Last weekend I tackled the Simplyhealth Great Bristol Half Marathon. I’m not a stranger to 13.1-mile runs now: it was my sixth half marathon. But there was an interesting twist: it was the first time I’ve run a half marathon for a second time.
I’m surprised it’s taken so long, to be honest. But, in some ways, it’s a product of the fact my first four half marathons were all preparation for my two marathons, so the choice of race was down to all sorts of factors. But, having done halves in Wokingham, Hampton Court, Bristol, Houston and Swansea, this year I decided to head back to visit my family in Somerset for a weekend and take on the Bristol half for the second time.
Being utterly honest, I wasn’t sure how much I was looking forward to it. Sure, I always enjoy the challenge of running, but the 2016 Bristol half wasn’t my favourite half marathon course by some way. It starts with a long run up and back a fairly wide straight road alongside the River Avon, and then finishes with several miles of fiddly twisting and turning through the city centre. Last year, I found the first bit a little quiet and dull, and the last bit quite painful – especially given heavy showers and wind that affected last year’s race.
So while I quite enjoyed the fun of running in the closest city to my hometown, I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy doing the course a second time. And I wasn’t quite sure what form I was in: my new job has been keeping me plenty busy, and lots of trips away meant I hadn’t done the sort of training I’d like to do. Not that I’m complaining: the weekend before the Bristol half, I was on a rather nice but busy work trip to Italy. It wasn’t exactly great for final preparation, although I did get to carb load on lots and lots of fantastically fresh Italian pasta (don’t mention the hefty amounts of cheese it was served with…).
Still, the good news was that the weather this year proved to be far more conducive to running than 2016’s wind and rain. It was a chilly day, but once I was up to speed it was almost perfect running conditions.
I also made sure I started a bit further forward this year: last year I got caught out by a pre-start surge to the front, and ended up spending the first half-mile or so stuck behind groups of people going slower than I wanted. Trying to get back on pace probably hurt me a bit later on.
And, you know what? I enjoyed it. A lot. More than last year, which I wasn’t expecting. Perhaps that was because my expectations weren’t so high, but I settled in, took in the sites and kept up a good pace. The out-and-back section didn’t seem quite so long, and the final twists and turns through the city hurt a lot less when the cobblestones weren’t sodden and the wind wasn’t funnelling through the buildings.
I was quicker too: crossing the finish in 1h 28m 10s meant I went 31 seconds faster than my 2016 time. Which was pretty gratifying, especially since I hadn’t done as much preparation as I’d intended. So I was happy then, right? Well…
It’s one of the annoyances of running that, no matter how well you do, you always start to wonder how you might have done better. And so it was with last weekend. If I was 31 seconds quicker than in 2016 when I arguably wasn’t as well prepared, how much faster could I have gone had I really trained for it?
Which then prompted me to go and look up my half marathon PB – a 1h 27m 52s, set on the Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon in 2016. So on a course that probably isn’t quite as conducive to a quick time due to those late wiggles, and without being in absolutely top shape, I set a time only 18s down on my half marathon PB…
Like I said: runners. Never happy.
Luckily, I’ve got another half marathon coming up in a few weeks to try and improve on my time. My seventh half will be a new race to me, although in a familiar location: I’ve got a spot on the Royal Parks Half Marathon in central London. The last time I ran the streets of London, of course, was the London Marathon in 2016…
Before I finish, I should mention two more elements of the Bristol Half that added to my enjoyment of it. One was a very definite change from last year: the finisher’s shirt. Last year’s design was a fairly anonymous ‘Great Run’ template effort. Pleasant, but not exactly memorable. This year, the organisers tasked a local artist with doing a local design – and the result was a much improved offering.
The second enjoyable element was something that remained the same: my choice of post-race dining. Keeping with a tradition that started with the London Marathon, I celebrated my success in Wahaca because, well, because tacos are good.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) September 17, 2017
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.
I signed up for two races this week. Now, that’s nothing too unusual in itself: I take part in quite a lot of races. But there was something that was quite odd about the two races I signed up for: they’re both in October. It’s February. October is, like, eight months away.
Now, I’m rarely the most organised person. I’m not much of a forward planner; it takes me some work to map out a three-month marathon training plan, for example. So it’s a little out of character for me to be plotting out my running eight months ahead.
It also strikes me as slightly odd. Eight months is some time away. Lots of things can change between now and then. It’s quite possible that other commitments – work, family, that sort of thing – might arise for the two weekends in October I’ve just shelled out money to enter races on. So why have I signed up so early?
Because, if I want the chance of taking part in those races, I have to.
Here’s the thing. Running is a popular activity. Lots of people run. And lots of people who run like to take part in races. Some races are particularly well-regarded and popular. But any race can only accept a certain number of entries. If more people want to take part in the race than there are places in that race, you have a classic case of supply and demand economics.
