In short: Expensive and thin on support, but a memorable race In full: Very interesting race.
On the one hand, it's in an extraordinary setting. There's not too many places in the UK where you can run while a herd of rhino run alongside you (don't worry - not on the same path). Wild muntjack deer chilling out on the verges as well, looking at you confusedly.
On the other hand, there is a real absence of man-made atmosphere. The race starts before the zoo opens, so the only spectators are those that have made the trip with friends, family and colleagues. And unfortunately those that were there were seemingly in no mood to clap anyone other than those that they knew.
Marshals too - very low key, holding out an arm to signal a direction, but other than a couple of them round the course and the guy on the tannoy at the crucial fork between finish and carrying on round (he's very good by the way), no encouragement.
As routes with laps involved go, this is definitely one where you'd forgive them. There's a lot of gentle downhill and what climbs there are aren't anything to be unduly worried about. There's huge PB potential here.
Some more points: The instructions sent out had incorrect/misleading info on attaching the timing chip. As a result there were a few stray chips on the course that had clearly fallen off. Good quality medal. Water station could've been slicker. Could've done with a second bin a little further round for discarded cups as well. Changing area wasn't the most private, given that it was overlooked by a large window into a public area! There was an organised warm-up, but it was at least half an hour before the start of the race. Not brilliantly thought through. Race entry includes zoo entry, but bear in mind that a full visit to Whipsnade might be a bit of a slog after a hard race. Car park advertised as "free to runners" in the literature. It's actually recently become free to all visitors.
In short: Good atmosphere, but course needs a huge rethink In full: I'll start with the good points, because there were plenty of them. Crowds on the whole were superb, lots of encouragement throughout, plenty offering things like orange segments, jelly babies, and - in a couple of parts - a massively welcome hosepipe shower. Bag drop was spot on, and the water stations seemed well stocked throughout. Great medal too, and the stadium finish was fantastic.
A nod too for the fact that everyone's numbers had their names on. All races should follow suit here, as it makes an enormous difference to the support you get on the course. General polite clapping really can't compete with people encouraging you by name.
Big acknowledgement for the pacers too, doing a challenging job on an awkward course. I stuck with Rosemary 4:30 for around 11 miles before struggling, and tried to join the 5:00 bus, who seemed to be having a fantastic time, and getting brilliant encouragement. Sadly for me, I was done in by that point and couldn't hang on. The quicker early pace needed to counterbalance the harder second half made their jobs all the harder, and I saw several that had a faster time in mind utterly done in towards the finish.
A big shout out too for the medics dotting the course - the heat and the challenging course really took their toll on some runners, and these guys really earned their corn yesterday. Really hope everyone got home in one piece.
Unfortunately, there was a lot wrong with the whole day, and it started with the parking situation. I'd paid £6 for VIP parking, but had to abandon my wife almost 10 minutes from the stadium because traffic simply wasn't moving. She later reported that the VIP section seemed to have been massively oversubscribed for the space they'd set aside, and she'd ended up being directed to park on a kerb on the outside edge of the stadium car park. So I'd like that £6 back, please. Seeing as though we arrived in MK well almost 75 minutes before the race was due to start, this was unforgiveable. I seriously pity any runner that was driving themselves to the race - huge stress, and the last thing you'd need ahead of a baking hot race.
Once I'd made my way to the stadium, the lack of signs was somewhat bizarre. People were perplexedly walking in and out of the Hilton hotel thinking that was Race HQ, and there was seemingly nothing and no-one on that side of the stadium directing people in the right direction.
Once I'd found the right bit, it was borderline bedlam. Signs were up pointing out "Male toilets and changing", which it turns out was the same thing. Even if the enormous queue hadn't been there, never in a million years was that somewhere you could or should be expected to change. It was roughly the size of the toilets you get in a medium-sized pub. No benches, no hooks, nothing to mark it out as a changing room. It was male toilets, nothing more.
Thankfully I'd arrived with shorts already on, as god only knows what I'd have done otherwise. I - like many others - ended up getting changed in the main bag drop/HQ area. That area of the stadium was huge - why did nobody think to set up substantial and separate tented/screened off areas for people to get changed? Most of it looked like wasted space to me.
Then came the start, which was chaotic for the reasons explained elsewhere. As with many races, organisers really need to get extra speakers set up so that people at the middle and back can also hear what they're saying. And like everyone else, I racked up an awful lot of extra distance in the first handful of miles weaving around walkers.
