Hampton Court Half – Race Report

On St. Patrick’s Day, I ran the Hampton Court Half Marathon. High Power Running Mentor #1 (HPRM#1) talked me into this race several months ago. I was trying to plan my racing schedule a bit more sensibly this time around, with races building to my goal race, the Boston marathon. HPRM#1 kept saying that doing a prep race 4-6 weeks out from the marathon was important and it’s true that lots of runners I admire seem to do this. The Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon looked amazing. Hampton Court is a Tudor palace from the days of Henry the 8th. The race has a Henry theme – he appears on the medal and the t-shirt – and you run through the palace grounds. Spectacular!

The Hampton Court Half was also not at all next to the university where I was staying for work. A friend from the Running for Real Facebook group tipped me off that I would not be able to get from the university to Hampton Court on race morning on time for the start. She also came through with a suggestion of an inexpensive hotel in the vicinity of the palace. I could shift hotels on Saturday and sleep near the race. Brilliant. The Incredible Mervus was on board with my spending two extra days in London, simply because he’s amazing.

The real reason for the trip was a workshop on parties of the mainstream right in Europe so I spent a lot of time doing the typical academic thing – listening to people present their research, giving comments, presenting my own work. It was a very good workshop, if a little stressful. This is a new project for me and new colleagues so I didn’t know what to expect. I also ran 38 miles in London in the days leading up to the race. I felt like I was constantly changing between professor-mode and runner-mode and I didn’t do much in London other than work and run. The weather wasn’t great. We had very high winds all week and a lot of rain so I was trying to time my runs between workshop meetings and gusty downpours.

I travel for work alone pretty often. I run alone in places I am not familiar with when I travel. It’s a great way to explore a new city. Maybe this all looks easy from the outside, but it isn’t always easy. It takes a lot of planning and a little bit of bravery, especially if I am training for something and not just running casually. I brought my running headlamp on this business trip because I knew time would be tight and I did end up running once after dark. I brought everything I would need for the race, including fuel, my fuel belt, and a range of running clothes because the weather was looking so unpredictable. Actually, I ended up tossing stuff in the suitcase at the end and brought no fewer than four different fuel belts to London. Better safe than sorry!

The day before the race, I went to the Tower of London, which was amazing. But also – the wind was often 30mph or stronger and it was sometimes raining. In the late afternoon, I took three different trains to get out to Hampton Court. I found a great pub for dinner and took myself out. Some of this trip was delightful and some of it was hard and lots of it was draining. The night before the race, I started to wonder what the hell I was doing. Why was I out in the suburbs of London, at the equivalent of a Holiday Inn, when I could have been home? This is the moment when I nearly lost my nerve.

I touched base with both Coach Mick and HPRM#1 the night before the race. Thank goodness for the internet. One of the things Coach Mick and I talked about was whether a PR was possible at this race and whether I should try for one. He said he thought it was possible, but that it would be very hard. And that I had to believe it was possible, deep in my heart. HPRM#1 used essentially the same words – a good race plan is one I believe in, deep in my heart. When I signed up for this race, I had thought to PR. It’s a flat course and I decided to race at the end of the week in London so I would be largely over jetlag. Now, the reality of travel fatigue was setting in – something I had always been worried about with the prospect of racing while abroad. Could I get my head around running a 1:45 half? I wasn’t sure. After talking to Coach Mick, I was starting to believe it was at least possible. We agreed that the best thing was to run fearless, no deal, no regrets. He gave me a race plan for 1:47, but whatever happened in terms of time, run with with no deal, no regrets.

Race day dawned sunny. Thank goodness. We had had so much rain and clouds and crazy crazy wind. I had to make oatmeal with a weird hotel hot water boiler, I had to go fetch coffee because breakfast was not open yet, etc. All the usual pre-race preparations are trickier on the road and especially tricky in a foreign country. Breakfast was 2 packets of instant oatmeal plus a banana plus 3 shots of espresso. I left the hotel around 7:15 and using Uber, arrived at the race at 7:30. Hampton Court is STUNNING! Really just so beautiful and the grounds were full of flowers. But it was really cold.

I walked through the grounds and got my bib, but now my early arrival strategy was showing its weakness. I had over an hour to wait, no shelter and it was so cold I was almost shaking. I looked around a bit and found a sunny wall with a corner and hunkered down. A few other runners, more serious looking types, showed up and did the same. With about 30 minutes to spare, I went and checked my bag, debating about whether to keep my jacket and finally kept it. It was just so, so cold.

Finally it was time to get ready so I did my warm up and jogged over to the starting line. Wave 1 was lined up already and I was wave 2. In the corral with 90 seconds to spare, I decided to take the jacket off and tie it around my waist. It was maybe 35 degrees (though Garmin Connect says 43?) and semi-sunny but windy – on average 10-15mph but gusts were much stronger. Off we went!

