On Sunday 20/05/18 I ran my first event as an official pacer – leading the 1:55 sub 2 hour group at Virgin Sport’s Hackney Half. This had been a long time coming, after a successful application to become a pacer many months ago.
Virgin Sport & Asics have been great, putting on training sessions and briefs for all the pacers almost every week since March – it was a good way for runners to meet pacers, but also for pacers to take out groups of runners in central London.
As the race day drew ever closer I did 2 6.5 mile runs to test out the pace I would be running (8:45 miles) and both went relatively well. I was feeling the pressure off this race probably more than any other race I had done, maybe with my first marathon as an exception.
Didn’t exactly have the best prep… may have had a few too many beers the night before which meant I forgot to set an alarm when I got to bed. Fortunately I am the worst sleeper and woke at 5:24. It was far too early to eat so I left the house at 6, tired, caffeine-less and worrying I’d already left something behind.
One complaint about Hackney – there is literally no easy way to get there?! Stratford = 20 min walk, Leyton = 20 min walk, even Hackney Wick is a 20 min walk from the main race HQ. Anyway, after my bus not turning up I got an uber to South Ken and bumped into fellow pacer Bec on the tube to Leyton.
We arrived at the Hackney Marshes centre with plenty of time to pick up our pacing flag/bag, vest and other goodies for our groups (sweets, hair ties, plasters etc). I’d never tried the flag before so it did take me a while to get it on and strapped in comfortably. It was a good place to meet up with everyone and settle some nerves before heading out to the main start area.
I forgot to eat anything beforehand and just had a coffee pre race – not best planning. My calf was also a little tight *I may have ran a 5km PB the day before* but I felt quietly confident with the job at hand. I knew I could run the pace, it was just about being as consistent as I could.
We got into the pens early and this is where one of my only concerns arose. We weren’t given pens based on our times. So I had a 2:00 pacer ahead of me and a 1:50 pacer behind me – but more on this later! Another thing is the lack of toilets. The festival area is huge, it is a very well organised event with so much going on but there are hardly any toilets. I saw a sign for urinals but no actual urinals so joined the hundreds of others in the trees…. Sorry team!
I had a small crowd with me at the start, some wanting to stay with me as long as possible before dropping down to 2 hours and others wanting to start with me and push for a 1:50. I tried to present a confident persona and that I knew the course well after running it last year. 10 minutes after the start and we were across the line..
I really wanted to do a good job so I had both my fitbit and tomtom on gps as well as 2 pace bands – 1 for every mile time and also one for each half a mile too. I knew every half mile should be 4:23 and wanted to make sure I was within this from the start. The start was very busy, narrow and on an incline but after 3 miles I had 30 seconds to play with – ideal start!
Hackney’s crowds are amazing and really make this race a popular one (over 15,000 finished this year). I still had my group with me, talking to a few on the way with many others following silently alongside.
It was great to actually run and enjoy a race without pushing myself too much, although it was a mental challenge, looking at my watch every 2mins or so and adjusting accordingly. I ran this race last year and hated it, not because it’s a bad race but I was injured and it was painful from mile 6. This way allowed me to enjoy it for what it is – a more of a festival/carnival feel to any other race.
I remember turning onto Hackney Central and all of a sudden it was boiling! It was here (about mile 5-6) that I saw the first sign of people struggling to keep pace and dropping off. I tried to grab a couple of water bottles at the stations to pass on to others. A rookie mistake though as afterwards I realised I only took on water once myself – not ideal as remember I had no breakfast too, oh but the one gel at mile 7. The route takes in Dalston, London Fields and Victoria park and you really do get that East London feel. There are a few narrow stretches and tight turns but for the most part it really is a fun course.
Mile 8-10 confused a lot of people and this is where the whole aforementioned pen situation came into place. I started to hear several people in the crowd saying “why is 1:55 pacer behind the 2 hour pacer?!”. Now unless you run a lot of races this could be very confusing for other runners and those watching. As I then got closer to the 2 hour pacer more and more people were asking and talking about it. I tried to speak to as many people as I could, stating my elapsed time as well as the fact that we started in different pens. I’d like to see next year the pacers all starting in order or using a colour/letter to distinguish which pen we started in. After mile 9 I was comfortably past the 2 hour pacer and normality resumed…
For me, Hackney half really starts at mile 10. The last 3 miles are challenging – largely unshaded with 3 long inclines around the Olympic park. The first one flies by as you run past the RunDem cheer zone for the best part of the race; then you really do start to see people struggle towards the stadium. The path around the Olympic stadium is a long one with several undulations and the heat really did punish runners on Sunday. A shower provided many with temporary respite and on checking my watch I was now on for 1:54 dead. I tried to slow a little to encourage those around me and explained there was just one more hill left – I don’t think anyone appreciated that though!
It was at this point where everyone that I did pass either grunted despairingly or simply cursed and either decided to try stay ahead of me or carry on walking. It’s horrible to be overtaken by a pacer in the last few miles but I tried to encourage everyone. Surprisingly, I really didn’t have any moments where I struggled; I completely forgot about the flag I was carrying, the new vest didn’t chafe at all, I loved running in the heat and I thought the crowds were amazing. Virgin Sport did a great job setting up the event and entertainment spots, I loved the small motivating signs along the route too.
The final mile heads back towards the marshes and it was great to see so many runners kick on for the final mile. One more check of the watch as I crossed mile 13 and I knew I was on for a sub 01:55. I crossed the line in 01:54:11 and I was shocked by the amount of people that came up to me at the end, shook my hand or told me they followed me for the full race! This was the most rewarding event I had ever done and I will definitely pace again.
I love the bulky, heavy medal and the goody bag was great too – it’s good to see nuun products back in the UK!
As mentioned, this isn’t just a half marathon, it’s actually a “weekend/festival of fitness” with plenty going on the whole weekend. A free 5k on the Saturday, multiple gym and fitness classes, climbing wall, massages, food and drink to name just a few. Virgin Sport may have been slated for the price of the event last year but when you compare it to Royal Parks, the Great North run and others I do feel this surpasses them comfortably. You get a lot more for your money than just the race entry and the free photos are also a winner – they really do take feedback on board.
If you have ever wanted to try pacing then I 100% recommend it. A huge thank you to Theo, Jess and everyone at Virgin Sport for the opportunity and hopefully you’ll have me back in the future!
Next up London10000 on Monday!