Palace Half Marathon Recap

18 Mar

There are a lot of decisions to be made before a big race. What do I eat? What do I wear? And, perhaps most importantly, what time do I leave?

To get to Hampton Court Palace from Waterloo Station I had two options: the 7:27am train, which would arrive at 8:03am, or the 7:57am, which would arrive at 8:33am. The race officially starts at 9am, but my wave, wave 4, wasn’t set to start until 9:12am. Did I want to get there too early and stand around, or get a little extra sleep and risk rushing to drop off my bag and use the loo before the start? Based on my experience with the Thanksgiving Day Race, it’s better to be early than late, so I decided I’d catch the 7:27 train.

I woke up at 6:05am and ate my usual race day breakfast of overnight oats with dark chocolate and peanut butter. I got dressed, braided my hair, packed my backpack and promptly realized it takes me longer to eat and get ready than I thought. I was already running late for being early. I only had to take the Tube one stop, so as I ran to the station at 7:10, I figured I could still be on time. Except I forgot one minor detail — it was 7am on a Sunday morning. Nobody takes the Tube at 7am on a Sunday morning, so the trains only run every 15 minutes or so. I hurried to the Northern line platform, only to find not even an estimate of when the next train was coming. So I ran to the Bakerloo platform. And that’s when I met Chloe.

“Are you going to Waterloo?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. She was dressed in running gear, so I took a wild guess:

“Hampton Court Palace Half?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she replied.

Just then the screen lit up. The next Bakerloo train was coming in 15 minutes. We didn’t have 15 minutes. So we decided to give the Northern Line another chance, and raced up the escalator and down the corridor, burning precious energy we were meant to be saving for our impending 13.1-mile run. We could hear the sound of a train approaching, so we gunned it down the stairs and made it just in time to board. We rode for one stop to Waterloo Station.

“I’m following you!” Chloe said.
“OK, but I’m just following the signs!” I replied. Chloe laughed.

We walked quickly through the long passageways until we emerged in the middle of Waterloo Station. At 7:28am. One minute after the train left. That’s one more reason to aim for the earlier train — if you miss it, you have a fallback option. Chloe and I stood and talked while we waited. She told me this was her second half marathon, as she had run the Great North Run 8 years ago. That’s where she is from — “up north.” She didn’t tell me the exact town, which is just as well, because there was a 97% chance my American brain had never heard of it. She had stayed in London for the night with her family, who would be joining her later at the palace. We talked the entire train ride to Hampton Court, mostly about running. She had a charming laugh and laughed at almost everything I said. I remember my mom commenting that I was talking a lot during our drive to the Hunger Walk 5K last May, so I guess I’m a bit of a nervous talker before a race.

When the train arrived at Hampton Court, we joined the massive herd of runners heading for the exit. We crossed the bridge to the palace, which was hard to miss, and made our way to the event village at the finish line, which is where the bag drop and toilets were located. The map made it seem like the start and finish were close to each other, but it was definitely deceiving. By the time I actually made it to the start, I had racked up 5,000 Fitbit steps already.

“I’m in wave 5, do you think they’d mind if I ran with you in wave 4?” Chloe asked. I told her it probably didn’t matter, as there wasn’t even a clear marker of our wave on our bib.

“I don’t want to slow you down, so we can just start together,” she said. We queued our way through the bag drop and toilets, then started walking towards the start. That’s when we heard the announcement. “Wave 5 is starting, wave 6 and all remaining runners report to the start line.”

Not only had I missed my wave, Chloe had also missed hers, so we had to start with the last wave, full of those intending to run-walk and barely finish under the 3 hour maximum, and I’m guessing a few stragglers who missed the train and took too long to drop off their bag and pee, like us. The only thing good about the whole ordeal was that I was distracted. I was too busy talking to my new friend and going through the motions to fully realize what I was about to do. I was about to run 13.1 miles after only recovering from the flu a week ago. I quickly synced my Fitbit, opened up the MapMyRun app, and before I had a chance to question my sanity, we were off.

palace half map.jpg

We left the palace and turned onto the tow path along the Thames. The weather was absolutely gorgeous for a race — 48 degrees F (9C), sunny, blue sky — but it had rained the night before, so the path was laden with mud-filled puddles. The narrow width of the path already made it difficult to pass people, but the added puddle obstacles made it nearly impossible. Chloe and I chugged along, noting the inspirational signs that were clearly meant for when we circled back on this path for miles 8 through 11, but we took them to heart none the less.

“Mile one!” Chloe announced.

“What’s our pace?” I asked. I had MayMyRun running, but my headphones weren’t on so I didn’t get the audio notification.

“11:05,” she said. Crap. I knew we were taking it slow, but that was really slow. Too slow. I tried not to have a goal for this race besides finishing it, but a part of me wanted to beat my previous time of 2:16, so I was hoping to maintain around a 10 min/mile pace.

