On Sunday 1 March thousands of runners took the the streets of London for the Vitality Big Half marathon, a race regarded as the warm up event for the London Marathon later that spring. Starting at Tower Bridge and finishing in the shadow of the Cutty Sark, Greenwich, the route encompasses many of the iconic highlights of the London Marathon, some of the drearier bits and throws in some curveballs largely in the form of the wonderfully humid and GPS sabotaging Limehouse Link Tunnel.
This was my second year taking on the 13.1mile route, in 2019 we were ‘treated’ to some interesting weather conditions (rain,wind,hail, runners clinging to another runner dressed as Big Ben to anchor the mock clock in the unrelenting gusts) but despite weeks of rain and cancelled races due to a series of winter storms the sun greeting us for the 2020 edition of the big half.
So here’s the lowdown on my local half marathon:
Arrive early. It’s a big race and there are a lot of people, I know that sounds obvious but until you arrive you can’t quite understand the true chaos of the start area. As this is a point to point race from tower bridge to Greenwich your bags are loaded onto lorries, these are parked on the south slip up to the bridge. Once everyone packs in the area it’s difficult to get through. Go to the toilet before you drop your bag, because it’s almost impossible to get back through the crowd.
We located our baggage trucks (carefully check the number on your race bib) and headed over the bridge to the start pens which are behind St Katherine Dock or around the Tower of London depending on your bib number. The atmosphere crossing the bridge is electric! Everyone was so excited to get started.
The pens are easy to locate and well signposted. As we hadn’t used the toilets on the south side of the bridge we queued in the pens which soon descended into chaos. As people packed into the pen the organised queue became lost in amongst the crowds. People were pushing everywhere, some facing forward others facing backwards some trying to cut through to find friends. I’ve been in plenty of start pens and this has to have been the most chaotic and unpleasant (have a check of my YouTube video below).
As the race started and runners began moving forward, we continued to queue. We missed our start and the start of the wave behind us, despite being in the pen 50 minutes early. Such a faff. But it was soon forgotten when we got to the start line, got our watches going and got down to business.
1:50 – 1:55 was the goal. This is where I wanted to be to feel on track with my half Ironman training, and lucky for me, my friend Rowena had kindly agreed to pace me. Miles shared with friends are definitely the best. As we had missed our original wave we began picking our way through the pack, the roads were extremely congested but the atmosphere was great. I do love the vibe of the Big Half, and the excitement of the first few miles of a half marathon before the tiredness kicks in. Soon the leading runners were flying past on the opposite side of the road and it was great cheering them and looking for familiar faces.
We soon reached Limehouse Link Tunnel, a welcomed break from the chilly weather. I do love the tunnel, I know many have mixed feelings, but it warms you up after waiting at the start for ages! At this point we had managed to slot in behind some other runners going a similar pace to us and we tagged on and used the slope down into the tunnel to relax into our pace. The route was still congested and my Running watch was having some sort of GPS meltdown, but we were having a blast. When we emerged we had been transported to Canary Wharf and were almost at the 5k point.
We took our first drinks and headed into the concrete jungle of Canary Wharf. My GPS never caught up, whilst Rowena’s had gained distance so we decided to ditch the tech and go old school with the course markers. Cue a lot of fast maths and counting on fingers. The Canary Wharf section is a blast, there’s loads of crowd support and noise. The course loops back and it feels like there are runners everywhere.
As you head out of Canary Wharf and begin making your way back to the start there are some notorious cobbled streets. In 2019 when it was wet these got quite slippery. This is a section not on the marathon route but instead it’s backstreets woven into the adapted route.
Soon you’re heading back towards the start and closing in on Tower Bridge. The crowds begin to thicken, the noise gets louder, then you round the corner and there’s the bridge! Running across it is just fantastic. Forget the side winds (it’s breezy on the calmest of days) and the enjoy the moment. It’s magical! And an obvious highlight of the race.
As you leave the bridge behind the hard work really does begin. You begin to hit streets which all merge into one, the fatigue starts to kick in. I was really starting to miss my running watch, I couldn’t work out my pace or how far I had to go. Thank goodness for Rowena and her random stories about her adventures in London (and her sort of working running watch!) The course still felt very congested. It was so hard to hold a consistent pace and even ten miles in we were still extensively weaving amongst runners. Miles 11-12 felt like such a slog, the course gets a little distorting at this point and you feel as if you’re doing a lap of decathlon.
Photo Credit: Sportograf
Once we begin closing in on Greenwich we were on my old training route when I ran the marathon (and back on the marathon route). We kept slogging on. My legs at this point felt exhausted- I was running this I’m tired legs at the end of a big training week. When we reached Deptford Creek we began taking the pace up a notch, culminating in a sprint finish to the roar of the densely packed crowds. what a finish!!! We had done it! 1:52:34 exactly what we set out to do! Team work makes the dream work.
The most wonderful volunteers were handing medals out and everyone was in great spirits. The finish line was absolutely buzzing. It really is a great finish.
Once the excitement died down the chaos began once again. We were met with more queues, this time to cross the road into the finishers area. We were tired, damp and cold, I was desperate for my warm coat and recovery drink. Tightly packed in with other exhausted runners we waited and waited (see the video below!) eventually making it across the road and getting our finishers T-shirts. Then there was more queuing for bags and some confusion around a missing baggage lorry. Over an hour later we finally exited the finishers area, got some warm clothes on and celebrated a great day of running.
The Big Half is an excellent and iconic race. The discounted entry for local community groups and residents make it possibly one of the most accessible big races in terms of entry fee. The route has some iconic highlights, the atmosphere is great and the volunteers are amongst some of the best at any race I’ve experienced (they coped so well with the large volumes of people). But the large numbers of runners create bottlenecks, chaos and large queues- in essence the event struggles with being too successful and that is its downfall! Be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting around, go to the loo before you drop your bags, bring something warm for the start, be mindful of other runners on the course and if you’re lucky enough to have family come watch you see if they can bring a layer to the finish for before you are reunited with your bag. Stretch before you get into the queue to get to the finishers area and just take it all in your stride.
The Video Highlights
Tune in for the highlights, including the queues, Tower Bridge and the post race high