You certainly couldn’t describe my preparation for the 2018 Chevron Houston Marathon as textbook. There was the late commitment to the race, for one thing, and a busy work schedule that meant while I completed the long-distance runs I wanted to, the rest of my training schedule was haphazard.
Then there was the immediate build-up in the week of the race, which began with a flight from London to Las Vegas, followed by three days spent charging around a number of packed convention centres finding car news at the world’s biggest consumer electronics show (cunningly titled the Consumer Electronics Show).
Upon reaching Texas, there was also the four hour or so car journey from Fort Worth to Houston late on Friday night to contend with. I’d also signed up to do the ABB 5K race that forms part of the Houston Marathon weekend on Saturday morning.
All told, by the time I’d worked by way into the A corral at 6.40am or so last Sunday morning it was a bit surreal, and hard to contemplate I was actually at the start – and about to run my third marathon. It was all a bit sudden, especially when the race began. A revised layout for the start this year featured the A corral in a side street round the corner and out of sight of the start, and the runners were only allowed to round the corner – where they could see the start line – at about the same time the gun went off.
I automatically picked up the pace, but it was only a few minutes later, as the race wound out of downtown Houston to cheers from the crowd that it really began to hit that I was running another marathon.
As ever, running a marathon turns into a confusing mess of personal challenge, incredible experiences and all sorts of emotions, made particularly special by the sights and spectacle of both the runners around you and the crowd. Again, it will take some time to process and fillet out a lot of those experiences. Occasionally I’d see a brilliant sign – ‘run like United want your seat’ made me chuckle – and then struggle to recall it just minutes later.
Before the race, I was slightly worried about the mental challenge of running the same marathon for a second time – would I get bored with the course? I didn’t need to worry; the familiarity was more of a help than a hindrance, although it might have made the slightly lumpy final mile or two slightly tougher as my energy began to fade.
Still, by that point I’d already exceeded the expectations I’d set myself sometime during my crazy busy CES visit. I’d told myself that, in the circumstance, matching my 2017 time of 3h 16m 40s would be a fine achievement. Which, in a way, gave me a bit of freedom to attack. In the 2017 Houston Marathon I was trying to do the race I tried – and failed – to do in my first, London 2016. With that done, and my unusual build-up, the pressure was off.
So why not push harder than I knew I could manage? If I did, and it went wrong, what would it matter? And that’s what I did.
Again, I’ll write more about my pacing and strategy later. I didn’t quite reach the ambitious target of 3h 10m I set myself, but in the circumstances I was thrilled to clock a 3h 10m 58s – a new marathon PB by 5m 42s.
I’ll run through some more highlights and experiences later, but the best moment was obvious: this year my mum, brother, niece and nephew were not far from the finish line to cheer me on. Having spotted them at the barriers standing exactly where we discussed, I was able to reach them for a series of high fives as I went past. My five-year-old nephew reckoned his high five gave me his “super quick running energy.” I think he was right.
I needed that energy too. For whatever reason, a few people further down saw me dishing out high fives to my family and decided they wanted in on the act. Which was fun, except for one enthusiastic Texas who dished out his high five with such enthusiasm and force that it genuinely nearly floored a near-exhausted pasty-faced Brit. Yup, 20 metres from the finish line of a marathon, I was nearly felled by enthusiasm…
More Houston memories to follow.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) January 14, 2018
One week today, then. As I write, it’s exactly one week until the 2018 Chevron Houston Marathon. In fact, I’m writing this at 8.30am on Sunday morning, so if you conveniently ignore the six hours time difference between London and Houston, this time next week I’ll hopefully be somewhere approaching the halfway point of the Houston Marathon.
Which is quite an odd thing to reflect on, because right now I’m sat in London Heathrow Terminal 5, eating porridge while trying to comprehend how really not very far away the marathon is.
In part, that’s because it still seems some way off. As explained previously, I’m taking something of a circuitous route to Houston – flying to Las Vegas (via, of all places, Dallas Fort Worth) for a work trip to the Consumer Electronic Show, before flying across to Fort Worth to meet my brother and his family, then driving down to Houston.
