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EDP Lisbon Half Marathon 2023 review
Large, fast race in a fantastic city.
The EDP Lisbon Half Marathon is a big race. It’s a long established one, too, going back over 30 years. The half marathon is the flagship event, although there’s also a separately sponsored overlapping 10K on the same day and a 7K — an unusual distance — the day before.
The organizers speak of the overall event as attracting over 30,000 participants. However, in 2023, the official results showed just over 11,000 runners completing the half, a similar number the 10K, and around 500 the 7K the day before. That puts the total field around 23,000 — even though the event was sold out. But it still makes it among the larger running events in Europe.
The organizers also call it “the fastest half marathon in the world.” And while that may be hyperbole, it’s a nod to the fact that it was here that Jacob Kiplimo, the reigning half marathon world champion, finished in 57 minutes and 31 seconds in 2021.
The race shouldn’t be confused with the Luso Half Marathon, another large event, which takes place in Lisbon in the fall (on the same day as the full EDP Marathon). It can be easy to mix up the two, as they both begin on bridges and EDP — an energy conglomerate — features as a sponsor in both days’ overall events. However, the bridges are different and the two half marathons follow completely different courses.
I was able to register about four weeks ahead. The race sold out some time between then and the days leading up to the event. I paid around $65, which included a shirt. That’s a pretty good price for a world-class race, especially registering relatively late. But I discovered money generally goes quite far in Lisbon, a city I hadn’t visited in over 30 years.
Getting to Lisbon
I took TAP Air Portugal from San Francisco to Lisbon arriving in the city two days before the race, which was on Sunday March 12. I then took the Metro — subway — from the airport to a station about a mile from where I was staying, a roughly $3 expense including the reusable rail card. I could have changed train to get closer, but fancied a walk.
I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. That may sound like an unimaginative choice, but the reason was that I’d be flying out after the race — headed to Mozambique — and would need a late check-out since it was not an early race start. Hotels in Europe can be quite strict about check-out times, but my IHG status guarantees me until at least 2 PM. Besides, Holiday Inn Expresses in Europe tend to be more charming than their US counterparts. Mine — the one in Av. Liberdade — was in a renovated old building in a pleasant neighborhood and was really quite nice. And it had an outstanding buffet breakfast included in the rate that was way better than anything you could conceive of at a US Holiday Inn Express.
Opposite was a neighborhood café, where small draft beers went for less than a Euro and a tasty ham and cheese sandwich for under three. The café appeared family run. There were around five people all busily attending to duties, a staff-to-customer ratio of around 1:1 for most of the time I was there. Inside the café was a cigarette vending machine, a reminder one was not in the US.
Packet pickup and the day before the race
My son, who joined me for the race as a start to his spring break, took TAP from Miami, arriving early in the morning a day after me — and just one day before the race. Soon after he got in, we headed to packet pickup. This takes place close to the finish line. While we were there, runners were finishing the 7K. It’s in a part of town called Belém, away from the close-in city center but less than an $8 Uber from where we were staying.
Packet pickup was spread over three days, which — along with the early hour — helps explain why there weren’t throngs of crowds when we arrived at opening time. But there was an upbeat atmosphere in the smallish expo. We were able to buy a running belt for my son. Someone was handing out what he called “the sweetest bananas,” which were, indeed, a cut above the ones I normally eat. The race shirt was very nice. But, unfortunately, it runs small. I went for a medium, my usual size, but later found it didn’t really fit. So you may want to go up a size when picking.
Belém is a pleasant part of town to wander through, with some nice cafés and pastry shops offering Pastéis de Nata, the custard tarts for which Lisbon is famous. Although the race course skirts the edges of Belém, you don’t really see it while running, so it’s worth strolling around after picking up your packet.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the older parts of Lisbon closer to the center, mostly on foot, carb loading with the odd beer along the way. That day, my step count was over 16,500, which is more than conventional wisdom says you should do on the eve of a race, but I didn’t regret it. Lisbon is an amazing city to wander around in. That evening, we finished our carb loading with pasta at a decent, well-priced Italian restaurant close to the hotel.
