Tag Archives: Marathon

Running through the Past

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Yesterday, I ran the Winchester 10k. This was a bit of a milestone for me, as it was my first race since a big knee operation last year, so I approached it with some trepidation. It was all fine – I got round in 51 minutes, way below the times I used to run but a good 5 minutes better than I had done the route in training, and my knee held up. It was great to get back to the atmosphere of a road race, and to the supportive atmosphere that I have always found in the running community.

For an average runner like me, who is not trying to win anything except a personal race against the clock, 51 minutes provides plenty of time for thinking and looking, and for me yesterday I spent a lot of that time remembering other races, and thinking about the landscapes and townscapes that the races have taken me through.

Looking back, my favourite race was the Sarn Helen, a 16.5 mile hilly mixed terrain race in Lampeter, west Wales, where I went to university. It was organised by the wonderful Sarn Helen Running Club. This was the ultimate event for all of us involved with the university’s running club, and completing it was a rite of passage to take one from being just a club runner to being a runner. I tried it unsuccessfully once, breaking down with nothing left in my tank after only 13 miles, but made sure that I was properly prepared the next time. I completed it twice in all, and look back on it fondly. The route covered some ancient sites, including the Iron Age hillfort of Castell Allt-Goch, and it took its name from the Roman road that ran the length of Wales. My memories here are all about the pride of the achievement, the camaraderie of my team mates and the club runners, and the beauty of an ancient terrain.

I ran a different kind of historic route in Rhayader, where the 20 mile race goes around the flooded valleys

of the Elan Valley and the epic dams of Craig Coch and Caban Coch. Here was a story of engineering , an exhausting run through a landscape that blended untamed wilderness with Edwardian engineering. I came closer to sports history when I ran the Windsor Park half-marathon, a distance that owes its existence to the 1908 Olympic Marathon which started on the lawns of Windsor Castle. With that castle as our backdrop for the race around the park, it was impossible not to feel a sense of history.

Every race that I've run has some kind of historic resonance, from those in Victorian city parks to those at 1970s urban athletics stadiums. Running in a race provides a unique perspective, especially when roads are closed and we runners take over from the motorists. We can see things that are not always visible, and we can think about the links between town and country, nature and culture, and past and present.

Yesterday's race around the roads just north of Winchester, for example, took us under a brick-built Victorian railway bridge and a concrete 1970s A-road bridge, and past car showrooms, watercress farms, and a Norman church. We started near the modern River Park Leisure Centre, and ran past the site of a 1930s lido, now a car park. It was a race through a landscape of continuity and change in worship, work, leisure, transport, and industry.

I'll keep working on my running, and, my knee willing, I aim to do some more races. With the luxury of being a mediocre runner, and my inability to stop looking for historical resonances wherever I go, I look forward to tracing more routes through the past.

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The Accidental Sports Tourist

My first trip to London this year was not supposed to have anything to do with the Olympics, but it ended up as one of those walks where echoes of Olympics past and future kept on popping up.

I went with my family to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street, and then on a self-guided walk around Marylebone and then down Regent Street to Charing Cross, looking for sites related to the Holmes stories, and for the places where Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’ creator, lived and worked. It was a great trip – all of my family are fans of the Victorian sleuth, and the walk brought things to life for everyone.

And yet, in London’s third Olympic year, we kept on coming across sporting artefacts and links. These were obvious for 2012: it’s hard to move anywhere in London at the moment  without seeing advertisements for the Games, or the logo adorning delivery vans and posters on the Underground. And in Trafalgar Square, towards the end of our walk, we had a good look at the 2012 clock, counting down to the opening ceremony of the Paralympics on one side and the Olympic Games on the other. Like the other visitors, I queued up to have my picture taken by the clock, a modern Olympic site in the heart of tourist London. We also walked, unintentionally, along a tiny part of the 2012 Olympic Marathon route.

The historic links were perhaps less obvious. For me, they were echoes and resonances rather than bold and branded statements like the 2012 clock, and they chimed perfectly with the approach to city walking advocated by Iain Sinclair in Lights Out for the Territory: “Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself.”

There was Conan Doyle himself, the man whose life and fiction we were trailing, who was a big supporter of the 1908 Olympic Games in London. He reported on them for the Daily Mail, and while his alleged appearance on the track next to the Italian marathon runner Dorando Pietri has been disproved by Peter Lovesey, he was certainly one of the journalists responsible for creating the myths of that great race. Then, on Regent Street, we walked past the University of Westminster’s elegant building and its memorial plaque to Quintin Hogg. Hogg was a Victorian promoter of muscular Christianty, and the Regent Street Polytechnic which he founded, the predecessor of the current University of Westminster, had sport and exercice at its heart. The Polytechnic’s sports clubs were to provide countless Olympians. Hogg himself practiced what he preached, playing football for the Wanderers, Old Etoinians, and Scotland.

Sports tourism is about so much more than commercial stadium tours, impressive and interesting as they can be. It can also be accidental, when, like Sinclair and in the spirit of the flaneuer, we walk the city and notice incidental features that can tell us alternative and half-hidden stories about the city’s past.


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