Although that wasn’t actually the start of my unusual travel schedule. Because, after leaving work in Twickenham – a scant few miles from Heathrow – on Friday evening, I headed down to Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. Why? Because that’s where my dad lives, and yesterday was his 70th birthday. And, since he still enjoys (and is very good at) running, what better way to celebrate than by joining him on the Burnham and Highbridge Parkrun?
It was, in many ways, a perfect British winter morning for a Parkrun. It was cold but clear, and with only a scant sea breeze on the bit of the course that runs along Burnham’s sea wall (I’m hoping you worked out from the on-Sea bit that Burnham is a coastal town…).
Perfect then. Except for the frost and ice on the course. Slippery frost and ice, at that.
Things that are not good to do eight days before a marathon: fall over and get hurt.
Things that make you fall over and get hurt eight days before a marathon: slippery frost and ice.
At the start, I didn’t quite know how bad the frost and ice might be, so I set off at my normal pace, and found myself nearly sliding off at the first bend. In fact, fearing I might slip up, I actually ran wide off the park footpath and onto the grass, which turned out to be really very muddy.
And, after that nervous moment, I found myself with greatly reduced confidence. On my previous parkrun outings in Burnham, I’ve done the first kilometre in something approaching 3m 50s. Yesterday I was around the 4m mark.
The course was then quite grippy along the sea wall section, but the final 0.75km or so was back in the park. And, as I tried to speed up for a sprint finish, I found myself sliding a little bit again.
Eight days before a marathon. Don’t fall over.
And so, memories of pre-run paranoia coming back to haunt me, my sub-conscience slowed me down, and I found myself gingerly tiptoeing towards the line, rather than staging an epic sprint.
My final time was 20m 14s, which I know isn’t exactly slow. But it was still the slowest of my nine outings at Burnham – by a full 14s – and way off my course (and 5k) PB of 19m 24s. And the time wasn’t due to lacking fitness: it was instinctive survival.
And so, as so many people say, yesterday Burnham-on-Sea, today Las Vegas. It’s been plenty cold enough in America lately, but Nevada and Texas look to be warming up, so hopefully I won’t have to worry about ice for the next week or so.
No, the next challenge will be trying to rest up, carb-load and do all the sort of things you’re supposed to do the week before a marathon while working at a huge trade show.
But first, a transatlantic plane flight. And, for once, I won’t feel guilty about reclining my seat, watching a film and dozing (well, aside from the work I have to do while flying). Not sure how textbook tapering on a plane is, but let’s give it a go…
When I finished the 2016 London Marathon, I never wanted to run 26.2 miles again. For a few hours, at least. I quickly realised I wanted another go, and it wasn’t long before a crazy plan developed to visit my brother in Texas and run the 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon.
That went quite well and so, of course, I started mulling what was next. And since I enjoyed the Houston Marathon, tackling it for a second time seemed like a good idea. There was a wider family plan too. And things were just coming together when it all got a bit complicated, for all sorts of logistical reasons – not least my brother moving from Houston to Fort Worth.
So, for several months, a return trip to the Houston Marathon seemed unlikely. Even so, there was a chance, so in the last few months I’ve been quietly preparing, just in case – at least as much as various work trips and events would allow. And then, in the last few weeks, the chance came up for a work trip to Las Vegas came up. In the week before the Houston Marathon. And, well, it’s not that much of a detour to return from Las Vegas to London via Fort Worth, is it? And, well, if I’m in Fort Worth it’s not that much of a detour to head down to Houston for a weekend, is it?
And, so, well, here we go again, then.
It’s time for my Houston Marathon sequel. Or to complete my marathon trilogy. Whichever sounds better, really.
In some ways, I’m a bit relaxed about this one. Possibly a little too relaxed. Heading into my first marathon I didn’t know what to expect. With the second I did; effectively it was a chance to correct all the mistakes I made. This time I’ve got the confidence of having run a marathon entirely to plan, and the belief I can do it again.
