I chose the Wings for Life World Run in Cambridge as my 4th race this year, continuing my challenge to complete 12 half marathons in 12 months. I first found out about this race last year in the Runners World magazine, and was eagerly awaiting the registration opening for 2017.
What is different about this race
This world-wide race is slightly unorthodox in a sense that there is no static finish line and no set distance! Whaat?! The fun begins when runners start at the very same time in all the participating countries (whether it is day or night, spring or autumn), and then thirty minutes later a so-called Catcher Car starts to chase everyone. Slowly, but surely they will pass all runners and eliminate them from the race – so basically, the Catcher Cars are the finish line! This means that everyone finishes at a different time; the last female and male runner caught by the Catcher Cars are crowned as the Wings for Life World Run champions. World class marathoners and ultra runners are usually able to run close to 100kms; if you choose to run at a more leisurely pace, the Catcher Car chases you down at around 10km. I really liked this ‘cat and mouse’ game aspect; knowing that I am being chased, I would push myself harder than in any other long distance races I have done recently. My dream goal was to be able to run a half marathon, but at least running 20kms before being eliminated. I knew the half marathon distance would be a stretch, given my current levels of fitness and preparedness, but I wasn’t planning to go easy on myself!
This race is also a fantastic opportunity to raise funds for a great cause – Wings for Life, supported by Red Bull, is committed to finding a cure for spinal cord injury, funding over 140 research projects across the globe. 100% of the entry fees are donated towards this cause, with the option to make additional donations when you sign up for the event, or doing your own fundraising initiative.
Toeing up to the start line
There was an exciting period of build-up on the Wings for Life social media channels until race day. I thought that receiving the competitor information pack accompanied by a can of Red Bull in the post was a really nice touch, too.
Quick pre-run selfie with David Coulthard, Formula 1 racing legend
The race started at midday UK time, which meant that I did not have to get up massively early, despite living about 1.5 hours drive from Cambridge. On the other hand though, I would have preferred an earlier start so that I would not need to sacrifice a whole day for the event and worry about getting my pre-race fuelling strategy right so close to lunch time. (Thank God for bananas and Bounce Energy Balls!) The race HQ was at Parkers’ Corner which is a large green space in the centre of the city. I chose to park at Queen Anne Terrace Car Park as it was directly opposite the race HQ. There was already a long queue to get into the car park, despite being there more than 2 hours before the start. There were still plenty of spaces left closer to the start time, though – probably down to the fact that spaces there come at a premium price, costing me just over £7 for about 6 hours (but still a lot cheaper than travelling by train). The registration was fairly quick and smooth, due to arriving as an early bird. However, I needed to factor in about half an hour for the loos, as the queues were horrendous. I am so glad I made the wise decision not to leave my stuff in the designated drop off area, but in my car boot instead, as the queues in the baggage area after the race were even worse.
The race HQ was surprisingly low-key, with only a few functional tents and areas – no music, no tuck shops or entertainment to kill the time before the start at midday. Fortunately, I had my mobile phone and my Runners World magazine to keep myself occupied. On the plus side, the atmosphere was really friendly – I found myself chatting to a couple of people whilst queuing and waiting for the start in the pen. It was a good way to distract myself and calm my nerves slightly.
Confetti shower, pink unicorns, and lots of not-so-red bulls
At 12pm on the dot, we finally set off, with confetti raining down on us like in a carnival, and Formula 1 racer David Coulthard high five-ing us upon crossing the arch at the start line. He was going to drive one of the Catcher Cars – I can’t deny, the thought of being chased by such a driving legend made me feel even more excited!
The start – let the fun begin! Globally, 155,000 runners participated from 58 different countries in 2017. People could also join in from home, by downloading the mobile phone application.
As expected, the first km through the city centre felt a bit crowded (and I was surprised that the wheelchair racers were not given a separate lane which I thought was an open invitation for an accident to happen) so I had to put my breaks on whilst dodging others. However, the cheering from the spectators and the adrenaline rush compensated for that; I managed to make up for the lost time in the second km, despite the fact that it included a killer hill as we left the city behind, heading out into the beautiful countryside. From then onwards, I knew that in order to achieve my time goal, I needed to be very spot on with my pacing – according to the pace calculator on the race website (quite hidden at the bottom), I needed to run 5:17 minute km’s, which was a stretch. I felt energetic though, and armed with my bottle of raspberry Lucozade and matching banana-strawberry flavoured energy gels I felt confident that I would at least be able to come very close to running a half marathon.
