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Bath Half 2016: How the event grew to become one of the country's top road races

Create: 03/09/2016 - 17:04
It sells out months in advance, has raised many millions for charity and helps thousands of mere mortals climb their own “personal Everest” and the good news is the Bath Half is showing absolutely no signs of slowing up ahead of its 35th birthday in March.
Records could tumble on and off the flat, fast two-lap course that cuts through the heart of the World Heritage Site on Sunday, March 13, with a huge 2015 fundraising total of £2.1million likely to be bettered once again and the elite men’s field eyeing up the event’s first sub-62 minute winning time.
Either or both would give the long-serving husband and wife team of race director Andrew and charity director Mel Taylor immense satisfaction when they settle down to enjoy their traditional – not to mention well-earned – post-race drinks with their army of helpers at the local pub.

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“That’s when I get the big sense of relief,” said Andrew. “We hand over the keys to the Recreation Ground to the security guard at 6pm, the last of the roads has been reopened, and I defy you to find a piece of litter – or indeed any evidence that the race has even taken place.”

That precious moment marks the end of a year-long effort from the team at Running High Events, the company formed by the Taylors at the turn of the Millennium to take over the organisation of the race from City of Bath AC (now Team Bath AC). Back then, male club runners dominated a field of 2,500. The growth of the event since means that these days five times that number take part, with females catering for almost half of the field along with twice as many 18-24 year olds.
The unique setting of the start/finish area on Great Pulteney Street – one of Europe’s widest Georgian boulevards – the restricted nature of the runners’ village at the Recreation Ground and the need to shut down the roads of such a busy city mean that supply is unlikely to satisfy demand in the immediate future.
We could probably sell twice as many places but we completely fill the runners’ village now,” explained Taylor. “We have round about 12,000 participants on race day and then there are up to 30,000 spectators. It is crowded enough on Bath Rugby matchdays at 12-15,000 spectators, so it’s absolutely heaving for the half marathon. All of the access points to the Recreation Ground are sub-standard for a stadium and, physically, we couldn’t do it. Also, as a two-lap race we are limited by numbers on the carriageway.”
As it is, liaising with public bodies, local authorities, the highways network, sponsors, contractors and more than 110 charities means the planning of an event that costs £850,000 to stage is a full-time job for both directors and two members of staff. Nearly 900 volunteers and marshals are on hand to make sure the big day itself runs smoothly.
 

Survival plan

Andrew, a county cross-country champion as a schoolboy in Dorset, rekindled his love for running with the old City of Bath AC when he reached his forties and originally became race director because he felt “it was my turn to give the club a hand, having run the race a few times”.
He added: “We had a city centre office, and that proved useful for meetings, making calls and sending faxes. I was working as a self-employed chartered building surveyor so I was able to approach it with project and safety management skills. Mel had a background in television and magazine production and those skills are very useful in event delivery, she had the passion for charity fundraising and the creative flair.
“We were working towards a position where the event could be sold off by the club, never thinking that we would be the ones to buy it! We had set up Running High as a vehicle to run the race and protect the club from liability. 
“We were the first of the commercial events in the county of Avon and were one of the first large road races to set up in the UK. The Bath Half was launched in 1982, the year after the first London Marathon, which followed the first New York Marathon, which was many years after the Boston Marathon started, so that’s where the influence came from.
“Most of the races set up in 1982 or 1983 fell by the wayside but Bath has managed to survive. When we took over the management of the event in 2000, we said to Bath & North East Somerset Council that for it to survive it needed to become a commercial event and it needed to get bigger to pay the revenues that a company needs to be able to turn over a profit and fund the staffing and admin. 
“We said we needed more space. In those days there were no parking suspensions on the route and we had one carriageway of live traffic, so on the Lower Bristol Road we had the lead runners lapping the field in the middle of the road, with two lanes of parked cars on either side. It patently wasn’t safe, even for the 2,500 runners we had back then.

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“It was a Liberal Democrat administration at the time but we got support from all parties in the council. We loosely agreed a series of criteria. They wanted it to be self-funding with no financial drain on the council, they wanted it to be professionally managed and for us to deal with complaints and any issues that arose, it had to build a good reputation and paint the city in a positive light and they wanted it to be accessible for local residents and, to this day, we still achieve that. They also wanted it to make serious money for charity.”

