North London Half Marathon Recap

Let me start out by saying that I have never been more undertrained for a race, nor more doubtful that I would make it to the starting line on race morning.

This winter was a rough one for the Northeast. True, we didn’t get nearly as much snow in NYC as New England, but the frigid temperatures made it hard to keep my running motivation up. My last long training run for this half marathon was on February 7th (5 weeks before the race) when I ran 10 miles and subsequently felt bad Achilles’ tendon pain. The following weekend I set out to do 11 miles, thinking the pain had gone away, but stopped at 8 when it was so bad I could barely hobble home. I tried hard to take it slow and listen to my body, foam rolling and stretching a lot. The pain went away for good, but then I got a stomach bug…and I didn’t run anything longer than 6 miles for the rest of February and March.

On top of all that lack of training, I landed in London at 3:30pm on Saturday afternoon, just 18 hours before the race start, having slept only a few uncomfortable hours on the flight from NYC to Milan the night before and the connecting flight to London. It was cold but sunny, and I went to dinner at a pub called the Hollybush in the Hampstead neighborhood where I’m staying with some friends. Since it was my first evening in London, I felt like ordering something very British, so I went with Beef & Ale Pie and a half pint of local beer. Pre-race dinner of champions? 

I woke up on Sunday morning feeling surprisingly refreshed and excited to race. I took an Uber car to the race start, which was quick and easy, and arrived about an hour and a half before the race start. I had gotten my race packet with my bib number mailed to my friend’s house, but it didn’t include safety pins.  After hunting some down, I headed to the press area which had coffee, indoor bathrooms, and wifi, and we were able to leave our bags there so I didn’t have to deal with bag check. While in the press area I made friends with two runners who write for Glamour magazine, one of whom also ran the 2014 NYC Marathon as her first marathon, so we had a lot to chat about!

The race start and finish was in Allianz Park, a famous rugby stadium.

The race start was about a 5 minute walk from the stadium, and once we got there it was absolutely freezing! It was threatening to rain (but held off until the afternoon.) I had planned for my race outfit to be long tights, my Oiselle singlet, and arm warmers, but as I looked out the window of the press area at the wind whipping through the trees, I made a last-minute outfit change. I put my zip-up long sleeved jacket on over my sports bra (since I didn’t even have a long-sleeved shirt) and put my singlet over that. I could have just worn the jacket on top but didn’t want to cover up my bib number or singlet! Plus, having pockets meant I didn’t have to put my gels and phone in a running belt.

We placed ourselves in corrals of 15 minute time ranges. My friends from Glamour headed to the 1:45-2:00 corral  and I hung back in the 2:00-2:15 corral (although our finish times ended up being within 4 seconds of each other, so it turns out we could have stuck together after all!)

Olympian Mo Farah was the official race starter (he didn’t run it) so he gave a short speech wishing the runners well, and we were off!

Miles 1 – 3:  The race starts in the London Borough of Barnet, just outside the grounds of Allianz Park, with the first 2 miles taking you on a gentle downhill run along Page Street, Bunns Lane and Grahame Park Way, where you’ll find our first water station at just before 2 miles. From miles 2 – 3 runners will run the length of Colindale Avenue, before turning onto a short uphill section along the Edgware Road, which will lead you into Hay Lane, just before 3 miles.

I overdid it with the coffee, in my efforts to not let jet-lag get me halfway through the race, and I had to pee so badly by the time I crossed the start line that it was very hard to run the mile and a half to the first set of portapotties. Naturally it didn’t have toilet paper. I almost never have to go to the bathroom during a race (I made it through all 4 hours and 34 minutes of the NYC Marathon without stopping once!) but yesterday was not one of those days. Lesson learned: drink less coffee. 

Miles 3 – 5:  After crossing into the London Borough of Brent at Hay Lane, runners will continue to climb for a further ¼ mile, before beginning another gentle downhill run for 1.5 miles. This section of the route will see runners pass by Roe Green Park, and onto Kingsbury Road before turning into the quiet, residential Valley Drive. After turning into Fryent Way, runners visit the second water station, as you begin an undulating straight section, running through the greenery of Fryent Country Park.