This isn’t a problem with most races. There are lots of races, and the bulk of the them don’t fill up their places: many offer on-the-day entries, if you’re so inclined. The trouble is that, without a lot of research, you often never know which will sell out and which won’t.
Finding out a race you want to do is sold out can be incredibly disappointing. Last year, I ran the Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon in March, and very much enjoyed it. Having survived this year’s Houston Marathon, I figured I’d tackle it again this year. But, by the time I decided I’d actually be up for a mid-March half, it had sold out. Rats.
If you’re a race organiser, having more people want to do your event than can actually start it is a lovely problem to have. And those race organisers have found different ways to cope.
One of the races I signed up for this week is the Cabbage Patch 10, a very enjoyable ten-mile race based in Twickenham (and, of course, the winner of my award for the best race I did in 2016 that wasn’t the London Marathon). It’s a popular event: its been going for 35 years, Mo Farah is a previous winner and, in my experience, extremely well-organised. Plus, the course is a flat, fast and fun loop around the River Thames, heading from Twickenham down to Kingston and back via Richmond.
The event didn’t run in 2015 because it’s regular date clashed with the Rugby World Cup, which used nearby Twickenham Stadium heavily. And when it returned last year, demand was such that it sold out months before the start.
Doubtless aware of such demand, organisers opened the entries on February 14 – eight months before the October 15 race date. It’s a first come, first served entry system: entries will stay open until all the places are filled.
Organisers advertised the date entries opened at last year’s event, and have plugged it multiple times on their social media feeds. Which means that people who did the race last year, or are interested in it, will likely be made aware entries are on sale. People like me. And those people then have the chance to enter early, when they know they can get a place.
There’s clearly demand, too: there have been almost 400 entries in the first two days. And, again, this is for a race in October!
The other race I’ve signed up for this week is a bit more complicated. That would be the Royal Parks Half Marathon, which takes place in central London in mid-October. This is the tenth year the race has been held, and it’s predictably popular, since it offers a very rare chance to run through the streets of London on closed roads (there’s another way to do that but, well, it involves running a marathon…).
With demand greatly outstripping supply, the Royal Parks Half uses an online ballot system. The ballot is open to entries for a week or so, and then about a week later people are told if they got in or not. People who secure a place then have a week or so to pay up. If they don’t, they lose their place, which gets redistributed in a second ballot.
Reading about the event, it seemed a fun race and a good chance for a second run round the streets of London. I was tempted, but unsure: did I really want to commit to a half-marathon in October already? What if I found some other running challenge for that time that seemed more fun?
With the ballot about to close, I made the decision to put an entry in. After all, the odds were likely against me getting a place, and not having to pay up to enter the ballot (that was an option, giving slightly better odds to get a place through dint of being entered into the second ballot) meant that it didn’t cost me anything to try. And it was probably academic. After all, the odds were likely against me.
And guess what?
I got in.
Suddenly, my hypothetical musings about whether I wanted to commit to a relatively expensive half-marathon in London in October wasn’t so hypothetical. I had a week to either pay up, or lose my chance. And the race is a week before the Cabbage Patch 10, which I really wanted to do again. That’s quite a lot of race mileage in the space of seven days. Perhaps I should pick one. But… both are tempting. What to do, what to do…
As my credit card bill will tell you, I paid up for both.
So now, it’s a bit weird. I have no real idea what I’m doing for much of the rest of the year. I haven’t planned my holidays, breaks, work events, family gatherings much beyond the next few weeks. And yet I know that, health permitting, I’ll likely be tackling two races on back-to-back weekends in mid-October. You know, in eight months time.
And given that most races don’t offer refunds or deferrals if you can’t run, it’s a bit of a gamble. I’m paying up now, and just having to hope that, come October, I’ll actually be able to take part in both events. If not, I’ll be out of pocket.
Frankly, it seems a bit daft. But, as my Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon experience showed me, it’s the sort of thing you have to do if you want to be sure of a place in a popular race you really want to do.
And, well, it’s hard to think of a better solution. And, hey, if nothing else I can now tell you what I’m likely to be doing on two weekends in mid-October…
Oh, and I’ll just add this: you’ve missed the ballot for the Royal Parks Half but, as I write, entries are still available for the Cabbage Patch 10. So, if you think you possibly, definitely, absolutely might just be free on October 15, I’ll suggest you head here and enter. You know, while there are still places available…
My first paid-for race of 2016 was the Richmond Park 10k, way back on January 10. So it was kind of fitting that today I completed my 19th and final race of the year… on the Richmond Park 10k.
