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
In short: Declining..... In full: I did this in 2006 and 2007, and felt that this was a special event. Low key, and a bit of a drive, with nothing extra to offer, just the course, it was special because of that course, and the relaxed low key Sunday morning feel about it. I found Henfield itself a quaint village - nothing remarkable, but it has some nice pubs, and genuine English feel about it. The course through the countryside was very attractive - picking your way through cornfields, and along disused railway lines, beside a lazy river, and through cow fields was very charming. And then to come back to laze on the field by the leisure centre while people had a BBQ and chatted, and then to wander off to the pub for a pint. Great. But the course has changed, and the number of entrants has dropped, and the organisation seems to have drifted away. There is now nothing on offer when you get back. No club atmosphere, and no BBQ. The runners are friendly and chatty, and the marshals are supportive, but there's something missing about the whole affair. I didn't like the half mile walk to the start. Nor did I like the tedium of much of the course. The changes now mean that the course consists either of running along the disused railway (out and back) or along the river bank, with very little else. I have fond memories of this race, but I may not be back.....
In short: Going downhill... In full: I used to love this run. I haven't done it since 2008 (when I did it in 2.20), so this was my first time on the new course, and it is likely to be my last.
I didn't like the extra hill loop which breaks up the long straight. I didn't like the different hill at mile 10 which replaces the old climb at mile 9. The previous climb was pleasant and under tree shade. The new one is along an ugly, dirty road, exposed to the sun. I didn't like the awkward switchbacks and various tunnels and road crossings with few marshals to help out. I hated the frustrating extra loops around the park at the end. Those loops could be done at the start. And it's a shame that there were not enough bananas and goodie bags. It's not nice struggling in at the end of a long run to see others eating bananas, and evidence of the bananas everywhere, and nothing left! It has to be fair to all. My money went to pay for those bananas as much as everyone else. I should have known though, as this race has a history of running out of water at drinks stations. It was because of this race's poor organisation of water that I now make sure I always carry my own bottle during long runs. Unless, of course, I am running a properly organised race such as London Marathon. It's better to have too much water and bananas than not enough - and better to ask everyone to pay an extra £1 each to make sure there is enough than to try and keep the run cheap, and then skimp on these important details.
I am prepared to put up with a few faults on a run, but the faults on this run are mounting up. Date of review: July 26, 2011
In short: Big race - hideous course - poor sponsor In full: London is THE marathon to do. It is a major marathon, and possibly the most famous. The organisation is smooth and professional from start to finish. The crowd support is intense at places, and pretty good all the way round. You really are aware you are taking part in a significant event. It is not, however, the best marathon you can do, nor the best run.
The course is hideous. I've waited five years to run this marathon and often looked at the course and pondered that it goes through some dreary parts of London, but thought that the event itself and the crowd support would compensate. Well, frankly, no it doesn't. Running through street after street of ugly tenement buildings, closed down pubs and factories is not inspiring. Most city marathons have their bad patches spaced out amongst the awe-inspiring, historic, iconic scenery, but London has the good patches spaced out amongst the dreary route that makes up about 20 miles of the 26. Surely it's possible to run the course through some better parts of London. It is extraordinary that the course somehow manages to weave its way through all the worse parts of London!
While it's undeniable there's a wonderful atmosphere about the event itself - there is a lack of warmth and understanding coming from the sponsor. The Expo was purely commercial - very disappointing. The worse city marathon expo I've attended. Almost demoralising. Virgin is pushing the money side of the event, and seems to neglect the running side. Yes, this is the biggest charity event in the world - but it is not a charity event that happens to be a marathon, it is a marathon that happens to also be a charity event. The focus must be on the running, not on the raising of money, or the making of money. The events on the Expo stage were almost all commercial - "here's the clothes you can buy - now go buy them at the stall behind you". Paris Expo was great because while there was stuff to buy, the focus was on building an atmosphere. The Paris Pasta Party is an uplifting experience. Great party atmosphere. And you can fill up with as much pasta and fruit as you like. Go back for more as often as you like. Watch the stage show which is for fun only. Gives you a great feeling. And the party is included in the entry fee. As is the 5k "Breakfast Run" which you can do on the Saturday morning. Excellent value for money.
I dislike that Virgin have stopped the guaranteed entry for five consecutive ballot failures. This punishes those who can't afford a charity entry or are unable to raise the money from asking others.
As with others I felt that the t-shirt was very poor - among the very worse I have been given, though I had no complaints about the goodie bags - I thought they were OK.
I thought the finish zone could do with having water bottles ready. I had finished all my water, and was looking forward to some water at the finish. The finish zone is very long and depressing. It just seemed to go on for ever - but, fair enough, that is not uncommon for big events.
I was impressed when I got on the train at Rochester at how many other runners there were from my town doing the marathon. It gives you a sense of how big the event is. The walk from Blackheath station to the start was very exciting. A big flow of people. There were marshals placed to guide the runners - but they weren't needed - you just had to follow the crowd!
Overall I enjoyed the day, and was pleased that family members managed to see me at several spots along the route, but it's not an event I'm that interested in doing again. There are plenty of interesting city marathons around the world that I haven't yet done. And of the marathons that I have done so far that I'd be happy to do again are Beachy Head (entered again this year), Paris (probably do next year) and Prague. I'm also keen on doing the French Riveria Marathon, Berlin Marathon and Marathon du Medoc. Date of review: May 10, 2011
In short: Cracking run - shame about the traffic In full: I loved this run. Good venue for the start and finish. Bananas and sports drinks and a medal and t-shirt. Bargain! Great atmosphere.