I didn’t know anything about the course, other than that it was roughly an out-and-back through North London neighborhoods. I figured that meant the suburbs, which was mostly true. I could see how some people might have found that a bit dull. Being that the area was all new to me, and not to mention a foreign country, I was completely charmed by the quaint British architecture, and wasn’t bored at all on the course. 

That being said, the course was super hilly! I wasn’t expecting some of the bigger climbs, and they were made even harder with the realization that since it was an out-and-back, we would be runningr them again after the turnaround.

My second race mishap (the first being the portapotty fiasco) was at Mile 4.5 when I opened my first Gu gel at the water stop. As I ripped it open with my teeth, it splattered all over my hand and my singlet. Ugh. Luckily, the water stops handed out bottles of water (rather than cups, which I’m used to) and I was still carrying my bottle. I was mostly able to wash off my hand, although my singlet remained sticky for the rest of the race. And I did manage to salvage most of the Gu which was still in the packet!

Miles 5 – 7: Continue along The Paddocks after passing the 5 mile point, before turning onto Forty Lane where you’ll be greeted by the famous Wembley Stadium arch, as you turn into Bridge Road. Here, continue past Wembley Park Underground Station, before looping around onto the iconic Olympic Way with the fantastic view of the Stadium ahead. Miles 6 – 7 will see you turn and enter Wembley Stadium through the West Gate. You will then run through the stadium, alongside the famous hallowed turf pitch, before exiting through the East Gate, and heading back to begin the return journey to Allianz Park.

Finally, we made it to Wembley Stadium, home of the England national football team! Running along the Olympic Way towards the stadium was really exciting, and the screens on the stadium flashed “WELL DONE, YOU’RE HALF WAY!” There were several bands along the course, and inside the entrance to the stadium was a drumming band. Since they were inside a covered area (almost like a parking garage) the sound echoed and magnified, and made for a very exciting welcome into Wembley!

We only ran through one side of the stadium, which I was a bit disappointed about, but as we crossed a timing mat, our names flashed across the screen. That was pretty cool!

Miles 7 – 9:  Water and an energy drink await after the Stadium, then you run back along the two-way section of Olympic Way, Forty Lane and The Paddocks, all the way back to Fryent Country Park at 8 miles. Here you will run the other side of the park, along Salmon Street, before re-joining the outbound route at Kingsbury Road at mile 9, where you’ll find another water station.

After the turnaround, my motivation started to wane a bit, but I had made a great playlist and I was still running sub-10 minute miles (my only goal was to run at a comfortable pace and have fun, so I was happy that translated into sub-10 minute miles!) I wanted to finish with an average pace below 10 min/mile, so that helped keep me focused and motivated. High-fiving cute British kids on the sidelines helped too!

Miles 9 – 13:  From here on in, you retrace your steps, crossing back into the London Borough of Barnet, along Colindale Avenue, Grahame Park Way and Bunns Lane, with a final water station at 12 miles. As you turn back into Page Street at 12.5 miles, you run past the start line, turning into the suitably named Champions Way, leading you right into the Saracens’ new rugby stadium at Allianz Park, for your epic finish on the pitch itself!

You can see where my Gu exploded on my singlet…

The finish back in Allianz Park was thrilling – there were crowds cheering and music playing, and my friend AJ came to meet me at the finish line! 

My official time was 2:07:09 – not bad for being undertrained and jet-lagged!

After the finish, we were given a medal, bag of food and water, and a finisher’s shirt.

Then I headed over to a Q&A press conference with two-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah!

He discussed his two gold medal wins at the 2012 London Olympics, plans for Rio 2016, how he stays motivated on long training runs and the different challenges of track races versus the marathon.

After the race, we headed back home to freshen up and then out for another very British activity: a Sunday Roast!

We went to Sir Richard Steele, a pub in the Belsize neighborhood, and shared lamb, chicken, and nut roasts between the three of us, which included sides of Yorkshire Pudding, roasted potatoes, and roasted vegetables, along with hard cider. Refueling British-style = success!

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Thank you to the North London Half and the Vitality Run Series for providing me with a complimentary race entry! 

Mo Farah spoke as the official ambassador for the Vitality North London Half Marathon, the ’Stadium to Stadium Half’. The event is the latest instalment in the Vitality Run Series.

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