The day dawned dry but windy. Temperatures were mid-teens, perfect for racing (in my opinion). The wind would be a problem, but nothing to do about that but get out there and get going.
Jamie and I met up en route to the race and made our way to the baggage area where we hooked up with fellow some BRATs. Dan, my personal pacemaker for the morning, Chris Ashford, Martin Matthews, Ed Barlow and Kevin McMillan. Chris committed to joining Dan and I in the 5:35 bus, targeting in his own words “anything under 74”. Martin was less specific but looked like he meant business. Ed was after “81 or 82” given he wasn’t 100% on his game since the arrival of a small bundle of joy a few months back. Kevin was also vaguely after something around 80 and Jamie was looking for sub90 still on his way back to regular running again.
We lined up in our separate pen directly behind the elites and waited for the gun. For this race report to make sense it is probably worth looking at the course profile below. As alluded to many times in the TV commentary this is a tough course with a few nasty inclines and then a killer climb of at least a mile between 17km and 19km. These climbs and the gradual uphill from 5-10 and gentle down from 10-15 define the race. “Unusually tough for an international event looking to attract the fastest runners in the world”.
The gun went and the stampede ensued. The first km is a mineshaft drop that you can really do without. I was determined not to overcook this downhill start and held back as much as possible. A group headed by Dan and Chris was at least 50m ahead of me when I went through the first km in 3:31. I knew I needed to latch on, and once the dangerous down was out the way I consciously stepped on the gas to catch up to the back of the group. It was about a dozen strong, including three of the elite women, Irvette Van Zyl from SA, Ana Dulce Felix from Portugal and another who I didn’t know. My second km was 3:13. I was surprised at the pace but wasn’t too worried as I was now in the bus and felt like I hadn’t cooked the goose. I settled in at the back while Dan and Ana drove on at the front. The next 3 km’s were 3:18, 3:26 and 3:31, taking me to the 5k mark in 16:59. I was working pretty hard to stay with the group but had faith in Dan’s pace making. I figured if I could stick with him for long enough it would start to feel right because I knew it was a pace I was should be able to live with.
At around 6k we turned right up the first notable pull of the day. The group immediately stretched. A few fell off. Irvette and I slid off the back slightly and ran side by side for a while behind them. I wanted to say something to her, preferably in Afrikaans thinking she would be boosted by knowledge that she had a countryman of sorts helping her. I couldn’t think of anything to say so didn’t say anything, thanks brain. As we hit the top of the climb and turned left back towards Pershore Road I sped up and closed back onto the bus, which had now been whittled to about 8 survivors. Irvette came with me and we resumed our position at the back of the pack, getting towed along.
At this point Felix decided she had more legs and as soon as we got back onto Pershore Road she pushed ahead with one of the uni youngsters who had been in our group. The pair disappeared off and we didn’t see them again. The climb to the 10k mark was wearing people down and a few more detached as we turned the corner and hit Bournville. The sharp incline saw off Irvette and I didn’t see her again for the rest of the race.
We passed the 10k mark in 34:37, our group had now become an exclusive BRAT-only three-way. And everyone loves a BRAT three-way. Dan and Chris with me tucked in behind forming a tight triangle. I felt great at this point and on a high, commended Dan on his sterling work so far.
Orlando Corea formerly of Bournville but now of Birchfield fame, had been quietly biding his time in the group in the early stages but had disappeared when it got whittled down. But he is a classy runner with a 71min half to his name from a few years ago and now he reappeared and our became 4. Luckily the Birchfield vest is also black so we still looked good heading back down the other side of Pershore Road. The gentle incline going the other direction was now a gentle descent and the pace edged up slightly as Dan looked to put some time in the bank. Successive km’s of 3:25, 3:23, 3:24 were rattled off as we marched on. Orlando decided he’d had enough of this pedestrian pace and broke clear to a point about 30m ahead of us.
The increasing pace on the descent, combined with the fatigue starting to accumulate as we hit the 13-14km zone, caused me to start faltering. I was struggling with the pace and probably subconsciously thinking of the final 5k of the race. See the profile to remind you how ugly the final 5k is. I slipped a few metres off the pace as Dan and Chris closed the gap back towards Orlando. At this point I was hurting and I was also fairly happy with how the race had gone. I was reaching that point where you think, you know what, I’ve banked a great first 14km here, I can settle in, not hurt so much and still run a solid sub75. It’s the usual negotiations your body enters into with your mind as the hurt starts increasing exponentially. “Why not stop this nonsense?” it says. “You’ve done well buddy, you deserve a bit of foot off the gas time”. As they edged 5, 10, 15 metres ahead of me I was saying in my head “Don’t look back Dan, just keep going and stay with those 2, let me suffer quietly on my own.” Obviously at exactly that point Dan, the star that he is, looked back and saw I was off the back. He immediately ran wide and slowed so I caught up to him. “Come on mate” he said “Work back to the group. Let’s get back to them”. I put my head down and put the opt-out plan out of my head, and tucked in behind him as he took me back to the group. The 4 of us were now reunited heading into Cannon Hill Park.