In many ways, the historic parts of Cambridge reminded me of Oxford, together with the countryside scenery with the spectacular yellow flower fields and the quaint little villages. Apart from that hill in the second km, there were no more hills, just pancake flat tarmac and road with the odd bendy roundabout thrown into the mix! My legs started to feel heavy and my pace started to slow when we reached an air base which was inhabited by a group of casually grazing cows and bulls. (At that point, someone running next to me made a joke that they were Red Bull representatives wearing brown camouflage). I was able to keep up with my target pace for about 15kms, after which I was fighting for my revised goal to reach 20kms. Fortunately, the weather was co-operating with my plans – it was cloudy with sunny spells and the occasional breeze to bring us some relief. (I think I’ve spent too much time living in England, as I’m ranting so much about the weather!) Just as I was starting to really flag, I was passed by a guy dressed as a pink unicorn yelling at me ‘it’s the final stretch!’ which was so out of the blue that made me chuckle and put some spring into my tired feet.
Me at the 7km mark – still running strong!
When David caught me
When I saw the road signs for the next village called ‘Over’, I knew that the race was going to be ‘over’ for me shortly. Looks like the race organisers had a good sense of humour when they planned the route!
I was quite right – upon passing the 19km marker and a race bus stop, I could hear a motorcade and cyclists approaching to warn us about the Catcher Car being quite close. It was funny how everyone including myself somehow managed to find a few more drops of energy left in their tank for a final sprint. Someone yelled that the 20km marker was just a few hundred metres ahead of us, round the bend, so that was my sole focus for the next few minutes. I was caught by the catcher car just after the 20km sign, which, despite being an anti-climax, turned into an uplifting moment: David Coulthard said ‘well done!’ from behind the wheel, a guy from the loudspeaker told me what a legend I was to be able to run that far, and a group of villagers clapped for me, making me feel like a hero. Even though I was disappointed that I was caught just 1 km before reaching half marathon distance, I quickly realised that I had run my fastest (nearly) half marathon for 7 months which was a bit of consolation. Always look on the bright side, right?!
The 2017 UK winners – completing 55.14 and 68.8kms respectively. The global winner this year completed 92.14km’s!
I jogged back to the nearest bus stop to get that final 1 km in – at the end of the day, I came to run a half marathon, and was not going to call it a day yet!
The final hurdle came when the bus which was taking us eliminated runners back into the race HQ got side tracked twice by closed roads, resulting in the journey taking at least twice as long as it should have. Clearly, there was a breakdown in the communication between the bus driver and the race organisers about these closures. Fortunately, I was sitting next to a lovely lady and a couple of guys who were up for a bit of banter, making the extended journey less frustrating.
Upon getting off the bus, I collected my goodie bag which was stuffed with a can of Red Bull, a Meridian peanut butter energy bar (yumm), a handy little running bottle, water, a medal and a fluorescent yellow T-shirt by Puma. (I found it to be a perfect fit, however, I heard many people complain that the sizing was on the tiny side). There was also some beer, however, I decided not to take it ahead of the long drive back home, as I was not sure how my starving and tired body would react to alcohol LOL.
On the whole, the race itself was really fun with about 3,000 runners participating in the UK. I can totally recommend it if you are looking to up your long distance game, run a fast race or looking for something different from a traditional race. The Catcher Cars are a great incentive to push yourself harder than you normally would – I for one have run my best times when there was a pacer to keep me on track. On the logistical side of things, we could have done with more portaloos, a bigger baggage drop area and less hassle getting back to the HQ after being eliminated. However, the positives outweighed the negatives for me, so I decided to pre-register for next year’s event as well. In the meantime, here’s to hoping that the race organisers will take this constructive feedback into account to make the event even better next time.
Do you think I should count this race as one of my 12 half marathons, despite being formally eliminated at 20.1km, but making up for the remaining distance on my own accord?
Redbull and Wings for Life websites