The point of our visit to London in September 2013 was the Run To The Beat half marathon. On the Sunday morning Commando ate a hearty breakfast in preparation for his race. We’d actually arrived at the hotel restaurant before it opened but the staff were bustling about filling the orange juice containers and putting out the dishes of croissants so we didn’t have long to wait. My own breakfast was slightly more frugal, bypassing the sausages and bacon and sticking to a slice of toast and a small croissant. I’ve never been sure how he can run when he eats so much, or how he stays so slim come to that.
8 September 2013
After a quick scan of the room for things left behind, we checked out, left our bags with the smiley receptionist, and set off through a chilly but bright Greenwich towards the park. Despite the early hour there were plenty of others heasing for the park, mostly wearing the same green t-shirt Commando had pulled on in our hotel room. It wasn’t going to be easy to pick him out in the crowd at the finish line. Maybe I should have made him wear my pink hat.
The final part of our walk to the event area was a steep hill rising through the trees. This was the last stretch of the course, not the best end to a race, but I reminded Commando of all the hill running training he’d done. “Just pretend you’re running up the Big Hill and you’re nearly home,” I told him.
Just then something green flew overhead and disappeared into the trees. “If I didn’t know better I’d say that was a parakeet,” I said, “maybe it’s escaped from somewhere.” As we continued to climb we could hear strange chirruping in the trees above, more parakeets? The sound brought back memories of the aviary at the bottom of our garden when I was a child. Whatever they were there were several of them and they weren’t your average park birds. Despite scanning the foliage above I could see no birds, parakeets or otherwise.
We heard the beat of the music long before we reached the event area. Even though we were early the place was buzzing with green t-shirt clad runners and their supporters. There was a big stage where the headline act, Jessie J, would be playing later and tents and parasols set out all around the space, some for the charities being supported, some selling running equipment and sports drinks.
The coconut water looked interesting so we went for a closer look. It’s supposed to be high in potassium, full of electrolytes and a very good rehydration drink. There were lots of flavours but the ones that caught my eye were the coffee and mocha varieties. No surprises there. Commando tasted the unflavoured one and didn’t like it much. The coffee and mocha were a little too sweet for my taste.
The largest tent, like a series of joined together wigwams, was selling sports clothes. On a different day this might have been interesting and worth a good look but I didn’t fancy carting around too much extra baggage so we gave it a miss. They didn’t seem to be lacking customers and I imagine they did brisk business after the race.
My favourite was Copafeel, the breast cancer awareness tent. Cancer research is a cause very close to my heart, I lost both my parents and several close friends to cancer and I’ve walked two Moonwalk marathons for cancer charities, not to mention my monthly donation to Cancer Research. What caught my attention though were the giant boobs. They caught Commando’s eye too. These were no ordinary giant boobs, they were big breast shaped back packs that the runners were going to wear throughout the race aimed at getting young people to think about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. I hoped they weren’t as heavy or unwieldy as they looked.
After a couple of circuits of the field and a queue for the loo it was almost time to get into position. We found a convenient tree to use as a changing room with a carpet of fallen leaves to remind us autumn is well on the way and, once Commando had stripped off his track suit, eaten an energy bar and strapped on his water bottles, he was as ready as he would ever be. It was time to find his starting pen.
Then we waited. The race was supposed to start at nine forty five but that came and went with no signs of any activity on the start line. Commando was in the second group with the two hour or less runners, mostly people who, like Commando, had run half marathons before. Commando stood in the pen waiting and I stood behind the barrier, also waiting. I think I was more nervous than him.
Nine forty five was long gone but there was no sign of the race starting. There was lots of chatter amongst the runners. One young chap standing just behind Commando was there with his parents, he came from Hampshire too and Run to the Beat was one of his regular races. A little further back a young woman with the most amazingly braided hair was getting nervous. She wasn’t wearing a green t-shirt because she was running for a charity and it was her first ever half marathon. As the time edged closer to ten o’clock everyone began to get restless. Was this race ever going to start?
We never did find out what the hold up was but, just after ten, the runners in the front pen began to sprint over the start line and, not long after, Commando’s pen began to move. They were off in a blur of green. I took a few quick snaps in the hope of catching Commando in one of them.
