London Calling: Road Running the Old Fashioned Way in the Queen's
So it was, on a recent trip to England, that I had the opportunity to immerse myself a bit in the British running scene, primarily by running a local ten mile road race, then a few days later meeting up and running with a local club, the Blackheath Harriers. For an American schooled in the ways of running in the USA, it was an interesting and educational experience.
Posted Monday, 24 March, 1997
So it was, on a recent trip to England, that I had the opportunity to immerse
myself a bit in the British running scene, primarily by running a local ten mile
road race, then a few days later meeting up and running with a local club, the
Blackheath Harriers. For an American schooled in the ways of running in the USA,
it was an interesting and educational experience. We may be moving toward a
global community, but at least in terms of running, the countries of England and
the United States are more than an ocean apart. In the paragraphs below, I'll
relate my experience, shaded of course by an occasional observation and
The Sidcup 10
Much as the focus of marathoners in the Eastern USA is on Boston in the
spring, a similar fever grips marathoners in Southwestern England. Their focus
is on April's London Marathon, which has grown into one of the biggest road
running extravaganzas in the world, with nearly 30,000 participants.
This being the case, it stands to reason that a crop of shorter prep races
exist, much like in the states. As far as I was able to determine however, the
actual number of available races in England is much smaller than that in the
USA. In recent years many races have been discontinued in England, due to a
public outcry against the use of open roads for this purpose. During my visit
in mid-February, I was able to find only a handful of road events in Greater
London, which rest assured is an absolutely huge area, containing hundreds of
separate communities. One of those races was called the Sidcup Ten (mile), in
that town south of London. A friendly E-mail from the race coordinator provided
hope that this would be the typical British road race I was seeking. On a Sunday
morning, my friend Mary Collins and I made our way to the race site, eager to
see what it was all about.
Arriving at the school that was to host the event, things appeared fairly
typical. A long line of cars sought parking in a small lot, causing a minor
back-up. The arrangement inside the school was equally chaotic, as the small
sign-up room was overrun by several hundred runners, completing entry forms,
obtaining numbers, or simply chatting with friends. We paid our six pound
post-entry fee (about nine dollars) and were directed to "changing rooms,"
which were simply empty school rooms. There were rest rooms, but nothing
remotely resembling an American locker room. I was somewhat uneasy with the
tight and rather dingy accommodations, but pleasantly surprised with the modest
entry fee. Although the race services had been limited so far, I was optimistic
the good stuff was coming along later.
Surveying the runners milling about and warming up before the race, several
things were evident: one, this was a fit and fast looking group of runners; two,
most all runners sported club colors; and three, this was a very poor choice of
venue for a guy looking to socialize with members of the opposite sex. Women
were in the distinct minority here. All told, this was shaping up as a
no-nonsense ten miler. As I had not raced at a hard pace in almost three months,
I was hoping for a more fun-loving kind of event, one in which I could run 6:30
pace or so and finish fairly high up in the field, thus placating my fragile
ego. That was out completely out of the question here. Everyone looked ready to
go hard from the gun, which is exactly what they did.
The course consisted of three laps around the town, a mixture of residential
and commercial areas. Although rain had been forecast, it had not yet begun,
although dark clouds and a stiff wind indicated it was imminent. The large
number of runners who shot out ahead of me at the start was disconcerting, but I
tried to turn the focus inward and establish a steady rhythm. The first problem
was a lack of marking or time split at mile one. I was not totally surprised at
this development, but found it difficult not to have that information available,
to determine how I was really doing and refine my strategy. I assumed it to be
about 6:05 or 6:10, but gee, I was working awfully hard to manage that pace. It
was clear I would have to wait until the first lap was completed at 3.3 miles to
calculate my pace.
Although we were running along the streets at first, we were eventually
directed onto a narrow sidewalk by serious looking race officials in yellow
bibs, each holding some sort of flag. The sidewalks were bumpy and uneven, made
up of slabs of granite, about two feet by one foot. My poor running mechanics
prefer a smooth stretch of asphalt, but the rough surface seemed not to be
slowing the other runners. As we turned into the wind, I was feeling the effort,
and relinquished about five or ten places. A stiff wind added to the degree of
difficulty. Attempting to draft off runners directly ahead of me, I half
expected to be disqualified by one of the officials. Although I completed the
first of three loops in just under 21 minutes, my goal of 1:05 was looking
bleak. At several points along the course, we encountered pedestrians on the
narrow sidewalk. Turning around a sharp corner at one point, I almost bowled
over a man out walking his dog. Automobiles pulling out of driveways added to
the patchwork mix on the route.
Water was another small convenience we were mostly forced to do without. One
card table had been set up at the start/finish area, but was so inconspicuous, I
almost ran right by it before grabbing a cup from this self-service table. This
was looking more and more like a Fresh Pond Saturday race by the minute.
