The life of a runner, mother, radiopharmacist and vicar's wife – that's me!

Running the canals of Birmingham

I had to go to Birmingham this week for a meeting. I didn’t think that I would get much chance to do any running and, if the opportunity did arise, I wasn’t sure where I would run.

I was a student in Birmingham but that was about 30 years ago. Birmingham has changed a lot in 30 years. As a student, I used to run along the canals with the professor, who was the head of department. He was pretty good, in spite of being about 30 years my senior. We often used to run in the direction of Spaghetti Junction, that twisted route of roads that introduces you to Birmingham just at the end of the motorway.

It wasn’t exactly the most attractive route and sometimes the smell of chemicals from the factories that banked the canal was worse than the smell in the organic chemistry lab. We’d try to ‘guess the solvent’ but I’m not that good at that game. All I knew was that I didn’t want to breathe in too deeply on those sections.

It was fun though and, one of the routes that we used to take went up (or down) several locks so wasn’t the flat, boring, canal run that it might have been. They had done a lot of work on the footpaths around that time and so the running surface was pretty good.


It could also be slightly scary. One day, when running on my own, I passed a man with a gun.  I didn’t look at him and just hoped he wouldn’t shoot me. There was also a particularly fierce dog who lived by one of the locks. He was always tied up on the other side of the canal but would bark and snarl at us as we passed. I feared the day when he would break free and bound across the narrow lock to our side of the canal.

However, this week, I wasn’t in that part of Birmingham so I couldn’t (perhaps thankfully) run those canal routes. I did contemplate getting the train up to Sutton Park and running round the route used for the road relays this past weekend but it seemed a lot of effort to go to and I wasn’t sure how much time I would have.

As it happened though, I ended up with a few spare hours on Sunday so, laced up my trainers and headed out in search of a different stretch of canal. I knew that you could get down onto the canal on Broad Street just after the International Convention Centre so I made my way there. There was a choice of directions to run but Wolverhampton sounded interesting as it was going out of the city rather than into it.

The first little bit was a bit congested with people meandering along looking for places to eat or drink but pretty soon it thinned out and the path was all mine! Luckily, I didn’t see too many strange people. There were a few that I wouldn’t necessarily have like to engage in conversation though. Actually, I didn’t see all that many people but this was probably because the route wasn’t all that exciting. It went through the Winson Green and Smethwick parts of the city passing quite close to what was City Hospital. I didn’t recognise that path at all although I have run out in that direction before, perhaps on a different part of canal. I remember running towards Winson Green one day with the professor that I mentioned earlier and ‘stopping to look at the birds’ (he was a keen bird-watcher) but this really meant that I was running too fast for him and he wanted a break.

And in fact, the path was a good route for bird watching. I saw a man with a large camera focused on the undergrowth almost certainly taking pictures of the wildlife. Also, on my way back, I was surprised to see a heron on the side of the path. I was able to get pretty close before it decided to fly to the other side of the canal to watch for fish to eat.


I was concerned that the fairly good footpath would peter out into a muddy little track, not really appropriate for the footwear that I had on. However, this didn’t actually happen until I’d run nearly 4 miles along the canal (and nearly 5 miles into my run). You can, presumably, run the full 31 miles to Wolverhampton, but that will have to be another day. I ran up to Smethwick Galton Bridge, you could see the station, which I had earlier that day passed through on the train, from the canal.

I was going along quite well but the wind had been a little in my face for the entire route so it was easier going back. Those miles along the canal were run at a reasonable pace of around 7.30 min per mile but the bits through the city slowed me down to an average of 7.40 per mile for a total of 9.6 miles. I’d wanted to do at least 10 but that was close enough and a nice run.

The next morning there was a fun run for the conference (at 7.30am!!!!). Keen as I was to beat my colleagues in the Nuclear Medicine field, I didn’t actually feel like a quick two miles early in the morning after running nearly 10 miles with the (fairly swift) parkrun also still in my legs from Saturday. So, I gave it a miss.

However I did get an opportunity to go out for a run later. Actually, it was a choice between going out for a (free) meal or going out for a run. Since I am a bit of a sad case and due to the fact that I already had food in the apartment to eat, I went out for a run.


I headed back to the canal and got onto it by the Mailbox. This time I chose to go towards Worcester – why not? Again, I wasn’t familiar with this stretch of canal, but perhaps I should have been because it is the stretch that I have seen many times coming in on the train through Bournville, Selly Oak and University into Birmingham New Street. The railway line runs parallel for a large section of this route and I’ve often thought it would be nice to run on – and it was.

This time, there were no strange people on the footpaths (not even bird watchers) but quite a few fellow runners and a fair few cyclists. I had considered doing some long intervals but I always think it is difficult if you are not familiar with a route to do that kind of session and to keep up the intensity. Instead I opted for more of a tempo run. I wanted to see if I could run closer to 7 min per mile and, with the route being pancake flat, this was a realistic aim.

However, I’m just not running that fast right now. I’m suspicious that it is just the watch being inaccurate but it’s probably that I’m really not running all that fast. The pace wasn’t too bad though considering that 10 miles the previous day (also at an OK pace) and the parkrun. It was around 7.20 per mile average over the 5 miles that I ran.

The route was also a lot more attractive then the route the day before and less industrial. I went up past the university and the other main hospital in Birmingham (QEII). The only bit that I didn’t like was the long tunnel but mainly because there wasn’t really room to pass people coming the other way.

The good thing about running along the canal (apart from it being very flat, which might be good or might be bad depending on how you look at these things) is that it is difficult to get lost. Although I did make a poor choice of which branch of the canal to take at one point on the route to Wolverhampton and had to double back, it is pretty difficult to get lost on an out and back route. Also, if you find a stretch, like the route to Worcester, there are plenty of other runners around should an emergency occur. The underfoot conditions are pretty good in most places and, although you are running through the city, it feels more like you are in the countryside. So, I recommend a run along the canals if you find yourself in Birmingham and, if you are lucky like I was on Sunday, the sun might even shine on you.

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This entry was posted on April 20, 2016 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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