In January, I completed the hilly course in 41m 55s. Today my time was… 41m 59s. Four seconds different. Over ten kilometres. Actually, the difference came over less distance than that: according to my Garmin, I set identical times of 21m 01s over the first 5k of each run.
I can’t even blame the conditions for my disgraceful collapse in pace by four whole seconds. The weather records on my Garmin data showed the temperature on both days was an identical 6.1 Celsius.
The course was the same. The weather was the same. And my time was, give or take four seconds, the same. So… have I made any running progress at all this year?
Well yes. Of course I have. It’s been quite a year, in fact.
I’ve competed in 19 paid-for races – 20 if you could the Run the Woodlands 5k (which I tend to leave out because it only costs a dollar to enter…) – in two countries.
At the start of this year I’d never run a half marathon. Now I’ve done four.
So those 19 races included four half marathons, ten 10ks, three ten-milers and one random seven-miler.
I ran my first sub-40 minute 10k race (just: it was a 39m 58s on the flat, fast Chilly 10k at Castle Combe race circuit).
I also set a new ten-mile race PB.
I tackled my first big overseas race, the Houston Half Marathon.
That’s a pretty good list. Anything else? Oh yes, almost forgot…
I ran the London Marathon. I ran a marathon! The London Marathon. The actual London Marathon! In 3h 28m 17s.
I still sometimes can’t quite believe I did that…
In other words, I’ve done quite a lot when it comes to running this year. And this post isn’t an excuse so I can show off my achievements in a #humblebrag sense or anything. Honest.
No, I merely list my 2016 progress as a way of illustrating one of the strange contradictions of running. Running a race is a battle between you and the clock. The clock doesn’t lie. Your finish time is the ultimate record of how well you’ve run, and finish times are the easiest way to chart progress and form.
So being able to compare two race times set on the same course in the same conditions 11 months apart should give me a sense of my running progress, form and achievements. But… it really doesn’t. My running efforts in 2016 really shouldn’t be judged on dropping four seconds on a 10k course around Richmond Park.
In other words… the clock does lie, after all. Well, that’s my excuse anyway, and I’m sticking to it…
When you’re in the middle of a long training run or race, distracting yourself can be a very useful way to forget the general pain and effort you’re exerting on your body. And one of my favourite things to think about when I’m running is what I’d like to eat afterwards.
It’s a reasonably practical distraction, for one thing. Running burns up energy and calories, making you hungry. Eating replenishes energy and calories, and fills you up. If you go running for a long time, you need to eat afterwards. Simple. And, let’s face it, by doing lots of running, you’ve earned yourself a treat, you’ve earned the chance to eat something nice and tasty, and all round a bit unhealthy. Right?
As a result, sometime around the mid-distance of a long race I’ll often start thinking what I’d like to eat after it. And I’m not talking a quick chunk of chocolate or banana or granola bar here – we’re talking meals. Hot meals. Slightly unhealthy hot meals. Burger, anyone? Yup, burgers are nice. And when you’re into the hard miles of a half-marathon, the prospect of a Big Mac becomes mighty attractive.
It’s not always a Big Mac though. I’ve found myself craving all sorts of slightly unhealthy food types when I’m mid-run, from Giraffe’s not-entirely-authentic (but still very tasty) heuvos rancheros, through to Wahaca’s utterly incredible Mexican street eats, to Bill’s steak and eggs (they serve the steak on top of the chips, so they go all lovely and gooey in the meat juices, and excuse me while I stop to drool a bit…).
Okay, I’ve stopped drooling now. But during that short break, you might have been wondering why plotting a slightly unhealthy post-race meal is a running annoyance. After all, we’ve firmly established that a) I need to eat something after doing a long run; and that b) I’ve just done a long run so I’ve surely earned the right to eat something a little unhealthy. So what’s the problem?
Well, two things. The first is that, in my experience, my mind and body plays tricks on me in the latter stages of a long run. Of course it does: it’s probably some form of coping mechanism for the effort and pain I’m putting it through. And while I can start to feel hugely hungry when I’m mid-run, when I stop I’m often in such a strange state of exhilaration and exhaustion that I don’t really know what to feel. I rarely feel instantly hungry. And when my hunger comes back, I often don’t really fancy the sort of food I thought I did during the marathon.
One particularly fine example of this came once when I did an evening 10k race in Yateley, Hampshire. Throughout much of the run I was feeling a McDonalds Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Oh yeah. It seemed like the thing to have. And so, driving home, I detoured off the M3 and stopped at a McDonalds. And you know what? When it was stuck in front of me, I suddenly realised I didn’t really fancy it. What was supposed to be a wonderful treat had kind of lost its appeal.
Part of that is because it’s hard for actual food, no matter how tasty, to actually taste as good as you imagine it will take when you’re in the middle part of a race. And it also relates to the other problem I have: guilt.
