Sunday 30 June, 2019

It’s not every day you run an event you once ran years ago, only to find the route change completely. But the Halifax Marathon is one such event. In the year I took part, 2014, it took a route which cut under a dual carriageway. Some people didn’t get the message, and it wasn’t adequately marshalled. One dreads to think what might have happened if a runner had been hit by a car. So the year after, the organisers of the Halifax Marathon (and Half Marathon) – that’s Team OA – upped the sticks of the race day HQ from The Shay (the home of FC Halifax Town and Halifax RLFC) to Dean Clough, a mill complex that was once home to the world’s largest carpet factory, and is now a thriving business, arts and culture hub. I hadn’t returned to the event since, though nearly ran it last year, til I decided to save myself for my corporate sojourn into Germany, where I ultimately ran my current half marathon PB.

I entered the Halifax Half Marathon for 2019, not necessarily expecting to get a PB but at the time, I could get early bird entry (£10 to run a road half marathon – cheap as chips!), it was local (so no hotel or travel costs), and it was a reasonably tough race, but one it looked like, on previous results, I could be competitive on. The date loomed for several months, and it has served to keep me motivated following my tribulations in Blackpool.

Come race day, I got a lift into Halifax from my father, and began the routine process of getting ready for the race. A few of my Halifax Harriers team mates were in attendance too, so it was good to have a few people to chat with. I did have a slight concern about going to the loo beforehand, and noticed there were no portaloos, however people were heading in and out of a section of one of the buildings and it seemed this may have been where such facilities were placed. And they were. Except effectively, it was one toilet for disabled users. Now trying to be used by a growing line of half marathon and full marathon runners. I wasn’t exactly desperate, but I was hardly moving down the line, and so I took the decision to leave it and make sure I was ready for the race briefing. I was hoping I could sweat out any urges instead!

Before the race

The race director gave out information in the briefing, warned it was going to get warm so no chasing PBs (and looked at me as he said it!), and took one or two questions. He confirmed to me that the end of the race featured a turn into a little ginnel that leads back up onto Dean Clough Road to lead to the finish. Having scrupulously examined, reccied and walked around all parts of the race route prior to the race, it was good to be 100% sure, as that was the one bit of the route I thought might confuse either myself, or someone else.

Quickly he counted down, with barely anyone assembled on the start line, as runners hastily stepped forward, fingers primed at their watches. Bang, went the starter’s gun, and we were away. I started off in the lead for the first couple of miles or so, but given the intensity of some of the early hills, I questioned if I’d be there for long. And sure enough, at roughly mile 3, I conceded the lead at a left turn onto a road called Sandbeds Lane, which I initially ran past, which the runner behind took full advantage of, though he kindly called me to go the right way, preventing me from turning a minor error into a great one. I was slightly annoyed with myself for this, I’d reccied the route in training! I refocused, and pursued this runner from second place for a quite a bit thereafter. It just seemed mile by mile, he was inching that bit further away. Even when it seemed I was reeling him in a bit when surging down a particularly steep downhill section, he’d be away once I hit the next uphill. The last I saw of him was up in Ogden, as he peeled off to take the one of the race’s challenging hills, Ned Hill Road, about 6 miles or so in. That was the last I would see of him.

Nonetheless, I was sat seemingly comfortably in second. And ‘comfortably’ is definitely not the best place to be. I was starting to think around nine miles in that it felt more like a training run. Without a watch to push me along it did prompt me to up the effort down Roper Lane, which led out of Queensbury and down towards Ovenden.

The next left was onto a road called Swales Bank Road. This began with a hill. Suddenly, another runner came from behind me, seemingly out of nowhere. I hadn’t heard his footsteps behind but he was seemingly comfortable himself. I kicked on, having lost the place, and won it back. I started to treat the race like a 5K. I hurtled myself down the hill towards Claremount Road, took the right turn and continued to keep the surge going. It wasn’t enough though. Just over a mile from the end of the race, the runner, in a purple vest, overtook me again. Initially, he went wide at a crossing which enabled me to reel him back in a little, but he managed to establish a gap that I could only manage to sustain, and not bridge back. By this point my primary goal was to consolidate third, and I refused to look behind me for any potential threat to the proverbial podium.

The finish approached as the route snaked through a little ginnel which acted as a passageway from Old Road, back up onto Cross Hills/Dean Clough. The man in purple got away but then, to my surprise, appeared to miss the turn into the finish. For some reason I yelled ‘thank you!’, as I thought he was continuing for the marathon, and that he’d actually paced me into second. He then turned around to see me heading into the E Mill of Dean Clough.

If you thought that was confusing, then here is where it gets even worse. I took the left round the corner towards the finish area and then the immediate left to lead down to the finish line. I asked a lady if this was the finish for the half, to which she replied ‘yes’. So I continued running and crossed the line. I was then told I’d gone the wrong way and that I should have continued over the bridge to re-enter the car park at the far end. I was prepared to set off again to correct my error but I had crossed the line, and my chip had activated. I didn’t even notice one of the finish line staff removing my chip from my shoe, such was I trying to figure out what went on.

Shortly after this, another runner came in, the right way, but said he’d spent five minutes trying to figure out where to finish, before grabbing his bag and yelling ‘MARK YOUR COURSE! ‘ at the organiser, before promptly disappearing.

