I signed up for two races this week. Now, that’s nothing too unusual in itself: I take part in quite a lot of races. But there was something that was quite odd about the two races I signed up for: they’re both in October. It’s February. October is, like, eight months away.
Now, I’m rarely the most organised person. I’m not much of a forward planner; it takes me some work to map out a three-month marathon training plan, for example. So it’s a little out of character for me to be plotting out my running eight months ahead.
It also strikes me as slightly odd. Eight months is some time away. Lots of things can change between now and then. It’s quite possible that other commitments – work, family, that sort of thing – might arise for the two weekends in October I’ve just shelled out money to enter races on. So why have I signed up so early?
Because, if I want the chance of taking part in those races, I have to.
Here’s the thing. Running is a popular activity. Lots of people run. And lots of people who run like to take part in races. Some races are particularly well-regarded and popular. But any race can only accept a certain number of entries. If more people want to take part in the race than there are places in that race, you have a classic case of supply and demand economics.
This isn’t a problem with most races. There are lots of races, and the bulk of the them don’t fill up their places: many offer on-the-day entries, if you’re so inclined. The trouble is that, without a lot of research, you often never know which will sell out and which won’t.
Finding out a race you want to do is sold out can be incredibly disappointing. Last year, I ran the Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon in March, and very much enjoyed it. Having survived this year’s Houston Marathon, I figured I’d tackle it again this year. But, by the time I decided I’d actually be up for a mid-March half, it had sold out. Rats.
If you’re a race organiser, having more people want to do your event than can actually start it is a lovely problem to have. And those race organisers have found different ways to cope.
One of the races I signed up for this week is the Cabbage Patch 10, a very enjoyable ten-mile race based in Twickenham (and, of course, the winner of my award for the best race I did in 2016 that wasn’t the London Marathon). It’s a popular event: its been going for 35 years, Mo Farah is a previous winner and, in my experience, extremely well-organised. Plus, the course is a flat, fast and fun loop around the River Thames, heading from Twickenham down to Kingston and back via Richmond.
The event didn’t run in 2015 because it’s regular date clashed with the Rugby World Cup, which used nearby Twickenham Stadium heavily. And when it returned last year, demand was such that it sold out months before the start.
Doubtless aware of such demand, organisers opened the entries on February 14 – eight months before the October 15 race date. It’s a first come, first served entry system: entries will stay open until all the places are filled.
Organisers advertised the date entries opened at last year’s event, and have plugged it multiple times on their social media feeds. Which means that people who did the race last year, or are interested in it, will likely be made aware entries are on sale. People like me. And those people then have the chance to enter early, when they know they can get a place.
There’s clearly demand, too: there have been almost 400 entries in the first two days. And, again, this is for a race in October!
The other race I’ve signed up for this week is a bit more complicated. That would be the Royal Parks Half Marathon, which takes place in central London in mid-October. This is the tenth year the race has been held, and it’s predictably popular, since it offers a very rare chance to run through the streets of London on closed roads (there’s another way to do that but, well, it involves running a marathon…).
With demand greatly outstripping supply, the Royal Parks Half uses an online ballot system. The ballot is open to entries for a week or so, and then about a week later people are told if they got in or not. People who secure a place then have a week or so to pay up. If they don’t, they lose their place, which gets redistributed in a second ballot.
Reading about the event, it seemed a fun race and a good chance for a second run round the streets of London. I was tempted, but unsure: did I really want to commit to a half-marathon in October already? What if I found some other running challenge for that time that seemed more fun?
With the ballot about to close, I made the decision to put an entry in. After all, the odds were likely against me getting a place, and not having to pay up to enter the ballot (that was an option, giving slightly better odds to get a place through dint of being entered into the second ballot) meant that it didn’t cost me anything to try. And it was probably academic. After all, the odds were likely against me.
And guess what?
I got in.
Suddenly, my hypothetical musings about whether I wanted to commit to a relatively expensive half-marathon in London in October wasn’t so hypothetical. I had a week to either pay up, or lose my chance. And the race is a week before the Cabbage Patch 10, which I really wanted to do again. That’s quite a lot of race mileage in the space of seven days. Perhaps I should pick one. But… both are tempting. What to do, what to do…
As my credit card bill will tell you, I paid up for both.
So now, it’s a bit weird. I have no real idea what I’m doing for much of the rest of the year. I haven’t planned my holidays, breaks, work events, family gatherings much beyond the next few weeks. And yet I know that, health permitting, I’ll likely be tackling two races on back-to-back weekends in mid-October. You know, in eight months time.
