumped into us for a pow-wow. See? Parkrun really does bring the larger running community together!
Dave and I finally made it to Nandos, with Oli not far behind us for some much needed sustenance.
Take a look at my Garmin run data here.
Conclusion and Closing Thoughts
Whilst I’ve run four Birmingham Half Marathons/Great Birmingham Runs, I think this 2013 edition will be my last at least for a good while. Discussing my race yesterday with Lis, we both came to the conclusion that I’m simply too familiar with the course now and it lacks the mental stimulation it once had.
I didn’t even run a bad race in the grand scheme of things posting a very solid time on a tough course under sub-optimal conditions.
The Great Birmingham Run just doesn’t give me what I’m after anymore, the most important of which is PB potential. I love my PBs and that’s the primary reason that motivates me in training and to keep pushing my own limits. If you work your ass off, you’d want to squeeze almost every last ounce of potential out of yourself and the only way we can all measure this performance is down to the times we post. The Birmingham course just isn’t conducive to huge PBs. I’ll go after another sub-90 minute attempt in the spring; the race has yet to be decided but Lis is putting in another strong vote for an event that doesn’t begin with “Silver” and ends in “stone”.
So what will I do at next year’s race? I’m considering the option of volunteering as a marshal or simply spectating. I’m investigating the Nottingham Half Marathon as an autumn race option, perhaps even Bristol.
The other conclusion I have reached is that I simply can’t race two A-race half marathons so close together. Even with two weeks apart, I still felt fatigued yesterday in both body and mind. I was so fired up for Cardiff that it would be near impossible to wind myself back up again so soon afterwards.
Finally, I need to mention my friend and ex-colleague, Martin Hamer’s performance yesterday. For years Martin heckled me for running, thinking I was a mad man for putting myself through what he considered torture. He ran his first ever half marathon yesterday and posted an incredible beginner’s PB of 1:44:19; a whole minute faster than my attempt last year. He even admitted that he sandbagged a little in the final mile, safe in the knowledge that he’d blown his sub-2 hour target into oblivion. He’s a great example of what committing to several months of consistent training will produce and I’m confident he’ll dip under 1:40 on his next half marathon.