A handy guide from Hannah Lees, running coach and founder of Hannah the Runner, to those taking on their first Bath Half.
The Bath Half was my first experience of a big race, my first half marathon and it goes past my house twice, so it’s special to me. These tips are things that helped me and what I’ve learned from coaching dozens of runners to their first Bath Half.
It’s normal to be nervous
Are you constantly trying to avoid germs because you don’t want to get sick? Do you worry daily that the ache in your hip is the start of an injury? Do you wake at night dreading that the weather will turn icy and you’ll slip and break something? Pre-race worrying has a name: Maranoia. It’s normal. It tends to be worse for first-timers, if you’re running for charity or if a lot of people know what that you’re training for something big. I’m not going to say “don’t worry”; but I’ll simply tell you to trust your training – even if things haven’t gone perfectly (and they never do) when you get to the final weeks before the race most of your training is done. Stick to the plan and definitely don’t try to cram in last minute training now. It won’t help and it’s more likely to result in injuries.
Sort out your kit early
I don’t mean lay it out and don’t touch it until race day. Decide what you might wear and check it’s comfortable. There are unknowns – will it be cold, wet, sunny, windy – will you need gloves or sunscreen? That doesn’t matter if you’ve got the choice of longs or shorts that you know are fine. You can put a long sleeve top under your race t-shirt if it’s very cold on race day. Get your name on your t-shirt – you can get it professionally done in many sports shops or by print and design companies, you can buy iron-on letters to do it at home, or you can do it in sharpie pen.
Last long run and taper
In the 2-3 weeks before the half marathon you need to reduce the duration of your runs. This is called tapering – run for less time to give your body a rest and ensuring your legs are fresh for the race. So whether your last long run is 8 miles or 16, you need to get it done on or before 1 March. After that you should aim to run the same number of times per week, but for shorter times and distances.
Knowing the route
If you haven’t already acquainted yourself with the route now is the time. Take a look at the map in your race pack and work out where the water stations are. If the weather is warm on the day you’ll want to know where they are. You don’t need to run the whole route, but there are some key sections that it’s handy to be familiar with.
The start: the race starts with a gentle downhill towards Widcombe. DON’T GO OFF TOO FAST! Seriously, you’ll want to – you’re well trained and rested, you’re ready for this and you’re feeling good – but you need to hold yourself back. The first couple of miles of the Bath Half are crowded. Don’t weave to get round people, don’t speed up and slow down. You’ll waste energy, burn through your fuel more quickly and run further. Instead relax, get into your running and warm up. There will be plenty of opportunities to make up time. The fastest way to run any race is with a negative split: running faster in the second half of the race. Make that your aim.
The hill up to Queen Square: after running along the river for a while you will turn right at Green Park and run up towards Queen Square. It’s not too long or too steep. Keep your head up and your shoulders back, and use your arms. There’s an opportunity to recover straight after Queen Square down Charlotte Street. Then it’s a long straight road out of town with lots of great support.
Upper Bristol Road and Newbridge Road: There’s another noticeable uphill at about 2.7 miles. Even when the visible hill finishes it’s still slightly uphill until the middle of Newbridge Road (at the now-derelict car garage), then you get a very slight downhill. Again, keep your head up and take advantage of the crowds supporting here. There are always lots of children with sweets to give away and hands held out for high-fives – two of them are mine.
Lower Bristol Road: Once you turn the corner at Twerton Fork it’s much quieter, especially on the second lap. I recommend that you take this opportunity to fuel somewhere in the stretch between Twerton Fork and the water station, on both laps. The other thing you can do is to chat with the runners around you. On the first lap you might be overtaken by the elite athletes on their way to the finish – marvel at how easy they make it look! This is also a good time to take a breath and enjoy the experience. Whether this is your first half marathon or one of many it’s still special and this quiet stretch is a good time to reflect on how far you’ve come, regroup and get your head together for the final push to the finish.
Rossiter Road/Widcombe Basin: at the end of Lower Bristol Road is Churchill Bridge and the railway viaduct. This is where you either turn left to start you second lap or go straight on towards the finish, and it’s the finish we’re going to focus on. By now you’ve run 12 miles. For many of you this will be unknown territory – your longest ever run. Trust your training. You’ve got this! The good news is that the crowds are great here and if you’ve put your name on your race vest (top tip: big letters on the front) they will shout it. Nothing gives you a boost like hearing your name shouted in encouragement. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is… you remember that gentle downhill start? Well, now you’re going back the way you came which means it’s a gentle uphill. Dig deep.
At this point in the race mental strength is everything. I have two strategies that I use: 1. focus on each part of my body in turn – head up, neck long, shoulders back, chest open, elbows driving back, spine tall, hips neutral, knees and feet lifting as high as possible; 2. repeat a simple phrase in my head – my mantra is “one foot in front of another”. This, the crowds and the band will spur you on. You’re on the home straight now. You can do it. One more corner and you’ll see the finish line. You’ve got this.
