Having just come back from running a PB in Barcelona, Rick shares his thoughts on half marathons and what makes a good race.

Two years ago, having run 1:19:39 in the Reading Half Marathon I was gobsmacked when I learnt that I was placed in the Run Britain Road Grand Prix. My 211th place (out of 14,261 finishers) had somehow elevated me into an upper tier of British Athletics and for the first time in my life I was getting personal invitations to events as a pseudo-elite runner. This wonderful feeling quickly disappeared however, and in 2015 at the same race a time 2 seconds slower was only good enough for 286th! Clearly the field was getting faster while I stayed still.

But Reading is known as having the best half marathon field in the UK, and if anyone wants to place higher they simply have to run in a smaller event, albeit that might result in a slower time in the absence of a strong field of club runners to pull you along to a fast time. It was a surprise to me though when having run 1:19:02 in Barcelona at the weekend I found out I only placed 261st. Does Barcelona have an even better field that Reading, is the course more favourable to faster times, and should I have been able to run faster if so?

I thought I’d look into this a little more closely by analysing a selection of the top half marathons around the world including Lisbon where the current world record was set and the Great North Run which is one of the largest.

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 14.24.04What can I surmise from this?

  • Fast courses don’t necessarily attract good club runners (Ras Al Khaimah for example where I might be top 50), and races that are great for club runners don’t necessarily pay for the elite runners to be there (e.g. Reading). Perhaps these races focus on delivering one or the other, with only Berlin and New York able to do both.
  • If you are after a PB the quality of the field around you is the most important factor. Running a fast course is fine but if no-one is around you to help share the burden of setting the pace and getting protection from the wind you’ll probably struggle to fulfil your potential.
  • There’s much more to a half marathon than the course especially if you’re going abroad – I’d prefer a great weekend in a stunning city like Barcelona or Berlin to a trip to Reading.

And to answer my original questions:

  • Does Barcelona have an even better field that Reading? Hard to tell but I think it probably does, local club runners bolstered by international athletes looking for a test (and a warm break) before a spring marathon.
  • Is the course more favourable to faster times – given the fields are equally strong you need to look at the course profile and weather. Barcelona can be windy but Reading’s course gains 250ft in elevation compared to just 180ft in Barcelona. Barcelona’s course has lots of long straights and few tight corners so I think Barcelona shades it, but not by much.
  • Should I have been able to run faster if so? That’s the million dollar questions. Probably given the shape I’m in, the course, weather and field, but I was feeling a bit under the weather.

But who knows and frankly who cares – it was a great weekend with the family in a lovely city, a PB and all on track for a great run in London, and I’m in danger of analysis-paralysis!


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