Lucozade-laden and in the zone, my first half marathon was an experience to remember…
By Katie Garner
Who doesn’t love a challenge? It’s all very well and good pootling along sitting pretty in the comfort zone, but what’s the point if you don’t test your mettle occasionally by running your hands along the extremities of your boundaries. For me, the rush of blood-pumping adrenaline and the natural high of succeeding in a physical challenge is something I like to set myself annually, normally linked in with the good deed of fundraising. This year, I decided to amp it up to an entirely new level.
I believed that this year, was the year to tackle a half marathon. With numerous 10km races checkering my running past, it was time to up the distance and raise the bar so that I could push myself once again. After some research, I settled on the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon. Starting and finishing in Hyde Park, this 13.1 mile run was easily accessible via the tube and since it wasn’t until October, it would give me the whole summer to knuckle down to some training, which I did with an over-zealous gusto. This annual half marathon was started back in 2008, initially as a fundraiser to support all of London’s Royal Parks, but also to lend a hand to the numerous charities also wanting to raise money and awareness. In the years since, this event has collected over £15 million for UK based charities, and is also the second largest fundraising event on donation website Virgin Money Giving.
Since I was too late to buy my own spot on the start line, my only option if I wanted to get into this half marathon was to get a charity place. Each year, charities buy a certain number of places in various events up and down the country which they then sell on to people who wish to fundraise specifically for them. I’d always had a hankering to raise money for Parkinson’s UK after my grandad was diagnosed with the disease before he passed away in 2006. He drenched me with love and adoration, which I wholeheartedly returned, so in my mind, supporting Parkinson’s UK would be another way for me to show him that he was still in my thoughts and that I understand how difficult it must have been. Once you have filled in a form and have been approved and offered a charity place, you then have the commitment of raising a set amount of money for them that you have to hit. My target was £400. The most I had raised before was £285, so I had an inkling I could reach it, but the pressure was on to ensure that I got that money for them.
Race day arrived at an impossibly early 5am for me, complete with a bowl of porridge scattered with energy boosting bananas, raisins and honey. With my bag packed and support squad in tow, we hit the Central and then Piccadilly lines to reach Knightsbridge station nice and early for the 9am kick off. In a bid to organise the 16,000 people running in this year’s event, there were four start funnels, all labelled with different colours that corresponded to the colours on your bib. After scoffing a last minute banana and limbering up, I made my way to the third yellow funnel, which seemed eons away from the start line. I could see the coloured flags of the pace setters flickering in the light breeze, although I was determined to run to my own pace and earn myself a kick arse time. I was so lucky with the weather – clear and bright with big, bold sunshine and temperatures already toasting up for a warm afternoon. Since I was so far back, I didn’t end up crossing the line until 9.30am. Whoever had the mic seemed to spot my name on my charity vest as they announced “Here comes Katie, running for Parkinson’s UK!” which made me feel a bit like a celebrity as I started my race.
I love London and I have always loved London. I love the buzz, the atmosphere; it’s incredibly unique and undulating vibe that reminds me of a complete patchwork. London isn’t any one thing, but a culmination of a collection of every possible different and contrasting component you could possibly imagine. Although clutching my Lucozade for dear life to steady my nerves, I couldn’t help but admire the stunning scenery of our glorious capital. Upon leaving Hyde Park, we would embark upon a tour of London’s finest parks and landmarks – I even saw runners with cameras (have no idea where they had those stashed) who would run backwards in an attempt to snap the city. We were due to run through four of London’s eight Royal Parks, including The Green Park, St James Park and Victoria Embankment Gardens. As well as the autumnal greenery, we would also tour Wellington Arch, Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and even run underneath the Admiralty Arch. I felt a bit like a whistle-stop tourist, trying to take in everything all at once whilst still regaining my focus on the task ahead. If I’m honest, I noticed the beefeater on his horse, the impressive Parliament buildings that loomed up next to me and whether I was in a green patch or not.
