Birdcage Walk runs along the south side of St James’s Park in the heart of central London, linking Buckingham Palace with Parliament Square. I’ve run along it twice, and both of those occasions have proven incredibly memorable.
The first was during the 2016 London Marathon – and it was not a pleasant experience. I arrived at Birdcage Walk roughly 25-and-a-half miles into my first marathon, utterly exhausted, emotionally drained and with my legs pleading with me to stop. Back in Greenwich, in the early stages of the race, I’d been averaging 7m 20s per mile or so. By the time I reached Birdcage Walk, I was trudging round in 9m 49s. I wasn’t enjoying myself. I just wanted it to be over.
It wasn’t the experience I’d expected. I’d always thought that Birdcage Walk would be a hugely enjoyable part of the marathon. After miles of meandering through south London suburbs and the cold skyscrapers of the Docklands, that was the stretch of the marathon course that really started ticking off the London landmarks. The Houses of Parliament. Parliament Square. Buckingham Palace. It was heavy landmark hit after heavy landmark hit.
Turns out sightseeing isn’t fun when you’ve pushed yourself far beyond the point of exhaustion.
The second time I ran down Birdcage Walk was a few weeks ago. And, once again, it was part of a big city race that in part wound its way through central London: the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon.
The difference when I reached Birdcage Walk is that I was just 1.5 miles into a 13.1-mile run, rather than 25.5 miles into a 26.2-mile race. Basically, I was fresh, and able to truly take in – and enjoy – my surroundings. And, on an early October Sunday with unseasonably bright weather, I could truly appreciate the majesty of London’s landmarks, and I could truly appreciate how lucky I was to get the chance to run through the streets of one of the world’s great cities.
And Birdcage Walk wasn’t the only scenic part of the Royal Parks Half course – the route was designed to offer a really effective trip round London’s sights. After starting on the edge of Hyde Park, the course passed through Wellington Arch, down Constitution Avenue, and past Buckingham Palace onto Birdcage Walk. It then skirts the edge of Parliament Square before turning up past Horseguards Parade, turning onto The Mall before passing through Admiralty Arch, turning right at Trafalgar Square before a quick loop down past Downing Street and the Cenotaph, then going back up through Trafalgar Square before winding down The Strand past Charing Cross, Somerset House and Fleet Street. After that, it returns to Trafalgar Square, with another quick detour before it goes back through Admiralty Arch, down the length of The Mall, past Buckingham Palace again and back up Constitution Avenue before turning into Hyde Park.
It’s an incredible assortment of London sights – they just keep on coming. It’s a major contrast to the London Marathon, which only reaches central London late in the race, and where one of my abiding memories was how much of the course I didn’t know. So, when it comes to London landmarks, there is no doubt: the Royal Parks Half is better than the London Marathon. There. I said it.
Oh, and here’s the thing about the Royal Parks Half: all those landmarks come in the first six miles.
Which is both a good and bad thing. It’s good, because it means the first half is an ultra-enjoyable jaunt through London’s streets. But it’s bad, because it means the second half of the race simply can’t compete.
That’s because the entire second half of the event takes place within the vast confines of Hyde Park. And while it’s an incredibly pleasant place to run, it simply can’t match the first half for interest, especially since the course is made up of lots of long straights punctuated by tight turns. It’s not helped by the fact Hyde Park is surprisingly hilly – nothing steep, obviously, but a series of long, gentle climbs does sap your power a bit late on.
Those long straights certainly hit me a bit, especially as temperatures rose and I paid the price for messing up my pacing early on – ironically, because my Garmin’s pacing seemed to get a bit messed up all the historic central London buildings I was admiring. And that probably cost me a change to set a new my half-marathon PB – I fell around three seconds short. Which was… annoying.
But still, the Royal Parks Half proved a great event. With 16,000 runners – many of them taking part for charity – and a great location, it had a proper big event feel. Plus, there were plenty of nice touches, such as the novel wooden medal (for environmental reasons – pictured below during inevitable post-race Wahaca meal), a vivid yellow event T-shirt, and a fine assortment of post-race treats.
In fact, I’d say this: if you want to do a big-city race in central London, for the sake of doing a big-city race in central London, the Royal Parks Half should be your first choice. It hits more of London’s central landmarks than the marathon and, by doing them earlier in the route, you can actually take them in. Plus, because it’s ‘only’ a half-marathon, chances are you’ll be able to enjoy an afternoon in London afterwards, rather than simply being in pain.
