When you’re trying to decide on a race to enter, you can spend ages comparing the various descriptions of them that organisers put up on their websites. Some are incredibly detailed, while some are unhelpfully brief. And often, they’re a little bit confusing.
You’ll often find that they’re peppered with odd phrases and bits of running shorthand that are, at times, a little ambiguous. One example of this is the term ‘undulating’, which crops up with unnatural frequency in race route descriptions. I explained the various meanings of undulating some time back, but there are plenty of other bits of jargon stuffed into race descriptions.
Here’s what some of them really mean…
Course profile descriptions
Flat: A bold statement, and reassurance that you can enjoy some hill-free running.
Pancake-flat: May actually be flatter than a flat course. Seriously, it’s likely to be flat.
PB friendly/PR friendly: Mostly flat, likely with a little bit of elevation change. You’ll find this phrase used quite a lot because, hey, who isn’t going to be tempted to enter a race on a course that’s easier to set a PB on. Because, let’s face it, finding a PB friendly course sounds a far easier of improving your time than training harder…
Undulating: a course that won’t be flat, but likely won’t be overly hilly. Or a somewhat hilly course that organisers don’t want to scare entrants off by describing as such. Read an expanded description of undulating here.
Challenging: There will be hills, and they will be steep.
Tough: There will be lots of hills, and they will be very steep.
‘You’ll enjoy the views’/‘Worth it for the views’: The ‘it’ mentioned here is, of course, a relentless grind up one or more ridiculously steep hills.
Brutal: Ye Gods.
Scenic: This sounds like it is a welcome description for a race, suggesting you’ll have nice things to look at. Usually it is, although beware: if this is the only descriptor used for a race, it might be because describing the course with any other terms would involve admitting it’s a grindingly difficult course that takes in hill after hill after hill.
Race course types
Out-and-back: This is a course that involves running somewhere, turning round and heading back. At it’s most extreme, the turning point is occasionally a traffic cone in the middle of the road.
Single lap: A course that starts and finishes in the same place, taking in one big loop. Always a good option if you like plentiful variety.
Multi-lap: A course that will take in two or more loops of a particular section of course. This is both good and bad. It’s good because you’ll know what you’re in for on the second lap, and can adjust your efforts to suit. It’s bad if the loop is particularly dull, or if it contains a tough hill – knowing you’ve got to run up a hill a second time can be a little demotivating…
Point-to-point: A course that stars somewhere, and finishes somewhere else. These offer maximum running variety pleasure, but can be a bit tough for logistics. Although when a point-to-point course is well organised – such as the London Marathon – you’d almost never know.
All-asphalt/all-Tarmac: Yes, this will be a course that takes place entirely on a sealed surface course. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be as smooth as you’d think
Closed-road: The route will take place on roads closed to traffic so, in theory, only runners will be on them. This is good, as it removes the always unwelcome prospect of being squeezed to the side by over-aggressive drivers who don’t think they should have to account for people running on a road (because they’re far more important, obviously).
Open-road: This route will take place on roads which are open to traffic. Which raises the, erm, always unwelcome prospect of being squeezed to the side of the road by over-aggressive drivers who don’t think they should have to account for people running on a road (because they’re far more important, obviously). To be fair, most motorists are very decent people who won’t mind slowing down and giving you room. Sadly, there are always exceptions to the rule, etc…
Mostly smooth with some slippery bits: there’ll probably be grass or mud. Beware if it gets wet
Occasionally muddy in places: will almost certainly be muddy in places.
Muddy in places: Pack your wellies.
Mixed-surface: This means the race will take place on – shock! – a mixture of surfaces. Expect it to be mostly fairly smooth stuff, but be ready for a bit of on-grass action and the potential for some mud.
Trail course: An off-road course. Probably bumpy. Mud often involved.
Race village/race festival: A selection of stands selling running products, offering massages and that sort of time. Sometimes these will be massive. Often they’ll be two stalls in the middle of a big field.
Club/county championship round: runs that are rounds of club championships will often attract higher numbers of runners than other events. And when you get to the start you’ll find most of them are wearing various brightly colours club running tops. But you don’t usually have to be a member of a club to do them.
