In short: If only all runs were like this In full: The Hemel training runs are legendary - and rightly so. If only all runs were like this. Only £5, yet you get the support and protection of the marshals, and stand-by first aiders. Plus, you get unlimited hot tea and cake at the end. I've paid ten times as much for far, far less.
The course starts flat for three miles along the Grand Union Canal, but then goes up a long stiff climb for a couple of miles, and remains hilly/undulating until the end. The course is through attractive countryside and little villages. Very pleasant. The runners and marshals are relaxed, cool, friendly, and there is a special feel, as most people are doing this as part of training for London.
I can't think of any problems with this run at all. Yes, there's no supporters, yes, there's no big race atmosphere, but you aren't here for that. You are here purely for the run, and it's a perfect run.
I did it in 3.10.43, and finished strong, so I was buzzing. Date of review: March 23, 2013
In short: Good flat course - poor organisation In full: I only run this course because it's flat. Very poorly organised, and expensive for what it is. I didn't see any technical shirt - I finished after 2.10, so perhaps they had run out. I was given a toy shop medal that isn't worth keeping. No food or energy drinks. The organisers need to close the lane to traffic. And perhaps buy a few bags of sand to fill in the potholes. You know, do some actual organising! This is probably the worse organised race on the calendar, and given that people have complained in the past, I don't quite get why Martin and Cathy Burke don't do something about it. This could be such a great run if only they made a little bit more effort. You can't have cars and runners together in a narrow lane filled with pot holes. The lane is private so can be closed off. Close it off. Date of review: March 22, 2013
In short: Rather dull and low key In full: Sometimes the weather makes all the difference. This was a cold and mostly grey day, so that brings down the spirits. Even so, I found the course to be largely uninspired and dreary, with some pleasant bits, that never quite opened up into anything really enjoyable. Once out of the park there's some suburban streets, then there's some narrow country roads where the view is either the hedges or trees either side. It's actually a bit better than I'm painting it - certainly it's not ugly, but the views are not worth talking about, and are not what is going to bring you back.
The course is fairly challenging. It's a series of small hills, combined with a gradual slope upwards, so if you're not running down a hill, you're doing some form of climb up. This does become wearying after a time, but eventually the slope does come down until you're in the flat of the park for the finish.
The race and the organisation is rather low key. It feels like a very modest local run, but does manage to attract a decent crowd, and it has pace runners, which is impressive. There is little in the way of frills or actual organisation. There's a tent in the park, which is useful, and there are marshals, and you get a running top as a souvenir, but other than that, it's not what you'd expect for the money or the amount of runners. Everything feels a little too minimal and modest. And this is summed up by the lack of food at the finish. After a hilly half marathon in cold weather the least one can expect is some form of nutrition at the end - a sports drink, a cereal bar, even a banana. The only food on offer was some greasy meat you had to pay for. Veggie's like me had to walk into town.
The support of the other runners as I finished in the park was very moving, and it brought home that while there had been some support from the marshals, on the whole, it had been modest. And it would be helpful if organisers advised marshals not to say "Not far now", unless the runner is within 400 yards of the finish. It's not helpful. Really. Especially if you still have another hour left to run. And, the last few miles are NOT "The easy bit" - that is so demoralising. The last few miles are bloody well the hardest bit, and you need to dig deep, and to get the right support from the marshals, not to have your efforts dismissed as "easy". I would rather marshals kept shut than to tell me it's "not far" and that I've done the "difficult part", and that this is "the easy part now". Run a mile in my shoes and tell me that!
The combination of the hills, and the cold meant this was a stiff and painful run for me. But I kept at it, and did it in 2.40. Not a great time, but given the circumstances I shouldn't be too hard on myself. Date of review: February 15, 2013
In short: Loved the ford! In full: The delayed 25th anniversary running of this race was worth the wait. Great atmosphere, attractive and mildly challenging course. The ford is great fun, and then there's the long hill climb which it is possible to do without stopping, but is a bit of an effort for a lumpy old -timer like me. I'll be happy to do this again. Date of review: November 20, 2012
In short: Typical Great Run event - big and bland In full: I like big races, so I'm a sucker for a Great Run event, but they do come with negatives. Course is going to be crowded, and usually quite bland - running on wide roads through residential areas. The size of the event is part of the attraction, and that means an effort to get in and out. I planned this one to get in early, have breakfast in the nearest Wetherspoon to wait until the race start, and then to have lunch in the pub afterwards while waiting for the crowds to depart, so it worked out fine for my party, but I can understand that for those who just want a quick run and a getaway the Great Runs are going to be a problem.
