When Lolly signed up to the Two Tunnels Mini Challenge, she did so in the knowledge that a) this would mean running her first half marathon and b) Ben had already signed up to run that very same half marathon. Yes, for the first time in just over 3 years we would be running the same race.
B: Having set off shortly after eight, we arrived on site with plenty of time to spare. My race wave was scheduled to set off at 11, so I was aiming to make sure that I was there by 10. Although on our previous visits there had been plenty of parking around the area, we were wary that there would be a lot more people around, and so aimed to arrive early to get me time to drop everyone off on site and then find somewhere on one of the surrounding streets to park. This didn’t actually take me as long as I’d expected, so I wasn’t that far behind Lolly in entering the park. I knew that she had planned to head straight over to the toilets, so I wandered over to pick up both of our numbers, which turned out to be a pretty straightforward process. This achieved, I saw Lolly, who seemed to have managed to get some of the colour run powder on her. Apparently it had caused a few problems with her asthma, so we hoped the loose powder around the start line would be well trodden down by the time she started.
B: The problem with turning up early for races to make sure you don’t end up late is that you then have loads of time spare to basically do nothing before the race starts. Still, I don’t know what I am moaning about, given that Lolly’s race didn’t start for another 40 minutes after mine, a whole two hours after we arrived on site! I opted to kill some time by joining the queue for the toilet, which had now swelled somewhat. There were, in fact, two queues for the toilets, and typically I joined the wrong one – though given part of the motivation was to kill time, maybe it was the right one after all! While I was in the queue, the first race of the morning set off, the first of two waves of marathoners. They were running two laps of the half marathon course, something I didn’t envy them at all.
B: The toilet queue had done its job, a couple more of the waves had set off. Lolly had got quite worried at one stage, as it turns out that some of the colours were used for more than one wave, and so her colour had been called, but for the 10k – not half marathon! As I was pottering around to kill a bit more time, I happened to bump into Andy, a fellow Longrun Meadow parkrunner. He was there doing the 10k, and after a few polite questions we each headed off for our preparations. I jogged a lap of the field, with some dynamic stretches thrown in, as although there was an organised “aerobics”-style warm-up near the start, I wanted to stick to what I used to.
B: I eventually, and slightly reluctantly, headed over to the start line when our wave was called. Reluctantly, as it seemed to be a long time before the race was due to start, for quite a small field. Still, I half-heartedly took part in the aerobic warm-up, and then once the wave before ours had set off, we piled into the starting pen. Of course, at this stage we were still about ten minutes early, so there was plenty of time for discussions. The main point of conversation was about the fact that the course was slightly long. While I had been aware of this (in fact, having been surprised by some course conditions at previous races, I’d pretty much “Google Earth”ed the whole route), lots of people apparently weren’t. A few people were quite annoyed, as they had been hoping to get a PB.
B: After watching Lolly’s previous races, I knew that there tended to be something of a bottleneck at the narrow path leading out of the field. Given this, I made the decision to intentionally go off a bit quick at the start, to try and get through that bit while there were relatively few other runners around. The plan worked well, but unsurprisingly I then found it quite tough to force myself to slow down. I did manage it, and let quite a few runners past, including Stuart from the Burnham Harriers, who I’ve chatted to quite often during Somerset Series races. Shortly after he passed me, I saw Andy coming the other way, so yelled out a quick “good luck” before we crossed paths. Despite having heard plenty about the races from Lolly, and having read her earlier blog post, I was slightly surprised at how soon we entered the first tunnel, and even more surprised at how dark it was inside. There was lighting all the way along, but it was very dim, and it was a struggle to see oncoming runners and bicycles until they were around ten metres ahead. We were soon back out of the first tunnel, and it wasn’t long before we then entered the second, much longer, tunnel. Despite the low lighting, the tunnels were both brilliant to run in; being cool and refreshing. With no GPS in the tunnel, or at least, unreliable GPS, I had to run by feel. My gut feeling was that I was probably still a little out of place, and that by keeping pace with those around me, I was going a little quicker than I wanted, but I decided that I would rather try and stick with those around me for the time being, and see how things were around the five mile mark.