Getting to the start line
The half marathon and 10K begin by crossing the Ponte 25 de Abril — or 25th of April Bridge — a stylish suspension bridge connecting the city of Lisbon to the municipality of Almada on the south bank of the Tagus River. It has a length of 7,470 feet, making it the 46th longest suspension bridge in the world.
The bridge is named after the date in 1974 when the so-called “Carnation Revolution” restored democracy to the country after 50 years of autocracy and dictatorship. The revolution was really a military coup by left-leaning officers. Previously, the bridge had been named after Salazar, the country’s long-time dictator who ruled from from 1932 until 1968. These days, it’s easy to forget how much of Europe was not living under democracy at the start of 1974 — Portugal, Spain, and Greece, and, of course, all of Eastern Europe.
You start from the south side of the bridge, across the river from Lisbon itself. And the only way of getting to the start, at least if you are coming from Lisbon, is to take a train to Pragal station on the south side. There is no road access on the day, since the race closes the bridge to all traffic.
I noticed some hotels on the south side. But none as far as I could see where you can just leave the hotel and easily walk over to the start. So it’s likely to be easier to get to the race by train from Lisbon itself and not to be lured by the prospect of staying closer to the start. Besides, you’ll enjoy your stay more being in the heart of Lisbon.
The half marathon starts at 10:05 AM — late by US standards, although not especially so for Europe. Getting to the start line is quite straightforward once you figure out what to do, but there are a couple of things that might confuse at first. One is that the train line that takes you to Pragal station does not show up on the Lisbon Metro map. This is because it is not actually part of the Metro — it’s its own separate thing called the Fertagus line. And, confusingly, the station in Lisbon where we changed from the Metro to catch the Fertagus train had a different name on the two lines even though it was essentially the same place — it was named Jardim Zoológico station on the Metro map and Sete-Rios on the Fertagus one.
If all this sounds complicated, it actually isn’t in reality. But if you’re stressed about navigating the route on race day, there might be a case to do a dry run the day before. Or, maybe, take an Uber to your Fertagus station on race day if it isn’t within walking distance, so you only deal with the one train. Once we got on the Fertagus train, it was only a 10-minute ride to Pragal station.
You don’t need to buy a train ticket on race day. Anyone wearing a race bib can travel for free on both the Fertagus and the Metro all day.
I wondered whether with over 20,000 racers converging on the same place, it might be hard for everyone to squeeze on the Fertagus trains. But it was fine. There were six double-decker trains running per hour between 8 and 10 AM. Although it was a squash, I suspect everyone made it on. Still, I’d probably aim to get to your nearest Fertagus station by around 8:30 AM.
Once we got to Pragal station, there was an upbeat, energetic vibe with a brass band serenading the hoards of arriving runners. There are concessions in the station if you’re looking for coffee or a pre-race snack. Plus the last non-porta-potty restrooms you can use before the race.
From the station, it’s about a 20-minute walk to the start area. Just follow the crowd. You’re walking mostly uphill, putting elevation in the bank, on which you will later draw in the downhill start to the race. The lines for porta-potties close to the start weren’t very long when we got there. But that was an hour before the start, and I’m not sure how things were later on.
Aside from elite runners, there are no starting corrals or starting waves. And the organizers didn’t even encourage runners to self seed in terms of where they place themselves. Instead, everyone lines up in a massive crowd in the area that funnels into the bridge. Those at the front are the people who get there early or are willing to push their way through. The result is a crowded start to the race with faster runners jostling to get past slower ones and the odd walker.
Faster runners could find this frustrating. But it does have the advantage that it more or less forces even middle-of-the-pack runners to moderate their pace starting out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as all-out efforts in the first mile or so can result in diminished stamina later on. However, I can see some runners, accustomed to more structured starts, might not like the free-for-all in Lisbon. And although runner density thins out somewhat after the first mile or two, the course remains quite crowded throughout.