The early miles around the centre of MK were tedious and really quite confusing. Support was excellent in these sections, but downhill, tight turn, back uphill roughly the way you've just come is far from inspiring.
Water stations on the whole were great, but the first one was pretty poor. Nowhere near enough volunteers, and some of those that were there were a bit ropey. I saw one woman go to the stacks of bottles, remove one bottle, then go to the kerb and offer it, and then return for another single bottle. Particularly that early on in the race when the crowds are so tightly packed, things need to be fast and efficient, and several runners around me had their hands out, but there were no bottles ready for them. Wasn't a problem with stocks - it was purely a lack of numbers handing out, and a bit of a lack of urgency on their part.
The split when the marathoners turned left and the half-marathoners went straight on seemed straightforward enough, but it did strike me that those doing the half really got gypped on the scenery front. What a boring course that must have been.
Thankfully, for those doing the full 26.2, things prettied up substantially from 12 miles onwards. The park/lake bit was really nice, and some of the residential areas were pretty pleasant too.
Unfortunately, once we got into redway territory, the course was really quite horrible. Those routes are great for cyclists, and probably in chunks are really good for training runs to get a bit of hill training under your belt. But for the second half of my first marathon, it was just too much. None of the climbs were enormous, but every time we went downhill and saw an arrow pointing left or right, we just knew that the next corner was going to be the start of another hill. I have plenty of hills locally, and feel they're a relative strength of mine nowadays, but cumulatively these just destroyed me. I'd be very, very interested to know exactly how many of these inclines there were on the course, because it felt like absolutely dozens. Some of the marshals here weren't a massive help either - it's great to be ushered on and encouraged, but some of them were telling us that it was a "nice flat section now", when in fact it was about 100 yards flat followed by another bloody hill. That's just demoralising when you've run 18+ miles.
It was my first marathon, and having had a very disrupted training schedule, I'm not the best advert for how the route for the second half affected my race. As an illustration though, I hit half at 2:15, and finished in 5:15. And even if that second half had been the first half, I'd have still been way, way off 2:15.
Marshals on the whole were very good, some in fact were absolutely brilliant (big shout to the girl on the hill just after the park, and the massively enthusiastic guy somewhere around the 20+ mark), but some really, really let the side down. I counted 4 on corners that were on their phones with their backs to the runners. There was a section too where some wideboy and his moll were out walking their dog off the lead in the middle of one of the redways, which nearly took out three runners in front of me. They walked past at least one marshal, who didn't seem to bother suggesting that they migh like to get it under control.
One marshal in the last stretch in the stadium car park wasn't exactly on the ball either, as he was blocking off most of the width of the course, leaving room for only 2 runners. And as the two directly ahead of me were walking side by side, I had to detour round him to avoid a collision.
Back inside the stadium, things moved along nicely. Nice finish area, got my water, my medal, my goody bag (sans T-shirt, as others have mentioned) and my fruit. The previously packed toilets had to do for a changing facility, but were absolutely disgusting by this point.
As a postscript, and this race is by no means alone here - if you're going to go to the trouble of having a company in to set up cameras to film the finish, would it really be that hard to show security and marshals that are stationed around this area where NOT to stand in order to avoid ruining the footage? I had a quick flick through on the Marathon Photos website, and the fourth placed finisher has a bespectacled guard's head ruining his big moment from one of the available angles, and I imagine he's not alone. Bit weird too that none of the photos or video included the actual finish itself. Would it really have been so hard to set up the cameras on the other side of the finish line?
Overall, I had a good day because I finished my first marathon. But while the event went by safely and reasonably efficiently at first glance, I think there's a hell of a lot of room for improvement, and it really has to start with the course itself. I'd be surprised and enormously disappointed if that was the course in 2015. Date of review: May 6, 2014
In short: Superb as always, but a little food for thought In full: Tremendous race, friendly organisation, nice easy second half which is mainly downhill.
Superb tech T, with the kind of design you'd be happy to wear (other races take note!)
Very quick delivery of results, half of which were up at Race HQ during the prize-giving.
Spot on at HQ with number collection etc. Usefully signed, brilliantly well marshalled and plenty of warning given to get to the start.
Road crossings were superb, and felt very safe even though roads were open. Very well done on this, as it really does make a difference.