The best part of the course is through the old harbour - that was quite nice, but overall not a very interesting course.
The support from the crowds was very good, especially as it wasn't an inviting day. Amongst the best support outside of London events and the Hastings Half that I've experienced in the UK. Certainly better than the Great North.
Goodie bag was usual - no surprises or disappointments there. The usual ignoring of time zones so the course was packed all the way round. Whatever you do, you're either going to be blocked in front, or blocking someone from behind. Great Runs are not for setting PBs, they are for enjoying the experience.
The t-shirt was rather sad. A corporate advert, a poor design, and a dull colour. I'll be using it for gardening and then as rags.
My time was 1.45, which is what I expected. The low air pressure doesn't enable me to breathe easy and run fast (due to less oxygen in the air), and the crowds inhibit getting into a rhythm, so I didn't expect a PB.
Overall, I enjoyed the run, and the whole experience of the weekend, and I'm glad I did it, but that run is now ticked off, and I shan't be doing it again. Date of review: October 31, 2012
In short: Nice run In full: Enjoyable run. Two and a bit laps of the attractive Danson Park. Mildly undulating with a mixed terrain of grass, tarmac and pavement. Due to the recent wet weather, there was a long stretch of boggy grass which meant that a fast speed was difficult. I was hoping to get under 1 hours, but lost out by 45 seconds - I blame the boggy conditions!
Very chilly waiting for the start, and I regretted not paying the £1.50 for the car park, as I would have been able to wait in the warmth and comfort of my car, and also I could have gone to the pub right by the finish. By the time I had walked back to my car to get changed, I didn't fancy walking back to the pub. So, yes, it is possible to park for free in the street, but you'll have a ten minute walk there and a 10 minute walk back.
This is a low key local race in a pleasant setting. There is little in the way of extras, but it's one of those plain, straightforward, no frills events that are the backbone of the running scene. The organisers are friendly and relaxed, and there were no problems with the organisation. Entries on the day are allowed right up to about ten minutes before the start. At the finish there is a pleasant medal and a small bottle of water. I am told that you can use the showers. This is a decent, enjoyable run, and I wouldn't mind doing it again as it's reasonably local to me. Date of review: May 24, 2012
In short: Good course, bad organisation In full: The well organised run is the exception rather than the rule, so as a runner you expect that things will not always be smooth or perfect, and take it all in your stride. Clubs are well meaning, and events are often run and manned by volunteers. However, the organisation of this event has to take the award for the worse ever. When the poor organisation interferes with your enjoyment or even participation of an event then it has to be bad.
Everyone else sends out the numbers, this club asks you to turn up on the day, then doesn't prepare adequately for that. They inform you they have parking facilities, and then take on more runners than the facilities can cope with, and make no arrangements for back up parking. Either limit the numbers, use a different venue, or tell people there is limited parking, and advise them in advance of where to park. Take a look at what other clubs do.
The hall, as people have pointed out, was very crowded. There was very poor signage, so it wasn't easy to find out where you had to go to collect your number. My name wasn't down, even though I had paid by cheque in advance. I was sent to two different places to sort out matters, and at the late entries stall I was told they couldn't help me as the laptop didn't contain all the information. I said that their inability to organise matters effectively shouldn't mean I couldn't run - after all I had paid. The man at the stall said, Are you calling us poorly organised? I said, you lost my application, and are now telling me you can't help me, what do you call it? They gave me a number.
After time lost to finding somewhere park, and then to get my number, it was too late to get any of the refreshments that had been promised, nor to find the toilets. I had lost my running partner in the number chaos, so had to make my way to start without him. Who thought it was a good idea to have the start facing the direction of the HQ so those arriving were faced with runners blocking the road, and various wires and equipment blocking the side? Grrrr. At this point I was very frustrated and thinking that the organisers were perhaps rather inept.
I paid little attention to the water stops. My experience of most races is that water stops can't be relied on for slow runners, so I always carry my own. Marshals were out, and - given it was a cold day - did a decent enough job. The course itself was pleasant, and at places very attractive; while it also had pot holes in section, it was on the whole a decent course - challenging, attractive, and with a down hill finish. My sort of course, and I would be willing to consider it again for the course, and that it is handy for a visit to Canterbury afterwards.
