Be warned though. It’s very easy to enter an event through a lucky free entry or as a spur of the moment decision but doing so without being prepared to prepare your body can ruin any love you currently have for running. The majority of people who enter the Cheltenham Half run too fast in the first half and put their body into a state which disables them from enjoying the rest of the race.
Having to stop and walk regularly or fight your legs to etch out every step of the final 10 kilometres is not what we picture when registering for the event.
Running Cheltenham’s half marathon, as your first, should go something like this:
Start of the Race
Take in the wonder of four thousand people leaving the start line and heading left on along Albermarle Gate. You’ll run past the Golf Course, Prince of Wales Stadium and Leisure at Cheltenham with a light exertion on the lungs due to the uphill start and natural tendency to start fast as your legs are fresh.
Turning off Tommy Taylor’s Lane and left on to St Paul’s Rd it’s time to take stock and remind yourself that you’ve just completed 1 of the 21km in this race. You find a rythm in your stride and take note of who has settled into what should become the speed you hold for the next 15 kilometers.
Regardless of ability there will be a steady stream of people passing you for the next 1-2 kilometers. These people were likely held up at the start line and are now burning through an adrenal kick spawned by frustration. Some you’ll see at the finish line, others you’ll catch well before it.
If you recognise another runner or fancy sparking conversation with a stranger then do so. A friend made in the middle of a race can last a lifetime, especially if you end up racing down Evesham Rd to the finish line. If you can’t consider holding a conversation then you’re going too fast.
Heading down Winchcombe St and past the Town Hall you should start to really appreciate that your entry fee has enabled you and thousands of others to run down the middle of the road without any threat of vehicle or pedestrian traffic. Attempt this any other day of the year and you’ll become seriously frustrated.
Now Montpellier walk would not be considered a climb in many running events around the world but being so early in the race, this rise holds the potential to seriously upset your rhthym and tip your heart rate into the red zone for 4-10 minutes. Use it as your first reminder that gravity is working against you and check that your posture has not slumped.
Shorten your stride and allow other runners to pass you. If your new friend does not follow suit allow them to take the lead, but do not chase. The great thing about big events is you have no way of knowing what other people are capable of. Trying to stick with them this early in the race could become the turning point in what could have been the best running experience of your life.
Regaining your Rhthym
Recovering from the hill, as you run down Lansdown Road, you’ll encounter a few runners who are breathing hard after pushing the pace early on. This is not a cue for you to bring on that puffing sensation you get from a short run around the block. There’s plenty of time left for that.
The course is fairly flat for a stretch now as you head around Dean Close and the Cheltenham Boys College before returning back towards Montpellier. This is a time to work on your running posture and ensure your breathing stays regular. It’s about this time that you’ll start passing other runners and realising the benefits of holding yourself back in the first quarter of the race.
Smile and wave at the crowds who will cheer you past the Town Hall and briefly on to the High St before heading towards Prestbury. You are about to start the second and hardest half of the 21 kilometers.
This is what you’ve been saving yourself for.
It’s what you’ve been training for.
It’s Prestbury Rd, New Barn Lane, The Racecourse and the Home Stretch.
Prestbury Road is even more subtle a climb that Montpelier Walk but it’s length is wearing and only leads on to more uphill with New Barn Lane around the corner. The thing with subtle climbs in mostly flat races is that you still notice them as if they were fire breaks in an up and down cross country race.
At this stage in the race you’re living on the edge. Speed up by half a mile per hour and your breathing goes through the roof. Hold the same pace up a 2% incline and the same thing happens. Prestbury Rd and the start of New Barn Lane do not alter your technique but they should not fool you either. Your aim is to hold the same pace you were able to cruise at, though now it won’t feel like cruising.
As you approach the short but steep rise in New Barn Lane you lift the top of your head skyward but keep your gaze focused on the crest of the hill. Never look at your feet and wait for the top. You are responsible for the outcome of this race. Looking at your feet shirks responsibility and robs you of the reward you get for dominating the climb.
