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Waltham Forest Half-marathon: Race report

March 27, 2011

Overcast, around 11 or 12°C

So I rock up for my first race of the year a little late having driven a bit further up the road than expected to find some parking. It feels early; the first morning of daylight saving’s time means a 7am start meant turfing myself out of bed at what my body was insisting was 6am. But after a bit of warming up, I assemble at the start line with around 100 or so other runners, ready for the half-marathon.

‘Everyone here running the half-marathon?’ Shouts a marshal. The 10km race leaves in half an hour’s time. No one gets out of the starting pen, so we’re all expecting 13.1 miles of running this morning.

‘Three, two, one, go!’ Shouts the same marshal. He likes shouting, but apparently not guns. This being my first race on the mean streets of North London, I can only assume this is a stand against gun crime.

We’re off and it’s quickly apparent that the leading pack is running fast. Aiming for 6:30ish splits, the first mile sails past in 5:45. I feel alright, and so the second mile passes in 5:41. I start to worry a bit about burning out, so curtail my pace a bit, watching the leading marshal on a bike keep up with a very serious-looking runner.

It’s quiet through Chingford and Walthamstow, so running on the pavements isn’t a problem. It’s a little too quiet though, as there are no crowds of supporters, few other runners (other than the guys streaking off ahead) and few marshals. Occasionally I pass some, either holding up traffic for crossings or cheerfully pointing out turnings.

Around mile 6, though, it gets a whole lot quieter as the leading pack have vanished from sight. I come across the crossing for a large road, with no direction signs on lampposts giving a hint about whether to carry straight on or take a turning I assume I’m carrying straight on. I look behind me and there’s a marshal on a bike; she indicates that I should carry straight on. Phew, I think. That could have been bad.

The route is hillier than I had expected. For most of the first few miles it’s been downhill, but it starts gradually making its way uphill. A runner passes me, and I feel grateful for seeing someone else. We carry on, keeping close, passing the odd marshal and the odd sign. My legs felt a bit tired from my speedy start, but they’re starting to recover now so the pace feels easier.

Coming out of the suburbs, we start to run alongside some open green space. The wind picks up, but it means we’re on the tail end of the race. The 10-mile marker sails past, and I start to think about how nice a cup of tea is going to be when I get to the finish line in 3.1 miles’ time.

The guy who passed me is still up ahead. We cross over a big fly-over. There are no marshals or signs. He looks back at me, puzzled. I shrug and say something like ‘I guess we just carry on’. And so we do. The route certainly wasn’t to the left or right as, crossing the fly-over, it appears that’s a dual carriageway.

The miles pass and we see no other signs or marshals. My Garmin bleeps and we’re on to the twelfth mile on a downhill stretch heading into woodland that looks suspiciously like it will open out to the car park that forms race HQ. I speed up, focusing on my stride, waiting for the finish line to sail into view before I give it the final kick. I pass another runner, who I assume is from the 10km race (although it’s a little weird that we’ve only seen one) that shares the same tail end of the course as the half-marathon. My fellow half-marathon runner is still up ahead, and he’s making good speed as he heads for the finale.

And my Garmin bleeps to say we’re on the thirteenth mile, so the end is within sight… to use a thoroughly unsuitable phrase, because the finish line isn’t in sight. The road seems to stretch on for a good mile ahead, and there’s no sign of a turning, so I carry on keeping up my pace.

13.1 sails past, 13.2, 13.3, 13.4, 13.5… The other half-marathon runner is still visible ahead, heading up a hill, but something’s clearly wrong. I spot something through the trees that looks like other runners (possibly 10km runners heading for the line) to my left and dart down a path. Getting closer, it becomes evident that they’re not runners, and look considerably more like some school kids doing a Duke of Edinburgh’s hike.

I carry on, running up a hilly dirt path, assuming that at some point soon the race HQ is going to hove into sight. It doesn’t, but the roads look familiar. I spot a sign warning motorists that there are cattle on the road. Cattle, I think, must be a good sign because there were cattle near the start line. Clearly in my oxygen-addled mental state there are no cattle anywhere else in the area, just near the start line.