The finish was poorly indicated. Even though there were useful signs on the road saying 400 and 200 yards to go, it still wasn't clear where the finish was until you were on top of it, and a marshal pointed it out (you had to leave the road and use the pavement). There was no water by the time I finished (1.45). The medal was fairly pointless, and I would have preferred the money had been spent on some fruit or sports drink. Date of review: January 31, 2012
In short: Pleasant enough but less than ordinary In full: I enjoyed the run. The weather was good, and the course went through countryside - not spectacular countryside, but decent countryside nevertheless. I enjoyed the course. Indeed, I would recommend it. That is not to say that the race was anything special, but it was pleasant, and provided you don't have much in the way of expectations, then it does the job nicely. An early morning run in January, through decent countryside over a challenging but not aggressive course, with plenty of friendly marshals. And, as it's held in St Albans, there's the opportunity for a decent pub crawl afterwards.
I didn't use the suggested car park. I parked in a sidestreet near the start/finish point. As I wanted the loo before the start, I did go to the race HQ, and noted that there were plenty of parking spaces available. There was no loo paper, but this is not uncommon, and experienced runners should bring their own.
The start was a little messy. People seemed unsure where they needed to be, but - again - having been to a number of such low key club runs, one learns to expect this. I didn't notice any signs pointing to the start, but I had read the fairly decent instructions beforehand, and there were enough runners heading in the right direction to guide the way.
There were at least two water stops (the same one actually), which consisted of water cups, and I did notice some jelly babies, but too late to grab any!
At the loop end the organisers had the returning runners crossing over in front of the outgoing runners, which seemed clumsy. Why not have the outgoing loop turn left, so there is no crossover? Also, the marshals, while pleasant, could be a little more alert in giving directions. They are sometimes poorly placed, and more than once I had to ask which direction. Indeed, at the loop crossover, one marshal was blocking the way I had to go, and only moved aside when I was asking which was the way I had to go. It helps if marshals point the way as soon as they see a runner coming.
No goodies, water or bananas at the end. Often goodies are donated by sponsors - it's just a question of the club being proactive. The medal was decent quality, but not individual. If you're an experienced runner you'll already have it, with some other race name scratched on the back. For ordinary club runs like this, I'm not fussed about medals anyway. I'd rather have some sports drink and nibbles. Or a hat or a t-shirt, or a sweat band. Something a little different, perhaps.
All in all, pleasant enough, but rather less than ordinary. I'd do it again, but it's not a favourite race. Date of review: January 29, 2012
In short: Probably the best marathon in the world In full: and the toughest!
This run is perfect. You feel high on the fun and exhilaration of it, the madness of it, the charm of it, the stunning scenery, the supportive marshals, and the crazy food they provide at each stop. Do you fancy tea and cake, or a hot soup? Everyone is so friendly. It's such a wonderful atmosphere.
I did the Great North Run last month. From the ridiculous to the sublime. From an over-priced, congested, uninspiring and ugly course at Great North to the magnificence and warmth of the Beachy Head. From spending hours in my car trying to get out of the car park at Great North, to a hot shower and a slap up meal before wandering over to the pub at Beachy Head.
People always talk about the toughness of this run, but you don't get people collapsing with exhaustion or heart attacks, and that's because the run is varied - you use different muscle groups on the ups than you do on the downs and on the flats (few flats!), and also because you don't run it flat out, you have to walk at times, and this gives the body time to recover. It's very demanding, but it's not damaging to the body (well, apart from the toe nails because the steep descents push your feet to the front of your shoes!), and the organisers provide plenty of fuel at the checkpoints.
Great race. Legendary. Date of review: October 24, 2011
In short: Biggest, but far from the best In full: GNR is the biggest half-marathon, and attracts attention for that fact. But is if far from the best - indeed, in most respects, it is actually very poor. It is a race that most people will have heard of, and the iconic sight of the Red Arrows flying over Tyne Bridge is very inspirational. It's a race that you want to do - it's a race that you are almost compelled to do because of its status and fame. It's certainly a race I felt was a "must do".
I enjoyed the weekend up in Newcastle. Accommodation in Newcastle itself sells out very quickly, or is stunningly expensive. We stayed in a very pleasant caravan site north of Newcastle, within easy reach of South Shields. It was very cheap, very comfortable, and made for a very pleasant weekend break. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
The race itself, though, was very disappointing. The pasta party on the Saturday was a miserable affair and was best avoided. I have been to a number of Pasta parties around the world, and usually they are inspirational affairs (well, the London Marathon one was a bit limp this year), but the quality of the food, and the location (a car park) was off-putting. It served as a warning that this was an event where things were not really organised with the runner's pleasure in mind, but of simply ticking a box in the cheapest, easiest manner - Pasta Party, done.