Yes, that might sound kind of silly – and it probably is. I think it came from the reason I took up running: to lose weight and get my general fitness under control after years of idle slobbery. Along with taking up running I essentially transformed my eating habits, and as a result that I managed to lose five stone in nine months.
Because I absolutely, definitely don’t want to fall back into my old routine and watch my waistline expand again, I still a lot of care in what I eat. As a consequence, when I decide I’m going to have something that might be classed a bit unhealthy as a treat, it’s got to be good. If it isn’t – and sometimes, even if it is – I feel guilty.
Guilty? Yup, because it feels like a waste of the hard work and effort I put in while running. I’ve worked hard to earn the right to eat it, and you want food that lives up to the effort and serves as a truly fitting reward.
So what’s the solution? Well, first you have to accept that food will never actually taste as good as you imagine it tasting when you’re in the middle of a long run. It’s just never going to. Never ever, ever, ever, ever. Like, ever.
Which leads to my solution: making sure that the food I eat after a big long race is going to be tasty, delicious and absolutely worth the effort. And that’s why, after several of my long runs I’ve ended up in Bill’s eating steak and eggs. And particularly why, after this year’s London Marathon, me, fellow South West Children’s Heart Circle charity runner Matt and the friends and family who’d come to cheer us on ended up dining in tip-top Mexican street food chain Wahaca.
Pork pibil tacos. Amazing sweet potato taquitos. Chunky, tasty guacamole. Freshly made tortilla chips. Excuse me – I just need to stop and drool again (and no, I’m absolutely not being paid to endorse either Bill’s or Wahaca. They just make lovely, lovely food…).
In short, it was great. Well, apart from the fact that getting to the Wahaca near Covent Garden we went to meant heading down a big flight of stairs. Getting down them post-marathon was pretty painful. Going back up them on the way home… ouch. Just ouch.
In fact, so good was the post-London Marathon Wahaca that when it came time to go for some food after this year’s Great Run Bristol Half Marathon, I decided to head to… Wahaca. And it was good.
It could be the start of a post-long race tradition. And I’d be fine with that.
For more random running annoyances, click here.
This is a story about a hat. A black woolly hat, to be precise.
As woolly hats go, it is as basic as they come. It doesn’t have a fancy patterned design. It doesn’t have a fancy brand label on it. It doesn’t any fancy thermal lining. It doesn’t have any design flairs, or floppy ear covers, or a strap to hold it in place. And it certainly isn’t topped with a brazen, bouncy bobble. It is a black woolly hat; nothing more, nothing less. As woolly hats go, it is utterly unremarkable.
I can’t tell you much about the hat. It doesn’t have a notable origin story: I found it at the bottom of a box in my house a few years back. It must have come from somewhere before it found its way into that box, but I certainly can’t remember buying it. I couldn’t even tell you which shop it might have come from: it is such a simple, basic woolly hat it doesn’t even have a care label.
In summary, it is a black woolly hat. Nothing more, nothing less. So how come it is a hat I can’t throw away?
For clarity, when I say it’s a hat I can’t throw away, that isn’t due to some sentimental attachment or particular fondness for it. What I mean is that it’s a hat I can’t throw away. Believe me, I’ve tried.
As best I can remember, the hat I can’t throw away made it’s competition debut pretty much exactly two years ago this weekend, on the Chilly 10k, held at Castle Combe Circuit in Wiltshire. The forecast for the day of the event was pretty typical for the time of year in Britain: a cold start with a fairly brisk wind, warming up a bit through the day. The sort of forecast that makes picking the right kit difficult.
The challenge was to wear enough warm clothes so that I wasn’t too cold at the start and in the early stages, but not over-dress so much that I became too hot late in the race when I was fully warmed up. I settled on a long-sleeved technical running top beneath a short-sleeved running T-shirt. But I was concerned about my head getting too hold. It seemed sensible to wear a hat for the cold, early part of the race – but I feared I wouldn’t need it later in the race when I warmed up.
I looked at my range of woolly hats, and none of them seemed to fit. I had some reasonably expensive ones with nice patterns and super-warm thermal lining. But they might prove too warm. And what would I do with it if I over-heated during the race? Pull it off my head and carry it? Didn’t seem like a good idea.
If I was going to start the race wearing a hat, I didn’t want to be burdened by it if I warmed up too much. Rather than carry it for most of the race, I’d rather just throw it away. But it seemed a real waste to pick a ‘nice’ hat and end up getting rid of it through overheating.
I found the answer at the bottom of a random box – and it was woolly, black, and utterly unremarkable. It was the perfect solution to my dilemma: the hat’s basic, simple construction meant I was less likely to get too hot in it quickly – and I could hardly have a sentimental attachment to a hat I couldn’t remember owning until I found it in a box.