The race started more or less on time. Since we arrived fairly early and were closer to the front than I’d normally be in a race of this size, we crossed the starting mats at 10:10 AM
The course is, indeed, a fast one. The first several miles are mostly downhill and the remainder is generally flat.
The bridge is the most iconic part of the course. Once across, you don’t get to run through the historic parts of Lisbon that have tourists swooning. But that is actually a good thing, because those parts are very hilly. A half marathon taking in the most beautiful parts of Lisbon would likely be among the hardest races in the world.
After the bridge, the course goes inland a bit before twisting around and then joining a long flat road close to the riverfront. There are a few short uphills during the twists and turns, but nothing significant.
The long flat portion — at least eight miles — makes for a race that while physically not as demanding as some, is at times a little monotonous. There’s not all that much varied urban landscape for eye candy. This is all the more so as a fair amount of the race consists of out-and-back segments, so you end up running along the same stretch of road twice — with runners passing in opposite directions. In particular, the last five or so miles — after passing abeam the finish line — is a long stretch of linear out and back. And there’s not much crowd support until you get close to the finish.
Visually monotonous courses can be mentally hard. I kept up fairly even splits on this course, but found I had to push myself quite hard in those last four or five miles in order to do so. And I felt quite wasted at the end. This was partly because the sun was beating down in those final miles with a course that provided virtually no shade. Although the weather was reporting temperatures in the low-to-mid sixties when I finished, it felt hotter in the sun.
Still, for many people the initial downhill followed by the long flat road make this a good course on which to aim for a PR. I wasn’t expecting to achieve that, as I wasn’t in my peak form — such as it ever is — after recently being sick. So my goal was simply to run a solid, controlled race. I finished with a chip time that, amazingly, was literally one second different from my time in Beirut, the last race I had run — 2:05:57, as opposed to 2:05:56. If I had aimed to run even splits and get to within a second of my previous time, it would have seemed an impossible task in terms of the precision required.
I crossed the finish line with my son. After running together for the first mile, he had pulled ahead but I caught up at mile 12. Perhaps buoyed by the company, the last mile was my fastest since mile 5.
There were six aid stations along the way, which was plenty. They gave out water in small plastic bottles rather than the cups that are the norm in US races. Plastic bottles are, of course, frowned on these days. But ecological issues aside, they have their advantages in a race, making it easier for runners to hang onto their water for a bit and reducing spillage.
However, a drawback — other than the eco factor — is that water bottles are more awkward for runners to dispose of. Around the water stops, runners were chucking bottles to the side trying to avoiding hitting others in the process — and I suspect not always succeeding — or leaving them on the ground right in the path of those following behind. A similar hazard occurred at a stop where they gave out slices of cut-up oranges, which resulted in a mass of chewed-out peel on the ground.
Although the race course does not take in most of Lisbon’s historic sights, it ends right next to one of them, the Jerónimos Monastery, which provides the backdrop to the finish line festivities. This makes for a visually satisfying end that reciprocates the visual splendor of the bridge at the start
There were the usual range of race-end goodies. And a nice medal with a motif designed around the bridge. The upbeat atmosphere of the start continued into the finish festival. But we didn’t have time to linger. We had to check out of the hotel, as we were taking the night flight to Mozambique.
EDP Lisbon Half Marathon sum-up
Pros: Fast course. Cool start at the suspension bridge. Generally well organized. Upbeat atmosphere. Well priced. Great opportunity to visit a fantastic city. Cons: No corrals or wave starts. Parts of the course a bit monotonous, especially with out-and-backs. Latish start potentially makes for warmer temperatures. Not the simplest race morning logistics. Not a lot of crowd support. Sum-up: Pros outweigh the cons. Recommend. 🏃
Next race: Berlin Half Marathon.
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