In case you haven’t been following, I’m attempting to run all the tube lines of the London Underground. Above ground. I’ve done a few so far and have learnt one or two things along the way:
- There are short tube lines and there are long tube lines¹.
- I have a much worse sense of direction than I’d always assumed.
- Different areas of London have very different smells.
- The tube network extends beyond what most people would generally think of as London.
Having knocked off all the low-hanging fruit, I was now entering a different landscape w/r/t distance. The Northern Line run had been a hefty 21 miles and now there was nothing left but the lines that ran over marathon distance. The Central Line, the Piccadilly Line, the Metropolitan Line and the District Line, that was the choice. Not being the kind of person to shy away from a challenge, or in fact to take the time to think one through, I decided to take on the longest of the remaining lines. At somewhere around 40 miles, it was time to run the Central Line.
My thinking, such as it was, went along the lines of “well, they’re all pretty long runs, so if I do the biggest first it’s out of the way and the rest will seem easy by comparison”. And after all, I’d been running around 15-20 miles each weekend for the past few weeks as part of my project. It was a good plan, aside from one fatal error: it was bollocks. In hindsight, it would have made more sense to increase the length of runs as gradually as possible and for each subsequent run to act as training for the next, longer run. Obviously. Then again, if my crazy plan worked out, I’d have taken down the biggest of them all. And I WOULD BE KING OF THE UNDERWORLD, I mean UNDERGROUND!
Things didn’t work out. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I’d woken up at around 7am I’d felt the faint but unmistakable presence of illness. Nothing specific or concerning, just that feeling best described as “a little under the weather”. I considered taking a rain check, but in the end as the climatic conditions were in fact ideal for running, I’d made up my mind to give it a go; no guts no glory² or whatever. I fuelled up on half a bowl of muesli, as it was all we had in the house, which had to be topped up with Shreddies. Maybe the omens were there from the start.
As this was going to be a full-on ultra marathon, I prepared a support pack of spare t-shirt and socks, plasters, ibuprofen, Shotbloks and banana, to be delivered by my support crew of wife and youngest child at what I’d estimated to be about the halfway point.
It was a fine Sunday morning as I rattled along on the tube line out to Epping. The first inkling that I might have bitten off more than I could chew came as I began to see just how long it was taking to get from one station to another as we headed out towards the end of the Central Line. That and the fact that the scenery stopped being dominated by houses and shops and became all about fields and livestock. And when we crossed the the M25.
I figured we were crossing London’s orbital ring somewhere close to where it meets the M11, a route I’d driven many times. After some quick mental calculations, recalling that the drive from this point back to Crouch End was typically around 45 minutes travelling at an average speed of maybe 50-60mph, I was able to work out that running this distance was going to take… divide by eight, carry the two, factor in the wind speed… a freakin’ long while.
Nevertheless, as I stepped from the train and left Epping Tube station I felt buoyed with confidence and excitement; the sun was shining and a day’s running lay ahead. The first difference I noted to the other tube line runs I’d done so far was the smell. No trace of the powerful mix of savoury odours spewing from the kitchens of a dozen pan-national restaurants that had hitherto greeted me out here at the end of the line, this time it was the bucolic signature of wood-smoke and cow dung³. After a short downhill jog through the village of Epping, I took a right turn along the charmingly named Ivy Chimneys Road, skirting the edge of some fields and up and over the motorway. I followed the road heading towards my next station, hopping on and off the road onto the grass verge every time a car roared past. Thankfully it was still fairly early on a Sunday morning so there wasn’t much in the way of traffic. It’s also possible that most people were still using the horse and cart as the main mode of transport out here in the sticks. Like I said, NOT London.
Twenty minutes later and I swung down into Theydon Bois, village green, quaint church and all. Honestly it was like being in a scene form Midsomer Murders. I took a tiny detour to actually find the tube station which is located down a side road/dirt track, then it was back on the main route. It was clear from Google maps that the road that led to Debden was not going to be the most direct route to get there. The road described a wide arc out to the west before curling back again and it looked like it would be around twice the distance compared to finding a straight line through. Through what though it wasn’t clear; we were on one of those parts of the map where there are just large blank spaces. As the road began to turn away from the direction I wanted to go I found a gap in the hedge and set off across the fields. There was no obvious sign that this wasn’t okay, which for me is as good as an invitation. After hopping the odd stream and clambering over another hedge or two, I joined a kind of track where people had clearly walked and followed it until it lead me to the edge of some school playing fields. Fortunately there were some Sunday morning rugby matches going on and so I slipped in unnoticed and ran out through the front gates of the school without a problem.
Back in civilisation I made my way towards Debden tube taking a brief detour to where my grandparents had lived many years ago after retiring from the east end. We’d visited them here about a dozen times I guess, probably up until I was about ten years old, but I couldn’t say I remembered it when I was standing outside the house. What struck me about the whole area though was just how white it was; I don’t know what the place was like in the seventies, but I’m not sure that my grandfather, veteran of the Battle of Cable Street, would have felt comfortable here now among the UKIP supporters and Brexiteers that had moved into his ‘hood.
I was around five miles into the run by now and miles 5-10 were a long, straight road down through Loughton Buckhurst Hill and Woodford, a dull suburban stretch of ugly houses than ran approximately parallel to the M11 and didn’t make me want to stop and have a look around one little bit. I grabbed a Lucozade at a corner shop and hurried on. You could almost understood why the people that lived here might be angry about life and feel that blaming it on faceless European bureaucrats or immigrants or probably anyone at all might have made some kind of sense.