I must have run literally hundreds of miles in Cannon Hill Park. It is a great place to train, not to mention home of the cannon hill parkrun, which I’ve run 60+ times. We climbed a short hill in the park and set off towards one of the gates at the top. Chris was opening an energy gel he had been carrying and moved across the road to get some water from a station as we passed. There was contact between him and Orlando and he went down. Hard. Really hit the tarmac. None of this semi-slam stuff, this was the real deal. I was off to his right and had just missed getting caught in the fall, Dan was slightly ahead so was also unscathed, but Orlando had stumbled over Chris being right behind him and I think slowed to assess the damage. Suddenly it was just me and Dan. We went through the 15km in 51:55. Maybe it was the adrenalin from being right next to the fall but I suddenly felt full of running. I pulled up alongside Dan as we exited the park and began the journey towards The Hill. “Relax” Dan said “don’t push yet mate, just keep doing what you’re doing.” The advice was timeous and gratefully received. I felt good but was unsure how to proceed and I figured, well this guy has been spot on with his pacing so far, why second guess anything now?
We headed through Highgate and towards the main road that would pull us painfully back up the hill towards the city centre. The two kay splits from cannon hill to the start of the hill were 3:27 and 3:28. I felt good, I felt confident. Bring this hill on. Then something amazing happened. First we heard footsteps and before we knew it, Chris was back in the group! Bleeding a lot from his right knee and even more from his right elbow and arm, he had somehow made up the ground and latched back on. “Chris you legend” I said to him. And so the 3 of us hit the foot of the climb.
I tucked in behind the two of them as we began to climb. About a quarter of the way up Chris got perhaps half a yard on us and Dan looked at me and said “go with him mate”. It was all I needed to hear. More impeccable advice. I sped up to Chris, leaving Dan, pacemaker extraordinaire, behind. He had worked so hard as wind breaker, pace-judger and advice-giver to this point. I felt bad as I pulled away, but I remembered what he had said pre-race “mate I will give everything to deliver you to the bottom of the climb. Then you can (Chris) Froome it from there”. So I stretched away and tucked in behind Chris. Almost immediately I pulled back out of his slipstream and went past. I suddenly knew it was time to empty the contents of whatever was still rattling around in the locker. I raced up the hill hurting but feeling great. Strange. I knew I was going to run a good time. I was sure I was close to my PB. I must be. I picked out Martin up ahead who was having a very decent run. I caught and passed him and set my target on two of the elite starters who were in range. From the top of the hill it must be about 2k to the finish. I was working really hard now and picking up the pace a lot.
My splits up the hill had been 3:53 and 3:46. Those kays had added 23 and 16 seconds respectively onto my 3:30 target average. I could only hope I had built up enough reserve to offset them. I couldn’t do the maths now. I turned right onto Hagley Road and could taste the finish. The 20k marker was coming up on my left, I had walked past it earlier that morning to get to the start. I flew past the mark in 70:02. I could get under 74. The hill hadn’t killed off the PB chance. I caught up with a Highgate harrier elite and tried to work with him. He wasn’t too interested in helping with the pace but also was clearly in no mood to let me get away. We sprinted down Broad Street towards the finish line. I love this bit of the race. One of the best finishes of any race. Crowds lining either side of the dual carriageway. You feel like a superstar. The gentle downhill. The proximity to the finish. It all adds up to an awesome kick for home. The Highgate runner outkicked me with ease but I didn’t care. I felt like I was flying. The final km split of 3:05 confirms, that for me, I was. I stopped the clock on 1:13:29. A 20 second PB. I was exhausted and ecstatic.
I finished 23rd or 24th (tbc) overall.
I walked through the finish area and waited for the guys to come in behind me. A clutch of BRATS, Martin, Chris and Dan all finished around 74 minutes. We must have sewn up the club competition (also tbc). I gave Dan a huge thank you, geeky runner’s style high five. Mate you were rock solid in today’s race. Without your work there was no PB for me. Simple as that.
Chris, what a hero, finishing in 73:56 and rushing straight off to hospital to get stitched up. Martin a solid solid race. If you’d run with us in the beginning instead of doing all that work on your own, you’d no doubt have been quicker. Dan, enough said.
Jamie had a less memorable run, having to stop numerous times for a stomach problem, Ed Barlow was pleased with his 81 and Kevin seemed satisfied with his 81.
What an awesome race. Birmingham’s own little version of VLM day. Not that little actually with over 20,000 runners.
See you in 2015.