About ten years ago, in an effort to defeat (or at least slow the advance of) the bulge that seemed to be spreading uncontrollably around my belly, I took up running. Initially, it was a chore, and I had to force myself to do it. But after persevering for several months, I got completely hooked, and ever since then, weather and travel schedule permitting, I typically run four or five times a week.
Over the years I have built up from a few wheezing minutes, to being able to plod along for ten kilometres on most days, which normally takes me about an hour. I have even, to my eternal amazement, completed a few half-marathons and one marathon.
For hard-core runners this might not sound all that impressive, I know. But then you need to understand that there is absolutely nothing about my North-African-Eastern-European genetics that was ever meant to run, except perhaps if I was being chased through the desert by a wild camel. As a close school friend once put it, when our high-school yearbook listed “person most likely to run a marathon”, the last name you would have ever expected to see on that list was me…..
Mostly, I run outdoors. Apart from the fitness and weight control benefits, it gets me out of an air-conditioned office environment and into the fresh air. Running is the only time in the day when I am completely off the grid, with no mobile phone, no blackberry and no emails. For that time it is just me, my thoughts, and my very cheesy iPod running play list, which consists almost entirely of teeny-bopper hits (even my kids are embarrassed that their father knows a whole repertoire of Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and One Direction songs, by heart.)
As a hobby goes, running is also perfectly suited to the Road Warrior lifestyle. I can run anywhere, and don’t need anyone or anything to do so, besides sneakers and a map. A run just after arriving somewhere is the quickest way to beat jetlag and reset my body clock. Not to mention that running is, for me, the best way to see a place. Most cities have paths and trails that lead through its parks, along its waterways, or following its scenic roads. Running them is slow enough to take it all in, but fast enough to cover quite a bit of ground in an hour.
All of which will explain why I hardly ever travel without a pair of ASICs, some running shorts and my trusty stopwatch-cum-speedometer-cum-GPS in my luggage. And why most mornings in a strange city, you will find me out pounding a pavement, cocooned in a bubble of bad music.
Of late, however, I haven’t run for almost six months, while recovering from an ankle break suffered in Hawaii at the end of last year (see my previous posts Seven Crappy – T-Shirts: A Week in Hawaii and A Hospital in Hawaii). Three weeks ago I had a few tentative runs on a treadmill, and when my ankle didn’t collapse immediately, I extended that to a couple of short outdoor runs.
Then the other day, while in central London, I woke up to brilliantly blue and cloudless skies, a pleasant twenty degrees temperature, and no wind. Together, the perfect conditions for running. Plus I was free that morning, my first meeting not being until after lunch. It was as if the running Gods were calling to me, telling me to get off my butt and venture out, and enjoy my first proper run in quite a while.
My plan was to run through Covent Garden, down to the Thames, along the Victoria Embankment, back up Whitehall, then along The Mall, around Green Park, past Buckingham Palace, around the back of St James Park, through Horse Guards Parade, up through Trafalgar Square and finishing in Leicester Square.
I fuelled up at New Row Coffee, a boutique coffee bar in a small street just north of Covent Garden, downing three espressos in quick succession. Suitably buzzing, I pressed play on the iPod, did a final stretch, and I was off on my run, which given its route was also a bit like my very own “essentials of London” tour. And, it turned out to be completely wonderful.
Covent Garden (Start to Kilometre 1)
Covent Garden is home to a number of well-known shopping streets, the Royal Opera, and various theatres. It is, however, most famous for its central market building, which stands in the middle of a broad cobbled courtyard, known rather grandly as the Piazza. It was here that I started my run.
This was the first modern square in London, laid out in 1630. Originally it was a fruit and vegetable market. During the 1700s and 1800s it became a red-light district, a place of drinking taverns and brothels. In the following two centuries the area was gradually redeemed, new buildings were added, streets were paved, and in 1980 the central market building was converted into a tourist paradise of cafes, small shops and pubs. It is now one of London’s most heavily-visited tourist attractions. More than 10 million people a year come here, to shop, to take in the daily markets, and to enjoy the carnival of street theatre around the Piazza – buskers, jugglers, acrobats, magicians.
Australia, where I grew up, is a new country. European settlement of Australia began about 250 years ago. The oldest non-Aboriginal structure in the country is about 200 years old. “Heritage architecture” in Australia is anything from before the 1940s. Compared to this, in Covent Garden I was running on history, over cobblestones that have been in continual service for almost half a millennia. This thought gave me a little extra buzz of excitement to get me going, on top of that from the pre-run coffee. A great start.
