65. In the footsteps of Brunel: Bristol Half Marathon

clifton-suspension-bridge.jpgThe famous Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was truly one of the Great Britons, always undaunted by a challenge.

It’s just a couple of hours from London to Bristol now, and the train journey is even faster. But before Brunel, the journey could take several days.

Brunel’s dream was to build a railway between the two cities, whatever the obstacles. The Great Western Railway, as it came to be known, heads westwards out of London, making undistinguished progress most of the way to its destination. It is only near its goal, that the real engineering problem was to be faced. Just east of Bath, the route had to somehow traverse the steep escarpment, where the Jurassic Great Oolite defines the pretty escarpment of the Cotswold Hills.

Brunel’s solution was a daring, and a risky one. He proposed a long and deep tunnel, longer than any ever dug before. The sceptics scoffed, and the cynics smirked, but he managed it, and the great nineteenth century engineering miracle which is the Box Tunnel now gapes elegantly through a castellated entrance, just above the pretty village which carries the same name.

Even today, it is rumoured that Box hides a secret underground bunker, with its own dedicated entrance from within the tunnel, which would form the secret seat of government in the event of a nuclear war. The idea of Tony Blair rushing to catch the 5.17 from Paddington station on the very eve of a holocaust sounds too bizarre to be true, which means it probably is indeed the best plan that we have.

It was a pleasant Sunday morning drive down through Box, and perhaps we shouldn’t have planned to spoil our outing by running a half marathon, but that is exactly what Mike and I were going to do. Way back last year, when he couldn’t get into the Bath race, we thought that maybe we’d give this one a go.

Mike lived a splendidly athletic youth, but it was a sobering thought that Whitney Houston was top of the charts, and Tom Cruise just donning his aviator shades in Top Gun, when he’d set his 1:35 half marathon PB in 1986. Now just nine months remained to prepare. In the first few weeks he gamely completed the infamous Slaughterford 9, run up and down the same stiff escarpment which had so vexed Brunel. And good solid training through spring Cotswold lanes and long summer sunsets saw him still well on track.

It was only really in the last few days, after too much exertion on that last, longest run, that doubt began really to set in. A calf strain, and a nagging mental fear, seemed to seriously threaten his belief.

If it was me who had got him into this mess, then somehow it was only me who could get him out of it. Through large plates of pasta and an unwise bottle of Heineken, we talked over our strategy. But the confidence of a month ago had vanished, and the spectre of the race now loomed so large, that sensible thought had long gone out through the window. When you run races quite regularly, you tend to forget that all-consuming fear which so haunts the unaccustomed racer. Would we finish last ? Would we complete the course ? Would it really hurt ? I felt that two out of the three were likely, but I couldn’t promise which.

Having an accustomed old hand, on-hand, may not have been a comfort either. Was I going to run off and leave him, or stay right alongside, through intolerable pain ? Although neither was in my plan, he might well have baulked, on any other day, if I’d suggested he wear a black bin liner at dawn. But he dutifully complied, and soon we were off. Bristol is a hilly city, so it was a relief that the course was scenic and flat. The first three miles around the city centre, and down to the docks to greet another of Brunel’s wonders, the SS Great Britain.

Once his railway was completed, Brunel’s thoughts turned to building what may have been the world’s first integrated transport system. But this plan involved not a simple omnibus route, or neat tram line from Bristol station, but instead a transit of the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Brunel’s ambitious idea was to take his rail travellers onward to America, in the world’s first iron-hulled, screw propeller-driven, steam-powered passenger liner. So many revolutionary features, that it was like inventing the typewriter, the computer and the internet all in one go. But it worked, and the design was the foundation for modern ship design ever since.

A theme to the day was developing now, as we entered the Clifton Gorge, heading out of town and towards the beckoning seas. The River Avon carves a deep and jagged gorge here, two hundred and fifty feet deep.

Who could possibly build a bridge across such an obstacle ? Why, Brunel himself, of course, who pluckily, and luckily, adapted and perfected suspension bridge design especially for the job, building an engineering landmark of worldwide importance in the process. Even today, a century and a half later, the Clifton Suspension Bridge remains an impressive structure, with the Egyptian architecture of its elegant pillars providing a smart classical touch.

It must have been here as we ran under the bridge, that we passed Steve Cram. He’d done 7 miles by then, to our 4, and was probably worried that we were catching him. But chasing a past Olympic silver medallist and World 1 500 m Champion, we were never going to threaten. Well, at least not with the calf strain which Mike was carrying….

A couple more miles, through a light spot of rain, or more accurately a prolonged deluge, and it was time to turn back. We were still making good progress. Nine and a half minute miles. Nothing too hurried, and perfect for the middle of the pack. A good place to be. The sort of place you can talk to your fellow runners. Mike was comparing injury notes with everyone else who was wearing a bandage, whilst I was waving to the ever-exultant crowds. Wet and soggy crowds, more like, but they seemed to be enjoying it all the same. Mad fools.

Back under that magnificent bridge at 8, and into the city again at 10, or was it 11 ? It was hard to tell, and my concentration was beginning to flag along with Mike’s energy resources. He’d assured me that two jelly babies remained in his stash, but I wasn’t sure they’d quite get him home. It was as only we passed St Mary’s Church that I began to believe that we’d make it. God was on our side, for right at the church gate and waving a palm frond, stood the vicar and his trusty curate, thoughtfully anointing each runner with holy water as they passed by. It really did make all the difference. Unless maybe it was just those jelly babies.

The next mile was the longest, with a short hill or two. We lapsed into a jog for a while, then roared on again from the summit. Soon I was motivating Mike for a last finishing sprint with just 400 m to go. Stark criticism followed, since the unseen last loops made it more like 1 400, and we’d long shot our bolt as I grabbed for his hand as we came to the line. A gesture of solidarity, you must understand, and far from a cynical tactic to counter his superior sprint-finish.

And so a ‘Mission Accomplished‘, to coin a much-abused phrase. At 2:06, I’ve run faster before, and had a great deal less fun. It’s taken me three months to get beyond six miles again, while for Mike, it was simply the longest run for eighteen years. Now that is a great achievement indeed, if not one quite yet to rival Brunel’s…

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