The information booklet is packed with information - but not easy to get the information you want, and the information changes depending on which page you read. And the information is not accurate, or is simply missing. Price of bus in the booklet - £3. Price of bus on the day - £3.30. It mentions a car park in South Shields, but doesn't say how to get to it, nor that when you arrive on the day, there is a £4 fee. Signposts to the car park are rare to the point of almost not existing. The bus leaves you a little distance from the start - not a problem, but there are no sign posts, and no marshals to help. Compare that to the London Marathon, where there is plenty of help on the ground with signs and marshals. You follow the crowd and trust that the person in front knows where they are going.
The start area is not well organised, signposted or equipped with toilets or marshals. It's largely a messy free for all with people pissing and shitting in the bushes by the side of the road. It's all good humoured, and people help each other out by pointing to where you enter the start area proper. But starting a race, especially such a big race, in this location is a poor idea, and is very badly managed. The only other race I've known which has a comparably poorly organised start is the London 10K.
The timed pens are not well organised - people are allowed to give optimistic or deliberately inaccurate times in order to get into the front pens, so that the whole idea of timed pens is a nonsense. You will be blocked by hoards of slower runners/walkers from the start to the finish. To some extent with a race of this size you expect some congestion, but the reality of the amount is simply frustrating and unpleasant - it can be compared to the first day of the sales at a big London department store. You will get jostled and knocked, and will have to stop several times, and will run more than the 13 mile distance because of all the weaving and dodging. You might as well put down that you can do it in 70 minutes and give yourself the chance of some space. The pens fill up quickly, and people will continue to shove in until the last minute so you can't relax, as there will be intense crowding and shuffling going on. And your view while waiting will be the motorway embankment either side.
The rout is appalling. It is mainly a dreary dual carriageway passing through business zones or indifferent residential areas. For the first couple of miles it is inner city motorway, with no access for spectators, other than on occasional bridges. The highlights are the Tyne Bridge, and the finish near the coast at South Shields. The rest is dreary, with - despite what is claimed - very patchy and often indifferent crowd support. Yes, people do turn up, but considering the fame of this event, and the huge number of people who live in Tyneside, the support is very sad. There are people who hand out sweets, biscuits and tissues, but they are the exception, and the crowd support is not the same as you get during the London Marathon, Run To The Beat, or Hastings Half. There are many events which I have been to which are low key, local events, with no expectation of crowd support, and I am frequently touched by the amount of people who turn out. Here I was expecting more - indeed, people say the support is fantastic. But it's not true. The bulk of the people who turn out, mainly stare. There is little actual encouragement. I have my name on my shirt, and I'm used to hearing people call out my name. On this run my name was called just twice. So the route is dreary with patchy support, and the organisers do little to encourage the crowd support, or to inspire and encourage the runners. There is one "boost zone", and I think three live bands for the entire race. Even small local events can often manage to hire a bagpipe player. For the world's biggest half-marathon, and for a fee of £46, I was hoping for a bit more than one guy shouting out people's names for a hundred yards, and a scattering of bands. The locals at Hastings organise themselves every year, so you have several choirs singing, and pubs blasting out music, and the nurses at the local hospital banging saucepans and whooping so loud you can hear them from a mile away. The Marseille-Cassis has go-go dancers at the halfway point. The Amsterdam marathon has fairground organs scattered throughout. Paris supplies beer, wine, cider, cake and oysters. Prague supplies beer. Here, there is little fun, little support, and the bare minimum of water and sports drinks. What exactly did I pay for?
Getting away from South Shields at the end is a nightmare. If you thought the race was bad enough, just wait until you try to get away from it. The average time is two and a half hours. Because they have a helicopter pad for the celebrities to get away quickly, and the pad is placed between the finish and the car park, it took me over half an hour to get to my car, which was parked 500 yards from the finish. There is simply no crowd control. People push both ways down a congested roped off lane, which may get closed off if an ambulance needs to get to the finish. Ah! nightmare!
The positives are the friendliness of the other runners. The sheer size of the event so you know you are taking part in something big. The Red Arrows - they fly over the start, they fly again over the bridge, and they do a spectacular display at the finish, which I enjoyed as I was arriving at the finish as that happened. But those positives do not compensate for the rest. This could be not just the biggest half-marathon, but also the best if the organisers committed themselves into thinking what the runners might appreciate, rather than how little they can give and get away with it.
The race might be a victim of its own success, but I think it is more likely that its a victim of complacency. The event is a commercial and popular success - people swallow the short-comings and don't complain, so why make the effort to change it? Why make the effort to make it brilliant when people are happy enough as it is?
I'm hearing grumblings of discontent, and I think its time those grumblings came a bit louder, and people started demanding improvements. Date of review: October 14, 2011