After my recent weekend trips to Copenhagen and Mullaghmore, I’m just back from another jaunt – this time it was a quick visit to London.
The immediate reason was to see the mighty Kate Bush, who put on an awesome show. But it wouldn’t be a weekend away for me if I didn’t profit from it to go for a run in some new surroundings.
I’ve been running in London before. On a previous visit I took an enjoyable spin around Hyde Park. But this time I wanted to get in a long run for my Dublin Marathon training, and get some touristy sight-seeing done too.
And I must admit that I had an ulterior motive – to do some practical preparation by running past some key locations on the London Marathon route, should I do that great race someday.
So, on Saturday I got up before the dawn at 6 a.m., slipped out of our HQ in trendy South Kensington and set off on an 18-mile long run around the early-morning streets of London.
My plan was to head straight down to the Thames and run along the riverbank as far as Tower Bridge. Then, crossing Tower Bridge, I would run back upriver as far as Westminster, turn up to St James’s Park and The Mall, and then finish with a lap of Hyde Park.
London was surprisingly busy at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning – the pavements were deserted but the streets were humming with cars and buses. The office workers among us often forget that for many people Saturday is also a working day. As well as shop workers, there were groups of labourers waiting around to be picked up or let into sites.
The weather was glorious; once I got to the Chelsea Embankment I was running east, towards the orange glow of sunrise.
My route was unashamedly touristy, designed to pass the maximum of famous sights. As soon as I reached the river, across from me I saw the iconic Battersea Power Station. After three miles along the Chelsea Embankment and Millbank, I crossed Lambeth Bridge to run along the South Bank walkway and get a better view of the Houses of Parliament. It’s such a familiar sight that we forget how deeply weird this building is, with its Gothic architecture and molten-wax colour.
Between Westminster Bridge and the Tate Modern, the South Bank is usually busy by day and night with strolling tourists. It was nice, then, to pass along it in comfort. Cleaners and technicians were chatting at the base of the London Eye. Waiting staff were setting out the terrace furniture of the riverside restaurants. The razzle-dazzle hull of the battleship HMS Belfast was impressive in the morning half-light.
After six miles I had reached my furthest point – Tower Bridge. As well as being iconic and idiosyncratic like the Houses of Parliament, the bridge is a landmark of the London Marathon route, coming just before the halfway point as huge crowds line both sides.
And even when deserted at the crack of dawn, Tower Bridge was exciting to run across. I made a mental note, came off on the north bank and turned upriver for home.
Passing the Tower of London and the fairly drab London Bridge, I reached another stretch of the London Marathon route – the Victoria Embankment. The traffic wasn’t so busy along here, although later that afternoon the corner with Westminster Bridge would be jammed with tourists taking selfies in front of Big Ben. But for my run I could skip freely through Parliament Square and up to Birdcage Walk, towards another marathon landmark.
Yes, I just had to make the turn in front of Buckingham Palace and down The Mall, the finishing straight of the London Marathon. After 10 miles of a long run I felt enough of a buzz on that distinctive red tarmac to kick for home; with plenty of visualising I can prepare to make a similar burst after 26 miles for a real finishing line.
That was the main business of my London long run done. After that I took further advantage of the quiet streets and indulged in some more tourism – I passed through Trafalgar Square and headed up to perhaps my favourite thoroughfare in London, the elegant Regent Street.
However, Regent Street was closed to traffic – stage crews were setting up screens and other attractions to mark the American football game between the Oakland Raiders and the Miami Dolphins in London this weekend. This meant I could run right up the middle of my favourite London street, one which isn’t on the marathon route.
On Oxford Street just before nine o’clock the shops and department stores were getting ready for Saturday business. Hairdressers sat inside their salons for one last coffee and chat before opening for the busiest day of their week. Those famous red double-decker buses unloaded the last of the shop workers and the first of the shoppers.
The last stage of my London run was Hyde Park. I crossed into it at the Marble Arch corner and followed the northern side by Bayswater. My previous run here was at 7 a.m. on a weekday morning when the park was deserted, but this time there was a good turnout of runners and walkers.
On the Kensington Gardens side, on the Broad Walk there was a charming sight. A lady was being taught to cycle by a cycling instructor. The lady wobbled slightly and laughed nervously while concentrating intensely; the instructor had one hand on the rear carrier and another on the left handlebar. He spoke in the calm, reassuring and polite tones of everybody’s favourite teacher. I was tempted to stop my run to watch them and perhaps even cheer them both.
Apart from runners and fledgling cyclists, Hyde Park was filling up with other sports people. Well-to-do mums and dads brought their kids to football practice in the pitches behind the Albert Memorial; some arrived by black cab. Also on Saturday mornings, the Serpentine lake is home to open-water swimmers.
But my sports were over for this morning; I left the park and passed by the museums of Kensington to finish my run.
For its culture, history and streetscapes I love London, so for me running there is a thrill. Hopefully I’ll be running in London again someday for the marathon, with a grandstand finish down The Mall.
As for this particular Saturday in London, what started with a long run finished with some advice by this woman about her favourite hill repeat sessions: