It was the Ealing Half Marathon yesterday.
The Ealing Half Marathon is not just any old half, and I’m not just saying that because of the Eagles connection. It’s not an Eagles race, but the wonderful organising team are Eagles, a lot of the volunteers are Eagles, and it’s by far the biggest race in the Eagles calendar. However, that’s not the reason race is really special.
The race itself is on a great course. It has a lot of twists and turns as it winds its merry way around the leafy streets of Ealing. The course is very pretty as residential routes go, and the number of turns keeps life interesting while you’re out there. There are several ‘undulations’ on the course to make it challenging but they are not bad enough to completely put you off your stride. The course is also very sheltered, so there’s not a lot of wind to deal with and even on warmer days there’s shade in most areas.
I’m not going to go into the technicalities of how the race went for me yesterday, other than to tell you I took 16 minutes off last years’ time to finish in 2:08:14. Given my lack of preparation for the ‘undulations’ I was thrilled to go just a minute over PB pace – anything under 2:10 would have been a strong performance.
What I want to focus on is what makes this race so good that it has won the Half Marathon category at the Running Awards for three years in a row now, and is nominated again for 2017.
In purely practical terms, it’s a bloody well organised race. There are masses of portaloos (more than there were at the Rome marathon, for example, for a field a third of the size). It’s completely road-closed, and fantastically well marshalled. Baggage re-claim is a dream, with the volunteers checking your number as you walk up and handing you your bag by the time you get to the desk. The medal is always fabulous. As a runner, the entire thing comes across as completely seamless.
But I think the main difference between EHM and other races is that the organisers do everything they can to make it a real event, and not just a race.
The pre-race information is finely detailed and super-slick. Everything is beautifully branded in vibrant EHM green and with the fabulous hashtag #EalingFeeling. On the day, as well as the main race there’s a mini mile for the kids, for which they get a different version of the same medal. All the volunteers also get a medal.
These touches all make it so much more of a big deal than you might expect from a half in a small town in west London.
The Ealing Feeling extends out onto the whole course. Local residents are pre-warned about race day well in advance through leafleting, and diligent sharing of information on the website, local news outlets and even residents Facebook groups. As such they really embrace the race. They come out to watch the runners (sometimes still in their pyjamas) and get involved with impromptu water stations – one group of small children at mile 5 yesterday had trays of brightly coloured cups and were gleefully shouting out ‘you can drink it or we can just chuck it at you’ (implication: we would like to chuck it at you). There are countless people with tubs of jelly babies on offer, homemade signs everywhere and a lot of big cheers to be had.
The entire route is lined in this way, there’s not even 20 seconds worth of it without spectators, which is a truly amazing level of local engagement. Compare that to the other three half marathons I have run since last years’ EHM; St. Neots, Wokingham and Maidenhead. All were lovely races but all of them were in picturesque countryside without much in the way of crowds. At Ealing, both the cheers and the cheerfulness really helps you along.
Another great feature is the official water stations, of which there are plenty. These should be rightly called ‘holy water stations’, given the fact they are positioned at several local churches and one Gurdwara, and manned by not just volunteers but also vicars!
My overriding thought after the race yesterday was quite how many stand out moments there were from the whole day; even before we started, to see the number of Eagles who come out for this event was staggering. There were so many runners in Eagles vests that I didn’t recognise but who must make the effort to come out specifically for EHM, and seemingly so many members who are really only in the club because of the influence of this race over the last 5 years. Some will have seen all the Eagles running and decided to get in on the action, or some (like me) joined because they were planning to run EHM and wanted to prepare for the race.
There was a lot excitement at the start line. So many people around us were running their first half, including the not at all bat-like OldBatAtTheBack who I was gutted to have missed! There were others who had heard how good it was and were very happy to be there to see for themselves what all the fuss was about. There were lots of charity runners – the Ealing Half has raised nearly a million pounds for charity so far – including a toilet and a tap, who I can only assume were running for Water Aid.
Aside from all the locals out to cheer us on, there are several chances on the route between 6 miles and 10 miles to see your fellow runners coming in the opposite direction in two way running traffic. I managed to see my friend Scott from East London Runners surging out ahead of the 1:30 pacer with a big grin on his face absolutely loving it, as well as loads of fellow Eagles in both directions who all shared a mutual wave and shout of encouragement with me.
Around the tough Greenford section (which boasts two ‘undulations’ and a milder positive incline) I was very pleased to see my friend Christina running about like a mad march hare shouting her lungs out and waving at Eagles, and another friend Rachel atop the highest point of the hill. She was a welcome friendly face at that point and if possible was shouting encouragement even louder than Christina! Then just as I rounded the corner at the bottom of the hill I noticed the ukulele band I had got a real boost from last year were back again this year. They happened to be playing high ho silver lining as I ran past, which is an anthem for our family and is played at all hatchings, matchings, dispatchings and anything in between. This therefore necessitated a bit of a dance and a sing along, and perked me up after the hills!
Heading towards the home straight after the 10 mile marker I encountered a brand new Eagle and his friend who was running it barefoot – sometimes dancing, sometimes going backwards, but constantly entertaining. I do hope he didn’t tread on any conkers in the park.
Another musical interlude with 2.5 miles to go almost caused an emotional wobble – a group of enthusiastic and talented drummers were putting everything into it to keep us entertained. The sound of the drums was so primal and joyful – it really went right through you and reminded you how wonderful it was to be running this race, running it well, and enjoying the day.
As we headed into the final mile suddenly all the marshalls seemed to be Eagles! There were Tom and Hattie, back from darkest Surrey for the day. There was Jessamy, Grainne, Sue and Che taking unflattering pictures of us all as we pelted into the park. There really is nothing like the feeling of running a home race where there are people in the crowd who you know. Although in fact the whole way around so many people shouted ‘come on Eagles ‘ or ‘come on Angela’ at me so warmly that I had to check if I knew them or whether they had just seen my name on my number and were being lovely – it was about half and half.
The final push of the course takes you back into Lammas Park and within sight of the finish line. Just ahead of me I saw a runner from Mornington Chasers, a club we run with in Summer League and Cross Country. She was having trouble keeping running for the final few hundred metres. I couldn’t help myself – she was almost there and it seemed wrong for her to not run over the finish line when she’d clearly worked so hard. So I started cheering from the pack, which I don’t usually do – ‘come on Chasers, we’re almost there, you can do it!’ – I even threw in a friendly shoulder pat when I caught her up (which didn’t last long, she started running again and beat me over the line!). I saw her turn round at the medals to mouth ‘thank you’ to me and we gave each other a thumbs up. It was a lovely low-key moment of runner comradeship.
After the race amongst the vast crowds of happy runners with their classy medals there was no end to the Eagles who had smashed their expectations, either for their first half marathon, their first back after a return to form, or hitting new targets. Everyone seemed to have had a fantastic race, they had run well, and most importantly they had thoroughly enjoyed it.
If you look at it purely based on numbers, the Ealing Half Marathon is a mid-sized race in a small town in west London that most people have only heard of because the Carry On films were made there. Look beyond the obvious though, and this race must have the most heart and greatest amount of joy of any running event in the country.
That’s why 4,300 runners from all over the world stormed the streets of Ealing on the last Sunday in September. And that’s why most of the runners I could see, from fastest to slowest, ran the whole thing smiling.
That’s the #EalingFeeling folks, come and get it next year!