Birdcage Walk runs along the south side of St James’s Park in the heart of central London, linking Buckingham Palace with Parliament Square. I’ve run along it twice, and both of those occasions have proven incredibly memorable.
The first was during the 2016 London Marathon – and it was not a pleasant experience. I arrived at Birdcage Walk roughly 25-and-a-half miles into my first marathon, utterly exhausted, emotionally drained and with my legs pleading with me to stop. Back in Greenwich, in the early stages of the race, I’d been averaging 7m 20s per mile or so. By the time I reached Birdcage Walk, I was trudging round in 9m 49s. I wasn’t enjoying myself. I just wanted it to be over.
It wasn’t the experience I’d expected. I’d always thought that Birdcage Walk would be a hugely enjoyable part of the marathon. After miles of meandering through south London suburbs and the cold skyscrapers of the Docklands, that was the stretch of the marathon course that really started ticking off the London landmarks. The Houses of Parliament. Parliament Square. Buckingham Palace. It was heavy landmark hit after heavy landmark hit.
Turns out sightseeing isn’t fun when you’ve pushed yourself far beyond the point of exhaustion.
The second time I ran down Birdcage Walk was a few weeks ago. And, once again, it was part of a big city race that in part wound its way through central London: the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon.
The difference when I reached Birdcage Walk is that I was just 1.5 miles into a 13.1-mile run, rather than 25.5 miles into a 26.2-mile race. Basically, I was fresh, and able to truly take in – and enjoy – my surroundings. And, on an early October Sunday with unseasonably bright weather, I could truly appreciate the majesty of London’s landmarks, and I could truly appreciate how lucky I was to get the chance to run through the streets of one of the world’s great cities.
And Birdcage Walk wasn’t the only scenic part of the Royal Parks Half course – the route was designed to offer a really effective trip round London’s sights. After starting on the edge of Hyde Park, the course passed through Wellington Arch, down Constitution Avenue, and past Buckingham Palace onto Birdcage Walk. It then skirts the edge of Parliament Square before turning up past Horseguards Parade, turning onto The Mall before passing through Admiralty Arch, turning right at Trafalgar Square before a quick loop down past Downing Street and the Cenotaph, then going back up through Trafalgar Square before winding down The Strand past Charing Cross, Somerset House and Fleet Street. After that, it returns to Trafalgar Square, with another quick detour before it goes back through Admiralty Arch, down the length of The Mall, past Buckingham Palace again and back up Constitution Avenue before turning into Hyde Park.
It’s an incredible assortment of London sights – they just keep on coming. It’s a major contrast to the London Marathon, which only reaches central London late in the race, and where one of my abiding memories was how much of the course I didn’t know. So, when it comes to London landmarks, there is no doubt: the Royal Parks Half is better than the London Marathon. There. I said it.
Oh, and here’s the thing about the Royal Parks Half: all those landmarks come in the first six miles.
Which is both a good and bad thing. It’s good, because it means the first half is an ultra-enjoyable jaunt through London’s streets. But it’s bad, because it means the second half of the race simply can’t compete.
That’s because the entire second half of the event takes place within the vast confines of Hyde Park. And while it’s an incredibly pleasant place to run, it simply can’t match the first half for interest, especially since the course is made up of lots of long straights punctuated by tight turns. It’s not helped by the fact Hyde Park is surprisingly hilly – nothing steep, obviously, but a series of long, gentle climbs does sap your power a bit late on.
Those long straights certainly hit me a bit, especially as temperatures rose and I paid the price for messing up my pacing early on – ironically, because my Garmin’s pacing seemed to get a bit messed up all the historic central London buildings I was admiring. And that probably cost me a change to set a new my half-marathon PB – I fell around three seconds short. Which was… annoying.
But still, the Royal Parks Half proved a great event. With 16,000 runners – many of them taking part for charity – and a great location, it had a proper big event feel. Plus, there were plenty of nice touches, such as the novel wooden medal (for environmental reasons – pictured below during inevitable post-race Wahaca meal), a vivid yellow event T-shirt, and a fine assortment of post-race treats.
In fact, I’d say this: if you want to do a big-city race in central London, for the sake of doing a big-city race in central London, the Royal Parks Half should be your first choice. It hits more of London’s central landmarks than the marathon and, by doing them earlier in the route, you can actually take them in. Plus, because it’s ‘only’ a half-marathon, chances are you’ll be able to enjoy an afternoon in London afterwards, rather than simply being in pain.
So, from that perspective, the Royal Parks Half is better than the London Marathon.
Except it’s not. Of course it’s not.
Because the London Marathon is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a marathon, for one thing, and inherently the challenge of doing a full 26.2 miles makes it harder and more memorable than a half. And it’s the London Marathon, for another. It’s one of the world’s most famous races. Even if other races pass more landmarks, the London Marathon is just plain special.
Of course, it’s not really fair to compare the two events. They’re both runs, and they’re both based in the same city. But there’s room for both. If you want to a massive challenge, do the London Marathon (if you can succeed in the massive challenge that is getting a place). But if you want a really fun, big event to do that runs past the Queen’s house twice, I’d thoroughly recommend the Royal Parks Half.