A stat-attack: the best half marathons in the UK if you want to run fast times

A stat-attack: the best half marathons in the UK if you want to run fast times

I have a theory that if you want to run a fast time in a race, then you really should find a race with as many other fast runners as possible. I am just reading the new book by Malcolm Gladwell, called David and Goliath and in that he talks about the idea that very often the things that we think might have a linear relationship – such as diminishing class size and pupil success – actually don’t. In fact in the case of class sizes, there is a point where the smaller the class, the worse the pupils do. I will leave you to read the book and understand why.

But I think that the same goes for races, especially the closer you get to the front. The more runners there are (up to a point) the better the chances you have of running fast.

It is, perhaps then, no coincidence that I have never won a race. If you want to win a race then your aim should be to find a race with as few fast runners in it as possible. I admit that rarely does a weekend go by during the spring or autumn race seasons when I don’t see the results from a race and think ‘I wish I had done that race – I’d have had half a chance of a podium spot or even of winning it’. However, I am really only interested in racing my PBs and trying to achieve better times, so it matters not to me if I am second or 100th, provided I achieve what I set out to achieve – particularly if that is a PB.

The reasons I believe more = better

I think there are two reasons that having more runners around you is better if you are trying to achieve a particular time goal (and once again, there is not a linear relationship here: I have seen the runners filling the road at around four and a half hour pace in the London marathon and I accept that if you are in the race at that pace, there are too many people and you are actually hindered from running faster).

The first is physical. There is not doubt that a strong wind is not our friend when it comes to running fast times. The first year I ran the Cambridge half marathon I worked hard after a couple of miles to close the gap to a group of four runners in front of me. Once I was there, the group worked really well together, taking turns on the front. In that group was the first lady – Holly Rush – who was given very loud and strict instructions to stay in that group and shelter from the head wind as much as possible by her coach, Martin Rush, who was on the pavement at a number of points as we passed by.

I have experienced exactly the same in many races myself – the London marathon this year was made much tougher by the fact that as I hit mile 22 there was no one around me and there was a distinct breeze into my face along the Embankment. A better chance came in the Bristol half this year, when after about 7 miles I ended up in a group with two other runners and we worked together into the head wind along the Portway back into town. Without that shelter, I would definitely have not managed 78 minutes two weeks after a 100km mountain race and the weekend after 80 minutes at the Run To The Beat.

I also think that there is a huge psychological advantage to running in a group. If everyone in the group get it right, each person can allow the group to pull them along for a while, relaxing and simply following the feet, letting someone else take responsibility for the pacing and sharing the responsibility.

This sort of pacing benefit was brought home to me at the Wokingham half marathon last year. In that race there was a veritable peloton of runners, all clicking off the miles at sub-75 minute pace. Working together, sharing the pacing and sheltering each other from the wind. It was a perfect example of a group working together and the results show the effect that grouping had with the following times posted:

74:02… 74:08… 74:09… 74:13… 74:15…
74:18… 74:18… 74:33… 74:35… 74:38…
74:41… 74:41… 74:43… 74:53… 74:53…

Which race to pick

So I hope I have established that there are two very good reasons to try to find a race – at least a half marathon – where you can run with a group all targeting the same pace as you, if you want to push yourself and potentially run a fast time.

The next question is which race should you try to get in to? Well, if we look at the races where people run under 75 minutes – the time for a guaranteed Championship Entry in the London Marathon – then the pattern is stark. There were 21 races in the UK this year where more than six people have run under 75 minutes. Amongst those however, there are a super-group of three where more than 47 have achieved that target and six more where at least 10 have completed the course at an average of 5 minutes 43 seconds per mile. This chart shows you the races where people ran under 75 minutes (click on the chart to be able to read all the race names along the bottom):

 

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 17.08.32

I realise of course that there are factors that come into play here. Some of the races are big events and by the very fact that they have tens or thousands of runners, there is a good chance that there will be fast runners. But that is not always the case: in the Royal Parks half marathon last year – on a flat course, in good conditions – there were exactly 5 runners under 75 minutes – that is 0.042% of the 11,764 finishers. Compare that to Wokingham 2013 where 1.74% of the field finished under 75 minutes and Reading where 0.62% achieved the same time. Admittedly these are not big numbers, but in the case of Reading that was 80 runners out of a field almost exactly the same size as the Royal Parks.

It should also be noted that I have not taken into account any weather conditions or course profile.

But I think that the reality is that if you are looking to run a fast half marathon, you will have a much, much better chance if you run one of the three races where there are the most other runners trying to do the same. For runners further down the field, there doesn’t seem to be any benefit from running in the bigger races, indeed the opposite is probably true, but once you are looking to run 1 hour 30 minutes or faster, the Bath, Reading and Great North Run races are simply the best.

Appendix:
Here are the races that are in the chart above:
Reading (79 runners under 75 minutes)
Great North Run (64)
Bath (63)
Bristol (48)
Wokingham (47)
Peterborough (37)
Cardiff (32)
Birmingham (31)
Nottingham (31)
Wilmslow (31)
Gosport (25)
Fleet (22)
Glasgow (22)
Paddock Wood (18)
Inverness (16)
Llanwddyn (16)
St Leonards On Sea (16)
Alloa (12)
Edinburgh (12)
Worksop (12)
Chester (11)
Helsby (11)
Liverpool (11)
York (11)
Sheffield (10)
Tunbridge Wells (10)
Cambridge (9)
Llanelli (8)

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About simon

I run marathons. Everything else is a result of that.