The absolutely unremarkable nature of the hat made it the perfect solution. I’d wear it for the start of the race. If I overheated, I’d just pull it off my head and toss it in a bin whenever the opportunity arose.
Funny story: the hat kept me warm at the start, yet the weather never actually warmed up enough for me to throw the hat away. I finished the race with the hat very much still on my head.
Which meant I was able to wear it for the same reason again on the Kingston 10k the following weekend. And on many other subsequent races and long training runs since.
Essentially, if it’s cold enough to start the race or long run with a woolly hat on, the unremarkable black hat is my headgear of choice. A few times the hat has come off my head. Once, the wind suddenly picked up, I got cold again and I put it back on again a few hundred metres later; in most others case it was so close to the finish that it didn’t make sense to throw it away.
But I have actually thrown the hat away in two races. And yet still I own it. Eh?
The first was this year’s Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon. It was definitely woolly hat weather at the start, but after about five miles I’d warmed up so much the hat I whipped the hat from my head. Was it finally time to throw it away?
Not on this occasion. My Mum was visiting to cheer me on for the event. She’d come with me to the start at Hampton Court Palace, and we’d worked out that she was going to spectate near the palace gates when the race went back past there just after half-distance. So I decided to wait until then before throwing away the hat. As I reached the corner nearest the palace gates I spotted my mum, exactly where she said she’d be. Without breaking stride, I slung the hat in her direction. I wasn’t quite on target, but it was close enough for her to pick it up and return it to me at the finish.
That meant I still had the hat for this year’s London Marathon. Again, it was a cold start, but seemed likely to warm up. Perfect unremarkable woolly hat conditions. And, sure enough, about six miles in, I’d warmed up enough to take the hat off.
My brother came to the marathon to cheer me on, and we’d looked ahead to work out where he was going to try and spectate. His first spot was about seven miles in, in Greenwich just after the Cutty Sark. I knew which side of the road he’d be on, but he could have been anywhere within a half-mile or so stretch. Which the crowds at least three-deep in most places, it seemed unlikely I’d spot him.
Still, given when I’d removed the hat, it seemed silly not to leave it a bit before throwing it away, just in case. So I ran along, hat in hand, scanning the faces in the crowd, until – there he was. I spied my brother and, as I closed in and shouted some form of vaguely coherent greeting, I tossed the hat in his direction.
It wasn’t exactly an ideal situation for a hat hand-off. I was focused on running, the crowd left little room for a target window, and my brother had no idea I was about to throw him a hat, and was busy cheering me on and trying to take a photo.
As I ran on, I had no idea whether he’d even seen the hat being thrown in his direction, let alone grabbed it.
By the finish of the marathon, I was too exhausted to even remember the hat. After staggering through the finish area, finding my mum and brother and trying not to be overcome with emotion and/or exhaustion while celebrating, we limped on to a Pret near Trafalgar Square. After picking up a coffee, we couldn’t find anywhere to sit, so we headed over to a bench in Trafalgar Square.
By that point the heat I’d built up doing the marathon was rapidly fading, so I was quickly adding layers to try and keep warm. What I needed was something to stick on my head… and then, from his pocket, my brother produced the perfect solution: a black, woolly hat. An utterly unremarkable black woolly hat.
Of course, there is a weird twist to proceedings. The hat was pressed into service precisely because I had absolutely no emotional attachment to it. But not this hat has now served me so well on so many runs – and survived my repeated attempts to dispose on it – I’ve become quite attached to it.
So haven’t started as a hat that I can’t throw away, it’s now become a hat that I can’t throw away. Which, as the mid-November temperatures drop and I start to contemplate a season of cold weather running – starting with my third outing on the Castle Combe Chilly 10k tomorrow – I’m left with a dilemma. I’ve got a hat that’s ideal to wear for the conditions: warm and comfortable, but cheap enough to throw away if the weather warms up. But, if the time came, could I actually throw away a hat that’s served me so well? Hmmm…
Running is among the most universal of all physical activity. No matter where you go in the world, running is, well, running. You can run in the hot and cold, in cities and in the country, on paved roads and muddy trails, and many other variations – but it’s essentially the same thing. It’s running.
But there’s also a culture attached to running – and that culture varies massively around the world. The culture, customs and idiosyncrasies that are involved in taking part in a race in Britain are very different from those in, say, Texas.
I’d realised some of the differences in the process of entering the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon – and I’d also picked up some details from my Texas-domiciled brother, who has taken part in a handful of races and triathlons.
But you can’t beat first-hand experience, and that was part of the appeal of tackling the Houston Half Marathon on a recent trip to Texas. I was able to pick up some useful details both about doing a race in Houston, and about the culture of running in the Texas and the USA.