So, from that perspective, the Royal Parks Half is better than the London Marathon.
Except it’s not. Of course it’s not.
Because the London Marathon is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a marathon, for one thing, and inherently the challenge of doing a full 26.2 miles makes it harder and more memorable than a half. And it’s the London Marathon, for another. It’s one of the world’s most famous races. Even if other races pass more landmarks, the London Marathon is just plain special.
Of course, it’s not really fair to compare the two events. They’re both runs, and they’re both based in the same city. But there’s room for both. If you want to a massive challenge, do the London Marathon (if you can succeed in the massive challenge that is getting a place). But if you want a really fun, big event to do that runs past the Queen’s house twice, I’d thoroughly recommend the Royal Parks Half.
Okay, to be clear: this will be one of the more random entries on this blog, largely because it essentially consists of lots of photos of a water bottle with London landmarks in the background. There is a sort of good reason for this, honest. Well, sort of.
A few months back, when visiting my brother in Fort Worth, Texas, I took part in a few communal events organised by the Lone Star Walking and Running shop – and just about survived the ridiculous heat and even more ridiculous hills.
Anyway, as a souvenir, I decided to see if the shop had any branded merchandise before heading home and, while buying a drinks bottle had a long chat with Wayne, the store owner. He was pretty pleased by my promise to showcase his shop through my branded bottle on events in Britain, even if it seemed unlikely to result in my increased trade for him.
Still, he asked me if I might take some photos of the water bottle next to some London landmarks. Of course, this was a bit of a challenge for me: despite living within the M25 I don’t venture into central London – you know, where all the famous landmarks are – to run that often. But a month or so back I was looking for a race to do on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning, and couldn’t find anything that close to my Richmond-upon-Thames home. But I could find a 10k race in Regents Park. And so, on a glorious, fresh English summer morning I got up early and commuted into London on the tube to take in a run in the beautiful – and wonderfully flat – royal park.
And, of course, I took my Lone Star Walking and Running water bottle with me. And I took some photos. And, well, I’d taken the photos, so it seems daft not to share them here. So, well, here you go.
For the uninitiated, Regents Park is right next to London Zoo – in fact, the event was the first I’ve ever done in which I’ve been able to spot a camel while running. And my pre-race warm-up took me past the exterior fence of the giraffe enclosure. So, well, I took a photo of a water bottle with some giraffe.
I also snapped the photo on a bridge while crossing one of the park’s beautiful ponds.
But it was after the race that I had the most fun. Having taken the trouble to head into central London I decided to head to a few other places post-run, and while doing so took a few detours to get some photos of the bottle with some ‘proper’ London sights in. Like, for example, a double-decker New Routemaster bus.
Or a bright red letterbox on Regent St – with another bus in as a bonus.
My meandering London route also took me past Broadcasting House, the home of the BBC. So, of course, I took a photo there.
Then I remembered that the paving stones outside of Broadcasting House all feature the names of cities, states and countries around the world. So I did a bit of hunting and, well howdy and how y’all doing, there was the Great State of Texas.
But I figured there was still something missing: one of the really big, key London landmarks. Like, say, Buckingham Palace. So I took the Lone Star Walking and Running sports bottle to meet the Queen.
And… there you have it. Photos of a Texan water bottle with London landmarks in the background. For no reason other than it amused me, keep a promise I made to Wayne, and show how running is something that can be celebrated around the world.
Also, it’s a reminder that hydration is important. So if you’re going running, invest in a good sports bottle. I know a good shop in Texas that sells them. Although other, closer, shops may be available.
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
Today’s lesson: it turns out that not running a marathon might actually be harder than running one.
Now, that statement is, of course, almost entirely untrue. There are very few things I’ve done that are harder than running a marathon. Running a marathon is physically and mentally demanding. It’s a personal, physical and psychological challenge. And even in this age of mass participation marathons, only a very small percentage of people have ever managed to run one.
Not running a marathon, by contrast, is easy. After all, millions of people don’t run a marathon every day.
Here’s the thing though: the Virgin Money London Marathon took place today, with more than 40,000 runners taking part. I wasn’t one of them. Last year, I was. And, frankly, I wanted to be out there again. Far more than I expected.
Now, I entered the ballot for this year’s race, but didn’t get in. I chose not to pursue a charity entry again, and since I’ve already run the Houston Marathon this year, I didn’t think I’d miss it that much. Sure, running last year’s London Marathon was a thrilling experience, but it’s an experience I now have and will never forget. But as this year’s marathon approached, my feelings began to change.
