Why I Love Running In London (The Amazing Things I Get To See While I Run)
Before I became a runner I lived and explored London by usual London means. Either sitting in road traffic on a red double-decker or inside my car, or travelling on busy trains or the packed Tube. Outside the rush-hour and at weekends train travel was a bit easier but car journeys would take equally long.
I still wanted to see, feel and experience as much of London as possible so travelling in discomfort was something I simply took as a necessary trade-off, an unavoidable part of living in a big city. You want to visit Hyde Park or St Paul’s Cathedral, you have to get there somehow. Simple. The scale of my interests meant that I covered a lot of miles travelling around, not knowing that there was also another way to do it.
And yet another way to get to and visit various places is to run there! Of course, in the beginning I didn’t think in terms of ‘oh, let’s meet up with friends by running 45km there and back’, instead I started running in parks near my home in south London.
I decided to become a running tourist.
So, why do I love running in London?
I find that the privilege of running here is being spoiled for choice. The abundance of routes, the sites, the history, the Thames.
But before you decide to envy me, just think about running choices in London as a concession that we get for suffering elsewhere – I can’t think of anything less appealing than a busy rush hour with train cancellations thrown in as perks, so please let me have at least some fun.
Although I was already familiar with the three nearby parks and my local common, as a new runner on a mission I wanted to see and feel them differently. So this time there won’t be lazy days on the grass and reading books, no sitting on the bench or throwing a frisbee, no cycling and definitely no cold beer. This time, my friends, there will be running.
My first spot of interest as a running tourist was the beautiful Dulwich Park.
Leafy with a lake, laidback ducks doing what chilled ducks do and with enthusiastic birds offering a lovely musical background, I didn’t need anything else whilst negotiating my formative running mileage.
I read all about the park’s history, its design as well as trees and flowers so whilst I was trying to learn how to run and stay alive I sometimes went, ‘hey, look at that massive old Turkey Oak, it’s more than 500 years old!’ Or, ‘wow, I am now running through American Garden’. It doesn’t take much to make me as excited as a child at Christmas, and that was one prime example. It helped me enjoy my first runs more, for sure.
My 5km graduation took place there!
Another park, similar distance from where I live is Crystal Palace Park. Well, that park offers the full package for my interests, a package too elaborate and history so varied that it would all require a separate blog. Let’s just say that there are life size dinosaur models in the park. Yep, the dinosaurs. And of course, the obligatory chilled ducks, gangs of enthusiastic squirrels and musical birds that chirp incessantly.
If that doesn’t make your running feel special, hardly anything else will.
Further down the road, another jewel, Brockwell Park. At that stage I finally realised that the lakes with ducks, squirrels and birds doing their things which they are famous for is a standard offer in every lovely park but Brockwell park also offers wide open spaces, loads of trees, plethora of lanes, hills and flats. You can spend hours negotiating it.
When standing (or running in my case) on top of one of the hills the views over the City of London are magnificent and that is also the park where I cracked my first 10km distance. The place is absolutely perfect for such a distance. I’ve run it a number of times and each time I could tweak the route and go elsewhere.
And finally, just walking distance from me there is Streatham Common. Or ‘the hilly Streatham Common’.
I wasn’t too keen on it in the beginning, I wasn’t strong enough and hills for that reason didn’t appeal to me. Once that changed, I could enjoy it fully. I got to like it’s main flat part, its hills, the Rookery, the nearby woodland.
This is where I learned the hidden joys of winter running as well. As I thundered downhill one cold morning, I stepped on some leaves that were covering an ice patch and I was presented with a fast choice. Either fall on the bum, flat on the face, or end up doing a weird pirouette by trying to keep the balance only to end up falling on the side before resting on the back, as I did. Oh joy.
But, hey, that’s how we learn our running steps!
As I was getting more comfortable by getting stronger and better at running, I began experimenting with various routes that those places were offering in abundance. Hills became interesting and not overly hard once I got my legs, cardio and tempo right so my running options were coming from every direction. At the time I enjoyed 10km distance around Brockwell Park, 5km in Dulwich and hills in Streatham Common and Crystal Palace.
And then, The Revelation!
While struggling to find parking one day and ending up further away from Dulwich Park than I wanted (and still having to pay the parking fee) I thought, ‘hang on, I can run 10km anyway so why can’t I…….simply run from home to the park, do a few laps and run back home?’
That’s a late bloomer for you, people. I connected the dots between my ever increasing runs, removed the danger of boredom through running the familiar routes and got myself a large chunk of south London as a personalised running track.
Further Into the Great Unknown
A few years into my running journey I was training for a half marathon. The schedule got busy, my runs had to be pre-planned in order to fit with the rest of my life. Running before or after work was getting complicated because by the time I’d get home it was dark and the parks were closed.
So I simply started running during lunch breaks or right after work in Clapham Common, where I worked. It has only got a fishing pond (booo!!) rather than a lake but I really enjoy running there.
Squeezed between two tube stations, Clapham Common is a busy area with that unmistakable London buzz. Don’t worry, there are ducks as well. Ducks seem to be everywhere. I wonder if they have heard of their cousins in other parks?