Few could argue that Running High has not delivered on its promise. Once the figures for this year’s race are totted up, it is very likely that the total amount raised for charity since 2000 will pass the £20million mark. Local community groups benefit every year through grants from the Bath Half Marathon Fund and payments to local voluntary groups who staff the event. The race also plays a huge part in getting the region fit – 63 per cent of last year’s entrants were South West-based – while inspiring those who line the city’s famous streets on race day.
 

Elite company

The race itself has seen few changes in recent times, with the course measured by former Olympian Hugh Jones in 2006 still used a decade on. The date of the event, in early March, always falls between six and eight weeks before the London Marathon and is billed as an ideal appetiser for those heading to the capital in the spring.
Despite the extremes of the hills that surround the city, the route that straddles the River Avon is level and has proven a magnet for elite runners from the UK and Africa.
Taylor added: “The winners will get round in just over an hour, and the last runner in about four. Two to two-and-a-half hours is the peak finishing time, so virtually the entire field will be lapped by elite runners. It is a sight to behold. I remember being out on a bike during my time as course director and, as the lead runners overtake, there is a Mexican wave-type movement as the heads and shoulders of those being lapped drop. It’s a psychological thing.
“You can watch a big marathon race on TV or on the side of the road but not until you are running to the limit of your pain threshold yourself and see these guys coming past, running twice, three or four times faster than you, do you realise just how fast they are. Most people couldn’t run a five-minute mile and these guys will do it for 13 of them. There will also be the odd 4:50 or 4:45 in there as well.

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“These events are unique. When you watch a rugby match, you can’t stand on the field and play alongside top internationals. Here, you can. Okay, you’re not actually running side by side, unless it is with Paula Radcliffe at the end of her career, but that does give you respect for them.

“One moment that really stands out for me was when [double Team GB Olympian] Liz Yelling broke the women’s record in 2007. It hadn’t been broken in Bath since 1993 and to see a British woman in the form of her life going sub-70 minutes to do that was just amazing.”
 

Journey’s end

While the prowess of those at the head of the field leaves him in awe, Andrew’s most treasured memories arrive at the finish line somewhat later in a day that sees him arrive on site at 5.30am – five-and-a-half hours before he nervously gives the green light to the starting director to let the runners loose.
“That’s the biggest moment of horror because the moment the hooter sounds we lose control over what happens,” he said. “We have to trust that everybody out there is doing what they said they are doing. It is then down to the runners, marshals, teams of medics and so on doing their job.
“Before the event, people get tense and worried. The social media chatter says things like ‘have I done enough training?’ and ‘I’ve got a bit of a niggle’, ‘should I try this shoe?’ and ‘what energy drink should I use?’. It’s a growing anxiety. On race day you can smell the adrenaline in the air. That’s the difference between the low-key local event and a big-city race.
“When they cross the finish line there is a huge release of emotion. People break down in tears all the time, they cry, they laugh and they shout. One of my jobs is to catch people about to collapse at the finish line because people get into difficulty throwing everything – the sink, the bath and the bed – into getting there.

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“There is something incredibly personal about what happens on a race day. All we do is provide a platform for people to participate. We close the roads but don’t force anyone on them to run. We open the start pens and they fill up with all of these people, who have their race numbers and timing chips. 

“They do all of the hard work. They’ve trained for months, all of their friends and family are there and they have their own personal journey. Some of them have incredible stories to tell, they might be running in memory of someone or achieving a lifelong ambition. From an endurance point of view, it is the biggest challenge a lot of them will take on in their whole lives. It is akin to their own personal Everest. 
“We find it really inspirational to see all the runners on race day, accomplishing their dreams. That’s what makes this business special. 
“We are personally affecting the lives of these people. You’ll help somebody to find their feet, steady them and ask whether they are okay and they will lean on your shoulder and burst into tears. We have been doing this job for so many years now and that still gets us, even now.
“The spectators are inspired by these people. I know the elite athletes are wonderful but they don’t inspire you to go out and run in the same way that watching your neighbour, who is maybe ten years older and a stone heavier, running the race with a smile on their face does. The average member of the public will look at that and think ‘it’s my turn now – I want a bit of that smile next year’.”
 

About Author

Neil Beck
Neil edited XtraTime magazine across all 11 issues from September 2015 to the spring of 2017. He is a vastly-experienced West Country sports journalist who cut his teeth at the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald before moving on to become head of sport at Bath News & Media.