When: July 17
Where: Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire
First man: Anuradha Cooray, 1:07:20
First Woman: Jane Ovington, 1:22:15
Last Finisher: 3:29:19
No. of Finishers: 2,518
PB potential: 82%
Overall rating: 80%
On paper, this was never going to be pretty. Not only was it my first half marathon, but it was in Milton Keynes, a town described in Crap Towns: the 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK as a 'Legoland hell'. And, what's more, heavy rain was forecast.
I'm happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised on two of these three fronts. Not only was the course flat, green and - in the main - pretty congenial, taking in lakes, parks and the Grand Union Canal, but I also managed to complete it comfortably under my target time of two hours without recourse to the St John Ambulance brigade. It rained cats and dogs though.
What is it about Milton Keynes that people find so funny? The concrete cows? The roundabouts? The odd grid system laid down by town planners trying to create the American dream in Buckinghamshire? Now add the fact that a town built in the 1960s as a homage to motorised transport is home to one of the fastest growing and best organised half marathons in the UK.
The event is, like Milton Keynes itself, growing noticeably every year. At the inaugural run 13 years ago, only 300 people took on the elongated circuit to and from Bury Lawn School in the Stantonbury district. This year, there were over 2,500 starters, despite the weather conditions.
Flat and fast
The course itself - a long, thin loop bearing more than a passing resemblance to the island of Great Britain - had about as much elevation as a small sandbank in the Solent, which seemed to suit everybody very nicely.
Despite being classified on the official race website as 'trail', the route took place almost entirely atop Milton Keynes' 'Redways' - a 125-mile network of cycleways and footpaths criss-crossing the town's infamous grid-like veins, so-called because they're surfaced primarily with red Tarmac.
Unlike its general surroundings, the half marathon course is one thing that hasn't changed since 1998. And while that is in many ways admirable (as is the fact that it now raises more than £50k a year for the NSPCC) there is a sense that it has, at a few key points, outgrown the narrow Redways as much as Milton Keynes has outgrown lazy gags about concrete cattle.
For the first two miles, until the course took a sharp turn south-east, we were bottlenecked along the thin, tight path leading away from the start, hemmed in on either side and ironically - in a town where the car is king - unable to get out of first gear.
They used aerial views of Milton Keynes to depict an archetypal American city in Superman II, but for the first 10 minutes, it felt more like the opening sequence of the film where Terence Stamp's General Zod and his cohorts are trapped together in a tiny cubic prison, floating through space.
Like the villainous Zod, however, we soon escaped. And once past that initial flock of limbs, it was pretty much smooth running all the way home. The Redways led us past Milton Keynes' bird sanctuary at mile four, before the route opened out to take in the stunning Willen Lake. Next, it skirted the 'real' Milton Keynes. Once a self-contained Buckinghamshire village, just like Stantonbury, it has now been gobbled up by the bigger concrete fish.
Cheering crowds and jelly babies
At its best, the route ran over the wooden bridges and past the colourful barges of the picturesque Grand Union Canal; at its worst, along the edge of a dual carriageway. But throughout - and in spite of the changeable weather - it was lined by supportive onlookers, full of encouragement and bearing the occasional welcome pot of jelly babies.
At mile eight (think Land's End both on our rough map of Britain and in my flagging legs) a jazz band appeared as if by magic to lift our spirits (and knees) while the addition of a fiendish loop around the school at the end, with the finish line tantalisingly close, did little to dampen the mood.
What has made this half marathon increasingly popular over the years is the fact that, with a few undulating hiccups, it's primarily as straight and level as Milton Keynes' grid system itself: it's well organised, extremely well marshalled and easily accessed from pretty much anywhere in south-east and central England. Put simply, MK is ideal PB fodder.
The event actively encourages older runners too - with cash prizes offered in seven different age categories. These include oldest overall finisher, which this year was won by 76-year-old Mike Russell in 2:47:17 - a man who was comfortably into his 30s before Milton Keynes was even built.
Approaching the finish line on the Bury Lawn School sports field, we were spurred on by the race day commentator to sprint the last 100m down the school's grass race track. An odd experience in mid July, just a few days before the regular incumbents presumably contested the egg and spoon race in the same carefully marked lanes. But I was delighted to find a last spurt of pace to oblige when it was my turn.
As with any event, there were a few gripes among the runners afterwards. While the start and finish were extremely well organised and a lot of the facilities were excellent - including ample masseurs on hand both before and after the race - toilets were in extremely short supply, and the car parking was a 10-minute walk from the start.
There were also no goodie bags for finishers, but admittedly most seemed happy enough with the bottomless bottled water and banana supplies on the line, as well as the pleasingly chunky - but not concrete cow-, grid- or Superman-themed - medal. They're missing a trick there.
For those looking to make the step up from 10K, this event is perfect. The course is easy to handle and certainly served as an excellent introduction to the distance for me. There were four water stops and two live bands en route, as well as multiple cash prizes for the more ambitious racers.
In summary, you should leave any misconceptions behind at junction 14 of the M1: this increasingly celebrated old half in Britain's most famous new town is well worth checking out. After all, there are plenty of ways to interpret the phrase 'Legoland hell': the organisers have slowly built up something genuinely impressive here, brick by brick.
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