I’ve written before about the experience of running FOMO: the fear of missing out. Today was a bit different. It was, if such an acronym exists, a case of running KOMO: the knowledge of missing out. I knew exactly what I was missing out on. I knew the intoxicating concoction of emotions and sensations that you encounter running one of the world’s great marathons.
As this year’s marathon drew closer, even small events began to bring the amazing memories of last year’s race to the front of my mind. Every time a weather forecasters briefly mentioned the likely conditions for the race in their reports, I’d remember how obsessive I became with checking the forecast last year. Every time a news bulletin featured a story about a charity runner, I’d remember the joy of fundraising last year, and the honour I felt the first time I pulled on my South West Children’s Heart Circle running top (by the way, if you’re in the mood to donate, it’s still a very worthy cause…).
As mentioned previously, I did toy with the idea of going into London and watching this year’s marathon. But, in the end, I thought that might be too close. So I decided to revert to an old family tradition: watching the marathon while eating sausage sandwiches.
Yes, one year after I was pounding the streets of London, this year I watched the race from my living room while eating sausage sandwiches. And they were very tasty sausage sandwiches too (the secret ingredient: Gran Luchito smoked chilli mayonnaise. Seriously, it makes pretty much anything taste better…).
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) April 23, 2017
But while the sausage sandwiches and freshly brewed coffee tasted good, the more I watched the TV, the more I wished I could trade them in for a clutch of energy gels and a bottle of Lucozade Sport.
Almost every time I looked at the television, I saw something that reminded me of last year: whether it was the mass start in Greenwich Park, an images of runners rounding the Cutty Sark or just an otherwise innocuous street that I vividly remembered running down.
It brought all the emotions, all the sensations, flooding back. Watching the elite women and men race up a small rise on Embankment and then past the Palace of Westminster brought back memories of just how much I hurt near the end of last year’s race. Watching them sprint down The Mall made me reflect on trying to spot my mum and brother in the grandstand last year (I miserably failed: I made the amateur error of looking in the stands on the wrong side of the course…).
It was hard, it really was. So I eventually decided I needed to break myself away from it. So, naturally, I went for a run.
Although this was a run with a difference. There’s no shortage of beautiful places to run near where I live, but since I covered most of them during marathon training runs, I decided it was time to head further out of London. I hopped in my car and headed for Virginia Water, at the southern end of Windsor Great Park.
I’d never been running before, so it was a complete change. And on a pleasantly sunny Sunday, I carved out a lovely route around the lake and up past The Totem Pole (a gift to the Queen from Canada back in 1958).
It was all really very lovely: a relaxing, stress-free, brilliant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. But it’s not where I’d really liked to have been running today…
In short, not running a marathon really is rather hard. But only because I know what I’m missing out on. And, frankly, it probably won’t seem so hard tomorrow when I wake up and my legs are working properly.
Because, clearly, running a marathon is absolutely, definitively, unarguably harder than running one. So if you were one of the 40,000 plus people who ran the London Marathon today, congratulations. You’ve just done something utterly amazing. Enjoy it.
Pop quiz: it’s the day before you run the London Marathon. What are you having to eat tonight? Chances are it’s pasta. Lots of pasta. All the pasta. And why? Because carbs.
If you know knowing at all about marathon preparation and diets, you probably know about carb-loading. Put simply, eating carbs before you take part in a long race is a good thing. And what’s a great source of carbs? Pasta. So the night before a marathon? Eat pasta.
The science, of course, isn’t quite that simple. Science rarely is. Now, I’m not a scientist or nutritionist, but here’s the basics: the energy in most food comes in the form of carbohydrates, sugar or fat. Carbs are slower to break down, and your body will store carbs in your muscles and liver as glycogen.
During a longer race – we’re talking a half-marathon or longer – your body needs extra energy, so it finds glycogen or fat to burn and turn into that energy. It’s harder to turn fat into energy, so when you run out of glycogen you can run low of energy. Yes, we’re talking hitting the wall here.
In short, if you’re doing a long run, carb-loading before the race builds up your glycogen levels, allowing you to run further without hitting the wall.
Still awake? Good. I’ll try not to delve into too much more science, especially since I’m clearly not an expert on such things.
So, the night before a marathon? I’ll have a big, steaming bowl of pasta please. Lots of pasta. Give me carbs!