Conversely, the slightly unsure build-up has also taken some of the pressure off. While I’ve mentioned I’ve been readying myself for a marathon quietly, I haven’t really had the time or ability to really dedicate myself to the build-up, like I did last year. And I’m not going to be able to: I’m flying to America a week before the marathon, then spending three days charging round the CES technology show in Vegas before flying to Fort Worth late on Wednesday evening. I’ll then have a brief respite (or, more likely, a chance to catch up on work I’m behind on from CES), before driving to Houston late on Friday evening in readiness for Sunday’s race. It’s hardly textbook marathon tapering…
I’m also a little worried about running the same marathon course for the second time. In both of my previous marathons, the fact I didn’t know the course effectively meant every mile was a fresh experience. Will knowing the course give me recognisable landmarks to pace myself off, or make the thing last longer because I won’t have anything ‘new’ to distract myself with?
Who knows? Still, I want to be there. And I’m excited to be there. Without trying to sound trite or twee, last August, Houston was hit hard by flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. From all the way over here in Britain, it was surreal to see parts of a city I know well underwater. Heck, I saw photos showing huge rivers where there should be roads – roads I ran down on the marathon.
Texans are tough, and Houston has rebounded despite continuing to deal with the impact of Harvey. Taking part in this year’s Houston Marathon seems like some small, minor show of support on my behalf.
But I’m not overthinking it. It’s just running. I like running. I apparently seem to quite like running marathons. I’m not sure why. They hurt, and they take effort. But I must quite like them, because I keep signing up for them. This will be my third.
So, the 2018 Chevron Houston Marathon it is. Here we go…
Welcome to the second part of the 2017 Atters Goes Running Awards. Yes, I’ve split it into two parts because, like all award ceremonies, it’s all gone on a little bit too long. Don’t know why. I can’t even blame drunken guests making overly long acceptance speeches.
Anyway, enough of that. Let’s carry on with the awards. And, if you missed the first part, you can read it here.
Best opponents: Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth (Toro Dash 10k, Fort Worth, Texas, November 4)
Surreal moment: discovering, while queueing for a portable toilet, that I’m going to be racing against NASCAR drivers in a 10k race. Even more surreal moment: realising that I run a 10k at roughly their pace…
Best start location: Oxford Street, Swansea (Swansea Half Marathon, June 25)
There’s always something cool about a city centre start, and the start line for the Swansea Half Marathon nailed it. It was held on Oxford Street, which might not rival the one in London for huge shops, but is one of the town’s main thoroughfares and is within a few hundred metres of Swansea Castle, which the route goes right past after a short loop through the streets.
It was also a boon for Swansea’s cafes and restaurants, which were doing a roaring trade at an unsociable hour of a Sunday morning (the McDonalds had to stop serving every other than simple black and white coffee, because their machines couldn’t cranky out frothy coffees fast enough…). Well, all except for Swansea’s Starbucks, which had an enviable location right next to the start arch, but seemed to be the only cafe that didn’t think to open early to cash in on the rush of runners to the area. Amusingly, the girl in Starbucks readying chairs for the normal opening hour looked very confused by the kerfuffle going on outside the front door…
Also nominated: Franklin St, Houston (Houston Marathon, Houston, Texas, January 15). This might well have won on downtown location, but it lost out since starting alongside the town’s courthouse also meant runners gathering beside the neon lights of various bail bond offices. How glam. Still, the downtown image would improve 26.2 miles later…
Best finish location: Discovery Green, Houston (Houston Marathon, Houston, Texas, January 15)
Utterly perfect. A scenic part of downtown Houston, with a green park able to provide some relief from the massive city skyscrapers. A street wide enough for two separates races (the marathon and half marathon) to finish alongside each other, and still leave room for plenty of crowds on both sides of the road. And a finish line within wobbly hobbling distance of the air-conditioned relief of the Houston Convention Centre. And a finish on a flat road with nothing but a mild kink as you approach the line.
Scenic, crowd-friendly, runner-friendly and flat. We like very much.
Best finish location (non-Houston Marathon edition): Kingston-upon-Thames market square, Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run (March 26)
Like many runs based in Kingston-upon-Thames, the Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run starts early (there’s a clue in the title) largely to minimise the impact of having a major race take over a huge part of the town’s scenic market square. It’s worth the early start for the pleasure of finishing in such pleasant surrounding – and with so many cafes and restaurants nearby for the all-important post-run dining.