I believe I said something like “I need to kick it up,” and hopped up on the grass to get around the guy in front of me. I picked up the pace a little and turned to Chloe to let her know I was going to go ahead, but she wasn’t next to me anymore. I kept looking back while dodging puddles and other runners, but by the time I finally caught a glimpse of her, she was too far back.  I still feel bad about how I left things with her — I wish I had said a proper goodbye and thanked her for the companionship. I even tried to look her up on Facebook to message her, but I couldn’t find her.

I was on my own now. And quickly realized I was… bored. I thought about listening to music, but music is for when I need to feel pumped up to set a 5K or 10K record. I didn’t need speed now, I needed a distraction. When I do a long run on the treadmill, I watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but when I do a long run outside, I listen to the My Favorite Murder podcast. So I opened up the podcast app, and suddenly I was running through the streets of Thames Ditton listening to how Dr. Harold Shipman likely murdered 250 of his patients. We were no longer on the muddy tow path, which was good, but now we were on the pavement (“sidewalk” to you Americans) running alongside traffic, which, again, made it difficult to pass anyone. The podcast kept my mind occupied, but by mile 7 my body was already starting to feel it. I popped a Jelly Baby candy and reminded myself that I was already half finished.

By mile 9 the path was starting to feel less crowded, and I was able to settle into a groove. We looped back onto the original path by the starting line, and got a boost from the crowds cheering from above. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t struggling. One by one the people around me stopped to walk, while I powered on. I was doing the math in my head and knew I was on track for a PR, as long as I didn’t stop. At mile 11 there was a tiny hill, then we turned onto a grass path that led back to the palace. The home stretch! And the worst part of the course yet. Mentally and physically I was actually doing fine — much better than I had been at this stage during my first half. But the muddy grass path prevented me from kicking it into high gear, as all my focus went into not slipping or falling. Finally we leveled out onto more even terrain and I knew the finish line was just around the corner. I paused my music so I could feel the full effect of the crowds. Instead of putting your number in big font on the front of your bib like most races do, the Palace Half puts your name, so as I barrelled towards the finish line, perfect strangers in the crowds shouted “You’ve got this, Renee!” and “Go, Renee!” I was already a bit delirious at this point, so it nearly brought tears to my eyes. The Jelly Baby I ate at mile 12 had kicked in and suddenly I had all the energy in the world to sprint to the finish. It was in stark contrast to my Richmond Half finish, when I took my one and only walking break right before the finish line.

After 2 hours and 14 minutes of running, I crossed the finish line triumphantly, put my medal around my neck, and grabbed my swag bag. I’ve only done a handful of races, but I have to say this one had the best swag set up. Instead of making you file through the line and grab every item until your arms overfloweth, they had tables labeled by shirt size, so you got a bag containing your correct shirt size plus snacks and other goodies.

It was hard to think clearly at this point. I knew from reading “how to recover after a half marathon” articles that I had to keep walking after I finished, but I also knew I had to drink something. And eat something. There was some kind of homemade flapjack (an oat bar in American English) in my swag bag, so I ate that as I stumbled over to the bag drop area. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a proper flapjack in my life, but in that moment that gooey, oaty, golden syrupy sugar bomb was the best thing I had ever tasted. I picked up my backpack and dropped a High Five Zero electrolyte tablet in one of the water bottles I picked up at the finish line. I had been sipping water throughout the entire race, but I knew to recover properly I had to rehydrate more. I also put on the sweatshirt I threw into my bag at the last minute because suddenly I was really cold. While I was running I had thought about waiting around the finish line for Chloe to finish, but now that I was done, all I wanted to do was get home and shower. So I took some selfies with my medal in front of the palace, then followed the herd towards the train station. My legs were sore at this point, but walking wasn’t painful. But then I sat on the train for 20 minutes waiting for it to depart, then sat for 30 minutes on the journey to Waterloo.

Then I stood up. Or, rather, attempted to stand up. If I may quote some Jim Steinman lyrics, “Every muscle in rebellion, every nerve is on edge.” The full weight of what I had just accomplished had set in and my hips, knees and legs cried out with each movement. “Just one Tube stop” neglects to mention the stairs, escalators, and ridiculously long, dear god why are they so long?!, passageways that connect the underground to the above ground world.

sore legs.gif

But I finally made it home.

“Good afternoon, madam,” the porter greeted me. I normally just smile or wave back, but this time I couldn’t help myself.

“I just ran a half marathon!” I told him. “And I am definitely going to take the lift instead of the stairs.”

I know 2:14 is a decent half marathon time for someone with sports-induced asthma recovering from the flu, but I can’t help but wonder if my time would have been better had I started in my correct wave. The tow paths still would have felt crowded, but I would have been stuck behind people aiming for a time between 2 hours and 2:20, not people walking. But maybe it would have caused me to go out too fast and then I would have blown up halfway through? Who knows. I checked Chloe’s time online and saw that she finished 30 minutes after me, so it was probably good I didn’t try to wait around. At least I did set a new personal best, and now I have a higher chance of getting another PB the next time I do a half… whenever that may be.

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