Steve Doswell Reports:
BBCHM – A half through the industrial heartland
The Grand Old Duke famously marched 10,000 men up a hill and down again. It was a bit like that on Saturday for Brummies heading up to Wolverhampton for the Birmingham and Black Country Half Marathon (BBCHM). Arriving at the canal basin tucked away behind Wolverhampton station, our task for the next 90 minutes to two hours or so was to run all the way back to Brum on variable surfaces – cobblestones, cinders, hardpacked mud and sometimes grass – along the canal.
Around 17 Bournville Harriers rocked up to Wolves to undertake this surprisingly interesting half – surprising because 13.1 miles of urban canal running may not sound scenic but there’s plenty to see along the way besides semi-submerged shopping trollies. The canal cuts through a swathe of the West Midlands industrial heartland with several notable features and the canal corridor itself is like a narrow nature reserve with lots of waterfowl living in and around the rushes that grow along much of the water’s edge.
I’d run this one a few times before and was looking forward to renewing the challenge, especially as this was the event’s 10th anniversary and the commemorative medal and t-shirt both looked like bling worth running for.
With 1,500 runners all due to head down the tow path, the organisers had sorted entrants into waves of up to 100 runners, each spaced about 15 minutes apart. I’d left it late before entering, deciding only on the morning itself to run. As the running boom continues, on-the-day entries are becoming a bit of a rare breed but I was lucky.
Once I had my number pinned and stowed my bag I spotted James Evans and we started together. That didn’t last. Within seconds, James was at the head of the wave, a few seconds later and he was a shrinking speck of teal heading rapidly south, clearly a man on a mission. My own mission was much more sedate – a sub-2 hour finish.
Let no-one try to tell you that canal running is all flat. Soon after starting we climbed the first hump-backed bridge. Good – only 25 more to go, most of them at the business end closer to Birmingham! Soon came the first of four very welcome water stations at three-mile intervals, on a day that wasn’t baking hot but still warm enough. Approaching five miles, we entered the BBCHM’s most notable feature, Coseley Tunnel, nearly a quarter of a mile long, ‘lit’ with an occasional lamp, the odd string of lights and a few torches, none of them up to the task of lighting the slippery walkway. Peril awaits those who stare too long at the light at the end of the tunnel, so intense amid the gloom that it burns vividly onto the retina, leaving you virtually blind for several seconds.
With the tunnel behind me, and eyesight restored, I felt truly under way – the end of the beginning, as Churchill said. Tipton station passed – the railway being a close presence virtually all the way down – and by the time the land opened up on the right and Dudley hill came into view, I knew I was half way home. The next landmark was Smethwick Galton Bridge station, with its platforms crossing high above the canal and the multi-coloured moving dots of runners advancing alongside in the cutting deep below. Then came the striking architecture of Galton Bridge itself, once the highest single span bridge in the world. Once we’d passed below these lofty features it was simply a case of counting down the bridges to the water stop at mile 12 and beyond as we headed towards the finish.
A sense of relief began to build as the apartment blocks of Brindleyplace came into view. Then I heard ‘Come on Steve!’ from the Bournville Wall of Sound on a bridge by the finish arch and suddenly it was over. Well organised, well-marshalled throughout, the BBCHM is a jewel of an event. My Garmin time showed 1:57:52. More than happy with that, having not trained to half distance this season. Wreathed in sweat, I saw James for the first time since the start, looking cool and refreshed, as well he might, having finished a good 25 minutes earlier! Congrats to first Harriers home James Drakeford and Andy Wheeler, both in 1:30:43, also to Jude Glynn (1:48:53) and to Rachel Hursey and Rich Shearing for running all the way together (both 1:49:29), to Kevin Jackman (2:03:26) and Anna Ostojitch (2:15:22), both new PBs, and to all other tealsters who ran the BBCHM. Our collective efforts were celebrated by runners and supporters alike at the Malt Shovel and the Distillery (formerly the Fiddle & Bone), now the BvH base camp of choice for races finishing in the city centre.