Race report: A taste of the top 5 autumn half marathons

Runners tackle one of the many hills at the inaugural Kielder Marathon

Event: Windsor Half Marathon

Date: Sunday 27th September 2015

Words: Penny Comins

The course is two concentric loops of the centre of the park – the first five-mile loop being contained within the second seven mile one. The Long Walk provided the spectacular start and finish point, although the brightly coloured bunched ribbon of runners who haired away down the mile long avenue at the start was a more impressive sight than the heat ravaged rag-tag procession who struggled back along the same stretch some 13 miles later!

Lush greenery was on display all round the course, and those who weren’t clockwatching were able to enjoy views of Windsor Castle, Virginia Water Lake and deer grazing at the edge of the forest. The heat of the afternoon put pressure on the aid stations but ample first aid and volunteer staff rose to the occasion impressively.

The final section of any long race is often daunting but the arrow straight 13th-and-a-bit mile might have been too much for some had it not been lined all the way with noisy spectators three deep cheering their loved ones to the finish line.

Event: Ealing Half Marathon

Date: Sunday 27th September 2015

Words: Rhalou Allerhand

Despite being packed with runners and supporters, Lammas Park had a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere and even in the minutes leading up to the start it felt reassuringly laidback. After about a mile the route bottlenecked through a narrow gate, forcing many of us to pause for a moment which was frustrating. But as the miles unfolded, the leafy residential streets filled with smiling families lifted my mood. The community was out in full force, with excited children dishing out jelly babies lining almost the entire course. By mile 10 I spotted quite a few casualties wilting in the heat, but the emergency services were quick to respond. The volunteers were exceptionally organised and the frequent water stations were well manned.

The route doubles back on itself several times, so you get to see the determined club runners up ahead on more than one occasion, which can be a blessing or a curse. If you use this opportunity to cheer runners on instead of glare with envy, it sweetens the pill. It’s also worth mentioning the undulations. Although the hills weren't huge, the long slow inclines were hard work. If you’re thinking of entering this race, get some hill training in.

The final mile, flanked by fervent supporters, snaked around the race village on a fairly narrow path, which added to the excitement. At the finish line the cheering crowds were three-deep and the sunny park had come alive with excited spectators and weary but happy finishers. I couldn’t fault the race organisation and despite failing to beat my PB, I really enjoyed the day. It was just a shame that the finisher’s medal depicted three male runners, when at least half of the running field taking on Ealing Half Marathon were definitely women.

Event: Basingstoke Half Marathon

Date: Sunday 4th October 2015

Words: Kerry McCarthy

Basingstoke town centre itself is nothing to write home about, but the race team had pulled off a masterstroke by starting in the town and immediately taking proceedings into nearby rural villages where, frankly, the surrounding countryside was everything John Constable could have hoped for.

The route was a rough figure of eight to the south of Basingstoke and took runners through a succession of quaint villages - Cliddesden, Ellisfield, Farleigh Wallop and Broadmere – where the locals were out in force, having decorated their houses with bunting for the occasion. Fathers carried children on their shoulders and whooped, grandparents sat in chairs and clapped, while many others banged saucepans, blew into vuvuzelas and put out their hands for a high five as we went past. The pubs had opened early too, which definitely contributed to the roistering roadside vibe. On sections where the road narrowed and you were close enough to be slapped on the back, it felt a little like what Tour de France cyclists must experience when making their way through the crowds up a narrow mountain pass.

Inbetween villages there were equally enjoyable periods of calm, where all you had to do was get your head up and marvel at the rustic beauty on either side. Thatched cottages, vast fields stacked with hay bales, rolling hillsides and roadside verges blooming with late-season flowers that looked amazing, even if I hadn’t a clue what they were called.

The tranquillity was broken only by the surprising number of climbs. There were numerous sneaky inclines that you only realised you were tackling when you suddenly wondered why someone had attached invisible weights to your legs, as well as three main hills – at mile three, mile six, and the biggest around the nine-mile mark, known ‘affectionately’ as The Big Dipper (actual name: Bedlam Bottom). It was a two-hump corker. If you thought the ascents were hard, the descents were every bit as bad – so steep that it made no difference whether you leaned back and put the brakes on or let gravity have its way – your quads and knees still got a thorough spanking either way. From there, though, it was four miles of mildly downhill country road to the finish on the grass at the War Memorial Park.


Event: Lloyds Bank Cardiff Half Marathon

Date: Sunday 4th October 2015

Words: Catherine Lee

Please note: This is a review of the 2011 Cardiff Half Marathon; course changes have since taken place and the race is now organised by Run 4 Wales.

