I registered for Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon in March, high on the adrenaline of completing my first 10k and before Freyathlon had a flicker of life. Faced with the prospect of completing a Freyathlon marathon, I decided two half marathons would make a whole – so long as I did them both in a short space of time. With the confidence of a novice and slow runner, I searched online for a second half marathon on a flat route in London. I found River Thames Run, seven days after my first half marathon, and signed up without a second thought.
Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon
Travelling to events is always interesting. The Tube to Hyde Park early on Sunday 11 October was as packed as a weekday commute: mostly runners and their supporters, the odd tourist struggling with suitcases and rucksacks, and a handful of ravers. I salute the man in a hoodie, surrounded by runners, sucking hard on nox in a balloon to even out his journey. On the platform a woman sat in her running gear, putting the finishing touches to her race day outfit. I’d managed to shower and clean my teeth so I was impressed with her determination to run 13.1 miles in foundation, blusher, eye shadow, eye liner, mascara, and lipstick.
We crossed Hyde Park, stopping briefly for Trace to celebrate the Australia/Wales Rugby World Cup result with a fellow Australian who was accessorised with an inflatable kangaroo, looked in horror at the queues for the loos, and marvelled at the heady comforts of the VIP tent. Yes. I’d won the monthly draw run by Virgin Money Giving (for people fundraising through their site) and the prize included two passes for the VIP tent. Trace’s race day plan included the consumption of as much coffee and food as possible while I scuttled through London’s streets and parks.
The loo queue was short for my first visit but nerves had kicked in and the queue wasn’t moving for my second ‘just in case’ visit. After a quick chat with the woman in the queue behind me, we both headed off for a wild wee. I doubt I’ll be invited back to the VIP tent.
I was in the runners’ blue section but confidently expected to finish closer to three hours than two hours. I stopped for a photo opportunity at the blue start, said goodbye to Trace, and made my way to the back of the blue section. Waiting to start I glanced at the rest of the pack and spotted a man dressed as Walter White. I headed over to shake his hand and wish him a good race. Mr White and his escapades in Breaking Bad got me through some dark moments so it seemed the least I could do.
We edged forwards and, 19 minutes after the first runners crossed the start line, I set off on my first half marathon. Almost immediately I had a wardrobe malfunction: the gel packs zipped into my back pocket were bouncing around and seemed to be dragging my leggings down. Unwilling to display my nether regions in public, I took two gel packs from my pocket, grasped them firmly in my hand, hitched up my leggings, and my modesty was preserved.
Used to running on my own it was odd being surrounded by 15,999 runners and cheered on by crowds along the route. I picked a couple of people who seemed to match my style and pace and decided to make them my unofficial pacers. As we left Hyde Park and headed towards Buckingham Palace along Constitution Hill I spotted the elite runners heading back to Hyde Park and wondered how long it would take me to get to that point.
Onwards. We skirted St James’s Park along Birdcage Walk and Horse Guards Rd, through Admiralty Arch and along Whitehall to Parliament Square then back to Trafalgar Square and along the Strand. At Waterloo Bridge we looped back round Aldwych and a woman standing on her own shouted out my number. I smiled and waved. Outside Charing Cross station a woman was holding out sweets. I reached for one and dropped it. Heading back along Constitution Hill I noticed St John’s Ambulance teams offering handfuls of Vaseline to grateful runners and wrapping a woman runner in a blanket. I started to think about where I would be on one of my training runs – heading up Davenport Road into Mountsfield Park – and I looked again for my unofficial pacers.
People had told me about the charity volunteers but I hadn’t expected the roar of cheers, music, singing, and mayhem as I turned off Park Lane to run along Serpentine Road. I started waving and thanking everyone and, noticing how it seemed to get me more support, did more of it to spur me along. Time seemed to stand still as we weaved around Hyde Park but I managed to overtake one of my pacers then the other while some of my colleagues from Greenwich & Bexley Community Hospice passed me.
Around mile nine it all started to get tricky. To distract me, I listened to the conversations around me: one woman said the most she’d run in training had been six miles, another runner was debating with himself and anyone else about whether he should walk, one couple were chatting about moving house. I grabbed another gel pack.