Thankfully, about halfway I began to perk up physically and managed to maintain
the established pace, settling into a reasonable rhythm. Starting the final lap,
I gained confidence, passing several slowing runners, determined to post a
decent finishing time. I had not seen a single woman since the start; in a
similar race back home, there would be several running this kind of pace. I
slipped in just under 1:04 on the clock, 1:03:58 to be exact. Well, there was
actually no finishing clock, but that is what the officials called out as I
passed the line, drawn in chalk across the school driveway. Not a bad time for
my first race of 1997, but one that I had to work way too hard to achieve. Mary
cruised across the line at 1:14:30, one of the few, the proud, the women in
British road races.
Now that the running had concluded, I was ready to enjoy the post-race
festivities. We all converged on the small, cold, dank sign-up room again. A
line of people indicated some food and drink was on offer. As we waited, I tried
to chat it up with a few other runners, without coming across as the typical
overbearing ugly American. My advances were met with typical English reserve
however. Most seemed quite unimpressed that I had crossed the Atlantic to
participate in the Sidcup 10. I did manage to engage some athletes in
discussion about the Boston and London Marathons, but was disappointed, as I had
hoped for a more lively dialogue.
As we reached the cafeteria, we learned we would be charged a price for tea,
coffee, and sandwiches. Oh my! This was an alarming development for a spoiled
American road racer, accustomed to a wide array of free offerings after a
typical road race. The race director within me smiled however, as I found some
degree of justice in having to pay for the post race goodies. Sometimes I wonder
if runners in the states appreciate just how difficult it is to hustle food and
drink sponsorship donations. Americans would whine and complain in outrage at
having to pay for food after a race. That said, I began to reconsider my earlier
assessment of the six pound race fee. I was beginning to wonder where all of the
money was going.
My attention then turned to the results. Only the top 100 finishers (of about
400) were posted. Luckily I was among this group, having finished in 63rd place,
16th "vet," better known as masters runner in the USA. A national cross country
team member from Ireland won the event in 49:55, a great time on such a tricky
course and in windy conditions. Only two women appeared among the top hundred.
Amazing. After a quick awards ceremony, everyone filed out of the school as if
there were a fire drill in progress. Given the surroundings, I can't say that I
blame them, but it was a disappointing end to my first English road race.
Describing this race as low-key is an understatement. One race does not a
country make, but I can only hope my next British road racing experience will be
a friendlier one.
The Blackheath Harriers
Perhaps nowhere in the world is the athletic club system as well developed as
it is in England. This applies not only to running, but other sports as well.
For the recreational athlete, this nationwide network offers a wide array of
social and competitive opportunities. There are running clubs in the USA, but
these groups are rarely as much a part of the social fabric as they are in
England. I was quite keen on meeting up with on of these groups during my visit,
even more so after the disappointing race experience.
I had a club connection through Mary. The nanny of one of her friends was
Margaret, a member of the Blackheath Harriers. We knew little of this group,
other than that they ran on Wednesday evenings in Blackheath, (an area just
south of Central London where the London Marathon starts) or so we thought.
I have to digress for a moment to talk about the dreadful state of vehicular
traffic in and around Greater London. At almost all hours of the day, the many
narrow roadways are packed with automobiles, buses, and motorbikes. Roundabouts,
(rotaries) frequent roadwork, and hundreds of small town centers make getting
around truly an ordeal. Major motorways around the city help, but only if one
is traveling well outside the city, which is positively sprawling.
Mary and I had visited Brighton on the south coast during the day on
Wednesday, with a plan to drive back into Blackheath for the club run at 6:30
p.m. As was the norm for my ten day visit, the weather that day was unsettled --
wet, wild, and very windy, which by the way only compounds driving difficulty.
We had been given detailed directions, but realized only late in the game that
the Blackheath Harriers run nowhere near Blackheath, but 10 miles south in
Bromley. It looked hopeless as we were at a dead standstill at 6:00 p.m. and
still several miles from our destination. Miraculously, we found the clubhouse
at about 6:45 p.m.; thankfully Margaret and her husband John Baldwin were
waiting for us there.
The clubhouse is owned outright by the Harriers, who have been in existence
for 128 years. It contains men's and women's locker rooms, as well as a kitchen
and large, comfortable dining room. On the walls hang momentos, photos and other
memorabilia from the club's history. It is very impressive. The Blackheath
Harriers are one of Britain's largest athletic clubs, with over 500 active
members. They field teams at all kinds of events -- road races, cross country,
track -- at all age levels from junior to veterans. Perhaps the most famous club
member is Sydney Wooderson, who but for a few scant seconds and the turn of
history, would have become known the world over. Wooderson was the world's
premier miler in the late 1930s and 1940s. He missed out on the Olympics, as
World War II canceled the games in 1940 and 1944. At a time when the world mile
was edging ever closer to four minutes, Wooderson was one of those leading the
charge. The closest he came was 4:06. Of course years later, in 1954, Roger
Bannister ran 3:59.4 to become the first sub-four minute miler. Sydney is now in
his eighties and lives in Devon in the South of England. He remains a Blackheath
Harrier for life.