I engaged in further conversation with the race director about what had happened. It started to get a bit ludicrous. He said there was no arrow to say to turn right and asked me if I saw an arrow. I said ‘well, no’. But nor did I see an arrow saying to go straight ahead. I pointed out that the route on their website says to turn right at the finish, only to be told the route changed four days ago and its what the route is on the day. I showed him the Halifax Marathon website which shows the route in. There was no red line to show an out and back along Lee Bridge into the car park to finish. The conversation turned to what to do about my time (and that of the runner immediately behind me). I stopped short of calling it what it was – an absolute lie.

I was asked where I thought I finished. My reply?

2nd or 3rd, I guess“.

I was assured it would all be sorted out and they’d sort it out when everyone had come in. About 15 minutes later, I decided I’d had enough and set about leaving to get some lunch from the town centre and head home. I hadn’t even collected my medal at this point. I was pretty much done with it at this point, as I felt this was primarily the organiser’s fault for not marking the course properly at the finish. Interestingly, when I left, a man had been sent out to marshal the entry to E Mill. Which essentially confirmed that the either the lack of, or the confusing nature, the markings/arrows on course had been a problem. It was only because my wife, urging me to go back because my kids would want to see my medal, that I reconsidered.

I went back, nothing much was happening aside from more half marathon runners finishing and marathon runners coming through to start their second lap. I was getting a bit famished by this point, so I went to a nearby café and managed to purchase a good cup of tea and a chicken burrito with coleslaw, and for a fair price too. I used the time to study the course map again.

Screenshot of the Halifax Marathon start/finish map. Note there is no route coming from the left towards the start/finish. Screenshot taken 30/06/2019 about 1 hour after the race. (© Organic Adventure)

I concluded that, based on the course map online, I was correct to enter the E Mill the way I did, but I had made an error by not running straight on to do a loop of the car park and then head back to the finish. However, I will maintain the route was not clear about heading over Lee Bridge a second time to finish.

Screenshot of the course map taken from the organiser’s entry. The red lined route is exactly as the organiser’s website. The blue line is what I’ve drawn with a basic editing app to show the route we were told was correct on the day. Screenshot taken on 30/06/2019, roughly 1 hour after the race finished

So just after 1pm, I went back towards the finish line. The situation had calmed down a bit and I went back and explained as such to the race director. He gave me a t-shirt for free (it was £3 on sign up, and I forgot to bring a change of clothes bar a waterproof jacket, so I couldn’t refuse), chatted a bit about what I had lined up next and was asked if I wanted to run Man vs Barge again. I said I’d think about it. And with that, I left it there on reasonably good terms.

No arrow on this lamp post approaching the finish. The runner ahead is just past the entry/exit to E Mill (where the zigzag ends), where I turned right at the end. There was a marshal here when this photo was taken – you can’t see him though
The organisers said on the day that runners were to go back over Lee Bridge (above), enter the car park at the far end (out of picture), and run along to the finish (out of shot to the left)
According to the course map, I should have gone straight ahead here and turned left at the bottom to loop to the finish. Instead, I took the immediate left shown. There isn’t any arrow here to show where to go.

If you ask me where fault lies for the muck up, I’m partly liable for finishing the wrong way, as I didn’t get it right based on what I knew from studying the website. I definitely buggered up the finish in terms of coming across the line the wrong way. That’s undeniable. And in doing so I effectively ruined the guy in purple’s race, which is a shame, as he was a genuinely nice guy and we had a very good race in the latter stages. But for my money, the organisers, Team OA, are chiefly to blame for this fiasco. The race ultimately suffered for a lack of volunteers, which they had appealed for in the week before on social media with a fairly mute response in return – to be fair, those volunteers who did assist were brilliant. I can’t fault them. However, the arrow system at the finish wasn’t clear, and it turned out I wasn’t the only one affected. Nor was I the first to get confused by the finish.

Perhaps the final kicker was the publication of the results – which were announced on the White Rose Marathons Facebook page, though not the event page, and found on the Halifax Marathon website, via a very blurred and difficult to read image. I was awarded me a chip time of 1:40:01 AND a demotion from 2nd to 7th. Just…wow.

The more I thought about it, the more I disagreed with this time. The race started at about 10:02am. I checked my phone again at 11:35am, roughly two minutes after I finished. Which would give me a 1:31, maybe a 1:32. I missed out a total 0.35 miles of the course. That would have taken me two minutes at most. There is absolutely no way my transgression cost me 8 minutes. I apparently finished 3 minutes behind my team mate, and I’m certain I was stood around for 5 minutes before he came in! My chip time and gun time were also a minute apart. Which makes absolutely no sense.

So with that, I can honestly say that this was perhaps the worst outcome I’ve ever experienced in a race. True, I went wrong by crossing the finish line the wrong way. But guess what? Stuff like this happens when you don’t inform runners of changes to the course before race day. Stuff like this happens when you don’t mark your course clearly. And stuff like this doesn’t happen if you have a marshal in place. Like the organisers did, when they realised they had a problem. About 20 minutes too late.

What an absolute shambles.

Thank you to Sophie Baxter for the race photos