I reached mile 12 and a welcome welcoming committee of volunteers and passers-by. I knew I was in uncharted territory but I also knew it would soon be over.
Passing the Albert Memorial and the Royal Albert Gate, runners who’d already finished and collected their medals started clapping and cheering as the slower runners kicked for home.
Someone shouted my name and I turned to see Trace, Michele and Lee. Then Judith and Deborah.
I crossed the finish line and saw the ambulance man carefully checking me out. ‘How are you doing?’ he said. ‘Pleased it’s done,’ I replied and we smiled at each other.
I collected my medal and goodie bag, posed for a few photos, and headed off for a celebratory lunch. Knowing I’d be doing it all again in seven days.
I finished 14,617 in a field of 16,000. Chip time: 3:20:50.
River Thames Run
An 8.30am start time on Sunday hadn’t seemed that difficult when I registered. But collecting my race pack a few days before was an instructive lesson in getting from south east to south west London. And when I factored in catching a bus or buses to Waterloo (because even in a 24hr capital city, Southeastern trains don’t run before 8am on a Sunday) in order to get the first train out to Walton-on-Thames, driving seemed the best option.
Arriving at the start point it was clear this was a very different event to the previous week’s half marathon. While Royal Parks is a big charity event with participants of all shapes and sizes in a field of 16,000 and plenty of volunteer supporters, River Thames Run has a field of less than 2,000 and attracts experienced runners. There weren’t many runners who looked like me. And the queues for the loos were shorter and moved more quickly.
After I joined the over two hours section and, while I was doing a few stretches, Rob strolled over. When we’d chatted a few days earlier he’d told me he hadn’t decided whether to go fast or slow but wouldn’t be drawn on how slow his slow was. He’d now decided to go fast and told me he’d hang around at the end ‘for a bit’. I wondered how long ‘a bit’ would be as I watched him join the under two hours section.
We set off and I found myself alongside a woman running her first half marathon. She was impressed that this was my second event in seven days and I explained about Freyathlon. She’d run eight miles in training and didn’t want to go too fast too early so we agreed she’d push on when she felt able. The first few miles were on roads then we turned along the river before heading out onto roads, then back along the river.
The riverside sections, part of the Thames Path, were busy with walkers, cyclists, and runners but I only had eyes for the rowers and kept thinking how much I wanted to be rowing not running. But that’s for another day.
By mile six I’d lost sight of any half marathon runners and was happily chugging along. A medic on a bike came alongside me to check I was OK then sped off behind me – which I took as an indication that I wasn’t the last in the field.
At mile eight I spotted two people ahead who I thought could be fellow half marathoners. I increased my pace to try to catch them but each time I got close they checked over their shoulders and powered away from me. I realised I’d become their pacer.
I was feeling pretty good as mile 10 approached and the route arrived back at the start point. Runners who’d already finished clapped and called support as I trundled along, thinking I’d be turning for home at any moment. But no. The route continued out along the river then turned back along a road – where a marshal told me the finish line was less than a mile and a half – crossed the river, along a road, crossed back over the river, and along another road until the finish line was finally in sight.
A small group of supporters was cheering and shouting. I spotted Trace and waved. Suddenly I heard people calling my name and realised Trace must have told them about me. Rob shouted for me to sprint and I shouted back: ‘I am! This is as good as it gets!’
I crossed the finish line and a man knelt at my feet to clip the chip from my trainer. I collected my medal and goodie bag, began to refuel and rehydrate, and walked back to the car dissecting the route with Rob while Trace championed the volunteers and supporters who’d stayed to support the last runners. I was one of them: 1,259 in a field of 1,261. Chip time: 3:17:00.
I now know my marathon time is close to six and a half hours and I have no inclination to improve on it. I want to focus on shorter distances and get faster.
Update: According to Rob, 6hrs 30mins would have placed me about 35,000th (in a field of 38,000 runners) in the 2015 Virgin Money London Marathon
Athletics. Marathon. Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon. 11 October 2015
Athletics. Marathon. River Thames Run. 18 October 2015
TeamFreya: Trace, Deborah, Judith, Lee, Michele, Rob
Cost: Royal Parks Foundation £30, River Thames Run £29