Distance running is one of the best ways to discover a new city. You see things pounding the pavement that you’d easily miss from a car or a bus, and the pace of running means that it’s possible to cover distances well beyond the reach of walkers. In the past, I’ve used running to get a feel for many places — Toronto, Halifax, Edinburgh, Palm Springs, Hong Kong, Helsinki, Banff, Vancouver, and elsewhere — and I was excited to add London to my corner.
Central London is not kind to runners. Sidewalks are narrow and crowded. Medieval London’s legacy to the modern city is a rabbit’s warren of streets packed with strange angles and blind corners. There are countless opportunities for the innocent jogger to be maimed. Additionally, cars have right-of-way on British roads and at intersections. This is not rational (the stakes are higher for runners and pedestrians) and can be disconcerting for newcomers. It’s best to play it safe and pause at every corner, so don’t expect London running to do wonders for your minutes per mile.
The quieter residential neighborhoods are a little better, but one can only run so far in Chelsea or Fulham without having to cross a bridge or a major road. This is the downside of urban running everywhere, and there’s really no way around it other than to remain vigilant and aware of one’s surroundings.
The good news is that it’s easy to put down huge distances in London. When I visited my parents in Southwestern Ontario in early October, I found it incredibly hard to run more than a few miles at a time. Small towns are not conducive to distance running: a circumnavigation of an entire town might not yield a 10k, and the surrounding rural routes are often (not always) straight, flat, and featureless.
Not so in the city. And London, in particular, is blessed with scores of beautiful parks. These green spaces are the runner’s savior. From my house in Fulham, I can reach deep into the lush, estate-like Richmond Park in the course of an easy 13.1 mile jog. Closer to home lie Bishop’s Park, the expansive Hyde Park, and countless greens and commons. Moreover, those visionary Victorians, in their quest to combat cholera and the pollution of the Thames, gave London its sublime river embankments. The Chelsea, Victoria, and Albert Embankments are excellent places to run.
Like most big cities, London is home to a substantial and very active community of runners. On any run through Fulham, Hammersmith, or Putney, I’m guaranteed to see dozens of other joggers pounding the pavement. There are many active running clubs based across the city. Londoners have also enthusiastically embraced the parkrun movement. Parkruns are barrier-free 5k runs held in public parks across Britain every Saturday morning. They are not competitive (although times are recorded and pace-bunnies are present for runners chasing personal bests) and do not charge entrance fees. There are no medals or commemorative t-shirts, but the events are very well attended (there were several hundred runners participating in our first run at Fulham Palace) and the atmosphere is inviting and convivial. I’m a big fan of parkruns and their ethos — accessible, democratic, with an emphasis on self-improvement and community — and hope to see the movement gain more traction in Canada going forward.
Please stay tuned for my ongoing thoughts about running and racing in London.