Born to Run…Underground

Bath Two Tunnels 10K

I’ve always believed myself to be a true Pisces fish, happiest in water. That was until I tried one of Relish Running’s Two Tunnels races in Bath. I’ve now decided that running underground in a mile long Victorian railway tunnel is just bliss. And no, I’m not being sarcastic or ironic or any of those things; this was a truly sublime experience.

I signed up for the Two Tunnels 10K at the beginning of January to motivate me to move onto the next step in my running. I was drawn by the history of the route, which uses a section of the long-since closed Somerset and Dorset Railway Line, including two long tunnels. I love railways, steam railways in particular. The thought of running along what used to be railway line (but now nicely surfaced), through tunnels and cuttings, along embankments and viaducts, well, it was all a bit Railway Children. How could I resist?

Route of the Two Tunnels 10K

I was very excited. I was also quite apprehensive. My first 10K: would I be able to finish? Would I injure myself and not be able to drive home? And then there’s driving, parking, finding the place. What if I didn’t like the tunnels – they might be claustrophobic or scary. And what if the whole thing was just awful?

I did everything possible to prepare. I followed my training plan. On the final week I did a couple of shorter runs, one easy effort and one speed. The day before the 10K, I did a bit of yoga, rested, and ate sensibly. I made sure I had all the kit I needed and printed off all the information I probably wouldn’t need, but you can’t be too careful. After seeing the weather forecast for Sunday 3rd March – Storm Freya due to hit the South West on Sunday afternoon – I made sure I was prepared for rain.

I set off on Sunday morning, allowing plenty of time for driving (about two hours for a ninety minute journey), and parking at the park and ride. I vaguely knew the way to Odd Down park and ride, having used it before for trips to Bath. But, to be on the safe side I trusted in my sat nav; which was a mistake. My sat nav took me on a comedy sight seeing tour of Cheddar Gorge and nearby villages. I saw goats with their newborn kids, and deer skipping over hedges. It was very scenic, and twisty. As wind and rain buffeted my little car, I reflected that this would not have been my first choice of route on this occasion. I felt somewhat stressed. But I arrived at the park and ride in good time. And I breathed out.

Lots of runners were at Odd Down Park and Ride, either queuing for the toilet or the bus. I joined one queue, and then the other. I chatted to a fellow runner on the bus, who told me that the best way to burn fat is though the lungs. People often feel compelled to start talking to me about burning fat when they see I’m about to run. Does everyone get this? Or is it because I’m a larger woman? Anyway, I’ve lost over six stone now, so my fat burning is going reasonably well. The friendly lung-fat man helpfully showed me where to go when I got off the bus, and we entered the field though a slightly slippery grassy bank.

When I booked this run back in January I had visualised a bright early spring morning, with daffodils, lambs and chicks everywhere. I don’t know why because this time last year it was snowing. What I got was rain, wind, mud and cold. Lots of cold. Lots of mud. The tunnels measure 408 metres and 1672 metres. For the first time, this didn’t seem long enough. I began to wish they measured a whole lot more.

This is Bath, but not as Jane Austen knew it.

I had arrived far too early. I collected my bib and pinned it on. I used the facilities. I tried to avoid checking my bag – until I could see a long queue snaking across the field. Then I gave in, joined the queue, checked my bag, hoodie and jacket, wrapped myself in a disposable poncho and stood shivering in the rain.

I stood for a long time against a hedge, teeth chattering, waiting for my wave’s turn to run. I’d selected a later wave on account of being slow. I was wishing I’d lied and joined the speedy lot who were already on their way around the course, nice and hot and sweaty.

Eventually, finally, it was time to go down to the start for the race briefing and warm up. We were warned about wet and slippery conditions in the field, and when leaving the field. A quick, much needed warm up, then set Strava, strip off the poncho, and we were off.

We were off, in my case, quite cautiously. After a colour run race, a 5K and hundreds of runners in earlier 10K waves, the field was quite muddy and slippery. At the edge of the field there was a sign warning of slippery steps. I couldn’t see any steps, just a lot of mud going down a reasonably steep bank. I made my way down very, very slowly. As I reached the bottom I said ‘I’m hoping that’s the hardest part out of the way’. A couple passing by laughed and replied ‘We’ll ask you on your way back!’

My plan was simply to complete the course, hopefully without walking. I’d already ran the distance in training, but on my familiar home routes. I wasn’t worrying about pace, or whether I came last (someone has to). But after this start, I knew that my time was probably not going to be great, even by my own slow standards. So I decided to just enjoy the run without thinking about time.

The route crossed a little bridge, and then along a suburban area. I tried to imagine what it would be like if trains were running along the route, and thought about how noisy it would be for the inhabitants of nearby buildings. By contrast, even with 800 runners going up and down the route it seemed quite peaceful.

It wasn’t long before I reached the first tunnel, Devonshire Tunnel, at around a mile into the race. This tunnel, opened in 1874, is about 408 metres long. I was slightly concerned that I might find running in a tunnel claustrophobic. At least experiencing the shorter tunnel first allows for a chance to test this out. The tunnel is dimly lit, and you can’t see the light at the other side when you first go in. But you can see well enough.

I had another Railway Children moment as I ran into the tunnel, thinking about the part in the film when the children go into the tunnel to rescue the boy with the broken leg. Well, there hadn’t been any trains in that tunnel since the line closed in 1966, the year before I was born, but the experience was still pretty exciting. The atmosphere inside the tunnel was calm, even with the other runners in there. The walls were stone faced and dry (someone had warned me the tunnels drip). Away from the weather, away from noise and wind, running felt somehow easier. I was more focused.

Emerging from the tunnel into the wind and rain, we passed the 2KM point. A little further on was the point where the 5K racers would have turned back. Then, just past this point, the route enters Combe Down Tunnel. So, sadly, the shorter race missed out the long tunnel.

Combe Down is 1.672KM, just over a mile, long. The tunnel slopes downwards, running out from Bath. I felt really comfortable as I plodded along. I’d been running for a while when I noticed a sound trying to compete with my playlist. I also noticed some attractive pulsing blue/green lights set into alcoves in the walls. I turned off my music and listened. There was music. Classical, strings – not too loud – just enough to create a surreal and beautiful atmosphere. I’ve since read that this is Passage, an audio-visual art installation. It’s hard to describe this multi-sensory experience – running underground, deep within a tunnel, calm, dim light, beautiful colours, evocative music, people running past pounding the path. Words are insufficient.

When I left the tunnel, there was daylight, wind and rain. We were in a wooded area that felt like it was miles from the city and suburbs of Bath. Cheery marshals handed out cups of water. They were absolute treasures, smiling in spite of the stormy weather. Then on to the turning point. I cheered to be half way round.

The return run was harder, even though it seemed shorter. I was glad of the wind and rain by this point, as I was developing my usual red lava face.

The final kilometre seemed to have more undulation and hilly bits than it had on the way out. A runner passed me and called out ‘Everything hurts now’. I know how he felt. I panted and grunted the final few uphill metres back to the park. I trotted along the field towards the finish line exhausted, feeling that there was nothing left in the tank at all. But I finished. I ran all 10 KM. And I wasn’t even last (not that I would have minded, really).

An excellent, unique race experience. Really well organised, and barely marred by horrible weather. A really good choice for my first 10K. I got a very pretty medal with an upside down train on it (the idea is to collect four medals that fit together to make a picture).

I drove home achy, pleased with myself and without my sat nav’s nonsense.



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