It was way, way back in late December, as I killed time on my phone while waiting for the kids to go to sleep, that an e-mail notification came through. It was from Great Run. ‘Congratulations Peter… it started. Could it really be? It was. I had won one of ten pairs of entries to take part in the 2014 Great Birmingham Run! It was a joyous moment. At the time it was roughly three months after the 2013 Great North Run, and I was looking to build up an itinerary of races across 2014 in securement of my new-found love for running. This was perfect. At the time, it wasn’t quite what I wanted – to be honest I really wanted to do Great North Run again – but this was just as good – it meant getting out and seeing the country, taking on another big race, and at Sir Brendan Foster’s expense, haha! Finances meant I could only afford to do one big race at this time of year, so I quite willing sacrificed plans for Newcastle, Cardiff, and anywhere else I’d set my sights on for the big autumn race. Birmingham it was. I didn’t have to look too far for a person to share the prize with – in the end it was accepted by my mate Jordan, a now former work colleague of mine and someone with experience of the Great Birmingham Run, having competed in the 2012 edition. Time passed, things got organised, and (in my case at least) hundreds of miles were run. The last couple of weeks were a bit of a rollercoaster – I felt my right knee giving my gip after a long 12 mile run which had left me feeling quite sore – and I didn’t get any running done after the Tuesday before the race as I looked to preserve myself. And charity was also a concern of mine having not seen it go to plan all year, although a huge donation from my brother’s girlfriend’s family boosted in shortly before the race. I decided that Birmingham was going to be my last one as a fundraiser for the MND Association, albeit one I was determined to finish with a bang.
Fast forward to Saturday 18th October, 2014 – The weekend finally arrived, and having been planned well in advance with everything from the train tickets to the hotel and everything inbetween, my bus arrived in plenty of time and I was in Huddersfield by 12:00pm. Jordan was waiting inside the station and we headed to the nearby Platform 1 to await for our train. Which was running about 15 minutes late. Typically. Ah well, no sweat. The train arrived with 7 minutes to spare for the connecting train at Manchester, which was directly across from the train we dismounted – an easy changeover. We arrived at Birmingham New Street station a smidgen late, owing to some signalling problems, and we exited the station. We quickly found our hotel and got checked in, before deciding to head back outside. We spent the remainder of our afternoon sampling Birmingham city centre atmosphere, which includes a couple of impressive beatboxers, a quick marvelling of the Bullring and a walk around the city centre, taking in the Paradise Forum, the LCC Symphony Hall (near the race finish), Victoria Square, before turning into a bit of an aimless meander after we forgot where our restaurant of choice for the evening was. Eventually we found our way over to Ask Italian, which we had already walked past not once, but TWICE. Best to get lost before the race, eh? Anyway, we had a cracking Pollo au Penne something each and a bill of around £30 later, we made a quiet retreat to the hotel where we spent the evening watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, QI XL, Modern Life is Goodish, and a bit of Southampton’s 8-0 demolition of Sunderland, before calling it a night.
We were back up just after 6am, taking in the NFL highlights on Channel 4 and were downstairs to breakfast at 7am, where the planned pre-race porridge fest would take place. Except, there was no porridge. Hmph. No matter, I’ll have granola instead. That didn’t work either. The vessel containing the stuff wouldn’t release the cereal. One of the staff members came over to take a look at it. He lifted it up, and hey presto. Granola everywhere. I gave up. The relatively untested corn flakes were opted for as cereal of choice instead, as well as some toast, a mini-muffin and a yogurt, with a cup of tea and some juice. About 35 minutes later we were done, and we went to prepare to check out as the highlights of the Plusnet Yorkshire Marathon finished.
We headed outside having ensured we’d left nothing behind, and immediately went the wrong way, heading back towards the Bullring. Thankfully we were shown the way by another runner, someone a little more local, who was on his way to the event. We had a great time talking to him, taking in some of the sites and learning a bit about the city along the way. It was a beautiful walk indeed, from the nicely designed Level 0 building, (where we gave another runner some paper clips and were offered a fiver for the gesture in return – we politely declined), to the Birmingham Old Canal, which was a scenic route all the way to the National Indoor Arena. The weather was beautiful.
Bags dropped off, we made our way to the start and with a pre-race selfie completed, we made our way to our respective zones. Myself in orange, Jordan in white. We’d agreed to run separately as I was chasing a time, and Jordan was fine for me to head off and to try and get myself on telly with the elites! There we completed the long wait. We had got into our zones from 9:30am. I was directed to the left hand side of the road. It was getting busy as you’d expect, what with TV crews afoot, thousands of runners getting into position, and Roy Gale doing his thing aboard a scissorlift. There was a real itching to get moving.