Now I had time to kill. Exactly how much I didn’t know. Training for a marathon is a strange thing. In order to run, or walk, twenty six point two miles you have to actually slow your speed and pace yourself or you won’t make the distance. This may sound counter intuitive in a race where your aim is a good finishing time but, if you go out all guns blazing, you’ll never finish. What all this slower running training was going to mean in this shorter race was anyone’s guess. Commando, being used to greater distances, might breeze round in record time but the slow pace training could mean he took longer than expected.
Of course I could have just hung around and listened to the music but I decided to go for a little wander, maybe out of the park to have a mooch around the shops and get a coffee. Greenwich park is a nice place for a wander. With more time, I could have explored all the little paths and perhaps had a look at Blackheath but I didn’t want to go too far in case I got lost.
At the top of the steep slope the thick, twisted trunk of a majestic old horse chestnut tree caught my eye. The branches were laden with conkers, encased in prickly green shells. A school boy’s dream, if young lads still play conkers in this age of computer games. Beyond the old tree the towers of the city were spread out below reminding me I was smack bang in the middle of London.
For a while I stood building spotting, wondering how many of the landmarks Commando would be passing on his run. There was the old Millenium Dome, now renamed the O2 Arena, the gherkin building Prince Charles hates so much, the shard, like one of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia towers, ripped up and replanted then covered in mirror glass, and right beneath me a lake reflecting the sky.
The path curved round and sloped gently downwards, I hoped towards the park entrance. I thought about switching on WalkJogrun to help me find my way but with all the time checking and photo taking my phone battery seemed to be going down at an alarming rate. There were two battery packs in my bag but I wasn’t sure how much charge they had in them. This was the moment I realised I’d left my phone charger plugged in back in our hotel room. Doh! So much for checking the room before we left.
The beat of the music began to fade into the distance as I wound my way down the slope. Then the gradient steepened and a hand rail ran along the exposed edge of the path. A dog walker was sitting on a bench right at the point the path dropped away sharply. His little dog was playing with a ball, dropping it and chasing it as it ran downhill. If it made it over the edge he was going to have a real chase on his hands but, each time, he just managed to grab it before it gained too much momentum.
A little further along, some steps cut in across the curved path, leading down into the trees at a precipitous angle. Looking down I thought they seemed a little risky but, when I saw a green parakeet swooping down into the canopy, I had to take them. There were obviously a lot of parakeets in the park, where they came from I had no idea, but I was intrigued and desperate to capture one with my phone. Gingerly I began to descend.
Thankfully I made it down without mishap. Although I could hear the parakeets chattering, I couldn’t see a single one no matter how hard I stared into the trees. I’d come out on the path we’d climbed on our way to the event area. At the bottom a squirrel was digging so frantically in the grass he didn’t even notice me. I didn’t dare get too close for fear of alerting him and scaring him off but I did get a photo. It was scant consolation for the lack of parakeet pictures. They were still chattering in the trees and, every so often, I’d see one flying from one tree to another. They were slow enough that I knew for sure they were parakeets but not enough that I could get a photo. There were a lot of pictures of the tops of trees to delete when I got home, not one of them with the slightest hint of green feather.
The plan to leave the park and peruse the shops went out of the window about then. My rather meandering decent had taken longer than I’d thought, probably because of all the tree gazing and, with no firm idea of a finish time, I didn’t want to risk missing Commando. It was going to be hard enough to spot him without turning up late and flustered. So I retraced my steps. Climbing was tougher than descending but it felt less dangerous. When I came to the curved path I carried on climbing steps.
On my way to the summit I did see more parakeets flying, I even managed to catch some of them on my phone but, sadly, they are far too distant to see them properly. Since I’ve been home I have Googled them. There are around six thousand feral rose-ringed parakeets living in parks across London. How they got there is the subject of myth and debate but they’ve been there since the 1990’s. Some say just one pair escaped from a private collection, other rumours include a crate breaking open at Heathrow Airport, an escape from Ealing Film Studios during filming and the collapse of a large aviary during the storms of 1987. Wherever they came from they have thrived to such an extent there have even been calls to cull them. That would be a shame.
Because of my fear of missing Commando crossing the line I started back to the event arena earlier than I needed. There had been a few spots of rain so I thought I’d go and sit in one of the tents but it petered out before I reached the arena so I found a quiet bench and sat for a while reading my kindle.
