I just ran the 2011 Lisbon Half Marathon, and I’ll recount my experience here, including details that might be helpful for those wanting to run the race in 2012.
Summary: March 20, almost 40,000 people, gorgeous start across the 25 de Abril bridge, beautiful but hot day, monotonous and flat after the bridge, fun ending right in front of Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, 21.1km. I did okay, but not great (1 hr. 53 min. 44 sec.), due mainly to my lack of disciplined training and a bit to the heat. But I still very much enjoyed the experience. I’d love to redo it with the proper preparation.
Registration: I checked out the race site (http://www.lisbon-half-marathon.com) to register, but found two conflicting prices (35€ and 13€). I wanted the cheaper, obviously, so I avoided signing up online and caught a bus over to the closest Banif bank. That’s the advantage to living here in Lisbon 🙂 Five minutes, 13 euros, and bit of broken Portuguese, and chega! But be careful to check the correct boxes, because there’s a mini-marathon (8km) as well, which is much more popular than the half marathon
Picking up the bib: During the 4 days prior to the race, you have to go pick up your bib (dorsal in Portuguese) and t-shirt in Belém. Mini-Marathon participants got a cotton t-shirt, half marathon participants got a technical t-shirt. Both yellow with the same (decent) design. You also get a ChampionChip to lace into your shoe. When I went, my name wasn’t on the list of registered runners… good thing I had kept up with my receipt. The people were very helpful and got the problem sorted out quickly. And since I was there just a block from the famous Pastéis de Belém, I had to stop in for a few. (Don’t miss these, they’re awesome!)
Transportation to the race: I hopped on the bus and metro to Entrecampos to catch the free race-day trains from there. They came every 10 minutes or so. When it arrived, it was packed, but I managed to squeeze on. At the next few stops it turned hilarious, as more and more yellow-shirted lemmings packed on (Campolide was the worst). Then again, maybe it wasn’t hilarious for the crowds left standing on the dock waiting for the next jam-packed train. But on board, there was a general air of levity and excitement. We all exited at Pragal (this is a good spot to take a bathroom break, if you need), and then joined the throngs on the 10 min. walk to the starting line. Well, it would have been 10 min., but there was a bottle neck about half a kilometer from the start. I arrived at the bottle neck just after 9:00 AM (an hour and a half before the race) and only got through almost 45 min. later. You gotta love crowds. The 30,000 mini-marathon runners/walkers (complete with kids and strollers) all start the race together with the 8,400 half-marathon runners. Makes for a bit of a mad house effect.
I wished I had taken advantage of the free red Vodafone caps they were handing out, because already the sun was starting to beat down on my head. Once I finally got through the bottle-necked mob, the location of the start-line was really cool. The towers of the 25 de Abril suspension bridge (twin of the Golden Gate bridge) loom ahead, while the Cristo Rei statue towers over on the right side.
A line of policemen, arms interlinked, held back the crowd from pushing up to the start, but I noticed that there were a few runner warming up on the other side of the human barricade, right close to the starting line. I didn’t know how to join the privileged few, so I wandered through the bushes on the side a bit and easily found myself on the other side of the police line. It was much nicer to start in front of the mob instead of in it. (Does that make me a bad person?)
The race: You just can’t beat the start of this half marathon. Must be one of the best in the world. The view from the bridge, with Lisbon spreading out to your right and Belém to your left, is magnificent. They fired off at precisely 10:30 AM. I started a bit fast with all the excitement, but at the first km marker I slowed my pace down a bit. After 2 km you start the significant descent from the bridge, all the way to the 4 km marker. At 4.5 km was the first water station, then at 5 km the half and mini-marathon paths diverged. From there on out, it was completely flat. I put my headphones in.
