The Royal Parks UltraContributing Ed Jody is proud to finish the Royal Parks Ultra in 22nd place. Only problem is he isn't a woman...
Sunday 7 October 2012The Royal Parks Foundation Ultra marathon is one of those races you just cannot turn down the opportunity to run. The chance to clock up serious miles in the heart of London and through some of the capital’s most beautiful green spaces, while seeing all the sights is simply not to be missed. Following the winding Thames is a fascinating journey. In his Olympic Opening Ceremony prologue Danny Boyle evoked the spirit of London’s thriving and varied history in a high speed journey from the source of the River Thames along its entire length into the heart of the city. The Royal Parks Foundation Ultra runs this in reverse, starting you at the very heart of the city in Hyde Park before pushing you out and along the winding banks of the river, across bridges and through parks until you arrive 50km (or 31 miles) later in the wild surroundings of the deer-infested Bushy Park by Hampton Court Palace. Setting off 30 minutes after the 12,000 strong half marathon crowd, a small but ebullient field of just 250 runners began the same journey towards the Westminster bridge then along to Blackfriars. The ultra race cut-off is eight hours so cut-off times at each of the checkpoints (at 10km) are strictly enforced; as a result I was keen to clock off the first couple as quickly as possible so set off at a frenetic pace darting down past Green Park and Buckingham Palace, then past the Houses of Parliament onto Westminster bridge where you do a sharp hairpin turn and run back over, then along Embankment to Blackfriars bridge. It’s at this point, the two races separate and by then we had already started to catch some of the half marathon stragglers. Peeling off from the crowds, I ran over Blackfriars bridge then down onto the South Bank. Diversity is what makes London so vibrant and we got that in both setting and experience. As well as darting past a Malaysian festival, complete with food and dancing, we were plunged into the crowds around the London Eye making for an exhilarating game of dodge ‘em with the public. Once through the path along the Thames started to thin out in terms of crowds and it was possible to keep a good pace with little problems. I managed a brief chat with Men’s Running’s Operation Ultra runner Matt Griffiths before he tore off at a terrific pace – he finished the race in the top 20 in the end, a fine effort after all his hard work and preparation. Very quickly I hit the first checkpoint, which was well stocked with bananas, SIS electrolytes and gels and beaming volunteers thrusting whatever you needed into your hands. They also had toilets... If you’ve run an ultra or two before, you’ll know why running ultramarathons in more rural settings can sometimes be preferably, as you may need to pop off into the bushes for a minute or two to answer the call of nature. Running an city ultra, that’s not possible in the same way, so it was relieving (in many ways) to see the organisers had thought of this. One checkpoint down and it was onwards. As I made my way past Battersea Power Station on the other side of the water and another bridge towards Hammersmith, I was pleased by how fast the course seemed at this stage. It’s flat, fast and allows you to at least look up now and then at the major sights you are passing (well, my ‘fast’ pace allows me to do that!). As the kilometres were clocked up the tarmac gave way to tow path and trail. It is quite surprising just how much trail there was on the course and it adds another dimension to the race, as well as niggling at your toes to try and induce blisters.
Richmond ParkAs you drive on you start to feel the city transform into the outlying towns as you pass Chiswick, and the bucolic delights of Kew, before making your way into the heart of the largest park of them all, Richmond. One of the benefits of having the race organised by the Royal Parks Foundation is they don’t have to hide the race signage away in order to not incur the wrath of park rangers and can utilise big, bold signage that makes running through the parks enjoyable without having to worry about getting lost. The signage along the entirety of the course was very good with markers at every kilometre (unusual in an ultramarathon), while volunteers lined the route to both encourage and keep runners on track. At road crossings and points of potential danger, stewards either stopped traffic for runners or directed us in the right directions, meaning you can focus solely on plodding out the miles rather than unnecessarily worrying about adding extra distance. Fortunately, the organisers didn’t feel it was necessary to tackle any of the hills in Richmond Park and you leave the park and head back along the road to the Thames again, down to Kingston bridge and the final crossing into Bushy Park. I’d never been to Bushy Park before and was stunned by what I saw as soon as I crossed into the park. A majestic stag was just lying next to the path, his huge antlers towering above him. I almost stopped in my tracks, until the screaming fibres of my calf muscles reminded me we weren’t on a sightseeing trip and to get to the finish as quickly as possible.
Bushy ParkAnd so it was only a few kilometres through the wild surroundings of Bushy Park before finally arriving at the small finishing line, making a disproportionate amount of noise for its size. The contrast between the start in Hyde Park and finish couldn’t have been starker, but you really felt you had come on a journey. That is what, I think, ultrarunning is all about, finding yourself in a place different from that in which you started, both literally and metaphorically. There had been some great performances and as I lay on the grass at the end of the race, there were smiles on the faces of everyone crossing the line. As the aphorism (that I just made up) says: Ultrarunners have more fun. Eventually.
The finishThere were some teething errors, as one would expect on any new race, one of which couldn’t be helped. The transport situation wasn’t great with so many Tube lines closed or part closed making it difficult to get to the start. For supporters it was worse, as the lack of transport combined with the fact the runner tracking application on the website didn’t work until late in the race. I only saw my supporters at the start and end, and not at all along the route, so I’d advise properly planning how to get to and from places to watch the race along the Thames beforehand and checking transport links. These minor hiccups, however, made no dent in how enjoyable the event was and I fully expect these to be ironed out for the second running next year. If you are an unlucky soul who has been unsuccessful in the London Marathon ballot for 2013 yet still want to experience the city in all its glory or are pondering running an ultra for the first time, you would do well to sign up for the Royal Parks Foundation Ultra. Yes, it’s a bit longer and perhaps doesn’t benefit from the same crowds cheering you on but considering the setting it will be one race to remember. Race entry is open now.
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