However, some minor gripes. Some unfortunately parked cars early on in the route, including one on Sunderland Road, and a van which caused a bottleneck of runners on the thin path into Northcroft. The section prior to the first sweeping uphill corner on Sunderland Road was the point where marshalls were getting tough on directing people on to the pavement. Given the number of runners at this stage, it caused a bit of a jam and slowed progress for many. More worrying though, this stretch has concrete bollards which are impossible to see when there are people in front of you. I run this road twice a week, and I still nearly ran into a couple of them! The odd marshal on the pavement stood in front of the first one might be useful. At the water stations, which were superbly operated, I'd suggest stationing the marshal with the binbag a little further away to help with the litter situation. Many people around me were hanging on to their cups a little longer and simply dumped them on the ground.
Skip to the end... The finish gantry looked a little, well, weathered? More than one person commented that it looked unsightly and not exactly inspiring confidence that it wouldn't collapse on runners passing underneath! Another suggestion I'd make - a banner saying "Finish" on the other side of the gantry will make for better photo opportunities. After the finish, it was very disappointing that the squash made available to the first few hundred runners had run out by about the 1hr 40 mark. Water was still there, but with numbers known beforehand, it does seem a bit of an unfortunate thing to have happened. Medal would have been nice, but lack of this was more than made up for by the introduction of chip timing. Oh, and please get the nice guy in race HQ a more powerful amplifier!
Note however that all the above are all pretty harsh, and didn't detract from a brilliant race. Biggleswade AC can always be relied upon to put a great event together, and once again this was a real gem. Congrats to all concerned.
In short: Lovely course, lovely atmosphere In full: Tremendous setting at Hatfield House. Weather was unseasonably good, which made for a great summery atmosphere in early October.
Race number and chip arrived in the post a couple of weeks ahead of the race, as promised. Results were up approx 5 hours after the race finished.
Ample car parking on the day. No portaloos - there was use of the House courtyard loos - mens were fine with minimal queuing, but there were lengthy queues for the ladies' as the start time neared.
As mentioned in reviews from previous years, the warm-up was very good and extremely well-received. Soundtrack in among everything: early-to-mid 90s chart dance. If you, like me, enjoy the likes of Strike's U Sure Do and SL2's On A Ragga Tip, you will arrive at the athletes area with a big smile on your face. I would urge whoever was in charge of the music to repeat the playlist next year.
Start was staggered based on predicted time. Slightly hamfistedly applied, but worked for me. There was apparently a bottleneck at the start towards the back of the field, which made for some slow early progress.
This year's course started with a long downhill stretch. Plenty got extremely carried away by this, so if the route carries into next year, I'd definitely urge caution to any beginners.
There was a well dealt with loop out across a field, then on to slightly muddy trails. At this point plenty were complaining about the terrain, but after a 1km-ish sojourn round this way, we briefly rejoined the path we arrived on before travelling elsewhere. The first and last of the muddy trails were over and done with before 3km - beyond that some loose stones were as treacherous as footing got. The vast majority was on good quality tracks and asphalt.
There's a lot of downhill on the course, but two or three uphills of note. 1st was between 4-5km, which I suffered on quite a bit due to undertraining.
Next was milder, around the 8km mark.
The real sickener, which we all knew was coming, was the finish, up the hill we'd started on. It's not the steepest of hills by any means, but it really sapped the legs, and pretty much killed any prospect of a kick for the line. I normally have a 150-200m blast at the end of any race, but all I could muster was a half-hearted 20m burst to the line past a couple of runners that were suffering more than I was.
Put simply, whatever your level, if you put in the time on some decent hills to prepare you for this race, you will have some serious joy cutting through the field. Loads - myself included - were underprepared, and were just asking for someone to steam past.
The finish is right in front of Hatfield House, incidentally, and is a really epic setting. Just a shame it's not a flatter road in!
TV and Arsenal's Bob Wilson - head of the Willow Foundation along with his wife - was a game host for proceedings, and also manned the mic to usher runners home, a lovely touch. Unfortunately many runners missed out on having their own finish commentated on, because he was being extraordinarily accommodating with photos in the finish area. Not a complaint - I got a couple myself - but perhaps a bit unfortunate.
Goody bag was good quality - water, medal, energy bar etc. Someone mentioned fruit, but I didn't see any.
Now, gripes. Firstly, some of the route was vaguely described in an email (mainly talking about the loop, which is a change to previous years) but not published. Bob himself jokingly said that he hadn't realised the start/finish hill was quite so severe, and he's not the only one that was surprised by it. Would have been nice to have known more about it and the route as a whole, in fairness.