Strangest venue: The future site of Shinfield Meadows housing development, Shinfield 10k (Shinfield, Berkshire, May 1)
The Shinfield 10k is a long-established race in a town near Reading. And that town is going to get a lot bigger soon, with a huge housing development taking place nearby – right where the 10k route has long run. And still does, thanks to a fenced-in path that led through the bast expanse of cleared land which, one day, will quite literally all be houses.
The ‘So Near And Yet…’ award: Chichester 10k (Goodwood Racing Circuit, February 5)
The long-running Chichester 10k moved to nearby Goodwood Racing Circuit this year, giving me another excuse to run around a racing circuit. And, in theory, it was a brilliant move.
The event started just outside the racing circuit, with around 7k on nearby roads before finishing with a lap of the track. It was a great combination of road and race circuit running. With just one catch: the organisers, and the team from Goodwood Estate, seemed to underestimate how many people would turn up by car. And so, not long before the race was due to start, cars were still piling in the entrance. Which was a problem, because the start was located on the road at the circuit entrance.
Cue a lengthy delay, and much kerfuffle. Which was a real shame, because it should have been brilliant. And hopefully, with lessons learned, it will be in 2018. I’ll be back there. Just hope the traffic chaos won’t be…
Best post-race goody bag: Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run (Kingston-upon-Thames, March 26)
The folks at Lidl sure know how to pack a goody bag with, erm, goodies. From a big bag to muesli to all sorts of nuts and cleaning products, it was a wonderfully hefty haul.
Best post-race non-goody bag: Royal Parks Half Marathon (London, October 8)
In a bid to cut down on wastage, the organisers of the Royal Parks Half Marathon didn’t give every runner a goody bag stuffed with, erm, goodies. Instead, every runner was given an empty plastic bag and then directed to a tent where they could, apparently, select their own goodies.
Great idea, except the wonderfully efficient and friendly staff basically encouraged everyone to hold their bags open while they put one of everything in…
Best finisher’s shirt: Simply Health Great Bristol Half Marathon (Bristol, September 17)
The Simply Health Great Bristol Half Marathon is run by Great Run, the company behind such events as the Great North Run and, er Great South Run. You get the idea: they organise runs. And they’re great (or grrrrr-eat, to quote Tony the Tiger).
Anyway, in 2016 the finisher’s shirts offered for Great Run events were largely standardised designs across all the events, with one basic design that only varied by shirt colour and event details. All a bit meh.
But this year, the Bristol Half Marathon shirts featured some gert lush local colour, with a proper job mint picture by a local Brizzle artist (if you have to ask…). The shirt, designed by Alex Lucas on behalf of Bristol’s Affordable Art Fair, feature a big bear jumping over the Bristol Suspension Bridge. As well as being a great design, it was packed with local meaning and landmarks. Great effort.
Best medal: Houston Marathon (Houston, Texas, January 15)
Come on: it’s big, shiny, chunky and has the skyline of Houston carved out of it. It’s the sort of big hunk of metal you deserve to get after a 26.2-mile run…
Best medal (non-Houston Marathon edition): Royal Parks Half Marathon (London, October 8)
Lots of contenders for this award. Tempting to give it to my class-winning medal from the Run Houston! Sam Houston Race Park 10k, but since this category is really designed purely to compare finishers’ medals I decided not to include it.
Still, that left plenty of shiny medal to pick from. There was a gratifyingly chunky medal for the Swansea Half Marathon (which is now the only medal I haven’t kept, since I gave it to my 90-year-old Nan who lives there). The Great Run Bristol Half Marathon medal was also nicely region-specific. Then there was the Captain America logo-inspired Thruxton 10k medal, which was designed to fit the event’s (odd) superhero theme.
But, ultimately, the most refreshing medal of the year was one not made from metal: it was the wooden leaf-shaped one for the Royal Parks Half Marathon. It’s partly a statement of the run’s green credentials, and it really works. It’s stylish and different, without feeling gimmicky.