Hold on a second though: it’s not quite that simple. First, lots of studies now suggest you should increase your carb intake steadily in the week or so leading up to a big race. And secondly, there are loads of foods other than pasta that can provide you with good carbs: rice, potatoes, whole grains, beans, that sort of thing.
But still, here’s the thing… the night before I do a half-marathon, marathon or other long race, there’s only one food I want: pasta. It’s become a tradition.
In fact, I’ve even got a specific dish that I cook. I had it before I ran last year’s London Marathon. I had it before I ran this year’s Houston Marathon. I call it my spicy pre-run paprika chicken pasta. I’d give you the recipe here, but frankly the title of the dish pretty much gives it away.
Basically, cut up some chicken and coat with some paprika and other spices. Then cook the chicken along with lots of vegetables (mix it up, but think onions, chilli, peppers, broccoli, spinach, that sort of thing). Add in a tin of chopped tomatoes, a bit of water or stock and allow to thicken a bit. Then season, and add some more spices if needed. Meanwhile, cook up some pasta. Mix the pasta into the sauce, and serve, topped with basil and a hint of cheese. Ta dah.
Does my spicy pre-run paprika chicken pasta help me run a marathon? Honestly, I don’t know. But it surely doesn’t hurt. It’s good carbs, along with some healthy chicken and veg. It’s freshly cooked, so I know exactly what I’m eating the night before a marathon (that’s important). And, most of all, it’s a great big, steaming bowl of pasta-based comfort that makes me believe I’m heading into the marathon suitably carb-loaded. That’s worth it for the confidence boost alone.
Also, I love my spicy pre-run chicken pasta because it feels like I’m taking part in a grand marathon tradition. If you polled the runners in the London Marathon – or any other marathon for that matter – I bet pasta is by far the most popular meal the night before the race.
And that’s why, if and when it’s time for my third marathon, or my next big race, I know exactly what I’m having to eat the night before.
Pasta. Lots of pasta. All the pasta. And why?
Read more of my random running loves here.
So you’re running the London Marathon. Good for you.
You’re about to do something incredible. Incredible, and painful. But mostly incredible. Although don’t forget painful.
Anyway, forget the pain for a moment. Really, forget the pain. Because you’re in for an utterly unforgettable experience. And I’m a little jealous. Okay, I’m a lot jealous.
I ran the London Marathon last year, raising money for the South West Children’s Heart Circle (a very worthy cause, which, if so minded, you could support by donating here). It was intense, exhilarating, exhausting, incredible, overwhelming, exciting, incomprehensible, enjoyable, unenjoyable, and a whole lot of other adjectives. But, above all else, it was brilliant.
And also painful. Let’s not forget the pain. I’m sorry to confirm this to you but, yes, running a marathon is going to hurt.
But let’s not dwell on the bad stuff. That whole thing about pain being temporary, and all that? It’s true. Honest. In the closing stages of last year’s London Marathon I was in pain. Serious pain. So much pain. I ached so much I swore I’d never run a marathon again. And I meant it.
I meant it when I crossed the finish line, more mentally and physically exhausted than I’d ever been. I meant it that evening, when my legs barely walked. I meant it in the following days, when I couldn’t walk in a straight line, or without feeling the dull ache in my legs. I was never, I told myself repeatedly, running a marathon again.
I lied to myself. Less than two weeks later, I’d entered the ballot to run this year’s London Marathon.
I didn’t get in. And while I’ve since run the Houston Marathon, I’m still gutted that I won’t be out on the streets of London on April 23. Which is why I’m jealous of you. Not in a bad way, you understand. I’m genuinely happy for you. I’d just love to be there with you. Because, genuinely, running the London Marathon is everything that you dream and hope it will be.
Here’s the thing: I could offer you some sage advice and marathon tips right now. But I’m not going to. If you’re like me, you’ll be sick of hearing advice about pacing, timing, running technique, hydration strategies and all that sort of stuff. And, if you’re not, you can easily find advice from plenty of people far more qualified than me to offer it.
So I want to say a few things to reassure you. Because, if you’re anything like me, right now you’re probably thinking of little else other than the London Marathon. It will be consuming your every thought, at the back of your mind no matter what you’re doing. You’ll be nervous. You’ll be excited. You’ll probably be a little bit scared.
That’s all okay. Keep this in mind: you got this.