The only problem with this vast amount of runners is that race congestion was a massive issue. I had put myself in a later start funnel, as I had no idea about timings and since this was my first half marathon attempt, I wasn’t sure exactly how speedy I would be. As it turns out, I was faster than I thought, and I had to undertake the pesky task of weaving in and out of an array of runners just so that I could run at my own pace and not be stuck behind someone who was slower than me. Since we were going through a lot of parks, occasionally the path narrowed and I was literally forced to slow down because I couldn’t escape the wall of sweaty backs in front of me. Although this wasn’t the end of the world, I do wonder whether this affected my time at all, or my pacing, as it was not actually something I had considered when doing my training. The cheering crowds that gathered at the barriers made me feel like I was constantly on show, and since I had my name on my vest, it meant that everyone was cheering me on by name, which was equally nice and weird. When I passed the Parkinson’s UK station, they went wild with whooping, and I raised my bottle in salute as I passed.
I must admit, I spent most of the race in confusion about my pace. I tried to start off slow, but I naturally sped up as my competitive edge revealed itself with a sharp vengeance, pushing me on to get a good time. I wasn’t out of breath at all, but my leg muscles started developing their own voice at about mile 10, which wasn’t appreciated. Whenever I felt myself slow down, I would give myself that stern talking to about wanting to achieve two hours or less so get on with it right now. Once we got to mile 11 / 12, I was suddenly absolutely ravenous. The thought of lunch probably made me go faster, but all I wanted at that point was food and the drink just wasn’t hitting the spot. I lobbed it in the next bin as I geared up for the home stretch.
The final straight loomed up quicker than I expected as I dived in for a sprint finish. It actually felt completely surreal. After building towards this event for so long and working so hard on my training, to actually be near completion felt weird and a bit sad. I almost didn’t want it to be over, although my legs stated a very stern opposing opinion. I crossed the line into a throng of people, as I picked up a wooden maple leaf shaped medal and wolfed down my third banana of the day as I was handed it. I was greeted by my fiancé, sister and best friend in a big bundling hug before we began the excited garbling as we discussed how I had done.
I had chosen a target time of two hours, which is reasonable for my first half marathon. I am extremely pleased to say that I actually completed my challenge with a new personal best of one hour 47 minutes. My average pace was 8.14 minutes per mile, although I got faster as the race developed. For the first 5km I was running at 8.57 minutes per mile and this decreased to 8.17 by the time I reached 20km. Out of the 7,190 women running that day, I came 2,169. On the whole, I am relieved that I managed to perform on the day, as that was my main worry – I simply didn’t want to let myself or the people who believed so strongly in me down. Sometimes I wonder whether I could have done better, but I think everyone thinks that once they have finished an event like this.
My support squad had already scoured the Food and Fitness Festival that was set up in Hyde Park, so as temperatures hit 19 degrees plus, we had an impressive picnic style lunch, buying bits and pieces from posh food vendors scattered around. We started with these amazing steak and salad wraps, brimming and bulging out of the cone shaped paper as they were so stuffed. The meat was so tender and flavourful; it was really hitting the spot. Next we tackled sugar coated and chocolate dunked churros, followed by pancakes – I went for Nutella, banana (number four) and Grand Marnier. Told you I was hungry. Did I mention the cookies I bought to take home… While we ate, there were live bands performing on the open air stage, so the whole park was full of this festival vibe, humming with activity, energy and exhausted excitement about the runners finishing. As we walked around, it was like a tantalising scent menu of wafting wonderfulness.
It feels very odd not having the half marathon in my diary any more. In the week leading up to it, I was excited, really excited yet on the day I was a bag of nerves as I waited to start. I just wanted to do it well and do it right and give this particular challenge one hell of a huge tick next to it. I have managed to raise over £500 for Parkinson’s UK, whooping the target total so a big thank you to everyone who donated (it’s not too late if you still want to do your good deed). I also managed to beat my own target time and instead hit the target time my fiancé guessed at the week before the race – spooky! This definitely won’t be my last half marathon, as I will want another shot and to get more practiced at this long distance running lark.
Thank you for all the interest, love and support I have received and especially to those who turned up on the day armed with well done cuddles. Sending a virtual hug to you Grandad – I did it and I did it for you. Because that’s how we roll.