I’ve already written about the oddity of being classified an elite runner – at least by the Houston Half organisers. Here are some other differences I noted.
1: Texan races start early
This wasn’t technically a surprise – the 0700hrs start time of both the Houston Half and the Houston Marathon are clearly noted on their websites. Given that Texas can get quite hot (of which more later), it makes sense. And while I’ve done races in Britain that start early, I’ve never done one that started before it was properly light.
Aside from the early alarm call necessitated by start time, it was a cool experience: running between huge skyscrapers through downtown Houston as the sky began to lighten was a fantastic experience.
2: Texan runners aren’t afraid to go topless
Well, male runners at least. And the practice did seem largely confined to a number of the runners in the elite start corral. You do see the occasional runner training without a shirt on when temperatures soar in the UK, but it’s not a common sight in races.
Still, without wishing to repeat myself, given that Texas can get quite hot (of which yet more later), it makes sense. Although as a pasty-skinned British bloke, I won’t be joining them any time soon.
3: You get the T-Shirt before you run
Plenty of races hand out T-shirts as a souvenir/reward for taking part – usually featuring a big event logo and lots of sponsor logos, and often in a pretty lurid colour. The Houston Half Marathon T-shirt fitted the bill, especially coming in a fetching shade of luminous green. But there was a difference – when you were given the T-shirt.
In Britain, every run I’ve done that’s featured a reward shirt has handed them out at the finish – in effect, they’re a finishers’ prize. Don’t finish the race? Sorry, you don’t get a T-shirt. Harsh, but kinda fair.
The Houston Half Marathon (and, from checking, lots of American races) gave the T-shirt out at ‘packet pick-up’. Which led to the unusual – to me, anyway – sight of people doing the race in the official event T-shirt. It seemed… odd.
4: Drinks come in paper cups
Now, this could be a big issue. For me, at least. Most races in Britain that feature water stations offer up the water in plastic cups. The London Marathon, and a few of the bigger races I’ve done, hand out bottles of water and Lucozade Sport. Given my struggles to effectively drink out of plastic cups while running (previously documented here), I like bottles. You can grab a drink, and take your time consuming it, with far less risk of spilling it all down yourself.
The Houston Half Marathon had regular water stations on the course, with a choice of water or Gatorade Endurance Formula. But those stations didn’t feature bottles. And they didn’t feature plastic cups. They featured… paper cups. They were lovingly brands Gatorade cups, but they were still relatively flimsy paper cups.
This was a challenge. Grabbing a cup off one of the wonderful volunteers without slowing down or spilling the drink everywhere by squeezing too hard was difficult. Hoisting that cup up to my mouth without slowing down or spilling the drink everywhere was difficult. Actually getting the drink down my throat without slowing down or pouring it down my top was difficult.
In short, in my attempts to consume water or Gatorade I probably spilled more drink over me or the volunteers than I actually managed to drink. And given the humidity in Houston – even at 7am on a misty morning – I really needed that drink. Late on, I actually had to briefly slow to a gentle jog to ensure I took a decent drink. That was time lost.
I’ve checked, and it seems the Houston Marathon is also likely to provide drinks in paper cups. This could require some practice…
5: The race number – sorry, bib – came with coupons
Leaving aside the terminology difference for now (I say race number, you say race bib; I say tomato, you say tomato, etc, etc. I’ll return to this in a future post…), my Houston Half Marathon race number featured something I’ve never seen on a run in Britain: coupons.
I’ve done a couple of races in Britain that have featured a detachable bag drop tag, but when most events have post-race freebies, the usual form in Britain is just to scribble a mark on your race number. Not on the Houston Half Marathon.
My race number (yes, the bright yellow elite one) featured three tear-off coupons that could be handed in after the race. Two of them were for free beer, the other was for free tacos (courtesy of the good folks at Taco Cabana). Being the non-drinking type, I didn’t partake in the beer (my brother, who also ran, didn’t either, but largely because he couldn’t face the lengthy queue. Free beer is apparently quite popular after a half-marathon. Who knew?), but I did very much enjoy some free tacos. Which brings me to…
6: The free food at the post-race party
Most races in Britain hand out some level of free food and drink after a race. That ranges from the basic (water and bananas), to a bit of a choice (water, banana, energy bars, chocolate bars), to the pleasingly British (free home-made cake – oh, and water and bananas), to the downright odd (free Ambrosia custard and rice pudding).
But it’s usually a fairly limited thing. Heck, even the London Marathon free food was limited to a bag full of goodies (including energy bars, chocolate, Lucozade Sport, crisps, beef jerky – and water and a banana).