Race day fuelling
When it comes to nutrition everyone is different. By now you will probably have found that some food works well for you before a run, and some not so well. The main thing to remember is carbs before, protein after, so make sure your meals on Saturday have some carbohydrate in them. It doesn’t have to be loads – you’re not trying to eat double helpings of pasta, but if dinner is usually a green salad and a tuna steak you want to be adding in some pasta, rice, potatoes or bread. If possible practice your race day breakfast. If you’re anything like me 11am is one of the least likely times to go for a run. The energy from your 7am cornflakes is going to be all used up just getting to the start line, so consider slower-release energy food like wholegrains or maybe two smaller breakfasts or some kind of mid-morning snack – porridge first thing and a banana at 10:30 is my personal go-to.
Unless you’re running it in 65 minutes you will need some kind of energy boost during the race. The day of the race is not the time to try out a new energy gel – they can cause nausea and cramps – so stick with something you’ve tried and tested. You don’t need much. Most runners would take a couple of gels during the race, or one or two jellybabies every few miles.
Things are changing at races as the organisers do all they can to go plastic-free, and the Bath Half are leading the way with the help of Wessex Water. As in previous years there are several water stations around the course, but the plastic bottles have gone. Instead there are bottle refills and biodegradable cups. The refill facility was new last year and even regular Bath Half runners will be getting used to it. Whether you bring a bottle to carry (or wear a belt) and refill it or just grab a cup on the way past is personal preference. How much you will need to drink depends on the weather on the day. If the sun shines and the weather is dry you’ll be so relieved to see those water stations, but if it’s raining you might well skip past without stopping. There’s also water at the end of the race.
Running with your buddies or going solo?
One of the most interesting bits of feedback from the athletes I coached for previous years’ Bath Halfs (halves?) was that they wished they’d run with a buddy. Deciding whether to run on your own or with similar-paced friends is a tricky decision. On the one hand if you’ve done most of your training in a group and met up with friends for your long runs running alone will feel alien. It’s much more fun to share the joy and pain of race day. Running 13.1 miles at race pace is tough. If you run with a buddy you can get each other through the low points and you can spur one another on to a faster time. However, even if your average pace in training has been identical that doesn’t mean you’ll match one another stride for stride on race day. What will you do if one of you wants to push harder on the day and the other doesn’t? Is it all about the PB for you, or does enjoying the experience matter just as much?
Arrangements on the day
To avoid stress on the day read your race information from your race pack and work out things like
- How you’re travelling from home to the race village.
- Who is coming with you.
- What you’re wearing, taking, etc – run at least once in anything you’re going to wear to be sure it’s comfortable, and lay it all out the night before so there’s no mad panic on the day.
- If friends and family are coming to cheer you on then it’s good to know where to look out for them so agree beforehand roughly where they’ll be watching from, then you can keep an eye out.
- Likewise, it’s handy for them to have some idea of when you’ll be passing them. Remember you won’t be crossing the start line on the dot of 11am (unless you’re in the elite group). Looking at previous year’s results you can see that people with a chip time of 1 hour 45 took around 90 seconds to cross the line whereas 2 hour finishers take about 5 minutes, and for those who took 2 hours 30 the delay in crossing the line was more like 10 minutes. So, if you usually run 10 minute mile pace people waiting for you at the 3 mile marker could expect to see you between 11:35 and 11:40. Of course if you go off too fast then you’ll arrive earlier than anticipated, but you’re not going to do that, are you?!
- When to do that final pre-race wee! As with all organised races there will be queues for the toilets. If you get stressed by long loo queues and the worry of being late for the start then consider going to your start pen early – there are portaloos in all the starting areas and at every first aid point around the course.
- Where are you meeting your supporters or running buddies afterwards (there’s a designated meeting point in the runners’ village).
After the race
Once you’ve crossed the line you’ll be directed back into the runners’ village to collect your medal, t-shirt and goodie bag. Depending on what your finishing time is this can be a bit of a slow shuffle. Try to do some stretches while you’re waiting in the throng.
You might be starving or you might not feel like eating, but try to arrange to have lunch as soon as you can after the race. You will recover better if you have protein soon after your run, ideally within 30 minutes. It really does make a big difference!
Be proud! Whatever your finish time, whether you smashed your PB or not, you have achieved something that the majority of people never will. Wear your medal with pride.
Keep your running on track
I sincerely hope that your Bath Half experience won’t be the last time you run, but it’s a sad fact that a lot of people will completely stop running after a big race. It happens for a lot of very individual reasons. For most people the build up to a big race is quite intense and they will want (and need) a break afterwards. And then they never quite get round to restarting. Before long the thought of even a 5K run feels daunting.
How you recover from the race will vary from one person to the next, and even from one race to the next. I like to go out for a recovery run the day after – very short and very slow – then rest for a couple of days, and then resume my normal number of runs but with lower mileage for a few weeks before cracking on with the next challenge! Other people will take some time off running completely – up to a fortnight – and then ease back into it.
My absolute number one top tip is to schedule your return to running in your diary. Put in place whatever it is that will keep you on track – meeting a friend for a run, another race (5K, 10K, whatever), a coached session or club run – book it in your diary and make it happen. If nothing else you need to go for a run to try out your new Bath Half 2020 t-shirt.
Good luck and enjoy your race!