Best series of medals: Yateley 10k Series (Yateley, Hampshire, June-August)
This was genius stuff. The Yateley 10k Series features three mid-week evening races on the same course, held once a month. Previously, they’ve all featured the same medal each event. But this time, the three medals were all different. And, when you looked carefully, featured a variety of notches and holes that allowed them to be combined. A great reward for those who managed to do all three events – especially as this was the first year I managed to do all three events…
Okay then, time for the big one. Well, big two. And, as with last year’s awards, I’ll do them in reverse order, even though it will destroy any doubt about the final winner.
Race of the year (non-Houston Marathon edition): Swansea Half Marathon (Swansea, June 25)
In truth, picking a race of the year in a near-impossible task. How do you compare a big city half-marathon with a small 10k organised by a tiny running club? I don’t know. And yet that’s the task I appear to have set myself. Clearly, I’m an idiot.
Ultimately, then, it comes down to enjoyment and fun factor. Certainly, the immense challenge of the steep hills and part-trail route of the Godalming Run made it stick in the memory, even if the sheer leg ache probably moved it a bit too far towards pain for it to win.
Then the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon was a memorable way to experience London, but lost a few points because the epic landmark-packed closed-road first half slightly overshadowed the second half that looped the footpaths of Hyde Park.
I considered the Toro Dash 10k, but ultimately realised that it was the novelty of racing NASCAR drivers that made that event special – the fact I overshot a turn because it wasn’t well marked definitely hurts. Then there was the Cabbage Patch 10, which took this award last year – and everything good about it in 2016 applied just as much in 2017.
Ultimately, though, the event that sticks in the memory most this year for me was the Swansea Half Marathon. It wasn’t perfect – the portaloo queues before the start were quite something – but it was definitely memorable for me, as a chance to see more of a city I have family roots in but hadn’t really visited for years. The course was good too, with some nice coastal views (and thankfully not to much coastal breeze on the day). And, overall, it was a good balance of big event vibe without too much logistical hassle.
Race of the year: Chevron Houston Marathon (Houston, Texas, January 15)
Oh, come on. As with the London Marathon in 2016, there’s just something intrinsically special about running a marathon, especially a big city one packed with amazing experiences.
Better still, unlike in London 2016, I was able to run Houston in the style I wanted, with nary a brief brush with The Wall and a much-improved time. Second time really is a charm, and all that.
Plus, in truth, I enjoyed Houston far more than London. The slightly smaller race, and the experience that comes with having done a marathon previously, meant I found it all more enjoyable and less overwhelming than London.
I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that before I’d crossed the finish line I’d decided I wanted to do it again. Hmmm, the 2018 Houston Marathon takes place on Sunday January 14. Now then…
Watch this space. Etc.
It’s that weird post-Christmas period, and it’s nearly the end of the year. Which means that newspapers, magazines, TV schedules, websites and other such things are stuffed with end-of-year reviews and awards. So why be any different?
In other words, following the success of the inaugural Atters Goes Running Awards last year (by success, I mean I enjoyed writing them, and nobody complained bitterly), they’ve returned for a second year.
Naturally, being a hugely prestigious awards ceremony there are strict criteria that must be followed. Which, in this case, involves me thinking up all the categories and deciding all the winners from the somewhat random assortment of races I’ve taken part in this year.
Oh, and while this is an awards ceremony there are, of course, no actual real awards, trophies, trinkets, medals or the like. The warm glow of mild satisfaction that some bloke you don’t know who competed on your event enjoyed it is all the reward you need, surely.
Right, with all that said, let’s begin handing out (non-existent) trophies. Some now; more, including the hugely prestigious race of the year prize, later.
The big shiny medal result of the year: First in class, Run Houston! Sam Houston Race Park 10k (Harris County, Texas, January 1)
Yes, in terms of outright results I essentially peaked on the first day of this year. I entered the slightly awkwardly titled Run Houston! Sam Houston Race Park 10k as a) something to do on New Year’s Day and b) as part of my final warm-ups for the Houston Marathon. Getting a result was a bonus – and finishing eighth overall in 40m02s was certainly a moral boosting result for a final training run.