Accurately measured: Some races really seem to push the fact that they’ve accurately measured the course to make sure it’s the distance that they’re advertising. Which seems an odd thing to advertise, because when you’re entering a 10k race, you’d basically expect the organisers would have checked the course was, you know, 10k long. Although a surprising amount aren’t. And yes, that includes many described as being ‘accurately measured’.
Certified course: Usually followed by a bunch of initials that are the name of a national governing body. This means the course has been verified by some official types as being of the correct length, so any record times set on it can enter the history books. Which matters, because of course you’re going to be running at world record pace (alright, it has an impact on club points and the like too…)
Read more running jargon busting here.
The first ‘proper’ race I ever entered was the Wedding Day 7k. As the name suggests, it takes place on a seven kilometre course. Even at the time, it seemed a slightly odd distance. But, as time passes, I’ve come to realise that it’s just downright unusual.
Years back, in the days before easy access to precise measurement equipment, online race comparison websites and the like, races were all sorts of strange distances. It largely depended on what course organisers could carve out of whatever roads, trails or paths they could get access to.
But, in the increasingly homogenised and standardised modern world, events have become far more standard in distance. Generally speaking, the vast majority of events are run over a handful of particular race lengths – 5k, 10k, 10-mile, half-marathons and marathons.
On, balance, that’s common sense. Those distances give people a good idea of the effort required to train for and complete in any given event, and it also makes it possible to compare progress on different races in different places at different times.
But that theory doesn’t entirely hold. No two race courses are the same: just think of the variation possible in both elevation changes and surface, for example. My best 10k race time was set on the virtually flat, wide Tarmac of Castle Combe Race Circuit. I can’t really compare the time I set there to my times on the Richmond Park 10k, which takes place on a hilly, mixed surface course.
But, most importantly, races of unusual distances are fun. They offer variety, something a bit different. And, frankly, the races I’ve competed in over unusual distances have been some of the most fun. I don’t think that’s coincidence: it seems the races organisers who persist with non-standard event distance races are the most proud of their events, and their history. The Wedding Day 7k is a great example. Another was the Treggy 7, a seven-mile trek in Cornwall featuring a great big, whopping hill.
Here’s another: last weekend I competed in the Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run. It features three different distances, and none of them are standard: you can take your pick from 8.2, 16.2 and 20.1 miles.
The distance stems from the course: it’s effectively a loop of the River Thames towpath and nearby roads from Kingston-upon-Thames down to Hampton Court Palace and back. The 8.2-milers do one loop, the 16.2 runners do two (a slight shortcut on lap two accounts for the fact it’s not quite double), while the 20.1-mile runners add an extra mini-loop early on.
Interestingly, the course is virtually the same one I’ve done several other runs on – the Hampton Court Palace Half-Marathon, and the Kingston 10 Miles. Those races add in extra loops and twists to make up standard distances, so the Kingston Breakfast Run organisers could do the same, but they choose not to. Excellent.
Now, the distances aren’t entirely random: the run is frequently used as a training effort for people tackling spring marathons such as London, with plentiful pacers to help people round in particular times.
Since I’m not doing this year’s London Marathon (boooo!), I just did it for fun. For fun? Yup. And on very little training too. Fun. Little training. So I did the 8.2-mile distance, right? Nah… I was planning to, but when I went to sign up, it was only a few pounds more to double my mileage… so the 16.2-miler it was.
Well, it’s only a few miles more than a half-marathon, right? Well, yes, except I’d only run further than 10k a few times since I finished the Houston Marathon back in January. And it was only a week or so before last weekend I really comprehended that, at 16.2-miles, the Kingston Breakfast Run would be the third-longest race I’d ever do.
But, strangely, I didn’t feel all that much pressure. Because it’s not like I had anything to compare the race to. I didn’t have a 16.2-mile PB, and it’s not like I’m going to tackle many of them – unless I return to the Kingston Breakfast Run again (hint: I will). With the inability to compare my time to pretty much anything else, I found myself free to experiment a bit more.
