Yesterday morning it was once again time to dust off my running shoes, pin on my number and stock up on inspirational power ballads. It was the day of the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon. I ran for Cancer Research UK and my wonderful crowd of sponsors (family, friends and colleagues) rallied to the fundraising call, made donations and bought cakes from my bake sale. The current total is £536.80, so bravo to all of you and thank you: in total this year you’ve raised over £900 for an excellent cause. Of course, this support also gave me extra motivation to pull out all the stops. If I didn’t push myself to my limits, I wouldn’t just be letting myself down, but I’d be letting all my sponsors down; and I’m just not that kind of girl.
As you can see from the photos, we were very fortunate with the weather. It dawned cool, clear and sunny: perfect running conditions, though perhaps a little bit chilly for all the stalwart supporters who’d come out to spectate. The Royal Parks Half is a very popular race and the other runners whom I spoke to while waiting to start were all on their third or fifth or even seventh year of competing. In total yesterday there were 12,500 people taking part and there was a lovely buzz around the start line. Unlike the BUPA London 10k back in May, we weren’t started off in waves. Here we simply all funnelled into a big holding area and chose our position based on the final time we wanted to achieve.
There were pacemakers – military fitness guys decked out with backpacks sprouting big coloured flags announcing the finishing time for which they’d be setting the pace. There were two pacemakers for each time; if you wanted to get that time, you simply ran between them. Of course, this was an excellent idea that failed to translate into reality quite as smoothly: I’d lost sight of my pacemaker halfway down Constitution Hill and after that I barely saw another one for the rest of the race. And one mustn’t forget that these are military fitness guys. I overheard the 2 hours 10 minute pacemaker saying to a runner, ‘Don’t worry; it’ll just be a nice steady jog.’ Clearly his idea of a nice steady jog isn’t quite the same as mine. Nevertheless, in principle this could work really well and if I ever again find myself in a similar situation, I’m going to work harder to keep the pacemaker in my sights.
Part of the reason this race is so popular is because the course is so beautiful. For the first six miles you wind along Constitution Hill and through Westminster, passing Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye en route, before circling back up through Trafalgar Square and the Mall. The second seven miles take place within Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (in a series of convoluted loops), under branches heavy with conkers and turning leaves. So in principle it’s an absolutely beautiful run. In practice, of course, you might not be up to appreciating the natural beauty around you.
At first I had a wonderful time. The first stretch down Constitution Hill was almost insanely exhilarating, with crowds and charity groups cheering along the barriers and all the runners bathed in warm sunshine. This was life! After the first mile marker, I settled into my pace and enjoyed the run along the Embankment and back. Things started to get a little more difficult between four and five miles, although my drastically cheesy playlist gave me an extra boost as I forced myself up Whitehall. I challenge anyone to listen to the Macarena and not to feel a bit of extra energy. But from now on things became less comfortable. We entered the park just before the six mile mark and after that point there weren’t any more landmarks by which I could really chart my progress. I simply had to press on.
During the rest of the race I wasn’t really in any condition to keep up with landmarks. I stopped admiring the scenery at about seven miles. I stopped being aware of the scenery at about ten miles, after which I was conscious only of the extraordinary heaviness of my legs and the steadily increasing pain. I should say that I’d known it was going to be very, very hard at the end. For various reasons, including holidays, business trips and a lingering cough, I’ve only been able to train once in the past month. That was a fairly tough 10k a couple of weekends ago, although I took comfort from the fact that I felt fine afterwards. Back in May, I went into the race already having run the distance. This time, the furthest I’d ever run was 12km and I knew I had to rely on adrenaline, the thrill of the moment and sheer bloody-mindedness to carry me through the final 9km. And so, this time, there was no surge of energy for the home straight. That didn’t surprise me.
What did surprise me was that I didn’t feel any delight or excitement immediately on finishing. There was quiet satisfaction, of course, but that came later in the day. My hip and ankle joints had been protesting for the last three miles (nothing serious, just indignant muscles) and so my immediate concerns were that I was in quite a lot of pain and seemed unable to walk in a straight line because my legs weren’t obeying my commands. Having collected my leaf-shaped wooden medal (of which I am very proud), I wobbled my way across the park to find my parents who, with innate understanding, wrapped me in a fleece and prevented me from simply falling over and lying face-down in the mud.
Amazingly, despite all that, I still managed to beat my target time (only by 11 seconds, but every second counts!). Back in May, when I signed up for this race, I put down my expected time as 2 hours 15 minutes. So imagine my pleasure when I discovered that I’d crossed the line with a time of 2:14:49. For a first half marathon, with only limited training, I don’t think that’s too bad. Plus, I was very satisfied to see that I covered the first 10km in 58 minutes exactly, which means I knocked 29 seconds off my time from May.
Of course, the question is whether I can ever bear to do something similar again. If I were in full fitness and actually had trained, I can imagine that a half marathon would be good fun. But I don’t think I’m going to go for a full marathon. That would demand another level of training commitment: the kind that transforms running, from being one of a number of hobbies, into something that takes over your life. I enjoy it, but there’s too much else that I also enjoy doing. I’m already signed up to do the BUPA London 10k next May, in the hope of knocking a bit more off this year’s time. And another half marathon? Well, if you’d asked me yesterday evening, I would have said that I’d rather nail my tongue to the table. Today, as long as I don’t do anything that involves moving my legs, I’m beginning to convince myself that another time, with a bit more training and an awareness of what I’m facing, I might actually be able to cover the final miles with greater panache.