Yesterday, courtesy of a friend dropping out at the last minute and gifting me her place, I found myself on the start line of the 2013 Royal Parks Half Marathon with four full marathon finishes to my name. Although I hadn't been training to complete a half marathon (ticking over on 25-mile weeks since the end of July), I jumped at the opportunity to test myself on the course where I popped my racing cherry.
Before yesterday, I'd run three previous Royal Parks Half Marathons but hadn't been back since 2010. I don't recall my reason for not applying in 2011, but I guess it was down to my focus shifting to the full marathon, as well as a feeling that it didn't necessarily represent good value for its near-£50 entry fee.
So it was interesting to return after a few years away and as a far more experienced and competent runner.
First impressions were that it is is a much bigger event than it used to be. If I recall correctly, around 12,000 runners took part in the 2008 race. Yesterday, the announcers boasted of there being 16,000 participants and that could be felt in the race village, particularly in the queues for the baggage tent. With only fifteen minutes to go until the start of the race, queues were a hundred deep, though they were well organised and moved quickly. Unusually, at least in my experience, queues weren't dictated by race number; instead, runners were able to choose their own queue and were given numbered wrist bands which would correspond with boards put up after the start of the race. This seemed a sensible approach for dealing with so many runners and was probably the reason behind the queues moving so swiftly.
Having dropped off my bag, I made my way over to the designated start area for those wearing blue numbers. This was the third start area and, judging by the pacers supplied by Xempo, appeared to cater for those aiming to finish in a time somewhere between 2:00 to 2:15. Knowing that I would be trying to go quite a bit quicker than that, I weaved my way through the crowds until I couldn't go any further. The runners around me were a combination of excitable and nervous, strapped up with multiple energy gels, and I heard many of them talking about it being their first half marathon.
At just short of 9am, the horn went and then... nothing. We were two hundred metres back and didn't move for at least a minute. Slowly but surely, however, we made our way nearer and nearer to the start and just over 8 minutes were on the clock by the time I got to within 20 metres of the line. Here, though, it became apparent that the organisers were holding us back until the appropriate moment to set off the wave.
Whilst being held at the start line, I spotted one of my favourite comedians, Richard Herring, stood at the side of the road so that he could join his wave as it passed. I squeezed past a couple of people, said hello to Richard and wished him luck and, just as I did so, the horn sending our wave off was blasted. By this time, about 15 minutes were on the clock, but this wasn't a concern as we were being chip timed and the organisers were aiming to leave plenty of room on the first stretch out of Hyde Park, under Wellington Arch and down Constitution Hill.
I crossed the line, started my Garmin, and set off at around 6:45 per mile pace. I'd been suffering from man flu all week, so wasn't confident that I would be able to sustain such a pace for the full duration of the race. Nor had I run many consecutive miles at that pace in recent weeks. But I've never been one for sandbagging in a race, so I just got going and hoped for the best.
Within the first mile, having passed Buckingham Palace and now racing up Birdcage Walk towards Parliament, I managed to pass the runners from my wave that had set off a little too exuberantly and began to weave around the stragglers from the back of the wave that had started a few minutes ahead. We then headed up one side of Westminster Bridge before turning back down the other onto the Embankment. Being away from the park and running alongside the Thames, this part of the course was quite exposed and the warmth of the early October sun caught me by surprise. This was, however, where the first water station had been placed and plenty of runners sought to take advantage. Unfortunately, there was no signage, nor any marshals, encouraging runners to take water from the furthest table along. This led to a nasty bottleneck at the water station, the majority of runners, many of whom were taking part in their first race, grabbing for the very first bottle of Lucozade at the very first table. Frustratingly, this was a pattern which would repeat itself throughout the duration of the race.
After doubling back on ourselves on the Embankment, the route made its way past Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square and onto the Mall. Turning back up the slight incline of Constitution Hill, the course narrowed and became slightly congested. However, it soon opened up again as we headed back into Hyde Park just before the six mile mark and there was a surge of noise as the first real concentration of spectators made their presence felt.
Entering the park, I found myself still ticking along at around 6:50 per mile, which surprised me as I had expected to slow. However, my legs were feeling fine and I was in a 'comfortably hard' place, so I was able to ignore the warmth and the fact that my breathing was slightly more laboured than normal because of my cold.
It was a pleasure to run around the winding, gently undulating paths of Hyde Park on such a beautiful early autumn morning. There was a smattering of support throughout the park and a number of points on the course where you could see runners either behind by a couple of miles or ahead by a couple of miles.
Then something strange happened: after holding a steady pace for nearly ten miles, I was suddenly hit by a nagging doubt that I wouldn't be able to sustain my current pace. Perhaps it was because I hadn't gone beyond ten miles in a single session since Manchester? Or was it the fact that I hadn't had more than a couple of sips of water since the start of the race? Whatever it was, the tenth mile was a bit of stinker and it took 7:10 to complete. Fortunately, there was a water station practically on top of the 10 mile marker and, as soon as I took a few sips of water and passed the 10 mile marker, my legs found another gear and were back at 6:50 pace. The mind is a funny thing...
The final km of the Royal Parks Half is somewhat torturous because you can see the finish line as soon as you turn past the Albert Memorial, but it annoyingly seems to take forever to get any closer. Looking at my watch as I hit the final straight, I had less than four minutes to get home in a time under 1 hour 30. My best km time on the track is somewhere in the region of 3:20, so I knew it was going to be tight and I worked as hard as I could to make it.
But it wasn't to be. I crossed the line in a frustrating 90 minutes and 9 seconds (I prefer to call it 89 minutes and 69 seconds!), which is still a massive nine minute PB for me because I haven't raced a half marathon for over two years.
So, overall, I can't be too displeased with my result. Had I not had a cold, and had I not added about a third of a mile to my run by weaving around people, I'm certain I could've shaved off those vital ten seconds. At the very least, it bodes well for when my training for London gets properly underway and I'll hopefully be able to go significantly under 90 minutes when I've trained properly for the distance. I was also reminded that you always have to respect the distance you are running. I was quite casual in my approach to the race and wonder if I'd have done better if I'd have eaten a more carb-heavy meal the night before or even if I'd have worn a cap to keep the heat at bay. There are always lessons to take away from every race...
As for the Royal Parks Half Marathon, it is an unashamed mass participation race and that is reflected by the fact that the organisers don't put together an elite field and the winners never run particularly fast times. I suspect that it is now operating to the full extent of its capacity because, as I've mentioned, there were times when I felt that both the course and the race village were slightly overcrowded. I also remain unconvinced that it is worth the high entry fee. My friend got a t-shirt. but goody bags weren't given out and had to be queued for from one tiny tent. This represents poor value when compared to the London Marathon, which costs £31 to enter but requires far more road closures. Having said all that, the Royal Parks Half does remain a scenic and well organised event and makes an excellent entry point into the world of road racing, so I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who, like me in 2008, is just beginning their running journey.