Tough Undulations: Watford Half Marathon Review

As part of my London Marathon training plan my coach wanted me to find an early half marathon to really test myself and help inform the rest of my training.  I chose the Watford Half, 12 weeks before the London Marathon, and it definitely turned out to be a test!

Targetting a half marathon 12 weeks out from a marathon doesn’t fit the “usual” training plan but I’m not following a normal plan.  I’m fortunate enough that I have an experienced coach helping me to prepare for London.  It’s not just great for me as an athlete but it’s great experience for me as a new coach.  We’re following a plan that Evelyn has used before and tailored it to my heart rate zones following the lab test late last year.

It’s quite difficult to find early half marathons within a reasonable distance of home so the best option was the Watford Half Marathon.  It would mean a round trip of the best part of 130 miles just to run 13.1 but it would then leave 12 weeks to build the rest of my training up.

I hadn’t paid much attention to what the course would be like although I knew it was a new course this year and it had been described as undulating.  I did find this course profile in the pre-race info pack:

The 'official' Watford Half course profile
The ‘official’ Watford Half course profile

I’d compared it back to the Oxford Half profile and it didn’t seem too bad but I was soon re-writing my definition of undulating once the race got underway.  Here’s how my adidas miCoach mapped the course:

The 'undulations' of the Watford Half as recorded by my miCoach.
The ‘undulations’ of the Watford Half as recorded by my miCoach.

Oh well, it was time to dig in.  I’d come with a plan to attack the race.  The battle just got a bit bigger!

To rewind a bit, despite the long journey my commute to the run was nice and easy and parking in one of the many Watford car parks was a breeze.

Talking of breezes: it was a touch windy this morning with a biting edge.  I wasn’t looking forward to trying to keep warm for the one and a half hours I had before the race started.  A short walk from the car park and I was in the park walking past the start and couldn’t miss Race HQ – a huge marquee.

Everything was well organised and the marquee had everything in one place – alphabetised number & chip collection, male and female changing areas, massages, baggage drop and a good amount of seats too.  The soft ground did mean it got a bit muddy and slippy but that was the only issue.

The buzz began to fill the Race HQ
The buzz began to fill the Race HQ

I’m so used to seeing the normal Oxfordshire vests that seeing a kaleidoscope of colours from further afield was an interesting distraction.  I thought I was going to be the only representative of Oxfordshire until I bumped into a Headington Road Runner.  It seems they had a good bunch of them across.

The only thing missing from the marquee itself was toilets but there were some toilet portacabins next to Race HQ.  A further two chunks of portaloos close to the start meant I had no issue with toilet queues, although as time passed, people seemed to be choosing to queue for the ‘cabins rather than use the normal portaloos.

Almost ready to go
Almost ready to go

I got myself sorted, dropped my bag off and went for a slow warm up round the park and it was soon time to get up to the start.  The start was split into two: women and vets on one side of the park with men on the other.  The two starts help to ease congestion and then feed together before the route leaves the park.

After the course leaves the park you cut through suburbia until you get into the wilds of Hertfordshire and take on the steepest of the hills.

My TomTom cardio failed to pick up a signal on the startline (despite a successful test on arrival) but lucky I had the good old miCoach on my other wrist.  My target was to run at 175 bpm or above to really push and see what I could do.  The first hills were ok – the speed feel slightly, as you’d expect.

I was feeling pretty good and I went through the halfway time check (nice touch!) in a few seconds over 50 minutes so was pleased.  And my memory of the second half of the course elevation was downhill overall so I was good to go.  Shame I hadn’t factored in those “undulations”!

It was like running through jelly.  My legs were slowing so much, I eventually broke; I gave in and walked.  I tried to keep the pace up as best I could and looked to get running as soon as it started to level out.  I also took advantage of the downhills wherever possible.  I’ve said it before but I’m always shocked at how few people run downhill – virtually everyone eases right off.  I’d love to give some downhill running coaching to people but mid-race advice isn’t really appropriate!

One by one the hills seemed to get harder, longer and steeper. The miles were still passing but it was taking longer between mile markers.  Even the shallow undulations were taking their toll.  My legs were heavy and aching.  After previously gaining places by running downhill and holding on uphill, I was now losing places hand-over-fist.

Even in the last mile, back in the park, I was forced back to a walk by the slight incline.  A friendly pat on the back from a fellow runner and encouragement from an earlier finisher got me to suck it up and get the legs moving again.  Seeing the finish flags was enough to hang on to the line but there was nothing left for my trademark sprint finish.

I crossed the line in 1:46:something which was slower than I’d hoped for but considering the course, the wind and the fact that I’d lost a few training runs a fortnight ago I was satisfied.  My official chip time is 1:46:08 which, behind my PB in Oxford last November, is my second fastest half ever!

The finish area was as well organised as the start and after picking up a medal, technical tee and a drink I was funnelled back into the marquee to pick up my bag.  It looked like bedlam but it was surprisingly efficient.

Yes, that is a grimace!
Yes, that is a grimace!

I found a space to get myself freshened up and changed.  I’d taken along my Secret Training care kit which was great, but more on that in another post.  A burger, a Marathon and a nakd bar was enough to get me back on the road before stopping for some more protein courtesy of KFC!

To sum up, I was impressed with the organisation of the event (you could tell a running club was responsible) and while the course can’t claim to have PB potential, it is a great challenging course.  Big thanks to Watford Harriers and all those responsible for organising and supporting the event.

For me, it was a great training session that will benefit me in terms of both physical and mental strength.  I definitely need to up my strength training – but I kind of knew that already!

If you’re not looking for a PB but want to test yourself then I’d recommend signing up for Watford Half next year.

2 thoughts on “Tough Undulations: Watford Half Marathon Review”

  1. Great review Dan. I can feel the burn myself when you’re talking about the inclines towards the end. I felt them myself in my last Oxford Half on the “doesn’t-seem-that-hilly-now-when-I-pass” section going into Littlemore

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