Water stations were definitely undermanned, particularly the second one. Could have used at least a couple more pairs of hands at each of the first two -I wasn't in huge traffic on passing and they were struggling.
It looks like a third station was hurriedly added because of the hot weather at the 9km mark - not sure when this was decided upon, but an announcement at the start would have been appreciated.
I'm told the third station ran out of plastic cups somewhere after the hour mark, which is a huge shame.
Marshals on the whole were a bit thin on the ground, I thought. Certainly no problems with keeping to the route, but there were a few very cuttable corners that I thought could've done with a hi-vis on standby to keep runners in line.
Good to see marshals identifying hazards - a guy by a huge pothole in particular was well stationed, as were a couple of ladies by a couple of cattle grids. At the first, the marshal perhaps got a bit too much into the spirit of the day and was encouraging high-fives on passing, but in doing so unfortunately was distracting us from the fact that there was a hulking great grid right there behind her! Hairy and humorous moment rather than anything to get too het up about, but definitely made me think of what could've gone wrong if my footing had been slightly less sure.
Marshals on the whole were very encouraging - always a huge plus.
Physios were apparently available for a post-race rub down. There was a stall doing bacon or sausage rolls, and there was also a veggie option, as well as teas and coffees. The price list also mentioned squash, but apparently they'd run out, which struck me as a teensy bit rubbish. At this point there were still 40 mins-worth of runners and walkers still on the course, so somebody clearly miscalculated somewhere.
If you relish a bit of uphill grind, there's definite PB potential here as there are huge stretches of downhill to really let you get motoring. That's not me, unfortunately, and the tricky finish was a bit of a sickener.
But not to take away from an excellent event for a massively worthy cause. I really enjoyed myself, and there was a great showing from spectators at the finish.
It sounds like it's scaling upwards gradually and sensibly, and if they can scale up the fundamentals like some more marshals and ensuring enough stocks of essentials are on hand, this is a race that I can see with at least twice the capacity.
Well done Bob, well done Willow, and I'll definitely have my eye on the date for this one next year. Date of review: October 7, 2013
In short: Smaller-scale event racing at its very best, but some food for thought In full: I got my time text and placing info at 12.26, and seeing as though I finished in 2:03 (and I'm guessing it wasn't a spot-on 9am start - although I'm not sure), that's pretty efficient.
Proper event feel to that race. Great little village on the park, registration and bag drop was impeccably done. Short queues for toilets, and plenty of bushes to relieve yourself if you didn't fancy the wait.
The parachute display from the RAF lads, which I'd read about beforehand and rolled my eyes at somewhat, was actually bloody brilliant. I genuinely had goosebumps when I realised it was more than just a man with a parachute. Seriously epic way of kicking things off - would love to hear how they got on in the race.
On the course, water stations were brilliantly efficient. Great that there were four as well - most welcome on a warm morning. All bottles too. Haribo offered shortly before the last climb was a nice touch (I declined as I already had cola bottles in hand).
Were the advertised gels offered anywhere? I wasn't interested in them, as I can't stand Hi-Five's stuff, but I didn't see them getting handed out anywhere.
Lovely, lovely course too. I'm maybe less fond of the Cantilever Bridge than I had been prior to the race, given the climb up it towards the end, but from there and many other points there were utterly wonderful views.
Quality bling and goodie bag too. Alas I heard of beer on offer in the village too late to get involved myself (announced late last night on their FB page), but I'm sure that topped off a great morning's work for some people.
Only slight niggles I'd have, because I'm a meanie moo:
No track finish. This gutted me particularly as I entered about an hour before they announced this. Mainly a shame for me as it used to be my home track, and I'm got some great memories there. Hope it's just a one-off without it.
No official elevation published. Even though I'm originally from the town, there's a lot of the course I wasn't familiar with from a pedestrian or runner perspective, and I couldn't believe how much of the first two-thirds of the course was uphill. Granted, if I'd bothered with some hill training it would have been less of an issue, but I imagine some proper newbies suffered hard there.
Lack of staggered start based on time, which was particularly a shame because there were a few bottlenecks in the first couple of miles (particularly from the bridge off Ackers Road for a while) resulting in enforced slow going. Might have screwed a few PB attempts quite early on there.
Also, and this is badly nit-picking, but some (and I do mean a small minority) of the marshalls were a bit lacking in interactivity. Pockets of public around a handful of these put them to shame a bit on the enthusiasm front. Clapping runners through at the very least should surely be the base minimum for such things.
