It’s ten past ten on 10.10.10 and I’m running across Westminster Bridge. The sun has just come out onto a perfect autumn day and Sunday mornings don’t come much more memorable than this.
London has hosted a famous marathon every year since Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen held hands beneath Big Ben to share the first race victory one rainy day in March 1981. And now this soon-to-be Olympic city of ours has a world-class half marathon as well.
I head back along the bridge and east beside the Thames. There’s a soft breeze blowing leaves along the sunlit road under a clearing October sky. Across a silver slice of river, the London Eye is turning gracefully. The Embankment is my spiritual running home, and I’m very glad to be here.
Because although the race course today and the organisation are perfect, they’re much better than my own. A silent alarm clock and poor route planning saw the 0930 start time pass me by on a tube train near Turnham Green.
Five minutes later I’m sprinting up the escalator at Knightsbridge and onwards to the park. I cross the course before the leaders and try to find the start.
The clock reads 16:48 as I cross the line — but with my panic fading I realise it’s an opportunity of a kind, to witness and run a major race right from the back.
We make the fastest ever transit of Hyde Park Corner and join the Tour de France 2007 Prologue route, down Constitution Hill towards Buckingham Palace.
Soon we’re running along Birdcage Walk and onto Parliament Square. Big Ben stands tall and proud in front of me and when I look back from Westminster Bridge, the time is perfect for my shot — ten past ten on 10.10.10 — and I can’t complain about being late today again.
This busy, noisy highway beside the river feels completely different without the traffic, and on a sunny Sunday morning the view of London opens out in a different way.
In the London Marathon, the sight of Big Ben up ahead says you’ve almost made it. I relive all those moments of my running past today, and with twenty fewer miles within my legs I can more easily imagine a running future, too.
We loop around before Blackfriars, and turning back I check out a few of the runners I’ve passed so far. Starting amongst the pantomime animals was fun, and it’s even better now to see an elephant, a tiger and a fish running slowly towards me. London brings out the fancy dress in a way I’ve never seen elsewhere, and it’s great to see that tradition extending to this race.
We turn right into Whitehall, and then right again towards Trafalgar Square and I stop to take a picture at each, trying to catch the moment. Because it’s just amazing — here we are in the heart of London, and this city is open just for us.
As we turn onto The Mall at five miles, I catch sight of the 2 hours 10 pacer far up ahead, and put my camera away. Immediately I pull it out again — since the view of Buckingham Palace is just too good to miss.
Before I know it, we’re climbing Constitution Hill again, and then it’s onto Park Lane and past Decimus Bruton’s great ornamental gates and back into Hyde Park.
Looking at the course map last night, I packed my I-Pod so that music could run me home through silent stretches in the park once the scenic miles were run. But now we’re here, the crowd noise is just tremendous.
There’s a deafening roar of hoots and cheering from the charity support stations. I look around me and amongst the hundreds of runners that I can see, more than half are running for charities today — for Mind, the mental health charity, for Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie, Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital and for Help a London Child.
It’s humbling at times like this, to see how many people have made the effort to let their run help others along the way.
As the Serpentine washes past serene beside us, the halfway mark goes by at 1 hour and 6 minutes gone. My journalistic duties are safely over and so now I decide to put my foot down for a decent time to bring me home from here.
I was worried that these last six miles might feel long, but they flash quickly behind my heels. I glimpse the 2 hours 10 pacer once again, but on the narrower footpaths of the park it’s hard to pass slower runners as I strive to reel him in.
By 11 miles, I realise that he must be making up time as well, since no matter how hard I try, the distance stays the same — as I run faster, then so does he.
With a mile left to run, the Albert Memorial is shining golden in the sunlight, and then we find the final straight, which proves much longer than I thought. With every step I’m passing runners, but I’d be happy to end it now.
The finish arrives in 2:06 — and despite my faster pace, it’s taken an hour and forty seconds to run the second half.
I warm down with a gentle walk beside Round Pond, and amidst my stroll I catch a glimpse of gleaming silver and reflected blue — an Anish Kapoor sculpture, C-Curve, stands surrounded by parkgoers of all ages.
As I approach, now I can see how simply captivating this construction is — from one side turning the world upside down, and from the other framing a perfect view of autumn leaves and cobalt sky, somehow captured here amongst us at ground level and down beneath the trees.
I stand here just a moment, reflecting on this sunny Sunday morning, on the joys of London running, and on this new race I’ve run today. The Royal Parks Half Marathon is a winner — even if you run it from the back.
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