Bluebottle Running Half Measures

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On 24 April, 2016 I ran the second Southampton Half Marathon1, which was also my second ever Half Marathon, having only ever run Southampton's previous Half Marathon the year before. I found the prospect of running 13 and a bit miles quite daunting, especially as I didn't feel as fit as I had last year, with my 5k and 10k times much slower than in 2015. Still, I'd enjoyed the run the year before – it had felt a real achievement – and with a new, improved route promised for this year, I felt I needed to take part.

Before the Race

This year my place of work, Southampton Solent University, was also one of the Half Marathon's sponsors. In fact, as all its signs proudly declared, it was the Official Education Provider of the ABP Southampton Half and 10k. No-one was entirely sure what that actually meant, especially as the route ran right through the middle of the University of Southampton's main Highfield Campus, but as a member of staff I was given a Southampton Solent University running top for free a couple of days before the run2.

The run started and finished by Guildhall Square. This has the Guildhall (used as the baggage store) on the west side, Southampton Solent University's Sir James Matthews building (housing the university's conference facilities) on the north side, a council office and bar on the south side and the new Cultural Quarter development on the east side. Though this development's architectural plans showed an art gallery and boutiques, instead a cultural Costa Coffee, pizza place, burger bar and other eateries had opened instead. The Sir James Matthews Building is located next to the start and finish line and was where the city's dignitaries would be hobnobbing.

As I work for Southampton Solent University, I was entitled to a VIP pass. This enabled me to enter the Sir James Matthews building where refreshments were promised. It allowed access to a conference room filled with banquet tables all covered in vast amounts of food, none of which would be of any benefit to anyone actually running in the race.

Most importantly, though, it allowed access to a Real Toilet. A key part of the traditional long run preparation is the pre-run pee. These usually involve long queues for the portaloos, which aren't pleasant at the best of times. Especially as these temporarily-erected toilets aren't divided into men's and women's sections Alas though 10% of all men, myself included, are red/green colourblind, portaloo manufacturers use a colour scheme in which occupied toilets are red, unoccupied are green and the locks are often faulty. This means that 10% of men, myself included, have no way of knowing whether or not anyone's in a portaloo, and so through no fault of anyone other than the manufacturer, this can lead to unpleasantly shocking experiences for everyone. So to have a VIP pass which meant I had the power and authority to use a Real Toilet and have a Very Important Pee in peace was a real luxury.

After the toilet break it was time to head off to the baggage drop-off. This is where all outer layers of my clothing are removed, leaving me in running vest and shorts, which at 9am on a cold April's morning left me freezing – although fortunately like many others I had a bin bag to wear until the race started. My only other layer was the piece of paper proclaiming my name and race number in large, friendly letters. This was unlikely to provide much warmth3.

After meeting other members of my running club, we headed over to the start line near the Sir James Matthews building. We were looking for the pacers, who were wearing white clothing with the 'ABP' logo (Associated British Ports, the race's sponsors) and their pacing times on. As many of the pacers were from the running club we teased them mercilessly on how they were running in their pyjamas.

The Race

Eventually the race started, there was probably a speech by Southampton's Mayoress that no-one could hear, and we were off, running round the town. It was great to see such a supportive crowd – every now and then spectators would choose someone, read the names on their vests and cheer them on. Sometimes it was my turn, so people would shout out 'Come on Matt!' That was always a good feeling as we ran through the city, by the Bargate, along by Queen's Park, around Ocean Village and up to the Itchen Bridge.

Now, anyone who has done the Southampton Half knows there are two hilly bits; Itchen Bridge and Burgess Road. The Itchen Bridge is reached at around the 2.5 mile point and involves running up, up, up the concrete monstrosity to cross the river Itchen, before heading down to the other side, where you turn around and run back up and over again, finishing just before the 4-mile point. This is usually quite a blowy area too, so very tiring.
When I reached there, more and more spectators were shouting out messages like 'C'mon Matt!' 'Great running Matt!' and 'Go Matt Go!'. I thought this rather odd, but was happy to take the encouragement and allow it to help me cross the bridge. Then as we met runners coming back across the Itchen Bridge, they too were shouting 'Go Matt!'. It was only when we got to the other side and the man in front of me did the U-turn to head back across the bridge that I realised that I'd been running behind Matt Le Tissier4.

After the bridge the course weaved through some of Southampton's back streets and industrial areas before reaching St Mary's Stadium, where in one of the new changes to the course the route entered the grounds, passed next to the pitch and out the other side. By then I'd overtaken Matt Le Tissier, and would later finish the run a good five minutes in front of him.

From there I passed the 5-mile point and crossed the Itchen for the third time at the Northam Bridge, weaving around the roads to enter Riverside Park, which has a splendid miniature railway but has sadly been since tainted with sadder memories. This was followed by a longer loop around the park before crossing the Itchen for a final time next to the 8 mile mark next to Woodmill, now an activity and watersports centre. This marked the start of a constant, steep mile-long uphill stretch up Burgess Road before reaching the University of Southampton's main campus. This was the point furthest away from the start, meaning I knew it was all back to the finish from now on.
Running through the campus was followed by a sharp, steep downhill section that shocked the knees and a short, steep uphill round by Highfield's church. Then after the 10–mile mark it was into Southampton Common for a 2-mile loop, then back onto roads for the final mile and a bit, which was a downhill run in a simple, straight run to the finish by Guildhall Square, outside Southampton Solent University.5

At the end they distributed medals, the run technical t-shirt and goody bag6 and everyone was given a pint of alcohol-free beer for no apparent reason. I again used the power of my VIP pass to gain access to the real toilet, and noted that the non-running VIPs had scoffed all the food that had been laid out on the banquet tables. So I went home.

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1Known in America as a Half Snickers.2I think they had assumed I would wear it on the day, even though I would never wear brand-new clothing for such a long run as I don't know how badly it would rub.3Experience has taught me to always wear plasters for any run where the mileage is in double figures, but I don't count them as a clothing layer.4Guernsey's most successful export since the cow and known in Southampton as 'Le God', Le Tissier is one of England's most talented footballers ever, famously keeping Southampton in the premiership single-handed for over a decade. Alas, as he played for Southampton and not one of the prestigious Northern or London clubs, he was overlooked when it came to playing for England, despite having an unequalled penalty-taking ability and England always losing on penalties.5Last year the route had involved numerous zigzag detours just before the finish around the city centre parks to ensure the route got to the right distance, which was frustrating as we could see the Guildhall where we knew we were finishing, but kept being taken in the opposite direction when we were so close to it.6The goody bag for a run that takes place in the South of England always includes various leaflets, invariably including one offering discounted membership of a gym in Glasgow. No-one knows why.

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