13.1 miles from home girl: Or, what a Half Marathon feels like for a first timer

So, we’ve already established that I’m not a great runner.


After training hard over the Summer to make it possible to run the Cardiff 10k at the beginning of September (picking up all sorts of injuries along the way), there was only one thing for it once I’d done it, got the T-shirt. Sign up for the Cardiff Half Marathon of course!

I must have been crazy, and I’m not quite sure what made me do it. Still on an adrenaline high after getting around the 10k in my target time, one of my team-mates (here’s looking at you Martin Fidler-Jones) suggested it was an achievable goal. So I did what I’m brilliant at; filled in the online form and resolved to worry about it later.

I suppose what motivated me was the idea of having something to aim for. Without a goal in mind, it would have been all too easy to take my (over-pronating) foot off the pedal and relax into Autumn, and a cosy once-a-week gym routine. I needed something to focus on, to keep me running.

I had 4 weekends to train myself to be able to run double the distance, which was as daunting as HELL. So I asked around, picked the brains of the many runners I know (my colleague Ruth Walters-Crisp of Let Her Eat Clean, having run 4 marathons, was probably sick of my relentless questions within days), and decided to tell everyone I know about it so that I was committed to see it through.

Training didn’t go so well in all honesty. I managed a few 10K runs, but my good intentions of fitting in three long runs (8, 9 then 10 miles) in the interim didn’t quite go according to plan. My nasty shin splints came back with a vengeance, so the longest run I managed to do was 9.5 miles one Sunday three weeks before the race. It left me on the sofa, unable to move for hours. So far, so bad.

On the advice of the kind people of t’internet (god how I’ve loved Twitter since I embarked on this crazy caper!) I went to see the lovely people at Run and Become, a specialist running shop who specialise in helping over-optimistic ignoramuses like me prepare for exactly this sort of challenge. After subjecting me to the humiliating but thoroughly necessary spectacle of running up and down St Mary Street in a dress (during a really busy lunch hour. IMAGINE the looks!), they prescribed some extra supportive trainers half a size bigger than mine. Your feet expand when you run long distances – who knew?! And I’m a pretty chronic over-pronator, a term I didn’t even know existed a month ago.

So I was all dapped up, but still feeling pretty ropey about the whole affair. I had decided to run for Macmillan, whose nurses had cared for my father so well before he passed away in 2003, and it was only the idea of raising a decent sum for them that made me determined to run it. I’d be lying if I said the idea of dropping out and trying again next year didn’t cross my mind at least three times. But then the race pack arrived, my fundraising total was creeping up by the day, and it felt too late (and wimpy) to back out now.

The week leading up to the race was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I was in a constant state of low-level anxiety, and thoughts of the race filled many of my waking moments, and too many my dreams besides. Sitting bolt upright in bed at 2am became a nightly routine. One word was going through my head this whole time. A giant neon SHIT, flashing constantly in my head.

What was I scared of? A few things I guess. Not being able to finish the course was my biggest fear, and feeling like a fraud, of letting all the lovely people who had sponsored me down. On my 9.5 mile run, I’d had to limp briefly at mile 8 or so, because my thighs just BURNED. If that happened on a 13 mile course, how would I ever finish? Not knowing if I was physically capable of running such a distance was horrible – like staring into an abyss of my own physical limitations. My other fear, if I even made it, was of running a pathetic time. I’m super competitive (usually against myself, which is ridiculous and often leads to all sorts of unnecessary anxiety). I had a target time in my head, and not being able to achieve that was not a nice prospect either.

A lovely physio who treated me for my dodgy pins a week before the race said that all I could do was rest and focus on visualization, stretches and eating well and resting. Bloody easy for him to say. Uninterrupted sleep felt like a luxury that belonged to the distant past.

Then on the Friday before the race, something happened that, completely unexpectedly, really helped me. I spent the day selling the Big Issue with a vendor as part of their Big Sell Off challenge, and something just changed for me as a result. It was such an emotional, eye-opening and humbling experience that I suddenly felt like a big baby for making such a big deal of the half marathon.