Seriously, you’ve got this. You. Have. Got. This. Really, you have. Just keep those conflicting emotions in balance and you’ll be fine. Be excited, but don’t get carried away. And be nervous, but don’t let it scare you.
Plus, it might not seem like it with the race yet to be run, but you’ve already done the hard bit.
All those months of training? All those long, long runs on freezing cold mornings, with nothing but your own thoughts and a clutch of energy gels for company? That’s the hard stuff. You’ve done that now. You’ve only got 26.2 miles left to run. And it’s the fun 26.2 miles. Enjoy it.
It will be a lot of fun. Remember that when the nerves start to take over. Take a deep breath, forget the nerves and enjoy it. Enjoy going to the Expo to pick up your number. Enjoy the nervous trip to the start in Greenwich on an early morning train full of equally nervous fellow runners. Enjoy heading into the start zone, and realising just how big the London Marathon really is. Enjoy dropping off your bag, enjoy your final pre-race pee (actually, here’s my one bit of sage advice: don’t forget your final pre-race pee).
Enjoy lining up in the start zone. Enjoy trying to fathom how big the race is, and how many runners are ahead or behind of you. Enjoy the nervous anticipation before the start. Enjoy the moment when you cross that start line and realise, at the same time as everyone around you, that you’re actually running the London Marathon.
After that? Well, there are a whole host of things to enjoy. 26.2 miles worth, stretching out over the course of the next several hours. I won’t spoil all the surprises. There’ll be things you’ll expect – running over Tower Bridge really is as exciting as you’d anticipated – and things you won’t. The wafting smell from a nearby KFC, anyone?
Most of all, no matter how prepared you are, no matter how big a race you’ve done before, you’ll struggle to comprehend the scale of the marathon. It’s huge. There are so many runners. There’s so much organisation.
And then there the spectators. Lots of spectators. So many spectators. They form a virtually never-ending wall of noise, cheering, motions and support. Enjoy the spectators. Enjoy the support. It’s amazing. It’s inspiring. It’s, well, a little overwhelming. Sometimes, you’ll wish there were fewer spectators and fewer runners, a little more space so you could get away from the constant noise, and get back to running by yourself, just like you did on those long, cold training runs.
But try not to be overwhelmed by the spectators. Let them carry you along, but don’t let them push you into going too fast. High five kids when you want a distraction, read the signs people are holding up when you want to stop thinking about your pacing. Even chat to them if you want. But stick to your plan. When you need to, just focus on your running, your time, your pace plan, yourself. Head down, and picture what it will be like when you cross that finish line on The Mall. Picture being given that medal (actually, one other bit of sage advice: when they put the medal round your neck, be careful you don’t topple over with the extra weight when you’re in a post-marathon exhausted state. It’s a really heavy medal…).
And remember, that’s what you’re aiming for: reaching the finish. Sure, set yourself a timing goal. I did. And push yourself to meet it. I did. I pushed myself harder than I thought possible. And, in doing so, I learned new things about myself.
Crucially, though, don’t let your target time consume you. If you miss it, you’ll be a bit disappointed. That’s natural. But don’t be upset: it’s okay. You’ll come to realise finishing is success in a marathon. The simple fact you’ll have done one is what will impress your friends and family.
And hey, if you really want to meet that target time, that can wait until the next marathon. Because, no matter how painful it is, no matter how much your legs hurt, no matter how much you doubt whether you’ll actually reach that finish, eventually you’ll want to do another one.
Honestly, you will. Running – well, limping, really – through the last few miles of last year’s London Marathon was the most painful, difficult, intense thing I’ve ever done. I still wince thinking of it now. It hurt. Lordy, it hurt.
But that hurt fades. Your legs will recover. You won’t forget the pain, but it will become part of the massive mix of emotions, feeling and experiences that make up the marathon experience. And you’ll look back at the whole event, on all those sensations, as one of the great experiences of your life.
That’s why I’m gutted I’m not running it again this weekend, and why I’m jealous that you are.
But I’m really happy for you. Your experience will be very different from mine, because every person’s marathon experience is different. A weird truth about a marathon is that, for such a big, communal event, it’s also an incredibly individual challenge. No two people will ever have the same experience. So go out there, and enjoy yours.
I’ll be cheering every single one of you on. Where I’ll be cheering from, I don’t know. I’m tempted to head into London, to join the crowds and cheers you on. But I’m not sure if I can. I’m not sure I could face being so close to it all, without getting really jealous that I wasn’t out there running myself.