The horn was sounded at 10:10am, but only for the orange wave on the right hand side. We waited a further 10 minutes to get going and by now I was really itching to get away. My Garmin just about managed to get my location in time. I set my run off early on my phone (sitting in my back pocket) on MapMyRun just so I needn’t faff about with it as I crossed the start line. Finally, the horn was sounded after 10:21am, and off we went.
I don’t know whether it was 40 minutes of warming up, 6 days of rest, the bowl of Corn Flakes I’d had that morning, or the eternal wait for race day, but I went off like a rocket. Yes, old habits die hard they seem, and what I was about to occur shocked me to the point of swearing at my watch. It went through the first mile in 4:53. Four minutes and fifty-three seconds. I’d just smashed my PB for a mile by 30 seconds. Where on earth did that come from? I quickly realised I needed to try and return to a more normalised pace, which for me would count anywhere hovering around the six-minute mark, not the five-minute mark. My next two miles, according to the watch, went for 5:50 and 6:05 – I haven’t worked out my 5K split but it must have been pretty quick, around 17 minutes, which was way quicker than anything I’d done for that distance. I was feeling the strain from that blistering start though, and the next three miles would certainly feel arduous, even if I was continuing at a reasonable pace. On a couple of occasions, I got bottlenecked – this checked my pace but rather too much for my liking, and if I was going to keep up this chase for a PB I needed to get around and between other runners much quicker. I did have one brief moment of hilarity though when I slapped the outstretched hand of a lad of about 11 years – as I ran into the distance, I could hear him saying ‘ow! That was really hard!’ Oh dear. I didn’t offer my hand again after that! And I had a bit of a fanboy moment as I spotted Steve Way running in the opposite direction, shouting ‘Steve!’ instead of ‘go on Steve’, or words to that effect. He was clearly focused on his race and I got back to focusing on mine. It was hard going, as the sun beamed down, the crowds cheered. I continue to huff and puff.
Heading around Bournville, I picked up some jelly babies and a Lucozade Sport drink, which gave me a bit of a boost heading into the 7th mile, moving back along Pershore Road. I had a bit more drive to start passing people again and to have a bit of a surge. As I ran back along this road, I noticed that my makeshift repair of my race number had failed, and the top corner of it had come loose. The occasional gust of wind was threatening to get rid of this wardrobe malfunction but I refused to let it become too much of a distraction. Instead, my gaze occasionally wandered back across to the opposite side for the white wave runners, looking out for my mate but instead spotting someone in a giraffe costume and of course, hordes of runners. Onwards I continued to push. Knowing the apparent ‘killer hill’ was approaching I used the next few miles to try and nick a few more seconds if I could muster it. The course turned into the beautiful Cannon Hall Park, awash with fervent supporters. By now I was starting to feel the heat a little bit – thankfully the nine mile point signalled another combined Lucozade/water station and a chance to take on more jelly babies too, thanks to more kind-hearted supporters. I continued to put in the odd surge now and again just to try and keep the pace going, but I soon felt the heat again. Mercifully, the shower zone was on the horizon, and I decided to run through it. Eeesh, that was cold! Made me glad I didn’t do the ice bucket challenge straight after the Halifax Half back in August.
The turn onto the A4540 signalled that the hill was approaching, as the race went through an underpass beneath the Belgrave Interchange. The exit from the tunnel meant the start of the hill, and I decided I had enough to attack it. I started taking powerful strides up it, and I was soon up onto the turn to Ryland Road. I was happy to get up that first section of hill, but I could feel exhaustion kicking in and I was doing all sorts – talking to myself, even once tapping myself in the temple, to try and psyche myself up and find some extra energy. The race turned onto Charlotte Road, and ascended the remainder of the hill. That attack had drained me a bit. The legs were slowing, not going terribly slow, and certainly not struggling like some of the steeper hills back in Yorkshire, but this was a long hill designed to test people, and testing it was. Nothing I couldn’t handle, but at the same time I was determined to try and get through and keep my PB attempt on track.
Finally the hill ended at the end of St James Road, and the left turn onto Calthorpe Road signalled the approach into the final mile or so of the race. A couple of tight right hand turns later, it was onto Hagley Road for the race finale. I was feeling desperate to see the finish at this point – it felt so close, yet really so far away. It was then, as the road went under the Middleway, the glorious sounds of Chariots of Fire played in the tunnel. My surge from the 800 metre point had failed to spark initially, but the initial descent into the underpass and the sounds of that hugely-inspiring music encouraged me to put those quads through hell one more time as I tried to nick another few seconds. Out of the tunnel, and soon there was only 400 metres left. I didn’t have my optimum sprint finish about me, but I could see the clock in the distance and that was enough to strain just that little bit more, trying to number crunch the clocks to see whether I was ahead of that magical 1:25:00. I crossed the line, hit the button on my Garmin and initially dropped to my knees in exhaustion. A couple of marshals came off and made sure I was OK, helping me back up and setting me back on my way. I quickly made sure I finished the backup I’d started on MapMyRun, via my battered and bruised phone. I checked my Garmin time, which read 1:25:37, across 13.18 miles. Not the magic 1:25:00, but a new PB of over a minute according to the watch. Nice!