I hadn’t thought I could run 10k, and I had done it. It’s just putting one foot in front of the other again and again until someone hands you a medal. Man up woman! I told myself. So I did. I spent the day before carb-loading and visualising the route, which took in some of my favourite spots in the city. I’d covered some of them on training runs, some on the 10k. It was just a case of joining the dots with my legs! I had the best night’s sleep for weeks.

The morning of the race arrived, and I actually felt a little excited about what I was about to (hopefully) prove to myself. I devoured a bowl of porridge, pulled on my kit and headed off into the rain. All the advice people had kindly offered me along the way was on my mental checklist. A binbag with head and arms cut out to act as a makeshift poncho I could discard at the start line? Check! Ibuprofen to take before the race to help with any pain or inflammation? Check! And most importantly, a killer playlist designed to last only two minutes longer than my target time of two and a half hours. For a girl who needs a decent chorus blasting in my ears to get me moving anywhere, that was a pretty crucial psychological move. In fact, I suspect I spent as much time on the playlist as I did training. But I make no apologies for that.

My fundraising total was way over my £500 target by now, so on the way to the start line I thought of my dad and the amazing things Macmillan does for families who sadly have to go through what mine did. Now, I was more than ready.


The sheer number of other runners, and the atmosphere in the runners’ village was a lovely surprise. Seeing people of all ages, sizes and abilities limbering up, posing for pictures with their families, laughing and joking, was really reassuring. The rain shower stopped, I saw a familiar face in the queue for the toilets (hello Ben Black!) and suddenly I was in a huge throng of people queuing to get to the start line. I started chatting to a lovely girl called Jo from Bath, who had the same target time as me. She had run one half marathon a few years ago but when she was much fitter, and she was nervous about this one in a new city. I felt an affinity with her, and wished her luck. I realised that thousands of people running probably felt like I did about it. All just seeing what they were capable of, giving it a go. And I was one of the ones giving it a go. This felt GOOD.

1300 words in, and I haven’t even got to the race itself. This, in many ways, sums up my problem. Terrible procrastinator. This translates itself to my preparation for most things. See my training for this. I digress….

The first mile was hard. I hadn’t run for over a week so I was a little rusty-limbed, and I was going over and over just how bloody far this thing was. I use an app called MapMyRun, and having set a target pace for the race, it was handily telling me to speed up or slow down accordingly every two minutes. It was only focusing on this and the particularly lovely Trojan records reggae tunes that got me through this bit.

The thing that struck me immediately was the sheer noise that comes from outside your headphones – the relentless thud thud thud of hundreds of feet around you hitting tarmac at totally different times, like a particularly un-synced drum pattern. IT’S LIKE FREEFORM JAZZ PERFORMANCE ART! I thought to myself. I started to look around me and soak up the sights. I admired some particularly swish running clobber, and smiled at some of the great fancy dress costumes. One slight hill appeared on the approach to Penarth Marina, but it was fine, and all of a sudden I was on a downhill, lost in music, the sun starting to peek from behind the clouds.

And then came the first brilliant thing of the day for me – we hit our first real crowd and I realised that there were kids in the crowd with their arms outstretched waiting for a hi-five from a runner. I stopped and hi-fived a couple of them, to thanks and smiles from their parents, and felt a bit like a heroine to those little boys and girls, for about a nano-second. How cool would that feel when you were five? I wondered. I noticed a man to my left running in what looked like chain mail, and I had to stop and ask him what the deal was. He let me feel it (behave) and it was SO heavy, I couldn’t imagine even walking around in it never mind running for 13 miles. He was raising money for Ty Hafan, and had raised a whopping £15,000. A humbling moment that got me over the barrage.


And that was a BEAUTIFUL bit, watching the sun reflecting on the water, while I reflected on how lucky I am to live in such a picturesque city by the sea. And somehow, there was the 5 mile flag, billowing in the breeze like a beautiful sore thumb. And I felt fine, sticking to my pace, enjoying it despite myself.