10 Responses to “A stat-attack: the best half marathons in the UK if you want to run fast times”

  1. Jamie October 8, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    Hi Simon, a great article and a really interesting read. I’m running in the Peterborough half this Sunday and thought you might be interested to know that last year 37 people in it ran under 75 minutes…fingers crossed it pays off for me!

    • simon October 8, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

      Hi Jamie. Thank you for pointing out the results from the Peterborough Half. That looks like a great race and a really high quality field. I will have to check my research to find out why I missed that race from last year. All the best for the race and let me know how you get on please!

      • Jamie October 13, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

        Hi Simon,
        Just back from Peterborough. A horrible wet and windy run but did as suggested and got into a good pack and we split the work. All paid off for a chip time of 74.47; a new PB by almost 2 mins and my first time under 75. I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is wanting a fast race!
        Cheers.

        • simon October 14, 2013 at 9:10 am #

          Jamie,
          That is fantastic! You must be immensely pleased with that performance in those conditions. My hat is most definitely off to you. And now you have a wonderful new London Marathon Championship time for next year. All round a wonderful Sunday for you. If you fancy writing a race report for the blog, I’d be delighted to post it.

          • Jamie October 14, 2013 at 7:07 pm #

            Thanks Simon. I was very pleased and most elated post run that I’ve been in a while. Consider the report done. Could you email me at maggik24@hotmail.com with any specifics/so I can send you the text securely?

  2. Tom P October 14, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    Simon – thanks for an interesting post. I’ve been doing regular track sessions with my club recently and the coaches have really drilled into us the advantages of running as a pack to sustain a strong pace, so I agree with what you’re saying. I’ve done a few of the events you listed too, though just shy of 90 minutes rather than 75 minutes. A couple of points I’d add are:

    - it can be worth looking to see if a race is used as a county/ regional/ club championship race where you’re much more likely to get some good quality runners taking part. The Wrexham half you mention is the North Wales regional championship and is packed with club runners, not just from north Wales but from Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Shropshire etc.

    - someone slower than 75 minutes could adapt your methods by looking at past results to see how many people will be at around their pace – some of the bigger races can get very crowded at the 90 minute mark so a smaller scale event might make for a more manageable pack to run with.

  3. PJB January 13, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    I worked out when each of these races take place (as I was looking to organise my Autumn schedule), so I thought I would share the results. Below are the races in number of sub-75s order and then in date order (approximately!!) through the year.

    Reading (79 runners under 75 minutes) Mar-14
    Great North Run (64) Sep-14
    Bath (63) Mar-14
    Bristol (48) Sep-14
    Wokingham (47) Feb-14
    Peterborough (37) Oct-14
    Cardiff (32) Oct-14
    Birmingham (31) Oct-14
    Nottingham (31) Sep-14
    Wilmslow (31) Mar-14
    Gosport (25) Nov-14
    Fleet (22) Mar-14
    Glasgow (22) Oct-14
    Paddock Wood (18) Mar-14
    Inverness (16) Mar-14
    Llanwddyn (16) Sep-14
    St Leonards On Sea (16) Mar-14
    Alloa (12) Mar-14
    Edinburgh (12) May-14
    Worksop (12) Oct-14
    Chester (11) May-14
    Helsby (11) Jan-14
    Liverpool (11) Mar-14
    York (11) Jan-14
    Sheffield (10) Apr-14
    Tunbridge Wells (10) Sep-14
    Cambridge (9) Mar-14
    Llanelli (8) Mar-14

    Date order:

    Helsby (11) Jan-14
    York (11) Jan-14
    Wokingham (47) Feb-14
    Reading (79 runners under 75 minutes) Mar-14
    Bath (63) Mar-14
    Wilmslow (31) Mar-14
    Fleet (22) Mar-14
    Paddock Wood (18) Mar-14
    Inverness (16) Mar-14
    St Leonards On Sea (16) Mar-14
    Alloa (12) Mar-14
    Liverpool (11) Mar-14
    Cambridge (9) Mar-14
    Llanelli (8) Mar-14
    Sheffield (10) Apr-14
    Edinburgh (12) May-14
    Chester (11) May-14
    Great North Run (64) Sep-14
    Bristol (48) Sep-14
    Nottingham (31) Sep-14
    Llanwddyn (16) Sep-14
    Tunbridge Wells (10) Sep-14
    Peterborough (37) Oct-14
    Cardiff (32) Oct-14
    Birmingham (31) Oct-14
    Glasgow (22) Oct-14
    Worksop (12) Oct-14
    Gosport (25) Nov-14

  4. Paul April 20, 2015 at 11:20 pm #

    Great post. Would love to see a graph of sub 75 runners as a %age of total runners.

  5. Steve Fish March 23, 2016 at 7:43 pm #

    Great article.

    Paddock Wood is far flatter than Reading and I think is faster.

    Barns Green is a fantastic Marathon.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Guest race report from the Perkins Great Eastern Run, Peterborough (2013) and some thoughts on running a sub 75 minute half marathon - Simon Freeman - October 17, 2013

    [...] for my run, I set off with thoughts from one of Simon’s recent articles about running fast times in my head. I knew that this race had a high percentage of runners coming [...]

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