You cannot avoid an elevation in heart rate or muscle fatigue after that hill. You now have two options:
- Stop and walk
- Regain your rhythm and recover on the job.
You may have to slow down between that rise and the next one which wait with similar brutality within the Racecourse perimeter. Slow down but hold posture and breathing rhythm high priority.
By this stage of the race you will be passing people regularly and gaining confidence as you realise just how close you are to finishing this event.
The entrance to Cheltenham Racecourse is truly brutal at this stage of the race. You’ve had just enough time to recover from New Barn Lane and now you must dig deeper to hold form as you scale the second biggest climb of the event. Watch the crest of the hill but never ignore those who have opted to walk.
As you break the crest of the hill you’ll have a short run before plunging into the Racecourse itself. As you come down this hill take note of what direction the wind is blowing. Take note of anyone who looks like they’re running at the pace you want to be running around this phase of the race.
Your ideal candidate is tall and wide. They’re strong, determined and ready to lead.
Tuck in behind them as you round the first turn into wind. You’ll notice their speed drop and become tempted to go around them but don’t. Feel how the wind increases the second you come off their shoulder. There will be a sweet spot which puts them directly between you and the direction any wind is coming from.
As you round the first turn across wind and then with it you’ll have been running at a slower pace but recovered a lot of breath. Pass them and run tall as the wind blows you towards the next up wind corner. As before you’re looking for the perfect wind breaker to take you through the next stretch.
Hop from one broken wind breaker to the next until you approach the final hill climb of the race. I know the organisers didn’t mean it to be this way but saving the most brutal climb till the last is the equivalent of being told to perform repeat jump squats at the end of a legs session in the gym.
You’ll likely have a few spiteful runners on your tail who have chased you since realising you’d used and abused them in the racecourse. Use them one more time to access the most powerful energy source you possess: adrenaline.
This is the one time to let competition get the better of you. There really is nothing to lose now. Nothing to save yourself for. It’s all down-hill after this climb.
If you’re feeling good you can leave them in your dust as they fall further into survival mode. If you’re hurting then run at their pace and use them again to pace you towards the finish line.
Keep your belly button to spine as you roll down the hill towards UCAS. Allow the stronger windbreakers to resume duties as you head towards Albert Rd past the Pump Rooms and turn towards the finish line on Evesham Rd.
By the pump rooms you should have figured out what it’s going to take to beat the runners in your group. Hopefully there’s just one and they look like a Tortoise. Funnily enough, tortoises look more like hares in running. They’re light because they’ve been running marathons and longer since they were in their early 20’s. They’re great over long distances and never stop running but their weakness is their home straight kick.
Stay slightly behind them until the final 50-100m before turning on the afterburners sprinting past them to the finish line.
If they appear younger and have a similar build to a rugby, football or other team sports player then you don’t want to race them over anything less than 50m. Start behind them so you still get the wind breaker effect but as they slow down or you recover some breath just come slightly ahead of one shoulder.
Unless they’re already broken they’ll quickly pull back in front wanting to ensure they have the shortest distance to cover when the final sprint finish kicks off.
Allow them to pull ahead and duck straight back into their draft but only for a short period. Each time they speed up to cover your move ensure they know you’re there and that you’ll pass them unless they keep the speed higher. This will take them into their red zone too early and negate any amazing kick they possessed in their days as a semi pro footballer.
They’ll soon fail to respond to your moves and you’ll either hear them heaving to try and keep up with you or you won’t see them again.
But this is not time to slow down. Turning left on to Evesham Rd provides you with a downhill when your body is gasping for air but losing co-ordination fast. Reset your core fix your eyes on the finish line and lengthen your stride and you shut out any threat of a last second come back by the tortoise, hare or spouse.
You’ll finish the race knowing that you have truley given everything you had to give on the day. You didn’t sabotage your efforts by dipping into adrenal stores early in the race but saved them till the final 50-200m and had that hollywood film finish while the announcer cheers your name and the crowds marvel at your ability to fend off a much more athletic or hardened adversity to the finish.