B: Shortly after leaving the second tunnel, we passed the three-mile marker. At the time, because of the GPS issues through the tunnels, my watch only read 2.89 miles. I took the decision to reset it, meaning that my “mile beeps” would be out of synch with the display, but it would give me a better idea of the actual distances, and give me a more accurate idea of my pace a bit sooner. The first drinks station was situated not much further along, presumably at the turn around point for the 10k runners. I chose not to take anything. The course then dropped off the old railway line through a gate and down a series of slippery muddy steps onto a dirt track which led us to the village of Monkton Combe. From here, we then dropped down another set of steps onto a path which led to the Kennet and Avon Canal – which we weren’t going to leave for a while!
L: The waiting was nearly at an end. Nerves had completely overwhelmed me, and my tummy was feeling more than a little funny – I lost count of the number of toilet trips I’d made. Being in the final wave did not do me any favours. I kept nervously looking around to check that there were indeed still some green bibs left. As my wave was called, I said goodbye to my family and joined the warm up. I’m not entirely sure why I did, as my warm up involved hanging around near the back doing some dynamic stretches. The official warm up looked far too energetic. The thought dawned that maybe this was not a day that I should be trying to run my first half marathon.
B: At the second drinks station, I took a plastic cup of water, but as usual with plastic cups, I mostly managed to spill it over myself, and swallow lots of air. It wasn’t ideal. Just beyond that drinks stations, I was pretty amazed to see the five-mile marker. It was at least half a mile too early, even taking into account all the GPS uncertainties. The next twenty minutes was entirely along the canal. I was slowly falling off the back of the group that I had been running with since the tunnels, but the nature of this section meant that they remained in view, which helped with my pacing, though I did go a little fast in mile six – my fastest mile of the race. Although this section was theoretically quite boring, it didn’t seem it at the time, as there were people cheering from the canal boats, and just enough other walkers and runners about to keep things interesting. At about seven miles in, there was another drinks station. This time, I took a bottle of water, even though we’d been told to only take these if we’d drink the whole thing. I knew I wouldn’t, but also knew that I didn’t want to swallow any more air with my water from a plastic cup! Hopefully there’d still be some left for the slower runners if they wanted one…
L: The moment had finally arrived. I tried to get a favourable starting position, but, as often happens, some people right on the line weren’t planning on setting off as quickly. This lead to a lot of weaving and dodging on the way out the field. As we headed out onto the footpath I saw a stream of runners heading the other way and tried to settle into a pace. I was well aware that this was the only section of the course I really knew. Entering the first tunnel, running didn’t feel as easy as it should. I tried to focus my attention on the other runners around me – taking the chance to cheer at a first-time 10k runner I’d met earlier.
B: Somewhere during the ninth mile, as we were entering a more populated area of Bath again, I had lost view of the group of runners I’d been with completely. There were still a couple of others around me, but we stretched out a little. Although the route to this point had been reasonably flat and easy going, this section was pretty tough. The path kept switching which side of the canal it was on, which involved a series of short, steep climbs up to bridges with lots of sharp corners. Probably due to this, mile ten was my slowest of the race to that point, and was followed by the out-and-back section along the River Avon up to Pulteney Bridge. It was nice to be around plenty of other runners again, though I feel sorry for some of the tourists – there was one family that seemed to be trying to take a photo with the bridge and weir in the background, but runners kept going past, ruining it. They were trying on both my out, and my back stint. Oops. At the end of the out-and-back, we had to collect a wristband to prove we’d done it (although no one actually checked for this at the end). There was also a drinks station, but it was a few metres further on, and there was a bit of a queue, so I opted not to take anything, aware that this was a decision that I might seriously regret later.
L: Leaving the second tunnel I knew my time on familiar ground was coming to an end. I grabbed a cup of water from the drinks station and was somewhat taken aback by the immediate sharp turn to split off. This feeling was compounded by going through a kissing gate and then heading straight down some very slippy steps. I took the opportunity to finish my water – there was no way I was running down there – and was pleased that no one behind me seemed inclined to barge past. The route headed out onto roads and there was a communal feeling that the roads were a tad steeper than expected. I passed a couple of other runners on the uphill sections, pretty convinced that this wouldn’t last.