Victoria Embankment and Whitehall (Kilometres 2-3)
Down the hill from Covent Garden I emerged at the north bank of the Thames, turning right by the Waterloo Bridge to run along Victoria Embankment, for about one kilometre.
Victoria Embankment was the first street in the UK to get electric lighting, in 1878. Today it is a major traffic artery, but there is also a pleasant, scenic (and for the runner, entirely flat!) pedestrian walkway alongside the river. It is lined with an assortment of monuments and memorials and public gardens, which are really awfully nice, and thus belie the original purpose of Victoria Embankment. You see, in 1865, this was part of a scheme to narrow and bank up the river all through London, so as to give the city a modern sewage system. This was desperately needed at the time, to stop the city from sinking into a pile of its own shit.
I didn’t have too long to dwell on this though, turning right at Westminster Bridge, from where I ran back up along the length of Whitehall. This kilometre long double-carriageway stretch of road is the centre of the British political universe, lined with stately buildings housing various government ministries. Not to mention being dotted with the obligatory statues and monuments. Downing Street, official residence of the British Prime Minister is off to the one side; Scotland Yard, globally famous home of policing and sleuthing, off to the other. So much of the machinery of state is gathered in this one small area that the word “Whitehall” is often used to describe the overall British Government, and not just the street.
I guess there is a nifty observation I could make at this point – something about having run from the waste sewers of old England to the political sewers of the modern age. But let’s move on…..
The Mall (Kilometre 4)
Swinging left from Whitehall I emerged onto the broad swath of paving known as The Mall, which goes from Trafalgar Square at the east directly to Buckingham Palace, at the west. From a running perspective, it is a most excellent track – almost exactly one kilometre long, dead straight, and red. Yes, red, thanks to the iron oxide pigment embedded in the bitumen, a deliberate conceit on the part of The Mall’s designers, so it would resemble a giant red carpet leading up to the Palace.
The Mall was swarmed with crowds, and lined with rows of massive Union Jack flags, flapping around in honour of the never-ending celebrations associated with the Queen’s 60th Jubilee. Regular readers of this blog will recall that last year (2012), shortly before the Olympics, the city of London was gripped with Royal fever as the Queen celebrated her 60th year on the throne. This year, the city of London has been gripped with Royal fever as the Queen celebrates her 60th year on the throne.
Sound confusing? Well, it seems that although the Queen ascended the throne in 1952 (hence a 60th Jubilee in 2012), back in those days it took a while to sort out a good coronation party, and so her official crowning didn’t actually take place until 1953 (hence a second 60th Jubilee, in 2013). Clearly, when it comes to Royal parties, you can never have too much of a good thing, and The Mall is where it all happens.
Indeed, The Mall is world-famous for its royal parades, processions and celebrations. Whenever a visiting head of state pops into town, he or she gets to ride up the Mall, sitting next to the Queen in a state carriage, a sea of flags fluttering above. The Mall is where each year the Queen Troops the Colours; this is where the crowds flocked when Princess Diana died; this is where the British celebrated the Queen’s Jubilees; where state funeral corteges pass; and where William and Kate first emerged into the world as a married couple. And this, no doubt, is where in a month the crowds will again flock, in their hundreds of thousands, to welcome the newest arrival to the British Royal Family, once Wills and Kate have their first baby.
Quite simply this is the ceremonial road in the UK. More than that, it is one of the great boulevards of the world, and being able to run its length gave me a complete thrill. I mean, how often do you get to say things like: “so, while I was running up the red carpet of The Mall, towards Buckingham Palace, I had to stop to allow a passing battalion of Horse Guards to ride past….”, without sounding like a total wanker?
Green Park (Kilometres 5-6)
At the top of The Mall I veered right, plunging into the verdant lushness of Green Park, one of London’s Royal Parks. I ran up the gentle incline of the east side of the park (my first “hill”, and boy, did I feel it!) before settling into a long stretch that runs westward, parallel to Piccadilly. At the far western end of the park, I double back towards Buckingham Palace, along Constitution Hill.
