I really must work out how to remove that “gloomy” filter from my camera
Birmingham, as any self-respecting Brummie will tell you, has more trees than Paris and more canals than Venice. On Sunday, I discovered, it also has more hills than Hillsville in Hillshire.
I’d been wanting to do this races for a couple of years, ever since coming across it by accident during a visit to Cadbury’s World, in my one time home town of Bournville. I’d trained for it without the usual total devotion to a programme but had managed to fit in a few long runs, including a slow, wet 13 mile effort just over a week ago.
Birmingham was buzzing when I arrived with traffic jams into town and helicopters overhead. After some chaotic attempts to leave the baggage area with everything I’d need over the next couple of hours, I finally lined up with 19,999 others and was set off into the City Centre by super-swimmer Ellie Simmonds.
This was my first “big city” race and being cheered by hordes of enthusiastic Brummies was probably the closest I’ll ever come to scoring a goal in front of the Holte End at Villa Park (in fact I went to Villa Park later that day and most of the team looked like they’d not be scoring in front of the Holte End any time soon either). I was then in for a long trip down Memory Lane of sights that either still exist or have long since disappeared or transformed into something else. Before leaving the City Centre I’d spotted:
- Snobs, in the 1980s this was one of the few Birmingham night-clubs that didn’t insist on a suit and tie. Amazingly it’s still up and running and not exactly living up to its name
- The Navigation Chip Bar, once the host of Birmingham’s first Space Invaders machine, unfortunately vanished and replaced by a smart office
The nostalgia opportunities during the long flat journey to Bournville took my mind off much of the discomfort that running half marathons can entail. Just before Cannon Hill I got to heckle a spectator brandishing a huge West Bromwich Albion flag apparently thinking this might spur us on. “Up the Villa!” I shouted, learning in the process that sustained physical exertion makes my accent about 10 times more Brummie than usual.
At Selly Park we were diverted up the first hill, turning left at the end of the road my grandparents used to live on and past a big old walled convent. In my school-days I’d always wondered about what went on inside that big old building. Now was the chance for the Sisters to connect with the passing runner, perhaps with a Nuun sponsored water station, but unfortunately the gates remained locked and the mysterious convent remains just that.
Then it was back down to Pershore Road, and towards Stirchley, past the swimming baths (the post-swimming chips and curry sauce outlet was no longer there), along the edge of a series of streets with the same names as the Green section on the Monopoly board and then the potential main highlight for me: Cadbury’s. This giant settlement devoted to chocolate had a big significance in my first 16 years. I’d gone to primary school directly opposite the Willy Wonkaesque factory. The parents of most of the kids in my class worked there and several times a week our playground would be overpowered with the smell of chocolate.
Sneak preview of next month’s Runner’s World cover star
Today Cadbury’s was quiet, but the Bournville villagers were out in force, several rows deep, including my sister and two nephews. The sight of them brandishing cameras made me immediately think of the Woman off of the Front of Southern Running Guide and here is the result of a moment of lapsed concentration.
The next stage involved a welcome downhill stretch to the 10K point and then it was back towards town with some fairly major diversions. Firstly into Cannon Hill Park, home of the Midland Arts Centre. Years ago I’d gone on countless school trips there to see puppet shows with the fluorescent painted marionettes animated by people in black cat suits (that we had to pretend we hadn’t noticed). I didn’t spot the amphiteatre where I’d climbed up the wall to see some pretty special gigs in the summers of the early 1980s. Is it still there?
A long fairly unchallenging stretch through Balsall Heath seemed to go on for some time – I think the race organisers wanted to keep us in suspense because we all knew that some kind of hill was imminent around miles 10-11…
…And then it arrived. After we’d dropped down into the tunnel at Lee Bank Middleway, we made our way back into daylight and the up the incline towards Five Ways. It was a hill but I’ve known worse and I could soon see the top. However we then turned off the main road and onto the bottom of a second slightly steeper hill. My legs were protesting and I fought off the temptation to walk. At the summit, a woman was handing out Jelly Babies, but it turned out to be the second of three or four summits. I was expecting to start seeing mountain goats and people in lederhosen – was my first experience of running at altitude to be in the West Midlands of all places?
I knew all prospects of a PB or anything close were now dead in the water but I kept going. It was all rewarded by a flat or possibly slightly downhill dash along Broad Street to the finishing line and the huge crowds prompted me into “sprinting” the last 100 metres.
I’ve frequently been reliving this race in mind since Sunday. It was odd trying to maintain the right pace to make sure I could keep going for the full 13.1 miles and still achieve a respectable time only to be confronted by such a huge challenge so close to the end (there are currently 427 comments about those hills on the Birmingham Great Run Facebook page). I’m relaxed about my time (some 7 minutes slower than my “Rogue Run” PB) because I’m confident I could do another half marathon in a few weeks time, somewhere else, and go a whole a lot quicker. Those hills are now a distant memory and I can see myself coming back for more.