But I’m happy you will be. Honest. So I’ll end with this: good luck. Enjoy it. Embrace it. Live it.
You’re about to run the London Marathon. The London Marathon! It’s going to be incredible.
And, yes, it’s going to hurt.
But it will be incredible.
But mostly incredible.
London Marathon 2016 runner 47812
Running a marathon is tough. That won’t be news to anyone, obviously. So anything that can make such a tough task a little bit easier is always welcome.
When one of my good friends signed up to run this year’s Brighton Marathon, it seemed only right to go and cheer him on. So, along with my other friend (and fellow 2016 London Marathon runner Matt) last weekend I headed to the south coast to take part in a spot of marathon spectating. It was a great experience – and it also taught me a lot about what it’s like to experience a marathon from the sidelines.
The first lesson: if you think the logistical planning involved in running a marathon is tough, try spectating. No, really, it’s complicated!
When you’re running a marathon, your biggest challenge is getting to the start on time, dropping off your bag and kit, and then getting ready to run. Most big marathons will take care of the rest: dump your kit bag in the right place at the start of the London Marathon, and it will be magically handed to you after you finish.
Spectators have a lot more to consider. You’ve got to work out how to get there, where you’re going to spectate and, if you’re cheering on a friend, what time you need to be there to make sure you see them. And you’ve got to work out how to do all that while trying to account for an unknown number of other spectators, and the disruption in the city you’re heading to due to road closures because, you know, there’s a marathon taking place.
It’s not easy, and requires lots of planning. On last year’s London Marathon, my brother managed to head to the start with me, saw me three times out on the course and made it to the finish – while also finding time for a Gregg’s sausage roll. I have a new-found respect for his efforts.
Me and Matt spent much of Saturday evening poring over maps and spectator information from the Brighton Marathon website, while poring over train timetables and parking options.
Brighton is about an hour’s drive from my house, but with the city limited parking at the best of times, let alone on an unseasonably sunny weekend during the school holidays with a marathon on, the train seemed a better option. Well, aside from having to work our way around the inevitable line closures caused by weekend engineering works in the London area. And it was while delving into train timetables that we stumbled across a brilliant plan: don’t get the train to Brighton at all.
Eager to avoid the huge crowds we anticipated around the start and finish areas and the centre of Brighton, me and Matt had identified a chunk of the course a few miles west of the town centre, in Hove. We reckoned the crowd would be a bit thinner there, and the twists and turns of the course would make it possible for us to see our friend four times in relatively quick succession at miles 15, 17, 18 and 24. And, almost by accident, we discovered a train route that went from Clapham Junction to Hove, without going near Brighton.
This turned out to be a genius move. The train was much quieter than ones heading to Brighton on the way down – and the difference was even more marked on the way back (a Twitter search for #brightonmarathon results in lots of pics of a massively overcrowded Brighton Station on Sunday evening).
The other great benefit of heading straight to Hove was that it made for a far more relaxed start. Because our first spectating point was at around mile 15, we had a few extra hours to play with to get in position.
Mind you, it was a bit surreal being stood on a platform at Clapham Junction at 0915hrs, contemplating that the marathon was starting some 50 miles south of us. And even more odd checking my friend’s split times through the Brighton Marathon app while on the train to Hove.
Those split times taught me another important lesson of marathon spectating: following someone’s split times is much more stressful than actually running one yourself! Seriously, every time check provided more questions than answers. Was my friend going too fast? Was he going to slow? Was that slight drop in pace planned? Trouble is, the only information we had to go on were the split times every 5k or so – a hugely incomplete picture. At least when you’re running a marathon, you know how you’re faring.
Still, our stress at interpreting split times was more than tempered by our relaxed start. We even arrived in Hove with an hour or so to spare before we needed to be in position, giving us time for an absolutely lovely cooked breakfast. If you’re ever in Hove and need a quality breakfast, I can wholeheartedly recommend Wolfies Kitchen.
Fortified by breakfast, we then headed down to the course, and got in position. The Brighton course featured a section which involved running down one side of a street, doing a small loop and then running back the other. That meant we got two viewing chances for the price of one. We duly spotted our friend going past, shouted enough until he spotted us and gave us a pained wave, and then waited for him to return. I think we even did our part by giving him a bottle of water.
We then dropped down a street and saw him again five minutes later, before heading further down to the seafront, where a stream of marathon runners were making their way along the final few miles of the course on the promenade. It was all wonderfully English seaside: blue skies, a pebble beach, brightly coloured beach huts – and an ice cream shop.