As a result, I set out at something approaching my half-marathon PB pace, with the intention to see how long I could keep that pace up past 13.1 miles. It’s certainly not a tactic I’d use on a marathon, when I’d be determined to run at a pace I felt I could sustain. But on this event, I felt free.
So off I went at my half-marathon pace, and yes, I did predictably struggle in the final few miles when the pace, and my lack of training, began to tell. But I didn’t mind all that much, and I just concentrated on having fun.
If nothing else, doing a 16.2-mile race was a good challenge: it pushed me on from a half-marathon, but without the sheer pain and effort required to do a full marathon.
Which is why I love unusual race distances: they don’t just become another 10k, 10-miler or half-marathon. They’re challenges in their own right. They’re events you can do for the challenge and fun of doing them.
Oh, and in the case of the Kingston Breakfast Run, there was also an awesome goody bag, courtesy of Lidl. Among other things, it featured peanut butter, a bag of seeds, peppermint tea, and shower gel. What more could you want? (If the answer was muesli, then don’t worry: there was also muesli).
A mug. Yup, instead of a medal you get a mug.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) March 26, 2017
As noted in the past, I’m a big fan of events that hand out non-medal-based finisher rewards. It’s a nice point of difference that makes them stand out. A bit like having a race that takes place over an unusual difference.
Knowledge is power. It’s an oft-repeated phrase, and that’s largely because it’s true. When you’re taking part in a race, knowing how far you’ve gone – and by extension how far you’ve got to go – is incredibly useful knowledge.
In the age of GPS watches (which are great, although they can also be randomly annoying), most runners can have that information, and lots more, strapped to their wrist. But not everyone runs with a GPS watch. And even those who do wear them don’t always look at them. And that’s where distance marker boards come in.
They are brilliantly simple. It’s a sign which says how far into the race you are – usually every mile of kilometre. They’re used on most races, and they take many forms. Sometimes it’s a simple bright yellow sign with a number on it. On a big event, such as the London Marathon, they can be full balloon arches that stretch across the road. On one run I did, the ‘boards’ were actually people wearing jackets with the distance marked on them.
Distance boards provide useful information, and they’re also reassuring that you’re actually still on the right route for the race. They’re simple, they’re unobtrusive and they’re brilliantly effective.
So…. why have I included them in my ever-growing list of random running annoyances?
Because of this: they’re not always in exactly the right place.
Distance boards need to be put somewhere: maybe hung from a tree, attached to a fence or propped up by a post. And sometimes, there just isn’t somewhere to put them at the exact distance they’re indicating. Sometimes the people putting the distance boards up just don’t seem to have double-checked the measurements. Sometimes, they just seem to make a mistake. In other words, it’s not that uncommon to find the market board is, at least according to my Garmin, a couple of hundred metres early, or a couple of hundred metres late.
Is that a problem? Well, it’s certainly not an unsurmountable one, but it doesn’t really help. If you’re trying to pace yourself with a ‘normal’ watch not fitted with GPS, you’ll need to rely on the boards being in the right place to ensure you’re running the splits you want.
And if you’re running with a GPS watch, finding that it’s out of sync with a distance marker board can be disconcerting: is the board wrong? Is your watch wrong? How far have you gone?
Finding the distance marker boards are out of sync also creates other concerns. It’s not uncommon to find a race route is either a little short or long of the advertised distance. That can be reflected in the distance marker boards slowly slipping out of sync with your watch. But when that starts happening, it can be tough to know if they’re just errant boards, or if you’re going to discover that the course is too short or too long. Should you slow your pace in order to account for potentially running an extra few hundred metres? And if you do that, how daft are you going to feel when the finish is exactly where it should be, and it was just the boards being stuck in the wrong place?
Again, that’s not exactly a major problem, more a minor frustration – an annoyance, if you will. And given the brilliant job most race organisers do, I can forgive them for putting the odd distance marker board in the wrong place. Once again, this random running annoyance probably says more about my running psyche than anything else.
But that whole knowledge is power thing only really works if the knowledge you’re getting is accurate. And anything that causes you to doubt that isn’t welcome.