I had arranged for James, my little boy (who had helped train me on early runs by circling the park on his bike while I flailed behind him, shouting “Come on mum you’re RUBBISH!” at me) to be at mile six in the bay with his dad, and as I approached the Dr Who exhibition I sped up, so stupidly excited to see his little face. And then there he was, waving a banner he made himself as a surprise, his little face beaming. I yanked off my headphones, ran over and gave him a massive hug. “You look really good mummy! Only a few miles to go! Don’t stop!”. It was what I needed to get me through the next few miles.

I picked up a nutrition gel from the halfway point, which I hadn’t used in training or even tried before. I’d been warned that it was a bad idea to try them for the first time on a race day (they can play havoc with your stomach they said!) but I knew I needed energy to get me through this next bit. I had the psychological barrier of knowing that the 8.5 mile point had HURT on my one and only training run, so I figured I’d take the risk. An older gentleman running alongside me said “You’ll be glad of that on miles 7 to 9 lovely”. And he was right. I was.

By now, I was in another zone, my feet striding ahead purposefully as if they had a mind of their own. The crowds were brilliant, shouting encouragement and I thought many times how lovely it is that people come out of their warm homes on a Sunday morning to shout encouragement to complete strangers. I resolved to always do the same and bounded up Lloyd George Avenue feeling grateful for the kindness of strangers. I managed the hill to the magic roundabout with minimal pain, and then Dirrty by Christina Aguilera kicked in and I, for no particular reason, started emphatically doing the air punch moves from the video as I ran, stretching my arms out with clenched fists, enjoying the change in physicality. I didn’t care one bit what I looked like, I was in my own little world, and it felt better than I expected. They’re moves I’ve dropped many times in my bedroom, and on a dancefloor. Why not on the open road, in my fancy daps? Why not indeed.

Mile 8 – and I felt ok! I was feeling good enough to check Twitter and my text messages while I ran, to realise that a lovely colleague was on Albany Road looking out for me. And when I got there and saw her outside Coffee #1, it was like the best time I’ve EVER seen her. I gave her a sweaty, grateful hug. Sorry for that Beck, I didn’t really think of the smell.

By now I was starting to flag, so I reached for a few emergency jelly babies. And then my parade was well and truly rained on, despite the sun continuing to shine. Mile 9-10 was horrible. It went around Roath Park Lake and just knowing how big that lake is meant it felt insurmountable. My feet were tiring, and I was dropping below my target pace consistently for the first time. We passed the care home whose residents had given me such a lift on the 10K run, and I smiled and waved at them in their wheelchairs on the front lawn, waving flags enthusiastically. That was the only smile to cross my face during that section. It felt never ending, and my feet were burning, my thighs felt like lead. I’d hit the wall. I was sorely tempted to stop and walk as people around me started doing the same but I knew that if I did, I’d find it hard to get going again, so I pushed on. And on. And on. Even the tunes weren’t making this bit bearable. This was madness, I decided. I’m absolutely not a runner. What was I thinking?

It suddenly occurred to me I had forgotten to neck the Ibuprofen at the starting line, so I shoved those in my gob along with a few jelly babies. I was desperate for anything that could help me now.

And then, after what seemed like an age, we were at the end of the lake, and rounded a corner to loud whoops and cheers from the crowd. That lovely, lovely crowd with their jelly babies on trays and smiling faces and relentless clapping. I appreciated them all the more because I knew what was next and it wasn’t good.

It was a COW of a hill that runs alongside a cemetery and links to Cathays Terrace. Coming at the end of such an arduous section, and having faced the same hill on the 10K, I knew it was going to hurt. And it hurt like hell. I saw one girl who was really struggling, and something made me want to help her. I gave her an encouraging back pat, and told her “You can do it lovely – keep going – not far now!”. I saw the difference it made to her as the pain melted off her face and she sped up, and decided to tell myself the same. And sure as you like, the hill was over. Sometimes it’s about the kindness of others, sometimes it’s the kindness you find in yourself I guess.

This must have been around mile 12 but I didn’t notice any banners, it’s all I could do to keep my legs moving in a straight line. One thing I did notice, however, was medal-wearing runners walking the other way. These people had ALREADY FINISHED? Jesus Wept I thought. I’d better get a swerve on.

