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.
Ac occupational hazard of taking part in lots of races is that you’ll inevitably collect a lot of medals. While a handful of races offer the likes of T-shirts, mugs or glasses as prizes for finishers, most still hand out a pleasing lump of metal attached to a ribbon.
The trouble with collecting loads of medals is trying to work out what to do with them. I’ve got a handful on display – both my London and Houston Marathon medals are framed with my race numbers, and a handful of the more distinctive or memorable ones are on show around my desk – but the bulk of them are shoved somewhat unglamorously into a pot.
The vast majority of my medal collection are finisher’s medals – you get them, fairly obviously, for finishing a race. Now, that’s all very nice, but if I get the medal regardless of whether I set a PB or do my slowest race ever, the sense of accomplishment is separated from the lump of metal. It’s certainly not in keeping with how medals are dished out at top-level sporting events.
Now, of my not inconsiderable pile of bling (as I believe the kids call it), two of my medals were actually earned for performance reasons. And, curiously, I earned both of them in Texas.
The first came on New Year’s Day this year, when as part of my build-up to the Houston Marathon I competed in the Run Houston Race Series 10k event at Sam Houston Park – and promptly won the male 35-39 category.
The second came during my recent trip to Fort Worth. I was visiting in July, when the Texan weather is predictably hot – sorry, darn hot – and, as a result, not that many races take place. But after some web scouring I happened upon the Trinity 5000 Summer Series – a weekly series of 5k races held on 12 Thursday evenings during the summer.
It seemed perfect: the 7.30pm start time meant that, in theory, the intense heat should have subsided a bit, and the course was on the footpaths by the Trinity River – which meant it was pretty much flat. Having experienced Fort Worth’s surprisingly steep hills, this was a very good thing. So I signed up for one.
Now, the course was everything I’d hoped for: Fort Worth’s Trinity River trails system is utterly brilliant, creating a wonderful network of pleasant walking/running/cycling paths through the heart of the city. The section used by the Trinity 5000 events reminded me an awful lot of the paths that run alongside the River Thames near my house – albeit with a brilliant view of Fort Worth’s downtown.
The event was everything I’d hoped for too: it felt very much like a parkrun. Lots of the runners knew each other, and the organisers, and it was all very friendly and relaxed.
The weather, on the other hand, didn’t quite do what I expected. On the day of the race, the temperature in Fort Worth really built up – going some way past 100F (37.7C). And it kept on building, even into the late afternoon and early evening. According to my Garmin, which somehow keeps track of such things, it was 95F (35C) when the race started – although the heat index apparently took it over 100. At 7.30pm! It was ridiculous. Most of the Texans were struck by the evening heat – and if the locals reckon it was hot, imagine how it felt for the random British guy entered.
The organisers went out of their way to help though. There was water available before the start, and they laid out an extra water station. That meant there were two on the out-and-back course, which meant there were four opportunities to grab water in a 5k race. Now, I wouldn’t normally dream of taking a drink on a 5k race usually. On this occasion, I grabbed water on three occasions – partly to drink, and partly to throw over myself in a desperate bid to limit the heat build-up.
The problem with running in such heat is that there’s just no way to cool down. There was only the merest of breezes and even the air was just plain hot, so even aiming for shade to get out of the sun didn’t really help.
Normally, a 5k wouldn’t really faze me at all – thanks to parkrun, I do one pretty much every weekend, and it’s the minimum distance I’d class as a good training run. But in such heat, working out how best to run 5k was a really tough challenge.
For one thing, I was sweating standing around before the start, let alone when I started running. Then, once I’d started, the challenge was trying to keep up a decent pace without overheating. Because once you got too hot to function, there was basically no way back. That meant I had to apply a much greater discipline than usual, trying to control my pace to ensure I didn’t just collapse into a red-faced, sweat-covered, pasty-faced British heap in the second half of the run.
That said, the usual excitement of taking part in a race, and the desire to find a bit of clear space, meant that my first kilometre was a 3m 57s – not quite on my 5k best pace, but definitely not steady by my standards. I calmed down a bit in the second k, running a more controlled 4m 10s, and pretty much settled into that pace for the rest of the run.
The plan was to stay at that relatively steady pace (compared to my 5k PB of 19m 26s), and then try and pick up the pace in the final kilometre, if I could.
Spoiler alert: I couldn’t.
Really, I couldn’t. As the heat built up, the challenge was just to maintain my pace. I was actually surprised when, looking at my split times later, I realised I hadn’t actually slowed dramatically in the final stages.
My eventual time was 20m 51s. Not slow, but nearly 90s down on my fastest-ever 5k – and yet, it felt like a major achievement in the circumstances. Then came the bonus surprise. I hung around at the finish for a while, mostly because I was too busy sweating to do much else, and was still there when the provisional results were posted. I’d finished 12th, which was a solid effort. And I’d also finished third in the male 35-39 class. I was on the class podium.
There wasn’t actually a podium to stand on, but there were medals for the top three in each class. Which meant, for the second time, I earned a medal on merit (let’s not mention the class winner doing an incredible job to finish more than three minutes ahead of me…). And, for the second time, it came in Texas. What are the odds?