In talking to Coach Mick and HPRM#1 the night before the race, I started to understand that a prep half might have reasons other than a PR attempt. I would have loved to PR at Hampton Court, but mentally, I wasn’t really there. That’s actually ok – it doesn’t have to be a choice between a 13.1 mile tour of the castle grounds, stopping for pictures, and a furious PR attempt that’s a failure if it doesn’t happen. Instead this race became partly about practice and partly about testing the waters in terms of fitness. I don’t think I knew that before the race – that’s one reason I write these reports.

What did I get out of this race other than a cool t-shirt, a medal, and the chance to run by a palace? I got to pin a bib on. I got to practice remembering to take everything with me on the road. I organized race day breakfast in a hotel. I figured out transport to the race and back. In just a few days, I will do all of this again in Boston and it will be SO much easier than doing it in London! I didn’t get a PR, as is probably obvious by now to astute readers, but that’s ok. Both Coach Mick and HPRM#1 helped me understand that these are legitimate reasons to race. Which seems obvious now, but did not seem at all obvious the night before.

From a racing perspective, I wanted to execute Coach Mick’s 1:47 plan and see how it felt. I had run 1:54 at the Colchester half so 1:47 was a chunk faster. At Colchester, I was aiming for 8:30s, more or less, given the hills. That felt daunting beforehand, but I did it and it was mostly easy. Here, I was aiming for more like 8:10-8:20 on a flat course. Starting a race is like dipping your foot in an unknown lake. How cold is it going to be? How is faster running going to feel? I was wearing my Vapor Flys and those shoes are amazing. Already during the warm up, they felt fun and bouncy. During the first mile or two of the race, I felt great. It was very crowded so I didn’t have a lot of choice in terms of pace, but I felt fine. Coach Mick had said to run the first 5K at 8:20, then run 10K at 8:10, then give it what I had. The first mile of 8:17 was just a few seconds quicker than planned but felt great. I could tell within the first couple of miles that physically, at least, I was really fine. Better than fine. I was running in the low 8s and felt really good – easy and relaxed.

The first part of the race was along the Thames and it was so gorgeous. People were out in rowing boats. Swans. Flowers. The whole English countryside thing. I focused on how pretty it all was. Still – some dark stuff crept into my brain early on. I was worried about how much energy I might have burned up shivering. Also – was I going too fast? Too slow? But mostly I was right on track. I did a good job this time pushing the negative stuff away.

1 8:17
2 8:11
3 8:12

We ran along the river and then took a sharp right and over a bridge into town. For a bit, it was fun, running past stores and cafes. Then we turned again and the wind arrived. Whoosh – NOT a small wind. I wondered how much it would slow me down. But then I remembered Coach Mick saying last night: “No one can expect you to have fun running in the wind.” I don’t know what he was on about with that comment – I strongly suspect he was trying to get me to say I could run in the wind anyway and even though I definitely think he was reverse psychologizing me, it also worked. I thought, well, phooey on you Coach Mick! (Maybe somewhat harsher language…) I am going to have fun running in the wind! I do not like wind, but now I pretended I was a kite. I pretended I was a blade, slicing through the wind. I worked on practicing my form and thought about my idea that wind makes this easier to do. I did slow down a little bit but I didn’t let the wind get in my head and make me upset.

4 8:04
5 8:11
6 8:12
7 8:13

Much of this part of the course was less pretty. We were running through town but mostly past boring shops or even gas stations. I was also paying less attention because I was focused on maintaining pace. Finally we came to a turn and crossed over another bridge and turned back. This was less windy, at least, but more gas stations, etc. I smiled a little thinking how they don’t advertise that bit on the course description. I thought about small towns facing the challenge of finding a place to put 13.1 miles of race course and mostly had sympathy for the race organizers. The half marathon is the most popular distance after the 5K but sometimes they are just hard to squeeze in. Middletown’s half has been switched to a 10 miler, partly for this reason.

For this part of the course we were on a sidewalk and a lot of it was pretty narrow. I again found myself having to focus on pace because it was easy to zone out and just run what the crowd was running. We seemed to have a cross wind some of the time. I felt good though – At mile 7 I found myself thinking – oh, we are more than halfway through this race already! I had better remember some of this because I love this so much – I want to capture it in my mind. Whenever my thoughts started getting darker, I found some flowers to look at. It feels like it’s been a long winter and spring is just a miracle.

A lot of this was like driving a car and just looking for cruise control. If I lost focus, I might slow down or speed up so I tried to hang right at 8:10 pace or at what seemed like 8:10 effort. I had jumped to 8:10 a little early, but I was feeling good. Often a half marathon starts to hurt a lot at mile 9. When I ran my PR with the Retiree last summer, I felt pretty bad already at the 5k mark, but here at mile 8 I thought, well, everything seems quite fine. Let’s make this hurt a little more. I thought of HPRM#1 and getting what I came for and Coach Mick’s advice to run without regrets and I picked up the pace.

8 8:03
9 8:09
10 8:06

Miles 8, 9 and 10 were some of my fastest miles of the race. We went past the palace area again and past a choir singing on the sidelines. I was still feeling quite good, working for sure, but not popping-out-my-eyeballs working. I was waiting for it to start hurting really badly but that hadn’t started yet.