And given that most races don’t offer refunds or deferrals if you can’t run, it’s a bit of a gamble. I’m paying up now, and just having to hope that, come October, I’ll actually be able to take part in both events. If not, I’ll be out of pocket.
Frankly, it seems a bit daft. But, as my Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon experience showed me, it’s the sort of thing you have to do if you want to be sure of a place in a popular race you really want to do.
And, well, it’s hard to think of a better solution. And, hey, if nothing else I can now tell you what I’m likely to be doing on two weekends in mid-October…
Oh, and I’ll just add this: you’ve missed the ballot for the Royal Parks Half but, as I write, entries are still available for the Cabbage Patch 10. So, if you think you possibly, definitely, absolutely might just be free on October 15, I’ll suggest you head here and enter. You know, while there are still places available…
One of the fun things about taking part in races is the chance to run in places you might never otherwise visit. Just this year alone, I’ve raced around a agricultural research facility in Kent, along a river trail near the town of Ware (Ware? Where? etc), and up a ridiculously steep Cornish hill.
But sometimes, it’s quite fun to do a race somewhere you know pretty well. So this weekend I stuck close to home and competed in the Cabbage Patch 10, which started and finishes in Twickenham. It’s a race with a pretty storied history (it dates back to 1982, and previous winners include some bloke called Mo Farah…) – and I know pretty much every inch of the ten-mile course.
Every inch? Oh yes. Consider the following (a working knowledge of the geography of the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames will help you here, but the point should be clear enough if not):
The Cabbage Patch 10 is named after a pub called – surprise! – the Cabbage Patch. It’s the pub located right next door to my office in Twickenham.
The race starts in Twickenham town centre, and the first mile or so of the course is down a road that follows the course of the River Thames to Teddington Lock – the road I walk along to and from work every day.
When it nears Teddington Lock, and the footbridge I walk across every day, the race passes the old Teddington Studios site, where my office used to be based (it’s now a big pile of rubble, soon-to-be stupidly overpriced luxury flats).
After that, the race heads follows the course of the Thames down to Hampton Wick – home of a curry house I used to frequent on a depressingly regular basis in my portly pre-running days.
Shortly after Hampton Wick, the route crosses the Thames on Kingston Bridge, passing through Kingston-upon-Thames, the nearest big shopping area to my home.
It then follows the other side of the river back up to Ham, using roads and footpaths I run along most weeks. At half-distance the race hits Riverside Drive in Ham, a long road with a big, wide footpath which I run along at least a couple of times a week.
At one point in Ham, the Cabbage Patch 10 route literally goes past my bedroom window. Like, right past. Like, look across and think ‘I could still be in bed there’ close.
From there, the route passes Ham House and heads up to Richmond-upon-Thames on roads I run and walk along frequently.
It then crosses Richmond Bridge, before moving back onto the River Thames towpath on the Twickenham side of the river – a section of footpath I use if I do an evening run from my office.
Finally, the race heads back to Twickenham – finishing back to the town I work in.
See? I don’t think there’s an inch of the ten-mile route I haven’t run, walked or driven along multiple times. It’s just a shame that my house if at the halfway point. If they could shift the start five miles or so, it would be perfect (for me, if nobody else).
That can be both a good and bad thing. On the negative side, that whole thing about familiarity breeding contempt can be true – it’s hard to distract yourself from the pain of pushing out a quick ten-miler by admiring the scenery when you know the scenery so well.
But on the plus side, local knowledge does help. I knew the bits of the course that were rough and smooth, the bits of the course where there were likely to be puddles and mud, and the painful place where there were sharp turns or sudden steep inclines.
And it would seem that familiarity paid off. I set myself a target pace that matched my previous quickest ten-mile PB, and tried to discipline myself to sticking to it early on when I could have gone faster. There was a bit of a late-race wobble just after Richmond Bridge – the sharp slope from the river path to cross the bridge was a leg-aching jolt that really broke my stride – but I kept to it and was able to put in a strong sprint finish (using my local knowledge not to start my push on side street with a treacherously broken-up pavement).
The result? A new ten-mile PB – by full-on 30 seconds. Which was… great, but wholly unexpected. And encouraging, since a lot of that time came with a strong push in the final mile.
Was my quick time down to local knowledge, or just a fast, flat course and me rounding into ten-mile fitness at the start of my marathon build-up? Unknown.