Wait, did somebody say ice cream? And Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at that? Is it wrong to sit eating an ice cream while watching people run a marathon? Probably. Maybe. But, well, it was a darn tasty ice cream…
Now, contrary to these tales of breakfast and ice cream (and I haven’t even got into the ma-hoosive sandwich I munched at Hove Station while waiting for the train home…), my Brighton trip wasn’t all about food. It was a chance to get caught up in the wonderful vibe and atmosphere of a big city marathon. And, in a way, it was payback time.
On both the London and Houston marathons I completed, the crowd played a huge role. The encouragement, clapping, cheering and support really did help me push on in moments when the pain kicked in and I began to doubt myself. So I didn’t stop at cheering on my friend in Brighton.
I’m not exactly the world’s most outgoing person, and I’m certainly not the whooping and hollering type. But I spent an awful lot of time last Sunday clapping, cheering and yelling encouragement at random strangers running the Brighton Marathon. And it was a lot of fun.
There was even some utterly random chat. Since it was a warm, sunny day I stuck on a cap in a desperate attempt to protect my pasty, fast-burning English skin. It just so happened to be a Houston Texans cap, which actually caught the attention of one runner, who somehow had the resolve to shout some Tony Romo-based banter at me as he passed.
A particular memory of the Houston Marathon was the encouragement that came from having complete strangers call my name – a benefit of having it emblazoned on my race bib. Plenty of Brighton marathoners had their names written on their shirts, and where possible I took to shouting their name in encouragement.
Mind you, I learned there was some balance to it, especially when we were stood at our final spectating point on mile 24. There was an art to reading the body language of a runner as they approached: some were pushing on strong to the finish, some were gritting their teeth and hanging in there. A few looked utterly defeated.
I eventually began to read from a runner’s body language how receptive to cheering they might be. And, contrary to what you’d expect, those runners who were really struggling often didn’t take too well to it. Perhaps they were just exhausted; perhaps their time plan was out the window. Many just seemed to want to get to the finish quietly.
By contrast, many of the middle group of runners – those clearly struggling but still pushing on – really did seem to feed off the crowd support. And if, in some small way, my being there to clap and cheer played some small part in getting them to the finish, it was worth the aching hands that resulted in clapping almost non-stop for several hours.
With my marathon running friend having his family in town, and with our train home departing from Hove, once we’d seen him head past mile 24 we set out for Hove Station. By the time I was back home late on Sunday afternoon, I was strangely, well, exhausted. Spectating on a marathon, it turns out, is hard work.
That said, it’s nowhere near as hard as running one. Despite that, as much fun as my day was, it would have been even more fun to be racing, not spectating.
Wait, what’s that, you say? Entries for the 2018 Brighton Marathon are now open? Hmmmm…
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.
One of the best bits about taking part in races is the crowd. Whether it’s the millions who turn out to spectate on a big city event such as the London Marathon, or the small smattering of friends and family that show up for a Saturday morning parkrun, crowd support is always uplifting, motivating and welcome.
But race crowds don’t stop at just cheering you on: some of the most enthusiastic spectators you’ll find in events are the kids, and they’re particularly keen on offering up some high fives.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t think I’d enjoy randomly high fiving strangers while I was running. It seemed a bit daft, possibly a bit indulgent and, well, a little odd. I started running for myself, and didn’t really feel I needed the support of a crowd.
That changed on last year’s London Marathon. In the early stages, I found myself running at the side of the road in a bid to escape the masses of runners packing the middle. And that put me within near-touching distance of masses of outstreched hands. And, well, I got caught up in the moment, and started joining in the high five action.
And you know what? It’s great fun, and gives you a tremendous amount of energy. But there’s a catch. Because you need to do it right. And so, in the spirit of my running technique thread of breaking down seemingly simple things with an excessive amount of detail, here’s my guide.
To understand how to do something, you need to understand why you’re doing something. Here are the main objectives for the in-race high five:
- To successfully pull off one, or more, high fives with one or more spectators during a race
- To help make running a fun, vibrant spectator event by engaging with the crowd that are cheering you on
- To temporarily distract yourself from the pain and effort of tackling a race with a spot of crowd interaction
- To ensure every attempted high five is a success so you don’t look stupid
- To avoid accidentally hitting, striking or otherwise swatting a spectator with a badly timed high five attempt
- Got that? Right, let’s get into the how then…
1. Pick your target
Offering an unreciprocated high five is a little embarrassing at the best of times, but when it happens mid-run you’ll just end up looking utterly stupid.
