Guess who’s back in the running game??
Shortly after running my second ever best half marathon time in Oxford last October, I developed patellofemoral syndrome in my left knee (most likely, due to overuse) which pretty much ruled out running properly for about two months. One morning I just woke up with a loud cracking noise in my left knee and pain under the knee cap which kicked in whenever I went down the steps, lowered myself down to sit onto the loo, or squatted in a certain angle during exercising. The physiotherapist I saw could not detect any obvious or serious issues after poking and prodding me multiple times, which was a promising sign that I was not a lost cause. So I signed up for the Hampton Court Half Marathon in the spirit of ‘positive thinking’. (More like a moment of madness, really, two other half marathon registrations later).
Preparing for the Hampton Court Half Marathon
Unfortunately, taking a break from running was the only thing that seemed to settle down my symptoms. However, thankfully, training in the gym was fine, as long as I did not go berserk with high impact moves. I was eventually able to re-join my Saturday running group as well late-December, and gradually got myself back into running over a period of two months. This meant that I was not able to train at a level I wanted to for my first race of the year. However, I was optimistic that by continuing with my gym training, keeping my running volume under control, paying particular attention to my form and diligently doing my glute strengthening routine, I still stood a good chance of being able to run the race in a decent time. And so I did!
One Palace, Two Races
The first thing I want to point out is that there are actually two half marathons you can sign up for in the Hampton Court area. The one that I did is branded as the ‘original’ Hampton Court Half Marathon and does not have ‘palace’ in the name. This race does not go inside the grounds of the palace itself, only goes past it, but you can still get a good view. It covers scenic areas in Thames Ditton and Kingston in Surrey. You can get a high five from ‘King Henry VIII’ himself, as you run past his palace; or even sit on his lap at the race village, if you are particularly fond of big and cuddly monarchs.
The other local race is being advertised as the ‘official’ Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon and takes place a month later, in March. As the name implies, this one finishes within the royal grounds. Having taken a look at the two race routes, they appear to be quite similar and equally spectacular; obviously, in this review I am only able to comment on the ‘original’ version. A friend of mine is doing the ‘official’ version next month, so it will be interesting to hear his thoughts.
My experience running the Hampton Court Half Marathon
I received the race number and information pack a couple of weeks before the race so I had more than enough time to plan my journey and prepare myself mentally. I decided not to use the race car park, as there were plenty of other free or cheap car parking opportunities nearby (at a £2/day Sunday rate). There were also ample opportunities for on-street parking in the residential areas.
Fuelled up with some porridge and banana for breakfast, I headed off to the race before sunrise, as I was keen to find a spot in one of the nearest, free car parks. The stake was either a 5 minute walk or a half an hour trek to the race village on Giggs Hill Green! It is a good job I got there quite early, as my preferred car park was almost full by 7.05am, which was still about 1.5 hours before the start. The early bird catches the worm, as the saying goes!
Shortly after my arrival, Giggs Hill Green started to fill up quite quickly, with roughly 4,000 runners taking part in the race, from lots of different countries such as Poland, USA, and Germany. (And Hungary, if I wanted to count myself as a foreigner.) Whilst waiting for the start, I paid a visit to ‘King Henry VIII’s’ tent to get a photo with his ‘court’; checked out the snack stands and tuck shop, and consumed a Primal Pantry snack bar before I started my gentle warmup.
I quite liked the staggered start where we were released in batches, based on our predicted finish times. I queued up behind the 2 hour pacers from Xempo, as I could not realistically hope for a very fast time with so little training and an unreliable knee. I was wearing my new Asics windproof jacket (keep an eye out for my review later!) and a short sleeved top underneath – which I came to regret later on as the temperatures rose to about 10 degrees and I found myself feeling quite hot only after a few km’s. I think only ‘King Henry VIII’ must have felt hotter than I did, under his furry coat!
The 2 hour pace felt very comfortable, in fact a bit too comfortable – so I broke away from the pacers about mid-race to see how I could fare on my own. It turned out to be a very wise move as the pacers arrived in the finish line a couple of minutes after 2 hours (!), so I would have missed my time goal had I stuck with them. I managed to finish about 20 seconds before the 2 hour mark. (Maybe I should become a Xempo pacer myself?) I feel very encouraged knowing that even with such a poor knee and so little training, my body is capable of doing a half marathon, and in a decent time for that matter.
The views are pretty impressive alongside the river and near the palace. You can peek through the gates into the deer park and get a glimpse of the building, too. As I mentioned earlier, even ‘King Henry VIII’ turned up for this special occasion to cheer us on as we ran past his residence. I did make sure to give him a high five.
About half of the course is ran on streets and residential areas – not very exciting, but it was a good opportunity to see more of the area followed by a few sighs of ‘I wish I could afford living here!’. In some places, it did not feel like we were running in London at all, it was almost like being in the countryside. There was a real build up getting nearer the palace, and passing it was a definite highlight – also knowing that we were on the home stretch with only a third of the distance left.
The crowd support was fantastic and the marshalling very efficient. The majority of the streets and roads were not closed to the traffic, so things felt a bit crowded at certain places. However, fortunately, I did not feel restricted and was able to run at a pace I wanted to without having to stop for cars or stepping on the toes of other runners. The drinks stations every couple of km’s were also handy, with public toilets by the riverside, too, for those who needed it.
My knee and ITB were fine all along, except when my left ITB was starting to feel a bit tight around mid-point, but only for a few km’s. I took some water from the stations and consumed/smeared on my face a High 5 caffeine energy gel at around 15km, which kicked in just at the right time. I finished the race feeling very strong, and even managed a sprint finish when I realised looking at my Garmin watch that I had less time to cross the line than I had thought! I felt on a real runners high when I finally burst through the finish line.
All finishers were rewarded with a banana, a bottle of water, a cute raspberry pink technical T-shirt and matching purple medal, and a generous goodie-bag.
Overall verdict of the Hampton Court Half Marathon
I can definitely recommend this half marathon for PB-hunters. It is pancake flat and the terrain is very smooth – the majority of the time you will be running on pavements or on softer (but not too muddy) surfaces by the riverside. It is also an ideal first half marathon without the added challenge of hills and plenty of pacers to glue yourself onto if you are after a particular time. If you are training for the London Marathon or any other spring marathons, you can use this race as a tune-up event. The race starts at 8.30am which is perfect for larks who want to get the race done before lunchtime and spend the rest of the day with their families – potentially exploring Hampton Court palace/Bushy Park/Kew.
Finally, all I can say is that I am so glad I chose the Hampton Court Half Marathon as my first race for the year! It has certainly been a real confidence builder in my abilities to run longer distances again; perfect in terms of timing and location; with some pretty cool royalty in attendance; so a great experience overall. I am definitely doing it again next year!
What races or other challenges have you got coming up? Let me know in the comments!
Photo credits: all photos except the final one are from the Hampton Court Half Marathon organisers’ Twitter and Facebook page.