B: After the out-and-back section, the route followed the River Avon for the next couple of miles. This included a short stint off the river, when we had to cross over a couple of zebra crossing, but this was very well managed, and didn’t lose us any time at all. Once that had been negotiated, the race started to feel very lonely. There were no signs along the river to indicate that you were going the right way (not that there was really anywhere else to go), and by this stage I couldn’t see any runners in front or behind me. Although I was convinced that I couldn’t have gone wrong, I was a bit worried about whether I was on the right track. I was also worried about the fact that we were still down at river level, and the start/finish area was… well… up. I found this section mentally very tough, though I managed to maintain a decent pace for miles eleven and twelve. Eventually, we turned up off the river and onto the pavement next to the main road which we’d entered Bath on. I knew it wasn’t much longer now… just that hill…
L: More steps. Who puts more steps in a half marathon course? The path at the bottom was nice though, both for running on and in terms of scenery. It finished with a complicated-looking road, track and car park junction that threw me for a minute. The sight of the drinks station in the car park was a welcome one, and I took a risk in asking for some nuun electrolyte solution as well as water. There was a long way to go and taking on energy felt the way to go. As it was I had plenty of time to get the water down, as a car decided to move and forced me to stop. The path out of the car park was equally frustrating, with a large number of walkers to dodge. I had to laugh at the sight of the 5 mile marker – even adjusting for GPS failure in the tunnels it was out. And so it was with a smile on my face that I joined the canal. Living fairly near the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal I’m fairly used to running on towpaths, but I’m not used to the canal being occupied. There were boats everywhere, and a real hub of energy. We soon crossed over the canal to the other side and began what would be the longest stretch of the course. Solid, flat, and cheering from ‘spectators’ on narrow boats. Pretty much ideal running conditions if you ignore the lunchtime heat. And yet despite all that I could feel myself tiring and starting to slow down.
B: Before I had to start climbing the final ascent to the finish, there was the small matter of the A36. There was a marshal posted at a pelican crossing (they’re the ones with traffic lights, and green and red men), and I was quite looking forward to the idea of a short break. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) the lights were pretty quick in changing in favour of pedestrians, and the marshal pushed the button just before I got there, meaning that they changed as soon as I got to them, without having to stop at all. We then began what felt like a complicated section of twists and turns through some residential streets. In all honesty, Strava suggests that it really wasn’t that complicated. Nevertheless, it was a continual climb, which at this stage of a half marathon I wasn’t too keen on, and I dropped to a walk around the 13.1 mark. I crossed that in around 1:40, which was a PB for the distance, and boosted by that and some encouragement from a fellow runner, I picked up the pace again. I stuck with the runner up the final bit of hill, and then we both sped up as the course flattened off for the last “sprint” to the finish. In reality, I don’t think I even hit 10k pace for the last dash, but I didn’t really care, I’d finished! Some of Lolly’s family, who we’d been expecting, but hadn’t arrived when I set off, cheered me in, and one of them brought Leila over to me straight after the finish. Being completely honest though, I felt quite sick, and really just wanted a few minutes to myself. After drinking plenty of water and collecting my medal I headed back over to where Lolly’s family were gathered, to wait for her to finish.
L: People were starting to overtake me. Some were very encouraging, some were more focussed on their own goals. It was kind of the same with people out walking – some would move to the side and some were happy to make me run round mooring ropes. A runner went past me faster than the others had been and I realised this was the start of the marathon runners. One of the marathon runners seemed to be struggling a bit, as we each overtook the other a couple of times. At the drinks station I took my time to drink some water and sneak a few crisps. One of the marshals checked that I was okay which was nice, if a little embarrassing with how bad I must have looked. Starting back up I quickly caught up with the marathon runner again, as he’d slowed to a walk. I became aware that he’d started running again, only this time he tucked in behind instead of overtaking. To start with I was slightly freaked out by having someone running straight behind me, but then I decided to use it to my advantage. My mental strength to run my own race had gone. On the other hand, if I imagined that Marathon Guy’s race relied on me keeping a constant pace then I just might keep on going. And just like that I was a metronome, working my way along the suddenly scenic canal in flowing steps. Who says running is all in the mind?