But I’m convinced the local knowledge was a big help – not least because I knew exactly where in Twickenham town centre to go for a great post-run coffee and cake…
As you may have noticed from my previous post, taking part in the Ware 10-mile race this weekend was an excuse for me and a few friends to spend a whole seeking making Ware/where gags. Even we were had to admit the joke was Ware-ing thin (sorry…) by the end of the weekend.
So it was probably a fitting revenge for my continued overuse of the ‘joke’ that I spent much of the first half of the Ware race trying to work out Ware (really sorry…) exactly on the course I was. And the moral of the story: always play close attention to both the course map and route description.
The weekend trip to Hertfordshire started with my third attempt at the Panshanger parkrun, which I completed in a thoroughly decent 12th place in 20m 26s. That was seven seconds slower than my first – and fastest – effort at the course, but I was still pretty happy.
The rest of the day was spent touring Hertfordshire, making Ware gags (‘Ware are we going tomorrow?’, repeated ad infinitum), and eating, er, savoury waffles and Mexican street food. Ideal pre-race dining, clearly: I’m sure I’ve read in a ten-mile training guide that waffles and Mexican are perfect for the day before a run. Really. Honestly.
Okay, I made that last bit up.
I’m moving on now. Moving on? To where? Yes, exactly, to Ware.
Sorry. I really will stop this soon. I promise.
The Ware 10 Festival featured both a 10k and ten-mile race. I knew bits of the route that pass through The Meads between Ware and Hertford, and I tried to get a gauge of the rest of the route by studying the map on the website, and even watching the helpful video the organisers stuck on YouTube.
Having looked at the map, I read the accompanying description of the route. It describes the run leaving the start (on the cricket ground next to the GlaxoSmithKline site in Ware), and doing a loop to Hartham Common and back along the towpath. I missed this bit near the finish: ‘This is then repeated before returning back to the GSK cricket ground’.
In other words, this race was a two-lapper.
Having missed that crucial information, I set off from the GSK cricket ground on a murky, muggy day, and hit the first challenge: two big steep hills in the first two miles. They were at least followed by decent downhill sections, but they still burned up the legs.
Before long, I was passing some of the tail of the 10k race, and found myself heading through Hartham Common and onto the towpath heading from Hertford to Ware. Since I’d somehow though the course I’d seen was a singular ten-mile loop, I was on my way back to Ware far sooner than expected. And then I saw a board that read ‘eight miles’.
I suddenly began to panic: had I missed a turn for the ten-mile race? Had I missed the point where I split from the 10k route? Was I somehow on the wrong course? For a good three-quarters of a mile or so, I was in a bit of a panic – until I finally spotted a marker board that read ‘four miles’.
Okay, calm down – I was on the right route. Which left me confused about exactly Ware, I mean, where (really sorry…) I was going.
It was only when I got back to the edges of the GSK site at Ware that I began to realise exactly where I was going: for a second lap around the course I’d just done.
Which was, in itself, not a problem. It was a lovely pleasant route, and two-lap races are quite useful in that you know better where you can push and attack on the second loop. But I also knew it meant tackling those two long uphill stretches again – and after I’d topped the second one I’d somehow convinced myself the rest of the race would be relatively flat.
I was quite a bit slower up the hills the second time around. That could be because, knowing how much they would hurt with tired legs, I was a bit Ware-y of them.
Sorry. Really sorry.
The hills definitely sapped the power, and I was quite a bit slower in the second half of the race than the first. That meant I dropped off the time I’d hoped to achieve, and given my 1h 09m 41s was enough for 18th place out of 244 runners I can’t exactly complain.
Still, it did prove a valuable lesson: when you’re doing a run, it’s important to know exactly Ware you’re going.
Before the race, on our way to Ware, me and my friends agreed that we’d thoroughly worn out the Ware gags, and decided on a moratorium of them at the end of race day. Which, I promise you, I will now heed. So the Ware gags will finish with this post. And not return.
But I would happily return to the Ware 10 Festival. It was one of those really enjoyable club runs, which a bunch of largely friendly runners, and enthusiastic and helpful marshals and organisers. Oh, and a very purple finishers’ T-Shirt, plus a fabulous range of home-cooked cakes to choose from at the finish.
It’s definitely somewhere I’d go back to. Especially if I knew exactly Ware I was going in the race.
Sorry. That was the last one. Honest.