Welcome to Bath – UNESCO World Heritage Site‘ – reads the roadsign, rather incongruously greeting the weary traveller at this dull spot between the railway line and the Texaco garage. Four miles have gone by in the lashing rain and there are another nine to go in the Bath Half Marathon.
Bath is famous for its hot springs, and there is no doubt at all that the aquifer is being fully recharged in the foggy hills around the town. The goddess Minerva presided over the Roman baths built here, and the weather she’s organised is extracting a bitter revenge on the runners gathered for the race. Even the glorious pale gold of the Bath stone mansions in Great Pultney Street had looked a bit drab as we’d shivered back at the start line, waiting for a delay just long enough for the rain to arrive.
All that Georgian architecture is far behind us here, and a third of the race is already run. So what’s my plan today ? The truth is, there is no plan. I could blame the weather, but that’s not it. You see, I’ve been in the field, at football matches, or on the golf course, in much worse than this, even if not in skimpy shorts and lycra tee.
It’s the third year in a row I’ve run in Bath – a huge advantage, since I know the course, and some of the quirks of the event. Where to change before the start, and where best to wait behind the line. I knew in advance how fast the crowd around me would sprint the opening mile, and how many of them I’d catch again just ten miles later. Amidst my race, I know where the water stations will lie, I’ll remember not to drink from the sponges so thoughtfully laced with fire-retardant fluid, and I know on this ‘fast and flat’ course how much I’ll need in the tank for the last uphill mile back to Great Pultney Street in almost two hours’ time.
More recently, I knew that the same doubty marshall would be standing at the roundabout, telling us we’d done nearly five miles, when it was really just 4.1. And I know he’ll be there on the second lap, too, cheerfully telling me the ten mile post is just ahead, when only nine and a half are done.
The weather is something of a wild card in this equation, true, for it’s pretty unpredictable. We’d headed west for the first three miles. Downwind for the first two of those, yet into the gale for the next. On looping homewards, we’re wind-assisted now, yet somehow we’ll face stinging rain at the wharfside just a mile ahead. But if this isn’t the real problem, what is it holding me back ?
Last year I set my personal best time here, in an aggressive race on a perfect sunny day. I was a little fitter then, I know, and the weather was different, too, but the course was just the same. Yet somehow I don’t WANT to run that fast today, and it’s in my thoughts right now. That fear.
Fear of the race itself, no – but, yes, a fear I’ll run too fast. A fear of racing out of gas, or getting injured. A realisation that it’s not always wise to race when training. Because that quick time last year, it set me back. Three weeks or more, of tired, flat legs. Of slow-laced shoes, and dullened spirit. I’ve learned from that.
And yet it’s so good, so important to race again. To remind myself of the morning routine, the forgotten tips I’ve learnt in races past. Just how to run at pace. The exhilaration of running a long way, fast, and the energy transmitted by a crowd. So that’s my goal today. Immersion in the race’s sights and sounds, to run on feel and just get round.
And now, with four miles gone, I’m in The Zone. Perceptions sharp, each stride controlled, a rhythm set. The eternal magic of a moving stream of runners, which can somehow turn slow winter miles into a spring-like roll of 8:30’s on the road.
It was faster still at first, too fast – 7:50, as the surging shirts sailed past me on the Avon bridge, and beside the Bristol train. 8:05 through city streets and clapping crowds. 8:21, 7:58 across the suburbs, past cheering kids, puddles and policemen, and plodding back to town. ‘Respect the distance’, had rung the mantra in my head, and so I’d reined it back a bit.
8:19 next, then 8:27, a brightening sky, and a persistent voice comes up behind. A black-caped Batman yells, ‘A few coins for Robin’s bucket, please’. ‘Robin’s following soon, so give some change for charity’, he cries. They forge ahead, all efforts etched on the younger bucket-carrier’s face, and then slow down. I’ll hear their loud appeals for ever more, or so it seems. The jangling bucket’s heavier now, and I edge ahead at last. But no – an emptied bucket starts the second lap and the noble shouts revive.
8:22, 8:24, 8:27. Why don’t they swap, and let flagging Robin run, with Batman weighted down ? Finally they do at mile 11, the longest stretch of sodden streets, 8:35, as the rain returns. A few dropped coppers and I’m past at last as an ambulance wails by, just where it did last year. Do runners collapse here every race ?
Almost back in town at last, 8:27 again, and to the railway bridge once more. An uphill mile with slower legs, in 9:11. It seems much faster as I pass so many I’ve seen before. The final stretch, a bend and then some novel sunshine down the finish straight. Last year’s was long, but today it’s short. A sprint’s no problem, and I cross the line safe and smooth, two minutes slow. 1:49:48, and perfect for my cause. My envelope was pushed, but never ripped right up.
It’s not that long since we all left, and yet the transformation is complete. The fresh-faced runners in finest racing kit are just a soggy mass of bodies, whilst Bath’s lovely green Recreation Ground has become the Somme, its tended grass a slippery mess of chocolate mud. I collect my clothes, and meet my friends, then it’s time to leave it all behind.
And as I leave, the leading runners await their prize. A new course record has been set today, the announcer trumps. But the street’s deserted, and there’s no one left to cheer the mighty Kenyan’s race. Just then, the sparsest shout goes up to greet a lonely yellow-suited figure rounding the final corner now. At 3:02, he’s two hours late to win. Yet as he nears the line, his arms aloft, this limping and bedraggled Mr Tickle claims a victory that is proudly his alone.
I store this final sight and sound of Bath today. It’s ended well, and next time we meet, next race, next month – we’ll be on that run in London. An envelope that’s twice as long, with even more inside.
19. A warm Bath
18. Reading Half Marathon
78. Spanish stroll: Almería Half Marathon
26. Great North Run
82. The strife of Bath
28. Thoughts on racing
88. The Perfect Race – Sebastian Coe, Florence 1981