Could have lived without the queue after the finish for bling as well. It was really starting to stack backwards when I finished, and it looked very much like it was creeping back dangerously close to the finish line. Would certainly have benefitted from being a bit further along, and with a few more hands.
Finally, the PA system was tragically poor. I and many others missed Adrian Derbyshire starting his attempt on the hand-trike half world record (sadly thwarted by a puncture after 6 miles) as well as the group warm-up, which one group around me were particularly gutted about. With people so scattered at the start, announcements really needed to be relayed via speakers at all corners of the playing fields. It was horrendously directional, and unfortunately this meant most sound was going where the fewest people were gathered.
Make absolutely no mistake however, it was brilliant. I didn't even get the time I wanted and I loved it.
One thing I have noted is that the event director has stated that his ultimate aim is to have the race finish at the Golden Gates. Personally, track finish all day long would be my preference.
Incorporating the Gates would undeniably be a superb touch, but why not get the best of both worlds and start there, ferry bags and supporters by coach, and finish on the track in Victoria Park? I'm guessing the swing bridges are a non-starter for a race route, but surely a route past Bank Quay Station, over Bridge Foot, up Wilderspool Causeway, going out up Loushers Lane towards the Cantilever Bridge could work?
Then come back over the bridge and either go back towards the park the same way we left it today, or else turn right and go left under the bridge to head through Latchford Village towards the park entrance.
Seriously, fella, track finish all day long *taps nose* Date of review: September 8, 2013
In short: Huge potential, but some niggles to iron out In full: I competed and completed, but everything went to pot for me after the big hill. Well done to all those that took part.
It's a promising event, but there's plenty of little bits and pieces for them to work on.
Things to look at:
Confusing situation with parking. We and others wrongly parked on the high street at first because it looked like what the marshal was indicating. Definitely needed a sign at the end of the street ushering drivers further on.
Definitely needs more toilets, which in fairness the guy manning the tannoy acknowledged. Big, big queues from half an hour before the start.
Could've used more marshals on the route. I saw at least one tired runner turn left when we were supposed to continue on. Needed someone before the second last corner on the high street too, as at first glance there was a left turn I wasn't sure we should be taking.
One of the mile markers (maybe 10 miles?) was flat on its back. It was admittedly wind at time, but particularly for those not on a GPS watch, these things need to be up and visible.
It was advertised that there would be bins after each water station, and that those littering would be DQd. There wasn't one after the first station, the bin after the second station (which had bottles) was far, far too close to the station, meaning you either had to glug quick and dump it or hang on to it for miles, and at the third station someone was walking around with a bin bag with his back to the runners on the road.
At the finish, it was great to see barrels of water and bananas. The orange segments needed to have a lid on them though - there were flies swarming all over them.
Most critical though, unless I missed it (and apologies if I did) - where was a graph of the elevation of the route? Some of those climbs were massively, massively unwelcome surprises, particularly the one around 8ish miles.
Also, if I'm really honest, it would have been nice to run a little more on the castle grounds.
Lots to be positive about though - really nice route, slick registration, plenty of parking once we arrived at the right bit, and a good finish, with a tight turn followed by a perfect length run in for a final kick. Good quality medal too.
Very nice price too. Chip timing too, which is always a bonus at the cheaper end of racing like this.
A quick nod to the announcer as well - always great to have your name called as you're running in. It's an obvious thing, but beginners really, really buzz of it.
Sort some of the niggly bits out next time, and this one can be a real gem. A very promising first outing, and I really hope it returns next year. Date of review: August 18, 2013
In short: Great organisation and a joy to run In full: My first 10-miler, and a real joy. Lovely freebies, impeccable organisation, marshals friendly and encouraging throughout. Some lovely scenery to enjoy too, particularly around the middle 3 miles. Open roads for long stretches of the race, but at no point did I feel unsafe. Marshals where you need them, and lots of them - and many friendly spectators too - throughout the race. Police presence too at the loop crossing, which was very reassuring. Very fast last couple of km as well - fast downhill stretch followed by a long run-in that you can see from a while away. Even though I was suffering towards the end, it was my fastest mile of the race by some distance. Very beginner-friendly too - I'm 10 min mile pace right now, and there's plenty of company to be had in that sort of territory. Well done Biggleswade AC, and happy 30th! Date of review: April 7, 2013