Cardiff Bay’s Roald Dahl Plass – speared by an unmissable 70ft high water tower and flanked by the imposing glass edifice of the Welsh Millennium Centre – was already teeming with runners when I arrived an hour before the off. The familiar pong of portable loos and muscle rub hung heavily in the air, underpinning a palpable sense of excitement among the competitors. Clear skies and a crisp temperature pointed to ideal racing conditions but squeezing my way into the chattering throng – careful to avert my eyes as a couple of unabashed males made a last-minute pitstop in the roadside scrub – I was grateful for the warmth of the crowds.

In hindsight, it was a shame that we didn’t get closer to the iconic Millennium Stadium (we only caught a fleeting view of it in the distance), especially as, in previous years, the race has had a triumphant arena finish. But I was content enough to take a nostalgic trip beside the rows of period terraced houses at mile six along the River Taff embankment, spurred on by clusters of local residents, family groups and volunteers from race organisers Barnardo’s.

I still had more than a mile and a half left to run, but from the moment I turned my back on the water of Cardiff Bay, the crowds were as rowdy as ever. I synchronised my stride with the beat of the blaring music, my heart sinking just a little when, powering along Lloyd George Avenue (on what I believed to be the home straight) I realised I still needed to double-back on myself for several hundred metres to reach the finish.

Once over the line, things proved rather chaotic – better signage and funnelling would have made it easier for orientation amid the crowds, and those looking to return to the race village for massage or fuel were forced to negotiate the hordes now flooding toward the finish. Nevertheless, I was grateful to have a medal and a goody bag thrust into my hands and the commemorative towel made an unusual alternative to an oversized cotton T-shirt.

Given the combined potential of a beautiful city, pancake-flat location and the locals’ characteristic affability, Wales’ largest mass participation event could eventually be one of the best halves around.

Event: Active Northumberland Kielder Marathon

Date: Sunday 4th October 2015

Words: Justin Bowyer

The Kielder reservoir sits in the very heart of Northumberland, wild and remote, with a surface area of 11km2 and reportedly enough H2O to supply every person on the planet with seven gallons to guzzle. The waterside has densely forested areas scattered with everything from cunningly blended works of art to wild breeding osprey and 50 per cent of England’s red squirrel population – no wonder they decided to bill their marathon as ‘Britain’s Most Beautiful’. But be warned: the result is 95 per cent trail and 100 per cent hills.

This clockwise canter around Kielder was certainly determined to start as it meant to go on, punishing runners with over 45m of climb in the first half mile, before pitching us downwards in a manner all too likely to encourage ill-advised early swiftness. I reached the first of 10 water stations at mile three and found my tarsal tunnel syndrome had deteriorated from pins and needles running playfully up and down the sole of my foot, to full-blown numbness from the ankle down.

Aside from my tarsal region, something had been niggling from the very start of the race; something didn’t look quite right. Now I realised what it was. Everywhere – and I mean everywhere – there were garish green signs warning of the slightest bend, uneven surface and any incline above a three per cent gradient. Up until that point, I must have been mentally filtering them out, but it now struck me how inappropriate they all looked. It was like one of those quaint Cotswold villages blighted by overly complex traffic calming systems and caution signs. 

The greatest wonder of Kielder Water is its almost preternatural ability to shape-shift; one moment an inlet can look like a tranquil Swedish landing post, next a vista opens up and looks for all the world like some Canadian wilderness or New England boating lake. You almost come to expect a view involving Viggo Mortensen punting hobbits to some far-flung Orc-infested shore. It is a magic trick of the highest order that keeps both eye and mind occupied even during the darkest moments of a gruelling run.

However there is a downside to this optical multiplicity: approaching the mile 21 point I glanced across the water and immediately had two thoughts: firstly, “Ahh, look at those poor saps still over on the far shore,” then secondly, “I don’t remember slogging up a hill that steep!” With a sinking heart I realised that this was a deep-cut inlet and that beast of a slope was yet to come. Revving across another narrow bridge did nothing to maintain momentum once the incline kicked in; all about me runners were downgraded to walkers as the trail climbed more than 30m in substantially less than quarter of a mile; an utterly sapping slog this late in the race. But the course had not done with us yet: after a lively downhill we continued saw-toothing up and over further hills until, finally, thanks to echoing acoustics and continuing headwind, we heard the sound of the PA system at the finish line.

I hate to sound churlish but I always thinks it’s a nice touch when finishers are draped with their medal rather than having it handed to them still manufacturer-wrapped. Actually such minute criticism really proves that there was nothing more substantially wrong with the bigger picture in what had been an immaculately planned and executed race. There were clearly a few logistical problems with transport but otherwise this was a near-faultless event.

If our top five autumn race reports aren't enough to convice you to enter a half marathon, head over to our Events Section where you'll find plenty more races to choose from.