Then we started some kind of out-and-back but I hadn’t looked closely enough at the course to know when the turnaround was. We left the gravel path that was along the river and headed to the left. The surface changed and was somewhat more uneven as we headed into what looked like farmland. Time to work – no point in saving anything with just three miles left to go – but the “road” surface was getting hard to deal with.

Finally around mile 11 we turned and headed back toward the palace. I glanced at my watch and it said 1:32:xx. Great – 18 minutes to run 2 miles – I would be under 1:50, which I really wanted. I started to get hit with something – my brain couldn’t process what was happening at first and then I realized it was hailing! Ha! It really was cold. The hail looked like flower petals, it was so big, but of course, it felt like rocks. Luckily that was short-lived. But when we turned, the surface changed again.

Now we were running back toward the palace through farmland on what might generously be called a “path” though surely not a “road”. I would call it a cart track, two parallel muddy ruts where the wheels of the cart go. A strip of matted down slick grass in between. Yikes. The cart tracks themselves were muddy and full of puddles. The grass in the middle was so slick that I thought I would fall if I ran there. The area to the side of the tracks was too narrow to run on and uneven. I was wearing my Vapor Flys when clearly cross country spikes would have been the much better choice.

I knew this was going to slow me down and there didn’t seem to be much I could do about it. Just when I was supposed to kick it into gear! I know the surfaces of the cart track so well because I spent two full miles staring down trying to figure out how best to manage running on them. I tried picking up my knees more, faster turnover, staying out of the mud – all to no avail. I could feel it clinging to my shoes like a kid who has had a really fabulous mud pie outing in rain boots. Nothing to be done about all this. I decided to be grateful for the week of running on the tow path in London. I had had plenty of practice dodging puddles. I remembered that I ran best on the tow path when focused on staying with the person in front of me or passing them so I tried that and that did help. I knew the finish of the course was regular road and it had to get here eventually so I just hung on as best I could. It was weird because I think I was mentally and physically ready to dig pretty deep here – I had wanted to end with a few sub-8 miles – but on this terrain, I was just happy to stay upright. I know that 2 miles to go is a count of 1000 for me so I started counting.

11 8:16
12 8:29
13 8:31
.1  8:01

After what felt like an eternity, we finally came off the cart track onto slick grass. Sheesh! Where was the road already! Then there it was at last and the finish line also. I had been watching the time enough to know that I was going to be pretty close to 1:50 after all. I came off the grass at 1:48:30 and gunned it as soon as I hit the gravel path! I heard them call my name as I crossed – the clock said 1:53:xx but I figured that was for the first wave so I was probably ok. My watch said 1:49:15. Actual official finish 1:49:11! I am guessing the cart track business cost me at least a minute but I really didn’t care.

I cleared the finish line, caught my breath for a second, and collected my fabulous Henry the 8th finisher’s medal. They had the t-shirts right there too so I made sure to get the right size, plus my goodie bag, and some water.

How did I feel? Fantastic! No injuries, which is often the first thing I assess. Tired, yes, and happy to stop running, but not sick. Laughing about the cart track. King Henry should really consider getting that paved if he’s going to keep holding races here.

Mostly, though, I felt something else. Something that makes me smile even now, thinking about it. It hasn’t been an easy training cycle. I’ve run through a lot of pain with my foot, waiting for the EPAT to take effect and without knowing if it would work. But it did. This was my fourth race, but no new PRs since Erie and I’ve wondered – did I spend all this time getting back into the shape I was last September but not making any progress? Since the adductor thing cropped up, I haven’t done track work, so no way to see – oh, my 800s are getting faster. But. I’ve run more 50 mile weeks than ever before. We’ve been using 7:45 as my tempo pace and I have largely hit that. My mid-week long runs have been getting more challenging each week on paper, but actual execution of those runs has been getting easier. Coach Mick says I’m in better shape than I think I am and this race showed me that he’s right.

My half PR from last summer is 1:45:45 run at the Iron Horse Half Marathon with the Retiree as pacer. A lot of things came together for that race. I had been doing half marathon specific training for several weeks. I was more tapered. Iron Horse is flat and I had a trusted pacer. The weather was ideal. I was completely spent at the end of that race and spent several minutes leaning over the barrier, catching my breath and getting my act together.

At Hampton Court, I ran 1:49:11. No pacer and I didn’t know a soul at the race. I had spent the previous day negotiating London alone in truly wretched weather. I had spent the previous week at a workshop with brand new colleagues working on a new project – while also running over 50 miles for the week. I’ve done zero half marathon specific training. The wind during Hampton Court was variable, but sometimes quite high and I had that cart track to deal with. I finished feeling fantastic – happy to be done, but immediately able to talk and I was not that sore after the race. There’s a whole lot of fitness lurking there that has kind of built up without my really knowing it. How much? I don’t really know. I’m feeling quite excited to find out at Boston!



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