My bench was on the final stretch before the finishing straight so when I saw the first runner come through I knew it was time to get moving. After a quick trip to the loo, I made my way toward the big blue arch of the finish line to look for a good place to stand. Being short it isn’t easy to find a decent vantage point but, as it was a while before most people would be crossing the line, it was less crowded and I found a spot a little way past the blue arch with an unimpeded view.
By now a trickle of the fastest runners were coming through in dribs and drabs. It was easy to see their faces and, at that point, I had high hopes I’d spot Commando and maybe even get a good photo. The rain hadn’t come but the sky had clouded over. In the shade of the trees, it was chilly. The pink hat didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all so I zipped up my parka and pulled it on. Then I stood and waited, watching the timing clock counting down.
One hour twenty five. Amrunner crossed the line then doubled over taking gasping breaths so loud a marshal went over to check he was ok. One hour thirty. The one and a half hour pacer came through with a huge sail strapped to his back so he could easily be seen. That must catch the air and make running more difficult I should think. One hour thirty five. The stream of runners grew. It was getting harder to scan the faces crossing the line as finishers hung around to look for faces in the crowd. With almost everyone wearing the same green t-shirt it was never going to be simple. All I could do was look for grey hair amongst the bobbing heads and hope he would spot my pink hat if I missed him.
One hour forty. The woman standing beside me somehow spotted her son and shouted out his name. One hour forty five. A man came across the line wearing a long ginger wig. He certainly stood out. Maybe I need to buy one for Commando. One hour fifty. I thought I saw Commando for a second just the other side of the line but he didn’t pass me so I guessed I’d imagined it. One Hour fifty five. Commando’s finishing time for his first half marathon passed and I began to think he’d be slower than he hoped because of the marathon training.
Two hours. The throng was so thick my only hope was that he would see me. Of course the clock had started ticking when the first runner crossed the line so, for Commando it was still under two hours. I heard one of the marshals on his radio. The spectators had pushed the barriers onto the path on the hill creating a bottleneck. Maybe Commando was caught up. The hill was tough enough at the end of a half marathon without having to stop because of traffic and lose momentum. If that was the case he was going to be pretty cross.
Just as I was getting worried I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the last thing I expected, Commando, not on the race course but behind be on the spectator side of the barrier. How did that happen? Turns out he’d finished, collected his water, given in his timing chip, been presented with his medal and come back in search of a bright pink hat, all while I was standing searching for a grey head in the crowd of runners.
He beat his personal best quite easily, finishing in one hour fifty one. Not bad at all for a man of a certain age who took up running less than two years ago. I never did get the crossing the finish line photo and had to make do with a post race shot of him with his medal, all proud and smiling. I was pretty proud and smiling myself. At least I could take the silly pink hat off.
We strolled back to the hotel to pick up our bags. Lots of runners were still making their way round the course and, as we walked, Commando told me bits and pieces about the race. The Thames flood barrier, giant silver domes shining in the sun. Running through Woolwich barracks where a big soldier guarded the gate, past the spot where British Soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in the street. The O2 arena, much bigger than he thought. That horrible hill at the end, made worse by people slowing down or walking when he, with all his hill training, didn’t need to.
Back at the hotel the smiley receptionist said, “you’re the first runner back.” She seemed impressed. While he went off to pick up our bags and get changed in the toilets in reception she phoned housekeeping to see if they’d found my iPhone charger in the room. Turns out my luck was in, just this once. Apparently phone chargers are the most common item left in hotel rooms. At least I’m not alone in my stupidity.
When she heard we were heading for the Docklands Light Railway and Waterloo, the lovely receptionist suggested we’d be better off going along the road to the main line station. There were trains straight through to Waterloo on Sundays. She was helpful above and beyond the call of duty. She was right about the train too, much as I liked Canary Wharf, it was far quicker and easier.
This turned out to be the only easy part of our homeward journey. At Waterloo we grabbed a quick bite to eat and scanned the boards for our train. Worryingly we couldn’t spot it. It turned out to be diverted due to works on the line between Basingstoke and Eastleigh. Not quite what we wanted to hear. It was a long, tortuous journey, via Guildford, Havant and Fareham then back up the slow line that runs through our village. Sadly it didn’t stop there, tempting as it was to pull the cord and jump out.
Still when we got off the train at Southampton the rain that had been falling on and off throughout our journey stopped. As we stepped outside we were greeted by the brightest, most colourful rainbow I’ve seen for ages. Maybe that was to balance out the horrible journey.
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