Except it turned out to be better than that: I also scored my first-ever class win, finishing 1m 12s clear of my nearest rivals in the Males 35-39 category. A win! A class win! I even got a chunkily massive class winners medal and everything.
Of course, my path to a class win was helped by the fact that US races feature a lot more age-based classes than most UK ones. But let’s not let faces get in the way of a big, shiny class winners medal. Honestly, I never thought I’d be capable of such things.
I did repeat my class-winning feat in another race in Texas, the Toro Dash 10k, later in the year. But it doesn’t score as highly since my run time was slower and the class-winning medal was smaller…
Also nominated: First in class, Toro Dash 10k (Fort Worth, Texas, November 4); Second overall, Osterley Parkrun 205 (Osterley, London, August 26); Third in class, Trinity 5000 Summer Series Week Nine (Fort Worth, Texas, July 27)
Best-organised race: Chevron Houston Marathon (Houston, Texas, January 15)
Last year I gave my best-organised race award to the London Marathon, largely for how well they coped with the logistics of 40,000 or so runners and a start and finish in different locations. The Houston Marathon organisation impressed me just as much, but for almost entirely different reasons.
Houston can’t match London in terms of numbers, but does have the complexity of also having a half-marathon starting at the same time and following the same route for the five seven miles or so. How the organisers coped with the split was really clever, especially the brilliant finish that featured the two races run alongside each other on a divided street.
The Houston Marathon also featured the start and finish in virtually the same place, allowing the use of the Houston Convention Centre as a single race base. And they made brilliant use of it, from the well-organised expo to the busy but never overly crowded finish area.
The organisers also did a good job of ensuring there was entertainment out on the course, and enthusiastic volunteers at any parts of the course where there wouldn’t be any spectators. Nice job.
Best-organised race (non-Houston Marathon edition): Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon (London, October 8)
The Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon might ‘only’ be a half marathon, but the organisation rivals any big-city marathon – which it kind of has to, given it involves closing a good bunch of roads in central London for a morning. As I noted after doing it, the clever course design means you arguably get to see more London landmarks than you do on the more famous race that’s twice the length…
Also nominated (cliche alert…): the organisers of every race, parkrun and similar group event. Even when a race has frustrating organisational flaws (troubled car parking, not enough toilets, etc), it’s important to remember that most races are organised by volunteers. We couldn’t go running without them.
Toughest uphill: Pretty much any uphill stretch of the Godalming Run (Godalming, Surrey, May 14)
Competitive category, this. Last year’s winner, the big hill in the middle of the Treggy 7, put in a strong bid for back-to-back trophies, particularly with this year’s event taking place in heavy rain. And there were some nasty off-camber uphill hairpin turns on the Hogs Back Road Race. Oh, and it’s not eligible since it wasn’t actually a race, but I can’t forget the lunacy of the massive hill on the Lone Star Walking and Running shop’s group run route (pictured below).
But honours go to the Godalming Run, largely because it features both trail and on-road elements. And, whatever surface you’re running on, very little of it is flat. An early climb up to a private school on a rough, slippery, tree root-lined dirt trail was so tough you could only laugh. Yup, laugh – and if something is so tough it’s funny, it’s definitely worthy of an award.
Then, late in the race, there was a huge uphill on a road. The fact that you were running on Tarmac wasn’t really much of a help on a brutally short, sharp climb featuring around 40 metres of elevation.
Of course, what goes up…
Toughest downhill: Pretty much any downhill stretch of the Godalming Run (Godalming, Surrey, May 14)
The rollercoaster descent from the highest point of the Godalming Run took place on similar rough, slippery, tree root-lined dirt trails as the ascent. They definitely weren’t the sort of downhill when you can get your breath back and relax after a tough climb. You didn’t so much run downhill as try to keep your momentum in check and attempt to miss the tree roots.
Quite proudly, the Godalming Run was the slowest 10k race I’ve ever done – but probably one of my best results given the effort involved.
That’s it for part one. Check back soon for more awards…
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.