L: It’s fair to say that, while the canal was beautiful, it became a bit of a slog. So the sight of a picturesque flight of locks was incredibly welcome. The landscape changed quickly as we headed under bridges towards the city. On one of the bridges were a group of people in costume dress, who were lovely and encouraging. A few up-and-overs followed to cross the canal, and then I got a bit confused by the mass of runners in front. Then I remembered that the course had an out-and-back section, so all became clear.
L: The marshal at the start of the section was doing a very good job of directing two lots of runners the right way. Yet more positive marshalling was on show a little further on, with a lovely lady looking up race numbers to cheer us by name. Sadly Marathon Guy was so close behind me that he was simply cheered as ‘Number 3’. Marathon Guy seemed easier for me to remember. The path got busier, and was wondering how much more ‘out’ was left when a marshal with out-stretched elastic band came into view. With the band firmly on my wrist I headed to the drinks station for more nuun and water, taking time to make sure it went down the right way. Hydrated, and very definitely most of the way through, I started to feel like things were back on track. The geography of the River Avon necessitated a few busy road crossings. A car nearly didn’t spot me at one, which freaked me out a little. Still, we were soon back down on the river path and plodding away again. Marathon Guy and I had been switching positions for a little while but were still very much running together. He persuaded a struggling runner to tag along with us, and that runner in turn was encouraging to me when I really started to run out of energy. The stretch of river seemed incredibly long, not helped by the lack of signs or marshals which almost made me wonder if we were still on track. Then the 12 mile sign appeared, and our new friend commented enthusiastically that there was only a mile to go. I didn’t have the heart to tell her.
L: The turn off the river was another awkward one, as we had to turn pretty much 270° to go back over the path and river. Running along the road was very hard-going, Marathon Guy got ahead and I never caught him back. I watched him go over the pedestrian crossing and felt guilty at how pleased I was to have to stop and wait. Like many things that seem a good idea at the time, stopping made everything worse. And I knew that I was starting back running just before the section I’d dreaded all race – the hill to get back into Oldfield Park. The road went up. Then the road went up more. I walked for that second part. After a path we were on another road, this time with lots of parked cars and narrow pavements. Just as I’d started to wonder how much more could possibly be left, I turned onto the path up to the field. Yes, up. I walked. I had nothing left. Even seeing Ben and Leila cheering couldn’t get my legs moving more. Ben ran me through the gap into the field, which was just the boost I needed to actually get my legs moving and pull off a semi-decent finish.
L: Just beyond the finish line Marathon Guy was waiting to say hi. We congratulated each other and both said that the other one had kept us going, which is kind of what meeting people during races is all about. I hugged various members of my family and then walked over with Ben to get my medal – the all important medal number 3. I happened to hear someone in front of me asking about the challenge trophies, and so knew to head over to the tents. After a bit of confusion from someone with a list I successfully picked up the fairly heavy feeling box I’d been working towards all summer. As we headed over to see my family, Ben gave me the bad news that the only food left to buy was full size pizzas or burgers. Apparently this had already been the case when he’d finished over an hour ago, so not the best planning there. In terms of atmosphere this was my least favourite of the Two Tunnels races. There were just too many people and the event was trying to do too many things. The quieter feel of July had been far more my scene.
I’d completed my first half marathon in 2:19:12. It would be a lie to say this was within the time I was aiming for, or that I was happy with the time. The reality was that I felt rubbish before the race and continued to feel rubbish during it. But I still completed my first half marathon, and as it was a long course my longest run is now further than quite a lot of people’s!
In contrast, Ben finished in 1:41:57, an agonising 5 seconds off his half marathon PB despite the extra distance. This boded very well for the Burnham-on-Sea Half Marathon in a couple of weeks’ time.
Many thanks to my mum, auntie, uncle and cousin for providing childcare during the event. And to our daughter, for putting up with spending so many weekends watching runners.
We’ve pretty much decided not to do another race away from home together again. The split start times made everything harder, but even without that it wasn’t worth the hassle. We’re definitely more cut out for running in series.