Neither Mary nor I were particularly eager to get out and run, what with the
nasty weather conditions and nerve-wracking drive to find the club. Margaret and
John were ready to go however, so we quickly changed and agreed to join them for
a four miler. Neither John nor Margaret looked particularly striking in
appearance; I guessed they were middle of the pack type runners. When I inquired
as to the pace we might run, John offhandedly suggested "6:30 or so." I was not
quite sure I heard correctly, but once out the door realized I had. The four of
us moved out briskly from the start. I was impressed!
As the run went on, I talked more with John and learned that he had run "only
two" marathons, but both of those had been completed in 2:33. At 59, he is still
competing at a fairly high level. At the age of 45, he had won the world
veterans (masters) 10 km road championships in a time of 31 minutes. It turns
out Margaret was a runner of some renown herself. She had attended Florida State
University on an athletic scholarship, and represented Scotland in several world
cross country championships. With an 800 meter best of 2:02, she was on the 1972
Great Britain Olympic team and ran in Munich. Here we were, just out for a run
with a couple of local club runners! You just never know whom you are going to
meet when you show up at an English running club. These two were world class
athletes, but could have not possibly been more gracious and unassuming. Had I
not pried for information, something I seem to do quite well, both John had
Margaret would have been more than happy to let the evening pass without mention
of their achievements.
The four of zipped through four dark and hilly miles in about 28 minutes, and
retreated to the warm, dry clubhouse. Something I found interesting was that
although dozens of runners tuned up for this weekly run, there was no central
organization, and most left and returned either on their own or in small groups.
It was quite informal, somewhat at odds with the rich tradition of the Harriers.
Although John was very friendly, I found a typical stiff British reserve in my
attempts to engage others in conversation, (like I had a the race the previous
Sunday). Tossing out jokes by the handful in order too break the ice, I felt
like Jerry Seinfeld in a room full of IRS agents.
After a change and shower, We re-grouped upstairs for a nice pasta supper.
The Harriers offer dinner each week, cooked, prepared, and served at 8:00 p.m.
or so. Approximately 50 members were on hand this evening. At 9:00 on the dot,
the sharp sound of a gavel commanded everyone's attention. The president of the
Harriers proceeded to give something like a state of the club report. Club
awards were distributed for certain performances, then he went on to detail the
club's efforts at no less than six different race venues the previous weekend.
When he started talking about a 17 year old running 1:51 for the half, I could
only shake my head. Just when did everyone on this side of the Atlantic get so
Unlike the USA, universities are not much part of an athlete's growth and
development in Britain. Athletic scholarships are rare, recruiting unheard of.
In order to get the proper level of coaching and support, a young British
runner relies heavily on his local club even throughout his college years.
Junior track and cross country competitions amongst the hundreds of British
clubs carry much more significance than college meets for the most part. I mean,
can you name a college in England, besides Cambridge or Oxford? Blackheath has a
strong junior program, from grammar school aged youths on up. Many of these
youngsters will run for Blackheath throughout their lives, even those who go on
to attain success at the international level.
Many outstanding high school aged athletes in the UK are recruited by
American colleges, but John felt this is not really in the best interest of the
youngster. "They often do well while running in the states" he offers, adding
"but once they return to England, their development often ends. Unless they are
international caliber, they have to work a job all day. That makes it impossible
to run during the day, when the weather is best. That means they have to run in
the dark, when it's raining, windy and cold. Many don't stick with it." Indeed,
for a Bostonian with more than a dozen indoor tracks in a ten mile radius, it
was shocking to learn that the nearest indoor facility to London is in
Birmingham, hundreds of miles distant!
The remainder of the evening was spent conversing about the sport on all
levels. We engaged in one of the great British athletic debates -- who was the
greater runner, Steve Ovett or Sebastain Coe? I learned more about the history
of the club and Sydney Wooderson. I talked with a few of the 40 Blackheath
runners who made the trek across the ocean for last year's 100th Boston
Marathon. The BAA would be happy to know that praise for the event was
universal. Said one marathoner, "Leave it to the Americans to attempt the
impossible (running a marathon for 40,000 on a course that normally sees
8-10,000) and get away with it in style!" I had a nice conversation with Les
Brown, another Blackheath Harrier. All he did was run 2:24 at Boston as a
masters runner (1986). He reminisced about his treks to Boston in the late 1980s
and how the sport has evolved. All too soon the night was slipping away and Mary
and I were faced with an uninviting drive through Central London back to Harrow
on the west side. It was cold and dark out, but inside the Blackheath Harriers
clubhouse, the hot fires of athletic competition and camaraderie were burning