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Royal Parks Half-marathon: Race report

October 9, 2011

The autumn trees in Hyde Park on the day of the Royal Parks Foundation Half-marathon

The air was still as I left the house, milder than I was expecting, but at least the rain was clearing up. All in all, good conditions for the Royal Parks Half-marathon. 13.1 miles of traffic-free running through London’s historic parks, resplendent in their autumn glory.

As I got on to the tube, the carriage rapidly filling with banana-eating runners in lycra and the distinctive smell of Deep Heat, I realised that I’d left my carb gels at home. On the last half-marathon I’d run I had needed an energy kick at the five-mile mark, and while I’d been training to force my body to work without gels I wasn’t yet sure I’d won the battle for distances beyond 10 miles. Racing so far this year hadn’t been going as well as I’d hoped, so I decided to focus on feeling good through the run.

I arrived at Hyde Park a good 45 minutes before the race start and proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes queuing to dump my baggage. I needed to empty my bladder before the start of the race, but the queues for the portaloos were as long as those for the baggage and runners had already been called to the starting pens. I shuffled off to a less-than-ideally-discrete part of the runner’s village to save on time (all the time thinking of how often I’ve made comments on this blog about other runners doing the same). I was joined by another runner and we lamented over the lack of out-of-the-way trees. Funny what bonds runners sometimes.

Deed done, I jogged down the starting line until I got to the orange pen with a couple of minutes to spare. As the countdown to the starter’s gun (or klaxon, in the event) got underway a sudden and sustained gust of wind showered the gathered masses with autumn leaves. The earlier stillness was gone and there was a hearty old wind a-blowing. Tsk, I thought.

With a clap, a shuffle and a surge the race was underway. Keeping to the sides, I remembered that the first mile is mostly downhill and that I needed to reign in the pace. Soon enough, I passed through the first mile marker. I glanced at my watch – 5:56. I was feeling strong, but had a sense that this was either going to go very well or very badly. Passing Buckingham Palace, I pressed on, focusing on a mid-sole strike, using my arms to keep the momentum.

As I headed up to the first turnaround point on Westminster Bridge I spotted Nell McAndrew ahead of me heading towards Embankment. Although I’d beaten Nell (hah, get me dropping the surname!) by about a minute at the London Marathon, she was really giving it some pace (at that stage I think she was the second lady; doubly impressive since she was dressed as a fairy). I set myself a target of passing her, all the while thinking about whether ‘Spent the morning chasing Nell McAndrew through central London’ was a funny or just plain creepy Facebook status update. I erred on the side of creepy.

Four miles in, after the turnaround point on Embankment, I overtook Nell. The crowd of runners started to thin out as we passed Trafalgar Square and headed back for Buckingham Palace. I was acutely aware that re-entering the parks meant we were approaching the half-way point, but I was still feeling strong and my splits had dropped back into the low 6-minutes.

Crowds of supporters in Hyde Park

Some parts of the race were thick with vocal supporters, but other parts were notably quiet

As I came to the point at which the course cuts back into Hyde Park I heard someone shout at the woman in front of my that she was the first lady. I kept up the pressure, closed the gap and then passed the first lady. The crowd’s support for her was fantastic, with cheers and claps erupting as soon as she came into sight. Tracking just in front of her I vicariously took the spirit-lifting support and pressed on. Eventually the cheering faded and I was left with a rapidly thinning out field in front of me to chase down.

Passing the half-way point I saw that I was around the 40:30 mark. If I kept up the pace, I was on course for a PB and I was still feeling strong. Whenever a water or Lucozade stop passed, I grabbed a bottle and sipped only a little – enough for a taste or just to wet my lips – before chucking away the mostly full beverage. As I passed a few more runners it got to the point where I was more or less keeping my own pace. I didn’t make the mistake of looking at my watch to check the pace I was tracking and just went by feel.

As the course weaves across Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens runners can see what’s happening a few miles in front or behind them. Each time I passed the 1:40 pacemakers going the opposite direction I urged myself to push on. Passing the ten mile mark I knew I was close to my goal and worked out that even if I dropped back to seven-minute miling I’d beat my two-year-old PB of 1:24:17.

And then, 11-odd miles in, I felt blisters forming on both my feet. I’d been aware of the niggling feeling that my sopping socks were rubbing, but all of a sudden my feet were on fire (metaphorically, obviously, since they were essentially drenched through). Every step became more and more painful and it took forever to pass the 12-mile marker.

A similar thing had happened in the Paris Marathon in 2010, but on one foot. The only option was to ignore the pain (which is much easier said than done). As I had done in 2010, I started chanting in my head that pain is only temporary. I adjusted my running style to hit the ground with the outer edges of my feet and pushed on. The sooner I finished the sooner I could see to my feet.

The final mile of the race is mostly straight, but with a slight incline as you pass the Royal Albert Hall, which hides the finishing area from sight. The distance passed slowly and painfully, but gradually the finishing arc approached with the cheering crowd and some very supportive marshals.

The runners' village at the end of the Royal Parks Foundation Half-marathon

Food stalls and live bands give the end of the race something of a festival feel

Crossing the finish line, I hobbled to shake the hand of the nearest runner, picked up my (very nice wooden) medal, a drink and a banana and spotted my girlfriend. The pain in my feet seemed to be getting worse, so I got my timing chip cut off and we headed to the St John’s Ambulance tent. Forms were filled and then my shoes and socks were removed. Turns out the blisters were worse than the one I’d run Paris with… My left sock was covered in blood and the medic covered my feet in plasters the size of saucers, before plying me with a space blanket and a Lucozade. (The St John’s Ambulance really do provide a fantastic service.)

Once stuck back together, I picked up my baggage in a fraction of the time it took me to deposit it. Once in dry clothes I noticed there was a text message on my phone. It was my chip time (a nice touch): 1:21:53.

Hobbling off in the direction of the various food stands and goody giveaways I briefly thought of the full Lance Armstrong quote I’d been using as a mantra: ‘Pain is only temporary […] If I quit, however, it lasts forever’.

More photos of the race, including finishers and supporters can be found on the Foot4ward Facebook page.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. domholdsworth permalink
    October 10, 2011 10:15 am

    Congrats, Lewis, on the new PB! Great work, good running, and impressive blisters. And a gripping race report. D.

  2. Wazza permalink
    October 16, 2011 2:24 am

    Great run Lewis. I’ll have a look at the blisters in fb. Luckily I have never has much of a problem with blisters. I tape jumbo sized fabric band aids under the balls of my feet if i run more than about 20 kms. If you put them on the evening before, they stick really well.

    Other remedies I have seen: people wearing a second very fine pair of cotton socks under the socks you would normally wear or .. smearing the susceptible parts of their feet with vaseline, bodyglide or a sports shield type product. This stuff is brilliant.

    • October 16, 2011 5:23 pm

      Cheers Warren, I hope you’re well.

      When I get blisters I swear by Scholl blister plasters. They’re remarkable – they even took away the pain from my burst blister after the Royal Parks. No idea how they work or what they put into them, but they’re clearly powered by some very clever magic!

      Of course, the next step is to avoid getting blisters next time. I’ll give a couple of your suggestions a go, and also perhaps get a few pairs of decent running socks.

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