Green Park has quite a chequered history. It began life as a swamp where lepers from the nearby St James hospital were buried. A stream used to run through the park (it still flows, apparently, underground) and so for some time Green Park was thus a place where the water fed into an icehouse, to make ice for royal consumption. In the 18th century Green Park became a dangerous place, popular with thieves and robbers; it was a place to go to watch public firework shows; and then for a while it was also the place to go if you wanted to duel.
But nowadays it is simply a park, and one of London’s plainer parks, at that. It is relatively small and compact, with very few statues and memorials, and no lakes or fussy flower gardens. Instead it is just a big old patch of grass, criss-crossed by small walking paths and shaded by trees. The most distracting things in Green Park are the striped deck-chairs, arranged in rows facing the sun, on which passers-by sit and enjoy themselves. Frankly, as parks go, I think Green Park is quite lovely in its simplicity, and running through it an absolute delight.
Buckingham Palace (Kilometre 7)
From Constitution Hill I swung back across the front of Buckingham Palace, since 1837 the official London address of the reigning monarch. In the fifteen minutes since I had passed there earlier in my run, the place had become a complete zoo – packed with thousands of tourists, hogging every vantage spot, awaiting the Changing of the Guards ceremony which was about to get under way.
Three times a week, at around 11am, the St James’ Palace detachment of the Queen’s Guard marches along The Mall to the Palace, to meet up with the Buckingham Palace detachment. This “Old Guard” then lines up and waits to be replaced by the “New Guard”, who in the meantime have themselves been lining up at the nearby Wellington Barracks for inspection. Once ready the New Guard marches over to the Palace, accompanied by music from the Royal Band, which marches along too. The two groups of Guards present arms, the Captains meet, the keys to the Palace are handed over, and then the Old Guard slinks off while the New Guard assumes its duties. All the while, the band plays on.
The whole ceremony is a riot of pomp and ceremony, and a defining image that most people have of London. But it is not all fun and games, and the Queen’s Guard is a serious contingent of infantry soldiers, dedicated to protecting the royal residences of London. They may be poncing around in hats that look like small beavers, but these are fully trained, operational soldiers, who fight in wars, and whose peacetime duties include sentry duty outside various palaces in London.
Although if I was a fully trained operational soldier, used to the rough and tumble of Baghdad and Mogadishu, this would be about the worst job in the world I could possibly imagine.
As a Royal Guard on sentry duty, you are required to stand at your post for two very long hours, in full military uniform of red coat, heavy pants, shined boots, and beaver hat. Rain or shine, you stand there, ramrod straight. You do not move. You do not blink. That is apart from every ten minutes where, if you can handle the excitement, you stand at attention, take twenty paces, and then resume your motionless vigil.
If that isn’t unbearable enough, you also need to deal with the constant nuisance of tourists and sightseers, who pester you endlessly. They pose in countless photos next to you and around you. They stare at you, they pull faces, and they try to distract you, or block the way on your much needed 20-pace march. And occasionally, you might even have to deal with a sweating jogger from Australia, taking a moment out of his run to stretch his hamstrings, bending over against the side of your sentry booth and thus giving you a bird’s eye view of his bottom. If that doesn’t cause you to break protocol, nothing will.
St James Park (Kilometres 7-8)
I continued on, heading away from Buckingham Palace, along the outer perimeter of St James Park, down what is poetically known as The Birdcage Walk and then turning up Horse Guards Road.
A few steps away from a striking round ball carved from stone to memorialise the victims of 2002’s Bali bombing (many of whom were Aussies) a kerbside commotion forced me to slow to a walk. A car race was about to start.
Each year, institutes of engineers from around the world engage in a competition known as the Formula Student, where the task is to design, build and race a single-seat racing car. It attracts hundreds of entrants, but given it is generally confined to the geeky world of engineers, is a little known event. Although apparently it is a very serious one – according to the web-site of Formula Student, successful Formula Student designers and engineers often get snapped up for lucrative jobs with Formula One race teams.
This year, to try to raise the public profile of the event, the UK’s Institute of Engineers inaugurated the Formula Student Diesel Eco Driving Challenge. Here the challenge is to build and then drive a car non-stop across Britain along a route that will take almost three days, in an effort to be the most economical driver out there.
As luck would have it, I was running past as the first of the cars was waved off. Although don’t get too excited. This particular event turned out to be the least thrilling race start in recorded human history.
Sure, there were TV cameras and flags and skimpily-clad Formula One type girls parading around the official start line. And yes, there was a countdown from ten to zero, the excitement mounted to fever pitch, a green light lit up, and a man waved a chequered flag. Race time!