Well, actually, there’s likely a fairly simple reason – classes. Most British runs I’ve done have a very limited number of classes, and I’m usually grouped into the ‘senior’ category which spans everyone between the ages of 18 and 39. The two Texas races I’ve taken class podiums in divide the classes into five-year age groups, making my route to the podium substantially easier. Yes, I’m a sort-of Texan running pothunter.
But, well, it would be churlish to hang on that technicality too much, because, well, medals! Shiny medals!
Of course, that still doesn’t quite answer the question of where to stash the things…
It’s confession time. Actually, before I start confession time, it’s time for, erm, a confession. Here’s the thing. I started writing this last week, but then work, life and all that stuff took over, and I didn’t actually get round to finishing. Hence the delay between the events described here taking place and this post. Don’t think it really makes any difference but… well, thought it best to explain for anyone who really studies dates, or that sort of thing.
Okay then, on with that confession: I nearly didn’t do the Kingston parkrun
last weekend the weekend before last (that’s Saturday March 11, for those of you keeping count). Really, I didn’t. Which is odd, since a Saturday morning 5k had become a cornerstone of my weekend – and it’s not often I seriously contemplate sitting it out. I’m now very glad I didn’t.
Why was I pondering not running? Well, I’d had a busy week: my job had taken me to the Geneva Motor Show for a few days of long, manic hours, terrible motor show eating (think strangely flavourless cheese and cold meat baguettes, plentiful Haribo and other sugary sweets, pizzas and far, far too many deliciously unhealthy pastries, cakes and churros), and not any running at all. Were there Swiss chocolates eaten as well? Yes, there were Swiss chocolates eaten as well.
That combination of unhealthy living left me feeling all very worn down. I managed one relatively slow run on the Thursday evening after I’d returned from Switzerland, and had originally planned another on the Friday evening. But, by the time I finished work that day, I just felt drained.
I had a little more energy come the Saturday morning, but it still felt like the parkrun was going to be a slog. Especially since I’d arranged to meet some friends in central London by mid-morning. Making it to meet them involved a quick post-parkrun turnaround. So… perhaps it would just make sense to skip it. You know, just this once. Would that really hurt?
Eventually, I silenced the inner voice in my head. It was a nice morning, far milder than it had been lately. And since I’d had a week of eating terribly and doing little exercise, well, I decided I had to go and do the parkrun.
That said, I still lacked some enthusiasm. I left my house a bit late, and only just made it to the start of the Kingston course on time. I made it to the finish a little quicker… in 19m 39s. I’d only gone and set a new Kingston parkrun course PB.
That was… a surprise. And not just because I’d set a course PB on a day when I nearly didn’t do the course. It was a surprise because my previous Kingston parkrun PB, a 19m 41s, was set back in June 2015. I’d come close since then – there was a 19m 45s in mid-2016, but on most weeks I was 10-20s back from that. In fact, I hadn’t done a sub-20m run on the course so far in 2017.
Now, some of that was down to my recovery from the Houston Marathon. And some of it was down to the course: the Kingston park run’s out-and-back course features a nice stretch of Tarmac for the first and last 1.5km or so, but the bit in the middle is on a river towpath and field that can get treacherously slippery and muddy when wet. Which happens a lot in the winter in Britain, making it really very hard to set a time close to your best.
That’s borne out by my efforts on other parkrun courses this year: I set a 19m 45s on the Burnham and Highbridge parkrun, and a 19m 48s on the Tooting Common parkrun. Both those courses are smoother and, all-round, quicker than the Kingston one when conditions aren’t optimal.
Those two parkrun outings proved I could run faster than I had been on Kingston so far this year – and certainly, with my post-marathon conditioning, there have been a few times I felt I could have set a really good time, only to encounter far too much mud. So perhaps the course was just in better condition when I set my new PB. It was certainly in a better state than it had been for a few weeks, but it was still slippery and muddy in places – definitely not optimum conditions.
So… well, I can’t really explain it. Perhaps the week of very little running meant my legs were rested, and that overcame the impact of how badly I’d eaten in Geneva. Perhaps the fact I was so certain it was going to be a slow run meant I removed any pressure to perform and weight of expectation.
Or perhaps, the moral of this story is that running is voodoo. Perhaps how much training and preparation you do, how rested you are, how hard you try to eat the right things and all that other stuff doesn’t actually matter quite as much as you think it does.
Well, it’s possible. But it’s more likely this was just one of those weird freak things where everything mysteriously aligns in defiance of all running convention. I’m not convinced the long-term key to future success is less running and more unhealthy eating.
Although, reflecting on all those long training runs in the cold and rain, it’s a tempting thought…
Oh, and as a post-script, the fact that running is utterly unpredictable voodoo was borne out by my Kingston parkrun outing seven days later. I clocked a 19m 52s – a strong time despite being 13s down on my new course PB. But that time hides plenty of amusing drama behind it. But, well, that’s for another post. Promise I won’t leave this one so long.