All that said, when I do a race, I’ll keep looking out for the marker boards. Why? Because each board is a quite literal milestone during a race, proof that you’re inching closer to the finish than you are to the start. Yup, even if they can be annoying, they’re always a welcome sight…
Read more random running annoyances here.
Back in January, six days after completing the Chevron Houston Marathon (sorry, did I mention I did the Houston Marathon? Did I? What’s that, I did? Well, just once or twice…) I completed another running milestone: my 100th parkrun.
That means that, since my first tentative outing on my local Kingston parkrun on June 21 2014, I’d spent 100 Saturday morning lining up on a start line at 0900hrs to set off on a free, timed 5k run in the company of other enthusiasts.
My 100th parkrun wasn’t, in itself, particularly memorable: it was six days after I’d run a marathon, after all, so with aching legs I tootled round in 20m 52s – not exactly slow, but some way off my regular 5k pace. Still, it was a pleasing milestone to reach and I’ll get another lovely free T-shirt that will highlight my achievement to the world (although mostly to fellow parkrunners).
Last week, after notching up my 104th event with on the Burnham and Highbridge parkrun while down visiting my family in Somerset, I found myself idly looking at my Parkrun results profile. And something struck me: of those 104 parkruns, I’d done 92 of them on the Kingston parkrun.
The fact I’ve done Kingston so many times shouldn’t really be a surprise, what with the start little more than a kilometre from my front door. But it did stand out, particularly because I’d only tackled six different parkrun courses. Six – despite the fact there are more then 400 parkrun events in the UK. Oh, and international events in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden and the USA.
I determined it was time to try and mix up my parkruns a bit more – to become a parkrun tourist. So yesterday I did something about it, got up early and for my 105th parkrun headed to… Tooting Common.
Yes, Tooting Common. Sorry to disappoint if you thought this was going to end with me jumping on a plane to tackle a parkrun in Singapore.
Why Tooting? Well, who doesn’t want to go to Tooting on a Saturday morning? I mean, seriously? If you’ve never sampled the delights of one of south London’s most comedically named districts, you’re actually missing out. Really.
More pertinently, Tooting was handily placed for my onwards travel plans post-run – and I used to live about five minutes from the start of the Tooting Common parkrun course. So it was an opportunity to run somewhere different, and revisit an old haunt.
It’s six years since I lived in Tooting, back when I was a generally unfit layabout who weighs a lot more than I do now. So doing the parkrun reminded me of the terrible, painful times I’d previously run on the common on previous – failed – attempts to get fit. Needless to say, I was a lot faster yesterday, and yet it hurt a lot less.
As for the Tooting parkrun, it was a pleasant change from Kingston – especially since the River Thames-hugging Kingston course can be treacherously muddy where it goes onto a dirt trail at this time of year. Tooting is fairly simple: after a short start (and finish) straight it’s basically a triangle you run round three times. But it’s wonderfully flat and run entirely on Tarmac or similarly solid surfaces.
That course meant some different techniques were needed. The fact it was flat with few turns meant that it was easy to meter out the pace easily. But doing three laps of one loop and a big field also meant that runners at my pace sent a good chunk of the event going past slower runners. That’s not showing off – I’m genuinely thrilled so many people are out there running at any speed – but it required careful forward planning to avoid inadvertently getting baulked.
Basically, it was a 5k run that started at 0900hrs on a Saturday morning – but in almost every other aspect it was a completely different experience from the Kingston parkrun. Which, in turn is a different experience from the Burnham and Highbridge parkrun, which takes in a park and a section of seawall on the occasionally windy Somerset coast. And, in turn, that’s a hugely different experience from the treacherously steep off-road downhill and tortuously painful gruelling uphill of the Lanhydrock parkrun in Cornwall. And so on.
It shouldn’t be news that every single parkrun course is different. Of course they are. It’s not like they can exactly replicate a traffic-free 5k run route in more than 400 different locations. And that variety is something to embrace. So it’s time I ventured to some new locations on Saturday mornings. I’ve not tackled seven different parkrun courses. I should increase that number a bit.