I pass a sign that informs me I’m entering Essex. I hadn’t thought the race actually crossed into Essex. Then again, I hadn’t thought that the half-marathon was 14.5 miles. I reconcile myself to the fact that I’m clearly lost and think to myself that I must remember to make a vajazzle joke when I blog about this later. My pace has eased off as I have no idea where I am, there are no other runners in sight, no signs, no marshals and I don’t have a phone, or any money for a pay phone. Or my Oyster card. That cup of tea is looking an awfully long way away.

Trudging on, past more useless cattle signs (yeah, yeah, there are cattle everywhere), feeling parched I find a jogger and ask them for directions back to Chingford. It involves hills, and isn’t apparently just round the corner. I run on, and up, and then down a bit, but predominantly on.

Cresting a hill I suddenly spot a flash of luminous jacket, and other runners, and the refreshments wagon in the car park serving up tea. I’d skip for joy but I’ve just [checks Garmin] run 16 miles. Bugger.

I pass a marshal stopping traffic to let runners cross, he looks at me with bemusement across his face. ‘I got a bit lost,’ I call across the road, ‘turns out I’ve just run 16 and a half miles.’ He shrugs stoically, but doesn’t look too surprised. Rounding the corner, I see the finish line, over-take a couple of runners and finally cross the line with something like 1:52 on the clock and 16.86 miles on my watch.

My girlfriend finds me, and tells me she was worried I’d injured myself on the run. I find some water, which I knock back quickly, but I’ve got my eye on that cup of tea. The guy who had been in front of me finds me – he too had been lost, as had several other runners, and the race organisers had been very apologetic. Apparently one of the marshals hadn’t turned up, so a key corner (around the 11-mile mark) had been left without direction.

I feel less stupid, knowing it’s happened to other people. I go to get a cup of tea – which tastes amazing – and the sun comes out.

The route I actually took, adding a few extra miles to the half-marathon

Not the course of the Waltham Forest Half-marathon. Note there are cows everywhere.

So, am I disappointed? A bit. This was meant to be my practice race in preparation for the London Marathon in three weeks’ time. However, there is a silver lining to this particular cloud. Looking at my splits, I managed an average pace over the whole 16.86 miles of 6:40 (which accounts for some much slower miles at the end when I was lost), and had I just run 13.1 miles it looks like I’d have PB’d at around 1:23 or so. Had I done that, I’m sure I’d have wondered if I could have carried on for a few miles afterwards, and evidently the answer is I could. So, marathon distance shouldn’t hold that much fear for me.

And if I had any tips for the race organisers, I’d say have more signs (you can never have too many) and perhaps don’t arrange the next race for the first day of daylights saving time.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2011 12:53 pm

    Great report Lewis and great run too. You’re back to your prolific best with your writing and it looks like your running is coming along very well too.

    I recently ran a race advertised as 15 kms which turned out to only be 13.6 because of a mistake in how the course was set up (there were plenty of marshals). I was not that fussed as I had my Garmin and was more concerned with my pace/ km than total time. However there were people finishing after me who thought for a short minute that they had run a “blinder” in the form of a 6 or 7 minute PB. Alas they came down to earth quickly and we all received some fairly profuse apologies.

    I am currently completing my training for Boston which is the day after London. I’ll run 24 kms at race pace this Saturday and back off the training distance after that. Leaving on the 8th.

    I’ve followed the same programme as I did for Paris but feel I have nailed the more intensive training sessions this time and run greater mileage – over 100 kms in the last week and 340 kms month to date. Hopefully I can run a sub 3.40 which will be >4 mins better than Paris.

    Good luck for London – looking forward to your race report and a PB.

  2. April 1, 2013 5:51 pm

    A brilliant report, but also quite terrifying. I signed up for this year’s race before finding all the bad reports…

    • April 1, 2013 6:27 pm

      A great anecdote, but distinctly less-than-great experience. I hope they’ve got their act together by now. It’s an ambitious course to marshal, so hopefully there are no repeats this year. Good luck!


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