The course runs along the Tejo river all the way to the Praça do Comércio (downtown Lisbon, about km 9), then turns back on itself for the longest stretch, out the other side of Belém, where it again doubles back (about km 18) to the finish in front of Jerónimos Monastery. So the entire way you are passing runner going in the opposite direction – part of the time, they are fellow half marathoners (either ahead of you or behind you); part of the time, it’s the fun-run crowd. I kept looking for the folks I knew in the mini-marathon side, but to no avail. I guess the chances aren’t great among 40,000 people.
The sun was unexpectedly hot. Okay, it was only 22°C (72°F) – nothing like my long runs in August in Memphis – but it felt hot. All my training was here in Lisbon, but the temperatures have been much cooler, and the skies have typically been overcast. Today would have been a great day for the beach. But we weren’t on the beach, we were on the tarmac, sweating like pigs. The water stations (also with Powerade) felt few and far between (every 4km or so), so I was glad I had decided to wear my Fuel Belt with my own water supply. It made a big difference. I also took a couple of 20 gram carb gels along the way. Near the end (about km 19) there was a station with oranges and bananas, which I really appreciated, but it came a bit late for me.
I had started out at around 5 min/km (8 min/mile), but mid-race the heat and my own lack of consistent training started to catch up with me. I knew I could finish fine, but I just didn’t have the energy or motivation to push myself for a fast time. During the last half my splits were 5:30/km (8:51/mile), and around kms 18 and 19 I slowed down even more, past 6 min/km (9:40/mile). As the end drew closer, I found the energy to get back up to 5:30/km.
The finish: Like the start, the finish is just pretty awesome. With crowd on every side, we turned toward Jerónimos for the short dash to the finish line. The monastery is massive and beautiful, and it’s surrounded by gardens and fountains… a perfect Portuguese ending. 6,330 runners finished the half marathon, and countless more finished the mini-marathon.
I finished in 1:53:44. This was my third half marathon, but my time was only slightly better than my first attempt in 2006 (1:54:01) and nowhere close to my personal best in 2009 (1:42:33). I have yet to run a half marathon that I felt I was well prepared for. Maybe someday.
Within a few meters after crossing the line, I had to stop my aching legs to squat down and unlace the Chip from my shoe. Then I managed to stand back up and join the crowd again as we shuffled our way past the volunteers handing out medals. And then filed by more volunteers handing out goodie bags. Each bag had: 2 bottles of water, 1 bottle of Powerade, 1 granola bar, and 1 box of milk (???). Then guess what, more volunteers handing out… ice cream cones! At first I thought that so much dairy wouldn’t sit well with my stomach, but pretty soon the afternoon heat made the ice cream sound just perfect.
One of the best parts of the whole experience was the atmosphere in the gardens around the monastery. People everywhere you looked, spread out on the grass with their friends and family, stretching, eating ice cream, talking it up. Mostly Portuguese, but a good international smattering too. The crowd seemed to linger forever, slowly spreading out as people took advantage of the Belém cafes and restaurants or set out their picnic supplies on the lawn. I would have enjoyed staying all afternoon. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my family with me. So instead, I stood in line to buy several more Pastéis de Belem, then thought about bus options home.
Transportation from the race: Overall, the race organizers did well to manage 40,000 people. The weak spot was the return transportation. Carris buses didn’t seem to be running any more than their normal light Sunday schedule, so every bus was completely sardine-packed before it arrived. So I walked to the train station, only to find the waiting line stretching out several blocks. Looking for more creative options, I finally caught a bus going the opposite direction (toward Restelo), and once past the throng I hopped off to board one going in the right direction. That way I could get on before the rest of the crowd. Still, it was a long, densely packed bus ride back into town.
Conclusion: I’ve enjoyed every race I’ve run, and this was no exception. My personal fitness level wasn’t where I would have liked, but the day was still thoroughly enjoyable for the atmosphere, the scenery, the people. I thank God for giving me this chance to live in Lisbon for a year, and this half marathon will go with me in the memory chest. Next up… add a third continent to my road race repertoire.