But there was to be no mad-dash to the first chicane. Instead, the drivers, young engineering students in neat buttoned-up shirts with their seat belts on, gently started the engines of their modified Ford Fiestas. They indicated carefully, checked their rear-view mirror, and then pulled out from the kerb, slowly, merging into the flow of traffic moving up along Horse Guard Road. And then they were gone.
Some of the other engineers watching this went wild. But for all the other passersby, me included, it was a complete anti-climax. Honestly, I was probably running faster than these “race cars”.
Horse Guard Parade and Trafalgar Square (Kilometres 9 – 10)
Not two hundred metres further up the road, I came to Horse Guard Parade, a wide open area that during the London Olympics was converted into a beach to host the beach volleyball tournament, but where on most other days the Blues and Royals (also known as the Royal Horse Guard) do their thing, as they were doing now.
By this I mean rows of magnificent horses had lined up in the centre of the open area, for their own version of the changing of the guard. On top of each animal was an elaborately costumed soldier, decked out in tight riding pants and knee-high black boots so shiny you could see your reflection in them, a polished sword and plumed silver helmet glinting in the sun.
It was quite the spectacle, or at least the scrum of several thousand tourists gathered around seemed to think so. I, on the other hand, was annoyed. The human crush and the horses were blocking entry to the covered tunnel that links the parade ground back to Whitehall on the other side. So I was forced to detour back onto Horse Guard Road, rejoining The Mall just before running under the Admiralty Arch, and emerging on the other side into Trafalgar Square.
Of course, everyone knows Trafalgar Square; even those who have never been to London. This is a major traffic interchange between the west of London and the east, clogged day and night with endless red buses, black taxis, London Bobbies on the beat, and armies of tourists. In this famous square London sees in the New Year; political demonstrations and gatherings of all sorts take place; and four solid bronze lion statues stand guard at the foot of Nelson’s Column.
But by now I was like a homing pigeon nearing the end of its journey, so I barely looked up or around. Totally focused on finishing my run I powered on across the square, bounding up the stairs of the National Gallery two at a time, and in the process almost ran directly into a class of kindergarten students who were walking along, hand-in-hand in bright yellow jackets, out on a school excursion. Let’s just say their teacher was not at all pleased with me, although now was not the time for apologies. Couldn’t she see I was almost at the end of the run, and fading fast?
Leicester Square (Kilometre 10, Finish)
The final stretch took only a couple of minutes, a brief burst up Charing Cross Road, onto the pedestrian Irving Street, and into Leicester Square itself, a broad open-air space that sits at the very heart of London’s West End, and is the epicentre of London’s cinema and theatre scene.
And so I finished my run, sweating and huffing and puffing, although very proud of my efforts. I leaned up against some boarding which has been erected around the William Shakespeare statue at the centre of the square, while the statue is being restored. The boarding was painted with quotes from various Shakespeare plays, which I read as I stretched and winced.
And then I looked up, and all around me were billboards advertising the latest Hollywood blockbusters – The Hangover (Part III), Gatsby, Behind the Candelabra. Nearby, cleaning crews were sweeping up and packing away crowd control barriers from a few nights before, when the world premiere of the new Superman movie had turned Leicester Square into a jam-packed commotion of celebrities, red carpets, paparazzi, screaming fans, and spotlights strafing the sky.
All in all I thought it was a most fitting way to end my run through London, standing there between The Bard and the Man of Steel. It kind of summarized the very best of London, which I got while running through the city that morning – a concentrated blast of history and tradition, pomp and ceremony, pop-culture and modernity.
Great cities are those that remember their past, live their present, and look to their future. For me, London, possibly more so than anywhere else on the planet, does this so well. Here the old and the new are seamlessly blended into a vibrant cityscape of sites and sights, people from all over the world, colour and spectacle.
Regular runners will know that some days, running just sucks. Your muscles ache, your body would rather be elsewhere, and every step feels like you are dragging your feet through mud. On other days, however, it can be effortless, everything works, and you feel like you could run forever. This was one of those days for me – a wonderful, glorious run, where in one short hour London welcomed me back into the world of running, and at the same time reminded me of why I love running as an activity, and London as a city.
“I like this place, and willingly could waste my time in it”.
As You Like It, Act II, Scene IV.