Ten ten ten, and I’m up and heading for the Royal Parks Half. It is sponsored by the massive food service company Brakes. This race has only been going for a couple of years, but is already a popular sellout. 11,000 runners are starting today; I get on the tube to Knightsbridge with more timing chip-encrusted trainers filling the carriage at every stop. Am feeling pretty good. I spent yesterday doing little but watching telly and carbo-loading; wholewheat pasta and toast, bananas, seafood risotto. Couldn’t resist a small glass of wine, but leave the rest of the bottle in the fridge. The focus is improving.

This is the first occasion that I have a time target. Non-Run suggests that you don’t set a target time for your first marathon – the aim should solely be to complete it by any means necessary. The first reason for this is so that you do not risk even a scintilla of disappointment should you not achieve your time; nothing should cloud the real achievement, which is completing your first marathon. The second is so you do not push too hard too fast into the unknown (as you will have not have run 26 miles before) and risk blowing up completely. This makes sense to me, although it doesn’t stop everyone asking “what time are you going for?” at any opportunity.

In theory, this is only a training run for the big dance, and my time shouldn’t matter. But this is my second half-marathon, and I wasn’t happy with the way I ran the first one, and the self-competitive bug is biting. After a bit of thought and calculation this week, I have decided I want to complete it in 2 hours 15 minutes. This would be a tidy twelve minute improvement on the first half I ran back in September, and a big psychological boost. I work out I will have to run around 10% faster than in Kent to do this, which seems doable given the experience in my legs now.

The race starts from West Carriage Drive, the road that runs along the bottom of  Hyde Park, heading towards Hyde Park Corner. There is a big stage and a bunch of charity marquees in the ‘festival area’; I find the Autistica one and dump my bag, finally meeting the cheerily busy head of events Lynn who I have been corresponding with via email for a few months. Autistica have a few dozen runners in this race, and I have donned one of their yellow wifebeaters over the usual black kit. I have a wee, down a final banana with some water, find a fence block to stretch on and hurry over to the start – although my number is blue which means I should start further down the road, I manage to sneak in with the green starters a hundred or so metres ahead. I am barely in the pack when the gun goes off.

This doesn’t concern anyone back where I’m now standing. One of the problems of starting a race with a large field is the sheer time it takes to get everybody across the start line. In huge marathons like New York, the participants are started in several waves half-an-hour apart. Here, bibs are colour-coded in order of projected finish time and the 11,000 runners are spread out over half a mile down the road.  The sun is out but it’s not too hot, good weather for it. More people than not have charity shirts on. We stand around for a minute or two then gradually shuffle forward slowly to the start line, where the RFID timing chip we have each attached to our shoes will interact with the sensor in the mats and start recording our actual time. The big digital clock over the start tells me that this gulf between the ‘gun time’ and the ‘chip time’ is over 5 minutes by the time I blip over the mats and start actually running. It feels good. The crowds lining the route are revving everyone up, bashing noisemakers, screaming names. We are quickly out of the park and under the Wellington Arch, there is a cheerful, partyish atmosphere in the air. The tension of preparation finally released; we are like the bubbles in a bottle of freshly opened fizzy water, finally allowed to move. Round the fountain past the dour, hideous grey of Buckingham Palace. Even the Queen doesn’t like it much, apparently. Fuck me, they’ve even closed off Parliament Square for this. Crazy steaks. We turn on Westminster Bridge and head down the Embankment all the way to Blackfriars, then turn and head back again; this must be around the three mile point. Relax, relax. Steady, strong, yeah yeah. There’s a couple of guys carrying a huge fibreglass fish, and I run with the Pink Panther for a while. Luckily, the toilets by the Embankment are open, and I nip in along with many others. I haven’t quite worked out the finer points of hydration yet; it’s looking like you have to start really early. Too early. Lucozade sport station, doesn’t taste of much. Up through Admiralty Arch and onto the Mall, and I’m feeling pretty damn good. Knees… what knees? Everything is working.

We are six miles in before hitting Hyde Park again, and I catch site of the clock at the halfway point by the Serpentine. 1.12.xx… minus five minutes… I’m on target, but only just. I need to run the second half of the race at least as fast, and this is kind of where the real work begins. The small Autistica team cheer me from the roadside, just one of hundreds of noisy charities. Lovely day. While the runners have stretched out, the paths narrow to the little driveways that crisscross the park, and the traffic never really lets up. The crowds are back.  But I am starting to do something extremely unfamiliar… overtake people. I put the iShuffle on – I have run the first half without music and am feeling the need for distraction. BROOOOOOCEEEE! Walk just a little as I rip the head off a gel around eight miles; gooey orange and caramel washed down with the last of my homemade stuff. You can feel it hitting your muscles. Batman overtakes me, followed by a caterpillar, although I’ve left the Pink Panther in the dust. Grab every water and Lucozade I can get from the side of the road. The mile markers are starting to come slower now. We’re only at ten? Fuck. Up by the round pond, I stop to walk a little, getting a burst of speed for my non-efforts when I restart. No idea how I’m doing timewise, but I’m still overtaking people. Push push. The route heads south; I can see the Albert Memorial in front of me, and realise we must be close. The only difficult part of the race, funnily enough, is the last half-mile down West Carriage Drive. Really tough for some reason; running out of steam. Need to look at why. I can see the finish line, and the stage, and the PA booms… They are interviewing the Cheeky Girls. The Cheeky Girls. “How do you feel about your time, girls?” Last few steps, urgh. “Oh, ve ver so happy!” I’ve been beaten by the fucking Cheeky Girls. Blip blip goes the mat, and it’s done.

Like the last time, there’s not much exhilaration at the finish. You are so spent you can’t even think straight for a few minutes, until you get your medal, and a banana, and they cut the chip off your shoes, and you wander blinking back to the busy milling finish area, and streeeetch. It’s better after that, when your emotions return, and you realise you got it right. Autistica are proud of me. I grab the mediocre freebies – a Mars bar, a Capri-Sun. There is free food, but I don’t want to queue. Head home. Job done.

UPDATE: Official chip time was 2′ 14″ 35, beating my previous mark by thirteen minutes and nineteen seconds. Nice even two halves. Get in.

UPDATE: The Cheeky Girls may have beaten me on gun time, but the chips don’t lie: turns out I clipped them both by two minutes. Touch MY bum, kids.

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