The first step is to identify willing high five participants. This is, as you’d expect, fairly straightforward. Look for someone at the side of the road with their arms outstretched. These will usually, but not always, be kids. Try and pick the ones who look eager.
2. The approach
Next step: get into position. You’ll want to do this early: you don’t want to be swerving across the course in the path of your fellow runners and having to slow dramatically, just for the sake of a high five. So work your way to the side of the course, so you’re in close proximity to the crowd.
The next bit is to make sure your intended high five targets know you’re coming. Try for eye contact, since you don’t want to surprise anyone. And, when you’re closing in, extend your arm into the high five offering position.
Now, the accepted running high five arm position is a little different from usual. Raise your armco about mid-chest level, elbow-bent, and then extend your arm with palm facing forward. Remember, most of the in-race high fiving action will come from junior spectators, so you don’t actually want to make your high five that high. They won’t reach, and you’ll look stupid.
3. It’s high five time
Okay, arm extended, eye contact hopefully established. The rest is fairly simple. Keep running towards then, without adjusting your pace, and when you’re close adjust the height of your hand to match theirs. Then you may proceed with the high five.
Another pro tip though: don’t put any extra effort into your high five gesture. Remember, you’re running relatively quickly, so your arm already has plenty of latent momentum. If you adapt the traditional arm thrust that you would with a traditional, non-running high five, you’ll hit your high five target with a fair degree of momentum. Frankly, you don’t want to be that guy who bowls a kid over during a run. Nobody wants to be that guy.
Instead, let your running momentum propel the high five. Keep your hand flat and relaxed.
4. Never look back
Now, this bit sounds harsh, but it’s a necessary evil. If you realise you’re going to miss a high five, just miss it. Sometimes kids move their hands inadvertently, sometimes you get your angle wrong. But while a missed high five is always disappointing, it’s going to happen. But if you ease up and try to correct the error, you’ll only slow your pace and cause problems. Try to forget it and move on.
Advanced high fiving: The next level
Okay, that’s the basics covered. You can now proceed with mid-race high five action. And, frankly, it’s quite fun. It really can give you a motivational boost, if only because it’s something to distract you from the pain and grind of a particularly long race.
But if you want to take your mid-race high fiving to the next level, here are some advanced high five techniques to work on.
The high five chain
This is when you approach a line of people, all holding out their hands to offer high fives. The basics apply, but you’ll need to make sure you keep adjusting the height of your hand as you work through the group. Unfortunately, kids and other high five fans don’t tend to be the same height, and they don’t tend to hold their hands out at the same point. It’ll be up to you to adjust as you go. It takes effort, but it’s better than the alternative: missing out the smallest kid in the group. They’ll only get upset.
The ‘hit for power’ board
This seems to be a somewhat American running thing: there were a lot of people on the Houston Marathon holding out boards with messages such as ‘hit for power’ – frequently adorned with pics by Super Mario World mushrooms and the like.
Again, it seems a simple proposition, possibly even a bit easier than your standard high five. After all, a big bit of cardboard is a far larger target area than a hand. But beware!
For starters, it’s hard to tell exactly what the signs are made out of. You don’t want to smack a poster hard and then discover it’s actually thin paper that you’ve just ripped through. Conversely, it can genuinely hurt if you put too much momentum behind hitting a board that’s made of seemingly indestructible cardboard.
The tactic is to make sure you don’t punch it, but tap it with your palm, before swinging your hand out the way to ensure you don’t accidentally knock the board out of the holder’s hands.
This technique is difficult to master, but is a huge tool to stop yourself looking daft if you miss a high five, or realise you’re offering one that’s going to be unreciprocated.
If you spot that happening, you’ll have a few precious moments to adjust your gaze from the first line of spectators by the road to those a little further away. Be quick. What you’re looking for is someone waving. Then, raise your outstretched high five arm and quickly convert it into a wave. Pull it off, and you’ll be able to maintain your styling as an enthused runner grateful for the crowd, rather than looking like a numpty who just plain missed…
So that’s what you need to know about mid-race high fives. Get it right, and it’s a fun bit of crowd interaction. It’ll keep the spectators happy and, if done well, will distract you from the pain and slog of a long race without slowing you down at all. Frankly, it’s worth doing just for that…
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.