Jenny Nesbitt marked her 13.1-mile debut with a win and offers advice for those tackling the distance

It’s 13.1 miles. Running hard. Doing your best not to stop. Praying that there is not another hill around the corner. 13.1 miles is, after all, ‘only’ half a marathon!

That is basically a summary of the thoughts going around my head last Sunday morning as I lined up to run the Reading Half Marathon. It was my first ever half-marathon and my first ever attempt at racing anything longer than 10km. Apart from my standard Sunday long runs of about 15 miles, I had never in fact run further than a half-marathon at any other point in my training. Was I being mad?!

I bet that thought was going around the head of many of the 19,500 participants on the start line at 10.15am on Sunday, or that’s what I convinced myself anyway! The great thing about road running – and big events like this, though – is that there is an amazing buzz and thousands of supporters. Road running is unlike any other type of running. Cross-country, track, fell, hill, mountain running… they are all great, but road running is just something else. You sort of feel invincible, running along roads which are usually busy with cars, going down one way streets in the opposite direction and racing amongst so many other people.

So, what is it like running a half-marathon? Well, if you are asking me, it is an amazing experience. Whether you are new to running, a seasoned professional, never run a half in your life (like me) or just looking for a new challenge, I would certainly say that a half is something to put on your bucket list.

When the gun went on Sunday, it was amazing to think that 19,500 of us were all setting off on a journey together. All going to cover the same 13.1 miles and finish in one of the coolest places – the Madejski Stadium (and I am not a football fan!).

For me, my debut over the distance was one I will never forget. Having no idea how I was going to run, I sat in with a group of men, who I hoped would be running at a pace I could maintain. Luckily I selected a good group and for the majority of the race I was able to work with them and push my limits. That’s the great thing about road running, there is never a lack of people around you! So I sat in with the men and hoped that they would pull around. Even better was the fact that there were a couple of tallish guys who were perfect windshields at points during the race. The bonus of being a girl, eh!

As the race progressed, I kept plugging away, trying to maintain a rhythm and counting to 100 over and over again. This is a tip I learnt when reading an article about Paula Radcliffe – and it works wonders! The miles ticked by and before I knew it there was only 1000m to go! Only 1km, into the stadium… what a finish!

I remember entering the packed stadium to the crowds applauding and screaming. There was a guy alongside me and the sprint finish was on… I am pleased to say that although we were awarded the same time my name appears ahead of his in the results! I just had enough time to raise my arms as I crossed the line, a memory that will last forever!

The atmosphere was incredible! It was amazing to see so many people crossing the line. It makes you realise that if they can do it, you can too!

So my top five tips as to what to expect for your first half-marathon:

1. It will be mental! There are thousands of runners, plus supporters, plus amazing volunteers. The atmosphere will be crazy! But soak it all up, embrace it and use the vibes to boost your race. This is not a normal Sunday run, it is way better.

2. Get to the start early! This is not track racing where you can rock up just before the gun goes! Make sure you get to the start in plenty of time, warmed up and with disposable clothing, which you can chuck away when the gun goes. There are usually different starting areas depending upon what time you think you are going to run, so use this to your advantage and get around people who will help you get around.

3. Don’t go too fast at the start! Remember you are running a half-marathon not a 100m sprint. You’ve got plenty of time to settle into a rhythm and develop your pace. You don’t want to blow up at 10km and spend the next half of the race wishing you’d remembered that you weren’t racing Usain Bolt.

4. It is ‘only’ a half-marathon, so you don’t necessarily need ‘extra’ fuel during the race. There is usually water available en route if you feel you need it, but if you’re feeling like you need something mid race, make sure you’ve tried and tested it before hand! There is nothing worse than experiencing the negative effects of something that doesn’t seem to like your stomach!

5. Enjoy it. This is not something you do every week. Soak it all up. Smile. Have fun. It may not feel like it at mile 10, but it will be totally worth it once you cross the finish line.

Obviously I am being slightly biased, but Reading was a fantastic event and has been rated as one of the fastest half-marathon courses in the UK. So whether you are looking for a PB or just a great time, I would certainly consider signing up for next year. In fact, in the UK we are so lucky to have so many half-marathon events year in and year out. I am pretty sure you could find one every single weekend if you wanted to! So, embrace the challenge and love every minute!

» Follow Jenny on Twitter @jennynesbitt and her blog at runwithasmileblog.wordpress.com