After that awful hill, Cathays Terrace felt like a walk in the park. No more hills to negotiate, a downhill section coming up ahead, and the end was within reach. I’d saved the songs that mean the most to me until last, and I was suddenly glad for the playlist again. The unmistakable bassline of Lost In The Supermarket by the Clash kicked in and I started to speed up.

This, by the way, is symptomatic of my runs; I always manage to muster a killer sprint finish from somewhere, no matter how leaden my limbs. It’s always a surprise, but it’s always there somewhere.

The crowd was amazing here, cheering so loudly, and it powered every stride. Then suddenly, I remembered how much every inch of me hurt – my arms, my hips, my ankles, my toes, my thighs – and started to swear loudly as I ran. I think I was being a bit of a baby, TBH. A few kind runners backslapped me, encouraged me to keep going.

And there it was, the downhill. THE SWEET DOWNHILL. I could see a sea of runners in front of me, and I knew the finish was within reach. I couldn’t see it yet, but I knew it was coming up. I was in agony, but managing to keep up my pace.

All of a sudden a huge wave of emotion hit me. I thought of my dad, was instantly transported to running with him as a teenager, and started to sob uncontrollably. From nowhere huge tears fell as I ran. God knows what I looked like. Sweat mingled with tears and snot isn’t a good look, so in retrospect I’m glad I had nobody waiting for me in the crowd at this point. I cried and cried as I strode and strode; a mixture of relief, adrenaline, grief and gratitude pouring from my eyes. Yet my pace was inexplicably speeding up! It felt as if he was running alongside me which might sound crazy, but bear with me reader, I was practically hallucinating by this point.

I turned the corner and there it was, the mirage-like red inflatable finish line bobbing in the distance. And from somewhere deep inside I plucked up a sprint finish that I never thought I would be capable of at that point. I killed that 0.1 mile. Oh yes.

As I crossed the line I punched the air and shouted “That was for you dad! I bloody did it!”. I’ve never felt anything like it. In that moment, I understood clearly why people become addicted to running. Despite the agony,  the feeling of crossing that line, of achieving something I wasn’t sure was possible, just felt like the biggest high. And my app told me I’d done it in 2 hours and 23 minutes – 7 minutes ahead of my target time of 2.5 hours.


So what did a half marathon feel like for a first timer? Terrifying, taxing, enlightening, wondrous and just bloody brilliant is the answer.

As I tucked into a post-race steak, mac and cheese, chips and lobster tail (I’d earned it, right?) I was already thinking about the next one.


Barcelona 2015 anyone*?

*DISCLAIMER: This was written before I fell out of bed the following morning, when my ankles completely gave way. Watch this space, dear reader.

4 responses to “13.1 miles from home girl: Or, what a Half Marathon feels like for a first timer”

  1. This post so beautifully captures the incredible journey you’ve been on. It’s been a pleasure to watch and help you along – even if you do ignore 64% of what I say… 😉 Running is amazing for so many reasons not least of all because it leaves us feeling so lucky to be alive, time and time again. Big well done not only for nailing such a brilliant achievement but also the money you raised in the process. See you at the Barcelona finish line – I’ll be the one holding the tray of cerveza and patatas bravas. Sub 2:00 is all yours for the taking. I love a project. Can I make you mine…?

  2. That’s my girl, that was definitely Daddy running the last mile with you. You never cease to amaze me my daughter. Love always Mam xx

  3. […] understand why because this time I have the advantage of knowing I CAN run this race. Before the Cardiff half marathon the furthest I had ever run in one go was ten miles, so back then, I wasn’t even sure I could […]

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Hello. I’m Sara. This site is home to my writing for the Western Mail, a newspaper kind enough to publish my internal ramblechats. In 2022 I was named Wales Media Awards Columnist of The Year for this column. Madness. You’ll find me spaffing opinions on feminism, inequality, festivals, tech, art and whatever else pops into my head at 3am the day before deadline. There’s also bonus content, when the muse takes me (WHERE IS SHE TAKING ME? I DIDN’T ORDER THIS CAB! Etc…).

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