You’d have to run laps around the Queen’s bedroom to get an event more regal than 25th Windsor Half Marathon. With Lord Seb Coe firing the starting pistol, Windsor Castle rarely out of sight and a route dotted by right royal horse manure, this was an event designed to make any passing tourist weep with joy.
Jostling for space as the runners get going
The 6,000 runners who turned up for Sunday's unseasonably hot 1pm start seemed pretty impressed, too. It was hard not to be. There's something oddly energising about a mix of bright sunshine and military oompah bands.
Sunshine, shuffles and hills
The band, bless it, destroyed my best-laid plans to sing my way around the course. (I sing my way around my east London gulag every morning. It's all that keeps me sane, though anyone listening might disagree.) The military gents played Is This The Way To Amarillo as I bustled my way across the start, and it refused to dislodge from my head until I was 10 miles round the course. Next year, I'm bringing my MP3 player.
The crowded start was my main beef about the race. I adore my running but I'm under no illusions about my pace; like Jimmy Savile, "I run marathons, I don't race them". So I lined up dutifully (and, it turned out, pessimistically) in the 2:30 area, which meant 3,000-odd runners between me and the start line.
Off went the gun, and off we shuffled. And shuffled, and shuffled. Past the start we went (to the tune of Amarillo... oh, my poor head), the shuffle giving way after a few minutes to a jog, which gave way to a run/walk that eventually allowed me to overtake when the field began to thin out. Such challenges are inevitable when you're in such a popular race, and the atmosphere was so buoyant that it seems churlish to whinge. But I would have welcomed a swifter start, and my attempts to make up for it later have left me with thighs of lead. More of which, later.
Sterling moral support
Despite the congestion and the unseasonably hot weather, every runner seemed to have a smile on their face – even as they hauled themselves up that steep woodland tarmac. Yup, this was no walk in the (Windsor Great) Park. "One man shouted, 'is it me or the (swear-word) hills?'" said RW member Melanie Arbib on the forum. Those killer undulations also gave E pause for thought: "Most were steady enough to put head down and roll slowly up, but this is definitely a race to train for. It seems that a LOT of people underestimated the effort. Lots of walkers, even at four miles."
A merciful proportion of the hills were shaded, and the gorgeous surroundings of ponds, trees and chocolate-box village greens did much to ease the pain. But there was no denying the challenge of that route, and one or two casualties could be spotted being attended by St John's Ambulance crew in the latter stages of the route.
Why it pays to cool down...
At around mile nine, soon after I took a few swigs of Lucozade Sport at one of the well-manned drinks stations, a burst of energy lifted my spirits and seemed to insert a firework somewhere about my person. I sprinted the next few miles faster than I've ever run an event, determined to make up for that slow start. It became a virtuous circle of motivation, with the pleasure of overtaking and the roars of the marshalls giving me even more energy. I crossed the Finish absolutely spent.
Steeper than it looks...
Incidentally, what was going on with that mirage-like Finish? "The last mile was the toughest, as I could see the finish line but am sure someone was moving it," said RW member Martin Robbins, echoing my own suspicions. "It just never seemed to get closer." (Click here for more of your Windsor reviews.)
It's vitally important to stretch and cool down after a difficult run – especially one where hills and speed combine to punish your thighs. A long walk in search of pub grub after last year's Dublin Marathon saved me from any muscle pain later in the week. But after Sunday's race, I ignored this good advice. When you're relying on a lift from your father, and he wants to get out of the car park before you can say "queue", your best cool-down plans give way to the need to get home quickly. Two hours and half the M25 later, I stumbled out of the car like a rag doll. Twenty-four hours later, it hurt to walk. There lies a harsh lesson.
I hope to be back at Windsor next year, unless there's another clash with the New Forest Half Marathon. The event was well-organised and superbly well-marshalled, with an atmosphere that give the London Marathon a run for its popularity – and a Runner's World forum marquee. The hills and the afternoon start mean that it's not a race packed with PB potential, but some of us welcome a bit of gradient to spice up the challenge. Next year, though, I'll make sure to squeeze in that post-run walk to the pub – my thighs will be grateful.
Your correspondent makes a dash for the finish
Photos by Don Hoskyn