Now that I could run longer distances from home I would at times run to Tooting Common, nearby Balham and back home, thus expanding on my south London personalised running track.
I love those areas. Versatile routes, lots of lanes, good for speed training due to flat terrains. Tooting and Balham, like Brockwell, would offer me options of running longer distances without repeating the same route. I won’t mention ducks, birds and squirrels anymore, just assume that they have taken over all areas.
And then, then one day I discovered Battersea Park.
I knew it from previous visits, during my pre-running ancient days, and remembered it had a long flat loop but also a riverside path. It wasn’t local, I had to drive there from my humble parish, find the parking which wasn’t always easy but it was worth every effort.
Photo by Mermayden, under Wikimedia Commons Licence
The place, Battersea Park, is sensational.
Lanes will take you through open spaces, woods and by the river where you will come across a Peace Pagoda. You can then cross Chelsea Bridge, run along the river on the north bank and come back by crossing Albert Bridge and back and into the park – or the other way round, of course.
That’s where I covered my first marathon distance.
A brilliant park and great place to visit and run which for a while became a base from where I went to some chi-chi parts of London town for more of my running explorations.
All I had to do was cross the Chelsea Bridge to take a look. I could run to my right all the way to Tate Modern and beyond. Then cross the river and run past St Paul’s, Parliament, Tate Britain, Battersea Power Station and literally dozens of other points of interests on the way that interested me.
Or, what I did first, go to Hyde Park.
My world of running tourism in London was well and truly opening up.
Hyde Park was and still is the park that excites me the most. It’s big, it’s famous, many things happened there which is normal for big and famous places that are in the middle of London. Many books have been written about it (I know because I actually googled that info), and it’s the place where you can run for as long as you wish and still find new routes and sceneries.
Running a lap around Battersea Park then going to Hyde Park, lapping it and running back, became one of my routines on the days when I had lots of time to spare. I would often cross the underpass at Hyde Park corner to visit Green Park and St James’ Park, then running to Big Ben, turning right and going back to the base camp.
Once at the north east corner of Hyde Park, Speaker’s Corner near Marble Arch, I would cross Park Lane and negotiate little side streets to reach Regent’s Park, another jewel in my journeys across London.
Suffice to say, I criss-crossed nearly everything in between and still felt there was so much more to explore. At the same time I became aware of some serious mileage that I was building up, becoming a better, stronger and more competent runner.
And I loved every minute of it.
Linking the long London runs on the road to Ultra
When I first read my ultra marathon training plan I immediately started planning various routes. If your training runs have 32km and 42km (marathon) distance, then you need to go longer than your local parks. I quickly decided that the best course of action would be to simply run, rather than drive, everywhere.
So, instead of parking at Battersea, I would run from home to not only that park but all the way up north to Regent’s Park and back. And I would at times lap two, three or four parks to cover the required mileage.
London was giving me more and more options.
Do you need extra 10km on top, sir? Not a problem, turn left and run to the Tower Bridge. Need some more? Ok, cross every bridge that you can find, and there will be a fair few. I was going further and further and London would always offer an interesting choice.
‘Runners Knowledge’ – another perk of running in London!
In order to obtain a licence and become a cabbie in London, and taxi people around in a black cab, you need to complete Knowledge of London, or The Knowledge – a study of street routes and places of interest. You’ve got to know your streets and alleys, basically.
I did the runners equivalent or The Knowledge. By looking at the routes that I covered by running over four years I realised that I’ve run big chunks of southeast, central, west and north London.
You could literally drop me anywhere and I’d be able to go (run) home. And as a friendly guide I would probably be able to tell you a thing or two about the area.
Like a running cabbie, in fact.
I sometimes decided to choose only the final destination and freestyle on the way, making up my mind as I ran, often ending up not knowing which end I’d come up to. Inevitably, I would recognise something, re-route my mental GPS and reach my destination.
London has given me an indefinite number of routes and fun whilst negotiating them. All of the paths were chosen based on my interests as a running tourist. It would be virtually impossible to drive where I ran and it would be too long and tedious to simply walk those long distances (I have to say that, as a runner).
I know that the majority of runners are not keen to run marathons but for those of us who are, versatility is the key. Running for hours in sometimes not so good weather conditions is not easy. And it’s often not your legs that will stop you, it’s your brain. The moment I feel that, I offer my brain some visual treats and the brain likes to be tricked. If your brain gets bored, the game is over, hence I make sure mine gets all it wants plus some.
And the final two things about running in London that I enjoyed the most, were the running solitude and my dress codes. All that running was done on my own. Being alone and unnoticed in the big city helped me relax more than anything. Most of my blogs were mentally written during those long runs, or at least I conceived many ideas by looking around me, absorbing the history and scenery. And the dress code? Let’s just say that I haven’t seen many runners parading in full basketball gear.
If you ever see a tall slim runner negotiating the South Bank and displaying some effortless majestic moves whilst wearing a colourful basketball jersey, do wave ‘hi’. It’s probably me.
I hope that sharing my story, and what I have learned along this journey, will inspire you to get started and to keep going. To keep striving and being the best you can be. In running and in life.
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