19. A warm Bath

river-avon-bath.jpgIt was the Celts who discovered the hot springs of Bath, around 500 BC, worshipping their goddess Sul here. From 43 AD, the Roman city of Aquae Sulis – the waters of Sul – developed around the site.

Bath was built as a town for recreation, not a garrison, a kind of ancient Las Vegas, and the impressive baths today form some of the best Roman remains in Europe.

In more recent ages, Samuel Pepys, Queen Anne, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, David Garrick, Thomas Gainsborough, William Wordsworth, Josiah Wedgwood, William Pitt and Dr David Livingstone all visited at one time or another.

The science of geology began here as William Smith made the first geological map of the landscape around Bath in 1799. A young Princess Victoria opened a beautiful park named after her in 1830. Not long after, a letter bearing the first Penny Black stamp was posted in Bath in 1840, just as Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s famous Great Western Railway reached the city, bound for the port of Bristol and departures for the Americas.

Bath today is an extraordinarily beautiful city, famous for the best of Georgian architecture and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And… they have one of the best organised Half Marathons in the country, with 5 000 runners assembling in Great Pulteney Street, a Georgian boulevard some 1 100 feet long, 100 feet wide and dating from 1788.

Picture a fresh blue March morning, daffodils lining the banks of the River Avon, the golden oolitic limestone façades glowing in the sunshine, and the first warmth of an English Spring. It’s a marvellous day to run.

The Runners’ World 1:45 pacers are nearby in the start-line crush. It’s not a chip race, so that means running 1:44, maybe a stride too far today. And as the crowd are let forward before the gun, I lose them for good, but the better news is that in less than a minute I’m over the line and on my way. A gentle downhill mile and across the river, 8:30. Into the city centre, greeted by a huge cheering crowd and some Peruvian drummers beating an enervating 160 or more as we bottleneck up a short, stiff incline through the elegant streets. The second mile post is lost, but 24:40 at the third reveals some solid progress before we head out into open country and loop back to find a welcome downhill at mile 4.

I’m well forward in the field, and many more folk are passing me than I’m catching. That’s recompense (or retribution) for Reading last week, and it could still mean motivation or discouragement today. Trying hard not to be a mobile roadblock, I reach 5 miles in 40:53. Back over the bridge, past the Peruvian drums again and into the second lap.

It feels laboured, but fast, faster than ever before. We’re only half way and I’m wary of digging too deep, yet keen to push on all the same. Control or attack, I can’t decide, so in place of a decision I just drift along a mile or two. Visualise those dark winter Sunday evenings on the track back home in Guildford, and let the legs run a few more laps beneath me.

I emerge back into Spring in time to see my family taking a break from the adventure playground in Victoria Park to cheer me on at mile 8. With a smile fixed on my face, it’s certainly the best mile of the day. Turning homeward again, at 1:22:12 for 10 miles, it’s a minute and a half inside my best at this distance. To calculate a finish time, add 3.1 x 8:20…., but I give up on the maths as an ambulance howls past out of town towards the hospital. Last year I saw a young man being resuscitated on the pavement inside the last mile, and I hope it’s not a runner this time.

Breathe harder, trying to leave something for that final uphill stretch back to Great Pulteney Street, and when we get there I’m rewarded as the drift of racers slows, and then gradually but resolutely comes back towards me.

I burn under the railway bridge, give a thumbs-up to a photographer (there’s always time to pose) and catch a fleeting glimpse of civic pride in the floral display on a traffic island. Then it’s round the final corner into an almost empty finishing straight. Three of us battle it out alongside. At first I’ve got it, but the street stretches just too far and I’m (not really) gutted when a yellow-shirted beard pips me at the line. I stop my watch at 1:47:22, a round 100 second PB.

There’s not a cloud in the sky, and the sun is still dazzling its own reflections when I cross the river to stroll stiffly through the winding streets back to the park. As I cut the race loop, a St John’s Ambulance team are briefly concerned to see me staggering by, but I give them a big smile and tell them I’ve already finished.

It’s a wonderful race on a wonderful day, and I really love this place.

Related articles:
44. Bath Half Marathon: Minerva’s revenge
18. Reading Half Marathon
65. In the footsteps of Brunel: Bristol Half Marathon
82. The strife of Bath
88. The Perfect Race – Sebastian Coe, Florence 1981
55. A redemption in Manchester

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