"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own"   Sri Chinmoy

Two Tunnels Half Marathon - August 2021

I  entered this race when it was scheduled to take place in October 2020 and it ended up getting postponed to a surprisingly different time of year - August 2021. When that happened I was confident we'd be out of the pandemic and I'd be in New York but of course those expectations got revised, as they have so many times, and as I write this at the end of August 2021 we are still restricted to staycations and the pandemic is very much still affecting every aspect of life.

Although I had rested for a full month after the Ironbourne triathlon (as a result of burning out through overtraining after my last long-distance tri) I thought I could have a crack at this half marathon, seeing as I'd got an entry and the only other race I had lined up was a virtual marathon a week later. Mmm, not ideal prep for a marathon to race a half just 7 days before but hey - it was a chance to do an Actual Race with Real Other People and that had a lot going for it!

Since Ironbourne I'd been out for a jog about 4 times and had zero time on the bike or in the water - it really had been genuine rest. So I was rusty and stiff and had no idea how long the half would take. On a flat, accurate road course I'd have backed myself to do close to 1-30 but this race was on mixed terrain, with hills. It was also clearly stated as being "over distance" by the organisers, though they didn't say by how much. Anyway I had that figure of one-thirty-something in my head when I arrived by a combination of car and folding bike and lined up to collect my number.

There were over 1500 people in the event, which included a 5k, 10k, half and full marathon plus a 50k ultra. The staggered starts spread across several hours meant the race field was not crowded and everything felt very laid back. I had a few moments to meditate just outside the park before I got into the starting pen for a briefing along with I'd guess around 50 others, then I ran out of the field at what I thought was my half marathon pace. In reality, it was probably not far off my 10k speed! I was keeping pace with some guys who looked around my agegroup but who knows. At first I let my Garmin settle down to around 7 mins pace and that felt hard - too hard. The course was uphill leading south on the Two Tunnels greenway and I think it was steeper than it looked. I was soon hot and aware that I was burning energy at an unsustainable rate, plus my achilles was hurting from the stiffness that had built up in that month of inactivity. Is it possible to have an Under-use Injury? If it is, then that's what I had.

The slow ascent of the cycleway unfolded and despite a few doubts I tried to keep up the pace. When we entered the mile-long tunnel, with its dim lighting and piped music, I tried to stay with the runners I was pacing against and with no garmin signal I had no idea whether the pace was increasing or not. I suspect it was, as I started to feel the way I feel in a 5k. The tunnel was mesmeric and surreal, with such low visibility and such a warped sense of the passage of time. When we were finally reborn into the daylight we were soon being marshalled off the greenway and down a slope to some lanes and trails - here the hills, which didn't look that steep, started to bite.

One thing I wasn't expecting to encounter was steps - there were several stone staircases on the course and for some reason these really slowed me down. Perhaps there was still that comination of fatigue from the Ironbourne race and inactivity following it, but whatever it was I didn't manage to maintain my speed. The GPS was giving me worse and worse news as each obstacle - a gateway or a set of stone steps or a pinch point or 90 degree turn - brought me to a standstill from which I couldn't fully accelarate. At this point it dawned on me that as it was not a PB course I could just run for the joy of it, soaking up the scenery and drinking in the panoramic views of the hills that formed the horizon or the trees overhanging the canal. This was such a beautiful course it seemed a shame to let it pass in a haze of fatigue and discomfort. Then another voice inside me was telling me that the real satisfaction of racing comes from giving it absolutely everything and making sure you finish with nothing left in the tank - that urge to overcome your limits and give it everything you've got is what has inspired me to race over all these years. Sri Chinmoy's philosophy gives a special place to that physical self-transcendence, so it didn't take long for that transcendence-loving part of me to win the argument over the romantic-poet-loving part of me that wanted to run at sightseeing pace!

With that inner tussle decided I pressed on, my pace slowly ebbing away and tiredness gripping my body as it does when you are trying to squeeze out more than your body wants to give. We passed the Dundas Aqueduct and followed the gravel trail of the canal towpath for several miles - here the main challenge, apart from simply trying to hold it together at race pace, was to dodge the bikers and hikers and negotiate the road crossings and tunnels. In places we had to duck under low bridges where the towpath was barely a couple of feet wide, but I managed to keep my balance and not end up in the canal. One woman passed me and then a grey-haired guy who looked to be in my age category. It was going to be one of those events where you just have to grind it out and survive after starting too fast - not the first time for me and I'm sure not the last!

I took a couple of gels, one of which was generously laced with caffeine, but there was no "bounce" in energy and when I came off the canal path into the streets of Bath I could feel myself slowing the way I do in a full marathon - not what I expect to happen in a half! There were a few places where you had to stop and let traffic pass and a sapping out-and-back to a turnaround with a view of Pulteney Bridge. Through the exhaustion I was still able to appreciate the splendour of the views, the old stone city nestling in the cup of the hills, and one small victory came when my GPS beeped to tell me I had done 13.11 miles in 1:39. So in a sense I did a half marathon in one-thirty-something, even if that was nowhere near the finish line of the race.

There was a brief climb on to the greenway again and then some ups and downs leading the final uphill drag to the finish field - here I really was slowed to a crawl and I wasn't able to hold off a runner passing me about 20 yards from the line, but I finished in 1:46, 10th out of 25 in my agegroup, knowing I had left nothing in the tank at all.

So, in a sense that  race was a failure - I went off way too fast, died off very early in the race, didn't get a good time or a good finishing position and ended up running a personal worst. I couldn't help feeling satisfied though - I'd had an inner struggle where my self-transcendence-voice had won against the take-it-easy voice and I had completed a trail race over a genuinely beautiful and varied course. I hope I can come back some time and beat 1:46, when I'm in proper race shape. That's another kind of self-transcendence.


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