It’s a little hard to believe but I’ve reached the halfway point in my #18in18 Challenge to run 18 half marathons in 2018.
Number nine, the Bath Two Tunnels Half, will possibly be the most unique of the lot.
With a course along the Two Tunnels Greenway and incorporating, as the title suggests, two disused railway tunnels just outside Bath city centre it was a race which intrigued me.
The course itself was largely flat – apart from a vicious, nay, sadistic kick yards from the finish – with the only difficulty coming from the sheer heat of the morning. Any race that begins at 10am with the temperature already at 27° is going to be tough!
Winding back a little, Dawn and I arrived at the park ‘n’ ride facility and caught the first shuttle bus to the race venue.
Upon registering and collecting my race number it struck me that there weren’t too many people around.
However, a little closer inspection revealed a considerable gathering in the distance, all under the trees and all taking advantage of the shade … this was at 8:30am, and with the start some 90 minutes away it just showed how warm and challenging the conditions were going to be!
I was in the second wave, setting off at 10am, and pretty soon it was time to make my way to the start area for the pre-race briefing and warm-up.
Already sweating at this stage I knew I was going to suffer. I enjoy the heat, I just hate running in it. I really do struggle with it.
Starting on grass, we almost immediately encountered a bottle neck as we left the event village as runners bunched up going down a steep verge onto the pathway that would become our ‘home’ for the rest of the morning.
The course was a simple out and back – twice. In my head I broke it down into four back-to-back 5ks, although each section was obviously slightly longer than that to make up the distance.
The first mile is on the Two Tunnels Greenway shared path along Linear Park. It features a slight incline up to the 408m long Devonshire Tunnel which then gently curves round to the left.
Emerging in Lyncombe Vale, this next section took us along the elevated embankment through a very pretty wooded area.
After a kilometre running along the top of the embankment it was time to enter Combe Down Tunnel which, at 1672m long, is the longest underground section in the country that includes a foot race! The north side of this tunnel is 50ft higher than the south which ensured a cool breeze circulated throughout.
Upon exiting Combe Down Tunnel we headed over Tucking Mill viaduct before turning to retrace our steps back through the tunnels and towards the start/finish area whereupon we set off on our second loop of the course.
Did I mention it was quite hot? We were warned in the briefing to ‘run within ourselves’ and this I tried to do during the non-tunnel sections. I kept it slow. I was around a minute down on the time I might normally expect after the first mile.
So what were the tunnels like? I was most curious to see experience the first one, the shorter Devonshire Tunnel. It really was like running from day into night in an instant, from blistering hot sunlight into cold darkness. It was lovely.
I had already started to suffer a bit from the heat but I was suddenly reborn and revived the moment I entered the tunnel. Obviously the railway tracks are long gone now, to be replaced by a path that cuts through the tunnels and whilst they are lit up it is still pretty dark inside them so I guided myself by following the white line painted down the left side of the path. I could see runners in front of me, or at least their shadowy shapes.
It was all very cool, and I really enjoyed myself. All too soon, however, it was time to leave the Devonshire Tunnel and face the blast of heat again. It was like entering a sauna, and pretty much stopped me in my tracks the first time such was the contrast in temperatures. It was quite chilly inside the tunnels, but like a furnace outside.
After a short time outside I then approached the much longer Combe Down Tunnel, roughly a mile in length. Once again, I felt reinvigorated.
I knew there was a small group of around four or five runners a little bit in front of me. I had been deliberately slowing my pace outside the tunnels, and whilst I had no real desire to catch this group I found myself getting increasingly faster. Before I knew it I had caught up with them. Initially that was good enough for me, but I had the speed in my legs and after staying with them for a while found myself passing them.
Perhaps the wrong tactics, but I knew I was going to suffer whilst outside regardless of how much I saved myself so I reckoned that by making up as much ground as possible in the cooler temperatures to which I am much more suited that I would at least offset some of the damage.
I wasn’t sprinting by any means, I was merely going at my normal speed but it felt so much faster such was the effect the heat had on me. Indeed, looking at my splits afterwards, it turns out I was running at two minutes per mile quicker inside the tunnels than outside them, that’s quite a difference and demonstrates how I was feeling.
After exiting Combe Down there was a relatively short section to the turnaround point before we were back in the long tunnel. Again, it was such a blissful relief and, again, I increased my pace. Mentally it was also a boost because I knew I was going back the way I had come and that the route would hold no more surprises.
Or so I thought.
Approaching the start/finish area we were diverted to the side and up a short climb which under normal circumstances was no steeper than Princes Street at home but in the mid-morning heat seemed like Everest! Just when I was gearing up for the boost of completing one lap and therefore half the race plus getting some support from Dawn this was like a punch to the stomach! What bright spark put that there?
It took me a few minutes to make my way through the event village section, but only because I stopped to stock up on food and drink. This was my second time at a Relish Running event and, as with Lacock last month, their feeding stations are like banquets with all sorts of goodies on offer plus water and electrolyte drinks.
Dawn was also standing close to the exit so I also stopped with her for some much needed encouragement, and more supplies.
And then I was on my way again. Timewise I was a little bit down on what I might normally do but by now I wasn’t terribly bothered. I knew what lay ahead of me, it was case of getting this finished.
But that almost didn’t happen.
Less than a mile into the second lap I started to question whether I should just step off the course and call it a day.
Whilst I wasn’t faint or dizzy like I was at the Lee Valley VeloPark race in May I just felt like I had nothing left to give, all energy had gone from my legs and my body. I don’t like quitting, and haven’t done so thus far, so it takes a lot for me to consider it.
The heat was just too much, a quick look at the weather app on my phone showed a reading of 29 degrees and even though the route was largely through a tree lined path it was still bloody hot, too hot for me.
I knew I was nearing the first tunnel again so I decided to push on for that, at least it’d give me some relief … and it did. It wasn’t really long enough to totally revive me and I was back outside again.
However, I had recovered enough to decide to then try to reach the longer tunnel. I knew this would offer me even more respite and by then I’d almost be at the ten mile mark and heading back towards the finish.
As with every other time through the tunnels I got a new lease of life, and a lot of my strength returned. I was running well again and didn’t really want the tunnel to end.
Unfortunately, all too soon, it did but this time I wasn’t as downhearted. This was the return leg. Another little run would get me to the shorter tunnel, and once through that I would only be a mile or so from the end.
I still had that vicious kick at the end to contend with but I didn’t care, I knew the finish was literally around the corner. I’ve rarely been as glad to complete a race. That has absolutely nothing to do with the event, the route or the organisation – all of which are excellent. I just don’t like running in those temperatures. I would quite like to attempt this again in much more favourable conditions, it’s definitely a PB course.
Whilst I struggled I also gradually clawed back some strength in the final loop back, recording negative splits for each of the last four miles. Granted they were still slower than I would have liked but I was getting stronger, and that’s one of the encouraging factors I’ll take from this. I’m increasingly building up my endurance, and that will benefit me greatly as I start the second half of my challenge when, hopefully, the temperatures will also begin to drop.
As I said, I’ve completed my first nine half marathons. It’s a relief to get to this stage. There’s a definite sense that the hardest part is now over me, that it’s all downhill from here. Physically that might not be the case but, mentally, it is a significant milestone.