Sunshine and Smiles – The Vitality Big Half brightens London

I had the opportunity to join 16,000+ other runners in the third incarnation of The Vitality Big Half which I eagerly grabbed.  Not only was this great for my training for the London Marathon just eight weeks later, but I got to experience running on the streets of London again but for ‘just’ 13.1 miles.  Here is my assessment of the race.

Pre race information

This was excellent.  VERY comprehensive and detailed information, well presented with maps, videos and regular email / social media updates.  Runners had no excuse for not knowing where to go or what to do but my only thought would be about any runners who had never done a race before.  Would phrases like ‘Start Wave’, ‘Baggage buses’ etc mean much to someone for whom this was a first experience.  Maybe so extra information could help (what is a timing tag?, what is a wave start?)

Mike’s rating: 9/10

Runners cross Tower Bridge in bright sunshine. The Vitality Big Half, Sunday 1st March 2020.
Photo: Joe Toth for The Vitality Big Half For further information: media@londonmarathonevents.co.uk

Getting to the start

It is an early start but luckily the beautiful weather (although a little cold) meant that people weren’t having to shelter from rain.  Baggage buses are located each side of Tower Bridge as well as toilets.  Unlike the London Marathon start that is in an open park, everything is in streets that are relatively narrow for thousands of people and therefore it got quite congested.  We were coming from the south side of the river and dropped our bags on the lorries there, but you also had a lot of people walking past there to get to the north side.  I did wonder whether the lorries could be parked further away from the bridge but that would mean more road closures for a longer period which I imagine isn’t easy.  It did work, sort of, but I did see a few people around looking nervous that they would miss the start of the race which the really wouldn’t do unless they were in the first couple of waves.  Advice for the future – get there early, especially if you are in the first waves.  Drop your bag off and have some warm / dry kit that you can ditch because it can be quite a long wait.

Mike’s rating: 7/10

The start

The organisers had start waves corralling in different areas that were led to the start line in order which seemed to work well.  There were some toilets along the corral area where we were, and I managed to find one with a relatively short queue but because there wasn’t tons of space this was a bit hit and miss.  Plenty of announcements and music going on which helped but if you don’t like standing around, big events aren’t for you.  If you like being in a crowd that has a real buzz of excitement and nervous anticipation, you’ll love it like I did.  When we were led to the start it was quite a walk but once under the start arch, there was no congestion at all which is great.

Mike’s rating: 8/10

The Vitality Big Half Festival in Greenwich Park. The Vitality Big Half, Sunday 1st March 2020.
Photo: Anthony Upton for The Vitality Big Half For further information: media@londonmarathonevents.co.uk

The course

One word.  Excellent.  Great.  Fantastic.  Yes, that is three words, but I loved it.  The course had a really mixed feel to it (Limehouse tunnel to Canary Wharf to local communities south of the river) which meant it was constantly changing.  There were markers every mile plus every 5km that were easy to see (although I think one of them may have been in the wrong place).  Maybe add a ‘halfway marker’?  Plenty of drinks stations (four water and one Lucozade Sport), loads of bands, choirs and music trucks to keep you entertained as well as LOADS of spectators.  One of the aims of The Big Half was to involve the communities along the route as from a runner’s perspective, I believed it worked.

There was plenty of space (or at least there was at the pace I was running) so you could run, overtake or just plod as you wanted.  If you like races with open countryside, hedgerows and fields this clearly wasn’t for you but if you like to experience the welcome of a big city, this was a great race.

The event also offers a relay option for teams of four and a ‘Little Half’ which is a 2.3 mile route along the last part of the full course.  Both are a great addition to the event by making them more accessible for those who are not regular or confident runners; or want to run with family or friends.

Mike’s rating: 9/10

Runners celebrate as they approach the finish line at the Cutty Sark. The Vitality Big Half, Sunday 1st March 2020.
Photo: Jed Leicester for The Vitality Big Half For further information: media@londonmarathonevents.co.uk

Marshal / race crew

I admit a bias on this one.  I’ve worked at events and I know it is great fun, rewarding but very tiring and depending on what you are doing it can be very pressurised at certain times (baggage buses just before the start, drinks stations etc).  That said, there wasn’t a single marshal or volunteer that I encountered that wasn’t friendly, smiling and helpful.  Everyone seemed to know what they were doing and how to help you.  Now in a field of 16,000+ people I am sure there will be some who had different experiences BUT I also believe that if we as runners approach marshals with a smile, the interactions are positve for everyone.

Many thanks to everyone that gave up their time for the event.

Mike’s rating: 11/10 (Ed – Mike, you can’t have 11/10……, we’ll call it 10/10)

Finish and post finish

As I approached the line with Cutty Sark watching over us I admit I was impressed.  That is a pretty unique backdrop and certainly memorable.  Within 30 seconds of crossing the line, my phone pinged with a text confirming my finish and my time which was very good service.  We were then given water and our medals.  The medal is a great design of the running person you see across the event branding – definitely a good keepsake.

Unfortunately, the next stage wasn’t as impressive.  We were then funnelled around to cross the road to the tshirt collection and baggage buses which was orderly but very very slow.  From crossing the line, it took just a minute or so to get the water and medal but then another 40 minutes just to cross the road and collect the tshirt, then a few more minutes to collect the bags.  The weather was clear although chilly once you stopped but if it had been raining it would have been a very different story.  In true British fashion I only overheard a couple of negative mumblings but the quiet in the queue spoke to what I perceived as a disappointing end to a great race.  Once we got to the tshirts and baggage lorries, the marshals were fantastic but I fear that the layout of this part just didn’t seem to work as well as we would have hoped.

Mike’s rating: 4/10

Vitality Festival

This was in Greenwich Park just behind the Naval College where the baggage lorries were but as we had taken so long to get there and we were meeting people I didn’t go into the festival.  I suspect a lot of other runners felt the same which is a shame.  Later on, I heard from a number of people who did go in that it was a good set up but I did’t see it myself.

Overall thoughts

London Marathon Events have created an race that in just three years sells out quickly.  Their aims to bring more people into running that either haven’t run before or don’t know many others that do run is paying dividends.  More than 6,000 of the entries were through community groups and this outreach programme is, in my opinion, to be commended.

Runners at Canary Wharf. The Vitality Big Half, Sunday 1st March 2020.
Photo: Anthony Upton for The Vitality Big Half For further information: media@londonmarathonevents.co.uk

The course is amazing, the atmosphere is superb and for anyone tackling their first half marathon or first big city event, it will provide great memories.  I am sure the organisers will be working hard to ensure that the finish experience matches that at the London Marathon and removes the one minus point of the race.

Don’t let this last point put you off coming in 2021 (register your interest now https://www.thebighalf.co.uk/events/vitality-big-half/register-interest/).  The Vitality Big Half will have given many people a day to remember and an opportunity to welcome more people into the running family.

Mike’s overall rating: 8/10

Mike Clyne has been running since 1982 aged 16.  At 53 he is still running and says he continues to love it but doesn’t seem to be getting much faster. His first half marathon was in March 1983 and was the first of many. Along the way he has encouraged others to run as well. Not only a keen parkrunner and former triathlete, Mike has also completed a couple of Ultras (including Comrades), learning a thing or two along the way, and 10 Ironmans so isn’t a slouch but in his words “isn’t very fast”. He recently ran his 50th marathon and is looking forward to running the London Marathon on Sunday 26th April.  When he isn’t running, he is often found with a microphone in hand as a race announcer / commentator (#mikeonthemic !) and virtually always with a smile on his face. You can read more from Mike here.