The Royal Parks Half Marathon is one race I will never forget.
Not only did it conclude my challenge to run 18 half marathons this year (#18in18) but it was arguably the best of the bunch and up there with the actual London Marathon itself in terms of a sense of occasion and the sheer atmosphere generated by the spectators along the route.
I have so many memories and so many experiences that I only hope I can do the day justice.
So let’s wind it right back to the beginning, back to 7am when my ever faithful and long suffering supporter Dawn and I left our hotel in South Wimbledon to make our way to Knightsbridge and then onto Hyde Park.
It was a bit of an interesting journey. The early part was ok, but the further away from Collier’s Wood and the closer we got to Green Park the bigger the crowds got.
We then had to change at Green Park for the final leg to Knightsbridge. The place was absolutely packed but, inexplicably, TfL only had trains running every five or six minutes.
Surely to goodness with such a mass participation event on the powers that be could have provided trains at a greater frequency than that, even if only for a couple of hours. Every train that came was packed, but yet more people tried to squeeze in.
And it was no better in Knightsbridge. Off the train we got, assuming it’d be a fairly straightforward process to exit the station. Not so. The platform was rammed, everyone was obviously trying to get to the same place but, yet, no-one was moving for some reason.
Eventually we made our way through, around half-an-hour behind schedule, into Hyde Park. The delay was a little stressful, but was more annoying because it didn’t give us much time to study the lay of the land, to pick out a meeting point for afterwards and to generally just sample the pre-race atmosphere.
We said our goodbyes after a few minutes and a few pictures in the rain. Dawn went to find a spot just after the start line, whilst I went to find my starting pen but not before using one of Hyde Park’s ‘natural’ facilities. The queues for the portaloos were massive and a sizeable number of men seemed to be taking matters into their own, ahem, hands so I found a discreet spot and … well, you know.
Finding my starting wave easily enough I settled in for a long wait, thankfully wearing my poncho to protect me from the worst of the elements. And it was a long wait, I think I got there at around 8:50 and I didn’t actually start the race until some 40 minutes later. I was cold, I was wet, my feet were numb – not really ideal ahead of a half marathon. I tried to keep as active as I could whilst mindful of the mass of people around me.
Eventually, finally … we were off! This was my last half marathon of the year, the last of my 18 and because of that a little wave of emotion washed over me. Dawn had messaged to say she was standing a few hundred metres past the start so I did my best to keep an eye out for her, sticking as closely to the left side of the road as I could.
But, after a couple of minutes, I didn’t see her. I thought I’d missed her so stopped looking and focused on the road in front of me until I heard her call my name out. This was great, from thinking I’d missed her to seeing her it added a spring to my step and allowed me to throw myself entirely into the race happy in the knowledge that she was able to see me off.
After leaving the park the first real point of interest, for me anyway, was Constitution Hill. This was the original finish to the London Marathon, and a road I’d run before when I decided to run along all three finishes to that iconic race on my own in a previous visit. It felt good to be back.
At the end of that road was Buckingham Palace. Again, I’ve run past the palace on quite a few occasions now – both training and in races – and it never gets old. It’s always special.
From there it was down Birdcage Walk to Horse Guards, through Admirality Arch, down and back up Whitehall, through Trafalgar Square, along the Strand before turning to come back through the Arch, up the Mall back towards the palace before returning up Constitution Hill/Green Park.
It was a wonderful route, and we weren’t even at the halfway point. I was having a ball. Given the conditions and time of day it was perhaps no surprise spectator numbers weren’t great but that didn’t really matter. There were thousands and thousands of runners out on the road for company, support and encouragement.
I was running in a t-shirt I had printed solely for this race. It listed all 18 of my half marathons on the back and attracted some interest from my fellow runners, a few congratulating me on my achievement, some asking about it and others just acknowledging it. This really spurred me on.
As I said, we hadn’t even reached the halfway and already the day was special. But nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.
Returning to Hyde Park, we were met by an almost deafening wall of noise and what felt like multitudes of cheering spectators. Running wise, it was up there with going over Tower Bridge on London Marathon day but, looking at sport in general, it is likely the closest I’m ever going to get to experiencing what it must be like in the Tour de France riding up Alpe d’Huez.
It seemed like the spectators were really closing in on us, it felt like we were almost down to single file at one point. From my perspective they were getting right in our faces, literally screaming encouragement … it truly was a spine-tingling moment.
I’ve experienced a fair few special moments since I started running but this really was something else.
Up until this point I was running a hard and fast (for me) race but this reception just floored me, so much so that I purposely eased off a little. I wanted more of it, I wanted to savour the last half of my last half marathon. I didn’t want to bust a gut chasing a time and possibly miss out on what a wonderful experience this was turning out to be.
Dawn had messaged to say she was standing just beyond this near a specific charity flag so, on a high from this reception, I kept an eye out for her. But I couldn’t find the flag and, again, I thought I’d missed her. Damn.