The route is very similar to the Dartford Half - though the start is from a different venue, and the course goes through an industrial estate before joining the main road. It's then almost the same until the final hill, apart from taking a slightly different (longer) route through the country lanes at one point.
On the long main road leading to the hill, the Half is organised so the road is crossed by the foot bridge and you run safely on pavement all the way. This 10 is organised slightly differently so you have to run in the road for about half a mile. There were sometimes cones and sometimes not. But there was always a lot of traffic, including large articulated lorries. And then up the final hill, the route goes round a blind bend. I don't like to be on a road with my back to the traffic. I have met two runners who were hit in the back by traffic while on organised runs. One is still running, but suffers constant pain, the other now does wheelchair races only. If doing this run again, I would be inclined to run on the pavement, and on the side of the road where I am facing the traffic. Though I would prefer if the organisers altered the route slightly to reduce the risk of runners being hit.
My other, more minor quibble, is that at one point I was the final runner, and the police van followed me a little too close for comfort.
Those quibbles aside, I loved this run, and I was pleased with my time of 1.46. I had aimed roughly at 1.45 (not wanting to push too hard as I'm now tapering for London) and would have made it if not for that final hill!
In short: Cracking little run in brilliant weather. Loved it. In full: I did this two years ago and enjoyed it. It was even better this time. Weather was glorious, and I was expecting the undulations so I took them in my stride (though I hadn't remembered quite how steep that little climb is at the end of 6K!). Everyone is friendly and chatty, and there's a lovely warm atmosphere.
The route undulates through Farningham and Lullingstone and a hop farm, with a cross country climb from 5K that will slow you down, and a short but stiff climb at the end of 6k. The last 3k are pretty much all downhill into Eynsford, so a fast fun finish is assured.
The only stretch I don't like is the main road from 7K to about 8K - it's dull, and there are cars zooming past. There was a delay with the water at the end. People queued for quite a while. Having two water containers would help. But these are minor quibbles - this is lovely run with a unique and special medal. I think everyone should run the Darent Valley 10K at least once in their lives. Date of review: April 10, 2011
In short: Lovely! In full: I'd been wanting to do this race for some time, but always seemed to be doing something else on the same day. It's a very pretty route, though not as flat as I had expected. I liked the downhill finish, and the friendly atmosphere. My wife found enough to occupy here for the hour or so I was running. My time - 1.05.35 Date of review: April 10, 2011
In short: Awesome! In full: This low key training event is an example to many others on just how to set up a running event. The marshals are amongst the most supportive I've encountered (running club events do tend to have the best marshals), and the whole event is run with a confidence and good humour that is all too rare.
Stunning value - only £5, and that includes tea and cake afterwards. The signposting was very good - I don't recall any points where a runner could get confused (and I'm someone who has got lost several times on long runs).
Scenery very attractive.
It was a fair deal harder than I expected. There are few flat sections. After the first three miles along the canal, the route goes up, down, up and down, with one flat section which is along a busy unpavemented road where the cars come fast and close, before finishing the last two miles along the flat.
The support of the marshals is excellent - there's a real warmth and confidence among the team.
It took me 4 hours 52. I was among the very last before the sweeper came in, yet I was greeted warmly and given a cake and a cup of tea. Lovely! That was so supportive.
In short: Pain In full: This marked a turning point in my running, and I'm surprised I didn't leave a comment at the time. The big hill at the start, combined with the cold, and perhaps running too fast and hard at the start, and maybe doing too much during 2008 meant my knees gave up on me, and I was walking almost as much as running. Marshalling was thin at one point and I went off track. A local noticed and pointed me toward the coast. I cut back to the course which at that point was doing an out and back section and found myself on the return section, having walked over the out section. At that point my resolve gave out, and I couldn't face going back to find the out course and my knees by now made running too painful, so I hobbled along the cold, windy shingle beach to the finish. Marshals noticed I was cold and gave me space blankets to keep me warm, and checked that I was OK to carry on. This happened four times, so I was wrapped in four blankets and hobbling along until I saw the finish line - I then removed all the blankets, straightened up, put a grin on my face, and ran over the finish line. I was proud of myself for having finished (albeit a couple of miles short of a marathon), but the memory of the pain kept me away from long distance runs until this year. Date of review: March 20, 2011
In short: Worms on the road... In full: There is a miserable cheap feel about the event. Poor consideration given to how people are to park, and where to route the runners, so at the end of the race there was a dangerous mix of tired runners attempting to use the same pot-holed track as impatient drivers trying to get out and go home.
The marshals were largely indifferent, some were grumpy, and a blessed handful were supportive.
The start was delayed. There wasn't any tannoy system that I could hear. There were few facilities. It was people standing in a damp field unsure what was happening.
If the money was going to a charity I wouldn't mind, but privately organised events such as these need to be better. People have paid for a decently organised event. It's not the same as a local club putting on an event, or a charity putting on an event. There are different attitudes toward a purely commercial operation.
Negatives aside, I enjoyed the course. Being flat it meant I did a PB of 2.15.10 - my previous fastest half was Henley back in Oct 2006 when I did 2.19.47. The scenery was pleasant - it was all peaceful rural, with lambs and swans and daffodils just emerging. The weather on the day was better than expected. A little chilly to start, then settled down into a steel-grey March morning. The dreaded wind was little more than a breeze - and mostly wasn't noticed; there was a bit late on during the return, but it didn't hamper running and it wasn't cold.
There's a decent pub, The Dolphin, for drinks afterwards, with free nibbles on the bar. A chap gave me a standing ovation as I left because he could see my medal. I was pleased with that. Date of review: March 13, 2011