The Houston Half Marathon? Well, you could exchange your taco token for a bounty of food, including those Taco Cabana hot tacos (well, they said tacos: they were actually burritos) and IHOP pancakes, a host of biscuits and energy bars and oranges. Oh, and bananas. Because every good run has free bananas.
That wasn’t all. There were ice buckets full of soft drinks, the aforementioned free beer, and free shaved ice and other goodies on offer. With the finish in a lovely park on the edge of downtown Houston, all the runners were really encouraged to stick around and indulge, giving the post-race party a lovely atmosphere.
Okay, so those were the major differences. But the biggest thing I picked up was actually a similarity:
A half-marathon is a half-marathon
I’ve now done four half-marathons in 2016: in Wokingham, Hampton Court, Bristol and Houston. All four of them were entirely different events in different locations, with different courses and different vibes. But, ultimately, they all involved running 13.1 miles.
And that’s the thing. The scenery, topography and culture might change, and the course might change, but as I noted at the start of this post, running is running. And that’s what I need to remember as I build up to the Houston Marathon.
Running a marathon in Houston, Texas seems a very different proposition to running a marathon in London, England. Which is something I’ve spent a lot of time pondering. But those differences are only around the edges. Once the race starts, the challenge is the same: run 26.2 miles. And I proved earlier this year that I know how to do that…
Oh, something else I’ll take away from the Houston Half Marathon: the scenery. Well, a bit of it. It was a ridiculously misty morning in Houston, and I spent much of the event with little to look at but the road ahead of me and fog-shrouded buildings. But as I reached the final mile or so, heading back to downtown Houston, the mist began to break – while still hanging on low to the ground. That created the amazing sight of the seeing Houston’s skyscrapers gleaming in blue sky and morning sun, while seemingly rising out of the mist still clinging to their bases.
It was a beautiful sight. It’s probably just as well I don’t run with my phone – I’m not sure I’d have been able to resist stopping to take a picture.
Forgive the lack of posts in recent days, but it’s been for a good reason: I’ve just returned from a short trip to Houston, Texas. It was a chance to take in two family birthdays and the Houston Half Marathon – ideal preparation for my forthcoming return there to tackle the Chevron Houston Marathon.
Taking in the Houston Half proved an invaluable experience in my preparation for running a marathon there, and I gleaned plenty of lessons about running in Texas, and the difference between races and running culture in the USA and UK.
More of that in the coming days. But first, a reflection on the most surprising takeaway from the Houston Half… it turns out that I’m an elite runner. That’s right: an elite runner. An elite runner! Yes, this was news to me too.
I discovered my new-found elite runner status when I rocked up to collect my race pack, and the organisers pulled my envelope out of the box marked elite runners. It was reinforced by my low race number (14), and special bright yellow race bib (compared with the ‘normal’ white bib), which marked me out as an elite entrant.
So… apparently I’m an elite runner. Well, there you go.
Okay, some caveats here. First, and most importantly, by most definitions of the phrase, I’m not an elite runner. I’m really not.
That’s not false modesty or anything like that. Grudgingly, with all the enthusiasm that a self-effacing and reserved Englishman can muster, I will acknowledge that I’m a pretty decent amateur runner. I’m capable of running 5k in less than 20 minutes, doing a sub-1h 30m half-marathon and surviving a sub-3h 30m marathon. That puts me well above average in terms of amateur runners – but it definitely doesn’t make me elite.
Of course, it depends on what your definition of ‘elite runner’ is. To me, elite runners are the ones who make a career out of it, the ultra-ultra-ultra quick guys who challenge for race wins and aspire to go to the Olympics and win shiny bits of medal.
That’s the definition of ‘elite runner’ used by, for example, the London Marathon. Just look at this news story about their 2016 elite field: almost all of them were sub-2h 20m marathon runners. Clearly, I’m not an elite runner in the eyes of London Marathon organisers. The London organisers also offer entries to Championship Runners (sub-2h 45m marathoners), and Good For Age runners (for my age group, sub-3h 05m marathon runners). I don’t qualify for either of those groups.
Here’s the thing though: the Houston Half Marathon organisers define an elite athlete differently: it’s simply anyone who, when entering the race, indicates they’re likely to run at a sub 7:00 per mile pace – that’s under 1h 31m 42s for a half-marathon. My half-marathon best is 1h 27m 51s – or 6:42 per mile. And so, by that definition, for that race, I was, technically (and reluctantly), an elite runner.
Oh, and that information was clearly written in the pre-race notes. I just clearly had missed it, hence my surprise when I picked up my elite race number.