Then, after what seemed like an eternity but really wasn’t, I spotted the flag and there she was. This was brilliant. Not that I was struggling or anything like that but it was just so good to see her, to let her know how I was getting on … although I can’t remember what I said.
This moment was also notable, with hindsight, because I was able to study the pictures she took to confirm I had no bleeding nipples! Why do I mention this? Because not long after that, around seven miles, I noticed that I did.
I’ve never experienced this before. It didn’t hurt or anything like that. I just happened to glance down and spot the not inconsiderable amount of blood. It perhaps wasn’t surprising. I was wearing a brand new t-shirt, one which was too big on me and hence moved around my body too much causing friction on my skin. Rookie mistakes.
It was a mixture of surprise (no pain), embarrassment (blood, white shirt) and pride (runners badge of honour?) and passed a fair few moments as I tried to figure out what was going on.
Running past an aid station my predicament was obviously spotted by one of the volunteers who beckoned me over and handed me a big glob of vaseline, or similar.
After applying said product onto the affected area I carried on my merry way. Then the heavens opened. It had been raining most of the morning, but this was different. This was torrential. My shirt, which was about two sizes too big, stuck to me like cling film.
This downpour must have lasted for around a couple of miles but that didn’t deter the almost fanatical support out on the course. Granted it wasn’t continuous now, there were areas of the park that were crowd free but when they were present the noise and enthusiasm was amazing.
Once the rain had ended I began the process of unsticking my shirt from my skin, taking extra care not to further aggravate my very own version of ‘nipplegate’ … but where was the blood?
I’m not exaggerating. Where had it gone? I hadn’t imagined it, the first aider clearly spotted it but, now, there was nothing there! That shows how heavy the rain had been. It had effectively washed my shirt. Royal Parks, is there nothing you couldn’t do? Wonderful course, masses of runners, electric atmosphere, fanatical crowds … and, now, a laundry service 🙂
Up until this point I hadn’t really experienced much emotion, with this being my last half of the 18 and all that. A bit at the start, yes, but not too much more.
That was until around the 12 mile mark. I had been running behind a couple of young ladies for a while, they had been chatting non-stop. I then went past them, they fell silent for a bit before one said to the other, “Did you read that?” to which her friend replied, “Yes, wow!”. Clearly they had read the back of my shirt and had looked at the list of all 18 races.
Hearing this almost set me off. I was into the final mile, I was about to complete my challenge. Could I hold it together? I wanted to, but I also didn’t want to. I wanted the emotion, I wanted the goosebumps, the sense of pride and achievement … what I didn’t want was a blubbing face on the official photographs.
I think I struck a happy balance. I let myself go until I spotted a photographer, then composed myself until I went past and then allowed the significance of what I was about to do take over.
I also knew Dawn would be close to the finish so I focused on finding her which offered me a distraction from the emotion of crossing the line.
I wanted to spot her. She had been to five of my races, including the opening one back in March, so it was fitting I’d see her just before I finished the entire challenge. It wouldn’t have felt right otherwise.
Dawn spotted, I was then able to concentrate on those last few yards … I put on a bit of a sprint finish, ending on a high. I had done it! I had completed all 18 half marathons!
I’m not really sure how I felt. There was relief, but also exhaustion. There was emotion, I’ll not deny that, but my focus then turned to finding Dawn in the event village. We must have walked past each other because it took a few minutes.
I think I was a bit shell-shocked too, the significance of what I’d done hadn’t really sunk in. But it came, slowly but surely. After navigating the seemingly endless goodie/freebie funnel we made our way to the main stage to listen to the Rock Choir. I can’t remember what they were singing but it felt really uplifting and spine tingling.
I got a few photographs taken with them as a backdrop, then in front of a Royal Parks sign at which point Dawn produced a celebratory cake. Then it hit me. I tried telling her about some of the incidents from the day but found it difficult to compose myself. This is the emotion I wanted, I was glad it came. I was a bit concerned that I hadn’t felt it as much as I expected, so it was good to let it out.
Next stop was the Diabetes UK charity stand. I had been trying to raise a little for them throughout the year alongside my challenge so I went over to say hello, and had a lovely chat with them especially Lynsey with whom I discussed my plans right at the start of the year. It was nice to be able to tell her face to face that I had actually done it.
Incidentally, if you’ve followed my progress or enjoyed this account and would like to donate a little to the charity my fundraising page can be found here.
What a remarkable day! What a wonderful year of running! High points, low points but so so many special memories and experiences, I’m so glad I’ve done it and hope I’m not too pompous in feeling proud of myself.
So what now? I have the small matter of the full Dublin marathon at the end of this month but after that I’ll take a bit of a rest. I’ve got a holiday planned in November and have no races booked for the rest of the year. I’ll still be running, but I’ll be taking it easy.