Now, that’s not to say I won’t do Kingston again, or that I won’t continue to do that one far more often than any other. But, well, there’s a wealth of free 5k events out there. It’s time to see a few more of them…
Saturday June 21, 2014 – that’s two years ago today, anniversary fans! – was a pretty significant day in my running progression. It was the day my running kick began to turn from merely a way of getting fit and losing weight into something bigger – something that would lead me to completing this year’s London Marathon.
Some brief background: I started running in March, 2014. Initially it was slow and painful (really it was, read my flashback account of my first run here). But within a few months I’d lost enough weight that I’d had to ‘admit’ to friends and family that I was going running.
A couple of my friends and work colleagues began to encourage me to do my local parkrun. Initially I was reluctant: I was trying to keep my running low-key, so was unsure about taking part in a sort-of-race with a group of other people. Plus, I’d never really measured how far I’d run. I didn’t know if I could actually run 5k…
Eventually my friends persuaded me to join them for an evening run on the Bushy Park parkrun course (that’s the original one, as parkrun fans will know). I survived, so I signed up for parkrun and printed out my barcode. And that takes me to Saturday June 21, 2014, and Kingston parkrun number 222.
Looking back, I was comedically over-prepared. I’d looked up the course on the internet and worked out roughly where the kilometre splits were so I’d know how far into the run I was (at that point I was timing myself with a £7.99 Casio, not my Garmin GPS watch). I carb-loaded on pasta the night before, and went to bed early so I was well-rested.
I woke up early – well before my seven am alarm early – due to nerves. I was amusingly nervous. I was also anxious not to be late. So I had breakfast early, and got changed early (this was the clearly the start of my obsession with a pre-race routine). Well, I didn’t want to be late, and I wanted time to recover from a gentle warm-up jog there. I double-checked I had my barcode and set off.
I reached the start at around 0830hrs. I was the first person there. By a big margin. Big enough to make me worry I was in the wrong place, and to feel very self-conscious standing there. Conversely, I was too worried I’d wear myself out to jog around in a bid to look less conspicuous.
Eventually other runners arrived. I was in the right place! The vibe was good. I kept myself to myself, but it was a nice vibe, with a bunch of generally friendly seeming people.
Next awkward social challenge for me: working out where to go at the start. I definitely didn’t want to be at the front, but I also knew I didn’t want to be too far back. So I stuck myself firmly, and hopefully anonymously, mid-pack.
The actual run? It was sort of uneventful. I spent much of it desperately confused as to how well I was pacing myself. I reckoned I could do it in sometime around 25 minutes, so tried to reach each of my approximated kilometre splits every five minutes or so.
The bit I remember best was the final half-kilometre or so. I’d been controlling myself quite well, and realised I still had plenty of energy. Confident I could make the finish, I sped up, overtaking several people in the final few hundred metres. I had way more energy than I should have – I already knew I’d been far too conservative.
I crossed the finish line after 24m 44s of running, in 48th place out of 87 entrants.
For the first time, I experienced the bizarrely conflicting, seemingly contradictory emotions that make races so addictive: a real sense of achievement of finishing within my target time, mixed with the realisation I could have gone faster if I’d just had the confidence to start out a bit faster.
So, of course, I returned the following week, determined to improve on my previous effort. I knocked 92 seconds off my time. I returned the week after that, and knocked another 25 seconds off my time. And so began the eternal, never-ending quest to chase a PB.
I’ve kept on returning. My Saturday mornings have been transformed. And my enjoyment of parkrun has directly led me to entering ‘proper’ races. Yup, my life has changed quite dramatically since that first uncertain parkrun.
In the two years since June 21, 2014, I’ve now completed 80 parkruns – a pretty good number given, by my reckoning, the Kingston parkrun has run 104 times in the same period. Those 80 runs have come on five different courses: 73 on Kingston, two on Richmond Park, two on Burnham and Highbridge, two on Panshanger and one at Basingstoke.
My fastest time on the Kingston course is now 19m 41s, while my fastest ever 5k time is now 19m 35s (set on the Burnham and Highbridge course on October 31, 2015). I’m now slightly disappointed if I don’t complete the run in around 20 minutes or under.
To date, 24m 44s remains my slowest-ever parkrun…