Somewhere between Woodford and South Woodford I dipped down into the underpass that took me beneath the north circular. I’d been on the road for one hour and 45 minutes and aware by now that I’d been a little optimistic with my timings, put a call through to the support crew to let them know I’d be at the rendezvous a little later than originally planned. Once I hit Leyton, things began to look more like the London I knew rather than some dystopian netherworld were racists go to die. I’m not saying Leyton was all that much better to look at, but at least there was a little variety. The much vaunted regeneration of Stratford and the surrounding area, legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games, didn’t really like feel like it had lived up to it’s billing. Yes, there was the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, a beautiful piece of urban landscaping and a great place to run, but aside from that the place looked pretty down at heel. I think someone somewhere might have been overestimating the impact the Games were going to have on the local area⁴. It all still looked kind of shitty.
Once through Stratford I emerged onto the A11 at Mile End Road, passing the Blind Beggar pub and the first school I ever worked at. Soon I was passing the southern tip of Middlesex Street, home of Petticoat Lane Market and my dad’s childhood home turf, before the buildings began to close in around me and I was swallowed up in the canyons of the city’s financial district.
I find navigating this part of town tricky at the best of times, all sight lines removed by the giant edifices of office blocks on all sides; you can’t even see the landmarks to steer towards, Gherkin, Cheesgrater etc. that you know are nearby because you’re always so close to some other building restricting your view to little more than a few metres. Added to the fact that 19 miles in and running on empty, my cognitive functioning was way below par and pretty soon I was utterly lost. The support crew of wife and younger child were waiting on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral with food, water and a change of kit, but I couldn’t find the fucker anywhere. And it’s big, St Paul’s is a big-ass church! I ran around in circles probably for an extra mile or more before I popped out onto a street where St Paul’s became visible. I stumbled onward to the welcome sight of wife and youngest child proffering food, drink and nipple plasters.
In a touching display of filial loyalty, not only had my ten year old dragged himself away from his iPad to come down and meet me, he’d also waited until my sweating, bedraggled arrival before he opened the packs of Pokémon cards he’d been bought as a bribe to get him there in the first place. We sat for five minutes as I made some attempt to recover, changed my top and downed a half pint of Lucozade. I think I knew by now, 21 miles done and probably another 17 miles left to go to the end of the line, that I wasn’t going to make it. When I intimated my fears, my son, with a creative use of positive reframing, suggested that even if I didn’t make it all the way to West Ruislip, I should try to go beyond 26.2 miles so that I could officially call the run an ultra. It seemed like an eminently sensible readjustment to the schedule. Smart kid.
I said goodbye to the support crew and ploughed on to see just how far I could go. Along the Strand, Fleet Street and across Aldwych, cutting through Covent Garden, slowing to little more than a walk to avoid colliding with bare-torsoed, soot-streaked fire-jugglers or gaggles of wizened Chinese dudes plucking at their erhus. Each step was hurting now and being able to carry on for the four miles it would take to give me my second ever ultra was feeling like a very long way indeed. I tried to keep away from the main roads as far as possible to avoid the crowds, slipping down back alleys and side streets while trying to keep as straight a line as I could. The original route was to take me through Hyde Park and out past Notting Hill and Holland Park to Hammersmith, and then out along the A40. By the time I got to Hyde Park I’d hit the magic 26.2 miles and was now officially running an ultra. I could stop any time. And I really, really wanted to stop. But when exactly? I felt that I needed an end point of some kind. I plodded on along the north edge of Hyde Park and into Kensington Gardens, wondering what might be a suitable finishing line. And then I saw a man with a WholeFoods bag and it was as if the running gods had heard heard my thoughts.
I turned south across the park, swinging right in front of Kensington Palace and out on to High Street Kensington and minutes later through the wide open doors of WholeFoods Market. Where I discovered that the absolute all time best post-run recovery food is cheesy mashed potato.
In one sense then, I’d failed. I hadn’t managed to complete the Central Line run. But I’d run an ultramarathon and I’d learnt that I didn’t want to live in Buckhurst Hill. And I would be back to try again.
¹Yes, clearly I could have established this by just looking at a tube map, but I mean in a more meaningful, internalised way.
² After this phrase sprang to mind it occurred to me that I didn’t know it’s origin, so I looked it up. It appears to have first been used by a US Air Force pilot Major General Frederick “Boots” Blesse, when he wrote a tactical flying manual of the same name after returning from active service in 1952. The manual, which is a detailed exposition of how to both attack and defend when flying in hostile environments, does not make for particularly interesting reading (unless I guess you’re likely to be flying a plane in a hostile environment) but is bizarrely punctuated with charming but quite incongruous illustrations of cartoon animals, ducks, mice, elephants and so on, engaging in the various flight manouveres that the Maj Gen is describing. “Boots” appears to have been somewhat of a legend throughout the US Air Force, and so I was perplexed on reading a short bio of his service record to discover that he flew just 2 hours of duty in Korea and another 2 hours in Vietnam, which didn’t really seem all that impressive to me until I realised I’d misread “hours” for “tours”.
³Although I’m fairly sure I once ate that flavour ice-cream at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck.
⁴ The 2012 Olympic Games cost £9.3billion. This has left a nice park, some top notch sporting venues which continue to fall short of estimated ussage figures and lose rather than make money and some upscale brutalist blocks of flats. I read an article that pointed out that the money spent on the games could have paid for 6 large NHS hospitals or 60 new secondary schools, although presumably they wouldn’t have built them all in the same place. I make no judgements, but it makes you think.