The walk back to the baggage area was amazing. A man by the name of Willie came over to me noticing my vest. He told me he was racing for them at the London Marathon next year, and we exchanged stories about our race, our experiences with losing loved ones to MND, and talking about our pacing and other races too. We parted at the baggage area but it was great to talk to someone about a spectrum of why we both run. After collecting my baggage from the NIA, I went off to the sidelines and tried to stretch off as much as I could. In the meantime another runner for the MNDA, a younger man named Mark, talked to me, explaining he’d run in around 1:42:00 despite not doing more than a mile for three months, despite rolling his ankle at mile 10, and despite his university roommates waking him at 3am and 5am respectively before the race. Some achievement despite an obvious lack of training and some abhorrent obstacles to overcome!
After waiting around just outside the entrance/exit to the baggage area for a while, my mate arrived around the corner, looking a little worse for wear but otherwise OK from the rigours of the course. He’d already stretched off and wasn’t long collecting his baggage. We began to make our way into town and I thought I’d check my result online along the way. What I saw was most amazing. Most incredible. Hell, even unbelievable.
1:23:41. 139th position. Out of 20,000 people.
Jordan also came home in a new PB of 1:51:14, a PB of around 7 minutes for him. We were both pleased about the result, and I couldn’t believe I’d run that quickly, or finished that highly! But I was a bit perplexed as to how my watch had got it badly wrong. Initially I dismissed it because surely the chip had to be accurate. Judging by how my watch behaved, it had to be wrong, right? But wow, what a result. Both of us had new PBs, and awesome ones at that. We headed back to the Paradise Forum, where a planned Running The World meet-up was to take place. It looked very busy in the pub, as you can imagine, but we headed in for a bit of post-race refreshment. Initially unable to find the people in question, I actually used the Facebook group page to find the organiser had uploaded a photo showing the area of the pub in question. We made our way over and introduced ourselves to Beckie, Roger, Karl and Victoria, who had all run the course as well. We were gifted an awesome RTW cake as created by Beckie, and we got talking about running, and indeed our watch times. Apparently I wasn’t the only one whose watch was roughly two minutes out – a backstory of the race that would rumble on for a few days afterwards.
We made our way to New Street Station for 3:00pm and two hours later we were back in Leeds to go our separate ways. Aching, tired, but both with new personal best times, a prize as good as the prize itself. It was great to take this weekend away back to my hometown as the sun went down along the ride home.
Indeed, the time on the chip was not to be. On the following Wednesday Great Run confirmed they were looking into an issue affecting everyone who started on the left and have since confirmed an error with the timing mats which contributed to a 1 minute 58 seconds difference. My time was later confirmed to be 1:25:37, 196th position. My watch time was bang on. Still a personal best and still a time I can be pleased with. And woop, top 200! Though it’s disappointing that such a major event, and let’s not forget, an IAAF Silver Label event can get this so wrong. Good job the elites set off on the right otherwise we could have been close to world record pace here.
While I have mixed feelings about how post-race has unfolded (not least of all on certain aspects of social media), I can at least reflect on having a new personal best time whatever comes out, and it was phenomenal to race in the charity colours for potentially the last time as a fundraiser, if not to raise awareness – and it was great to talk to other fellow fundraisers after the race, as well as some more of the awesome Running the World group. To be honest, it wasn’t my best race tactically – I went off far too hard in the beginning and paid for it later on – but to come out with a new best time shows the work I’ve put into cracking my previous mark has paid off. And it was great to share this weekend with a friend, which I likely wouldn’t have done but for the fact that prize was to be shared, and I’m glad Jordan got as much out of this experience as I did. The crowds for this race were amazing – really loud in some places and just as awesome as in the North East. I’d love to come back and do this race again one day – it was, as you’d expect with Great Run races, fantastically well organised, from marshalling, to refreshments on course, to an easy to access and well drilled baggage facility too.
News that Birmingham wants to rival the Great North Run in size are ambitious, but I wouldn’t put it past the nation’s second city. And not only that, I enjoyed my time in the city in general – the people were great to deal with; the city itself was bustling and vibrant, and rich in modern and Victorian architecture, and to be in the presence of some of these landmarks really defined what a suitable venue this was for such a race. Even if I had paid my entry into this race, it would have been worth every penny for that aspect alone.
NB: I’m still fundraising for the MND Association until 28/11/2014 – please head to http://justgiving.com/Peter-Clegg2 to donate. All donations will be doubled before the end of the campaign. Cheers!