What did elite runner status mean? In the grand scheme of things, aside from challenging my sink-into-the-background modesty, not much: my flashy yellow number allowed me to use an elite runner start corral – essentially, it allowed me to start near the front of the field. Which was useful in helping to ensure I didn’t get caught up behind lots of slower people near the start. But did make me feel a bit of pressure as I did my pre-run warm-up in the spacious elite corral while looking back at the non-elite runners packed in the ‘normal’ start area behind me.
Oh, and the strange moment when, walking through the pre-race village, I heard one runner look at my flashy yellow bib and remark to the person sitting next to her: “Look, it’s an elite runner.” I tried to look cool. I failed.
After 13.1 miles of fairly sweaty running in Texan humidity and mist, I reached the finish in 1h 30m 33s – good enough for 91st place and firmly within the ‘elite’ time the organisers had set out. Which, I guess, reinforced that I am an elite runner. In that race, anyway.
But it’s clearly just a race terminology thing. Other events might simply have called it a start corral for ‘competitive runners’, or a ‘time-based’ start zone. I’m under no illusion that I’m an elite runner in any other sense of the word.
Oh, and just to check it wasn’t a Texan thing, I looked up the elite runner entry requirements for the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon: it’s by invite only, and you have to be capable of a sub-2h 11m marathon. Well, I’ve only got to improve my marathon PB by an hour and 17 minutes to qualify…
More reflections on the Houston Half Marathon coming soon!
Ahead of this year’s London Marathon, I completed a pair of half-marathons as part of my training and preparation routine. That seemed to work for me, so I decided to do the same thing ahead of the Houston Marathon. So, having taken my pick from a whole host of half-marathons, my road to Houston, Texas started in… Bristol.
Now, heading to the south west of England to prepare for a marathon in Texas might seem odd. Perhaps it is odd. But, hey, my preparation for this year’s London Marathon kicked off with a half-marathon in Wokingham – a place I’d never even been to before. By comparison, Bristol makes total sense.
After all, Bristol is where it all started for me. Quite literally: I was born there, and then grew up in the nearby town of Clevedon, on the Somerset coast. Despite that, I’ve never actually done a competitive run there – so taking part in the Great Bristol Half-Marathon felt like filling in a missing piece in my running ‘career’.
There was some other logic to picking Bristol, too: the half-marathon course is pretty flat, much like Texas, and it’s a big city race that attracts the best part of 10,000 starters. Aside from the London Marathon, this was by far the largest race I’d done, so it was a good chance to practice all the logistics and complications that come with big city races. There’s the logistics that come with getting to the start of a major race with lots of other people, working your way into the correct start pen, and leaving your baggage in the correct place.
Some clever planning and car park picking meant I reached the race village with around 90 minutes to spare: the perfect amount of time to warm-up, drop off my bag, eat my pre-race banana, slurp a pre-race coffee and, predictably, go to the toilet quite a few times.
The Bristol Half-Marathon is, to borrow a football cliche, a race of two halves. Not two half-marathons, obviously. The course begins near Bristol’s harbour just outside the city centre – shortly after the start you can look across the harbour and admire Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain.
The route then heads up the portway, a dual carriageway that runs up a valley alongside the River Avon. After about four miles, there’s a hairpin and you get to run down the other side of the road. It’s basically straight and pretty much flat – quite good for running, really. If you were being picky, you might suggest that section was a little on the dull side. Then again, you do get to run underneath Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge twice. Yup, the race is a pretty good advert for Isambard Kingdom Brunel…
The run up and down the portway effectively makes up the first half of the course: flat, wide and pretty straight. And then everything changes.
The second half is much more like an inner city run, with a series of sharp twists and turns, short, sharp bursts of elevation and a series of surface changes – including a few cobbled bits. Cobbles, as you might imagine, aren’t especially fun to run on near the end of a half-marathon. Especially when a series of rain showers has made them treacherously slippery.
That might sound critical, but it isn’t meant to be: the second half was really fun, giving a great chance to admire some of Bristol’s sights in a way I haven’t got the chance to do before. The route took me past the docks, the edge of the city centre and past the remains of Bristol’s castle. It even ran quite close to Temple Meads Train Station, which I mention only because it was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel…
Still, while the second half was fun, it was quite tough. I’d set myself the target of matching my half-marathon PB, set in the build-up to the London Marathon. I messed things up a bit by going a bit quicker than intended through the middle part of the race, which meant I didn’t have too much in reserve when the course became twisty and more challenging late on.
I eventually crossed the line about 50 seconds down on my half-marathon PB, but still very happy with my effort. It’s kind of hard not to be happy when – humblebrag alert! – that time was good enough to be 264th fastest out of more than 7000 finishers…
Most importantly, it was all solid preparation for Houston – and a good way to start the build-up to marathon number two. Although, somewhere around the streets of Bristol, the realisation that this was the start of another huge training effort did sink in. Here we go again…