Friday, 31 July 2015

What is the fastest parkrun in SE London? And how much difference does the course make?

All parkruns are equal but some are more equal than others... yes they're all 5k distance (more or less ;-)) but anyone who has run more than one knows that some courses are faster. There are various reasons, such as the terrain (tarmac is generally faster than trail) and how many slowing twists and turns there are, but obviously the main factor is hills. Up hill sections slow most of us down, and even  if we go hard down hill it is rarely enough to make up the time lost on the ascent.

Still, hilly courses are excellent training and for some its enough of a challenge  to just compare times week in week out over the same course. My home parkrun at Hilly Fields is one of the hillier in London, as the name suggests, and I have run it 73 times. But sometimes its good to see how fast you can go on the flat, and if you are chasing a target time it obviously makes sense to seek out a faster course now and then.

But can we quantify how much difference a course makes? Clearly it partly depends on the individual. If you are very strong on hills, then of course you might not notice as much a difference in time when moving on to a flatter course. If, on the other hand,  you can barely keep going up hill you are likely to benefit more when there's less hill to deal with.

Making more general comparisons is more complicated than it seems, as I found when looking at runs in the South East London area (with Mile End across the river also included as it's one of my nearest parkruns as the crow flies). One obvious measure is the average run time which the parkrun website gives for each run. I assume that by average, parkrun refer to the mean. This is calculated from aggregating all the run times from an event and dividing them by the number of runs - in the case of Hilly Fields currently over 15,000.

In my area that makes the flat tarmac course at Dulwich the fastest, more than two minutes faster than the hills of Hilly Fields and Greenwich's Avery Hill Park course.Still I was surprised to see Brockwell Park coming in second fastest when it is certainly much hillier than the pretty flat Southwark, Burgess and Peckham Rye courses. Average times might be affected by various other factors though - perhaps some courses attract more, faster club runners which lift the average while others might have larger, more inclusive fields with a higher proportion of slower runners. Dulwich parkrun has a strong association with Dulwich Runners, Brockwell Park is home to Windrush Tri club, Hilly Fields is close to Kent AC's track, whereas Burgess parkrun has no nearby club - does that affect its times? It's important to recognise that what's being measured here is not how fast the course is as such, but how fast the people running it are. There is a relationship between the two - even the fastest runners run more slowly on tougher courses - but some parkruns seem to have faster fields (i.e. more generally faster runners)

Another way of looking at the average is the median time - that is the time of the runner who finished half way down the field. I would have thought that would ameliorate the 'club runner effect', as the times of the faster runners don't affect the average in the same way. As I don't have access to all the data for parkruns ever, I have just calculated this for all runs last week, that is 25 Jul 2015:

On the median measure, Greenwich still appears to be the toughest course. Southwark Park is now the fastest, with Dulwich slipping into second. Burgess is now faster than Brockwell Park which I would expect. But I certainly don't believe that Hilly Fields is faster than Peckham Rye - there must have just been a faster field at Hilly Fields that day.

Course records

So how do the faster runners compare? What about the course records? Well Bromley comes out fastest for both men and women, with Dulwich and Brockwell Park in the fastest four for both. But course records can sometimes just reflect that a top runner turned up one day. Hilly Fields certainly wouldn't be seen as faster than Burgess Park by most runners, but the fastest male time at the former is 22 seconds ahead of the latter, set on Christmas Day 2014 by team GB mountain runner Shaun Dixon (mind you Burgess record holder Max Nicholls is a junior Team GB mountain runner who could probably also get a good time at Hilly Fields).

More instructive is comparing course records set by individuals at different courses. Kent AC's Amy Clements' has the records at both Dulwich and Hilly Fields, the former 1:18 faster. That's in line with the gap in average times between the two. But  this year's Manchester Marathon winner Paul Martelletti holds records at Mile End and Southwark Park- is the former really faster, or was he just taking it a bit easier in Southwark that day?

To exclude the 'anomolous super-speedy visitor effect', I've also looked at averaging the last ten fastest finish times at the events. Dulwich and Mile End are in the top three for men and women, Hilly Fields and Greenwich in the bottom three.

Not sure what to conclude from all this - on most measures Hilly Fields and Greenwich are at the slower end, and Dulwich is clearly one of the fastest. But how much difference it makes depends of how you measure it, and of course on the individual. Burgess Park is definitely the fastest for me, my PB there (19:42) is 92 seconds faster than for Hilly Fields PB (21:14), with my fastest times for Dulwich, Southwark Park and Peckham Rye somewhere in between. So I'm surprised that Burgess doesn't figure higher up the speed tables - maybe it just needs some faster runners to run there!

[updated 1 August with median times; all statistics as of 4 July 2015 unless otherwise stated]

Monday, 27 July 2015

House Every Weekend - running in Ladywell

The video for House Every Weekend, David Zowie's summer UK number one single, features some great dancing but also the figure of a runner making his way through London streets.

But which London streets? I'm not 100% sure of the road this is (above*), but the bridge he runs over will be very familiar to South East London runners, especially members of Kent Athletic Club and others who train at Ladywell arena in Lewisham. 

The bridge crosses the railway next to the track - if you look closely you can see floodlights.Many of us run over that bridge every week on the way to and from the track, and indeed sometimes running back and forth over the bridge forms part of the training.


* my first thought was that this must be Malyons Road which runs down to the railway bridge, but although the housing is similar I wasn't so sure. However local residents have convinced me that it is - there have been a few changes to trees and scaffolding since video was filmed, just as the railway bridge now looks quite different with the trees in leaf - guess it must have been filmed over last winter.


Friday, 24 July 2015

Running in The Railway Children

The Railway Children - both  Edith Nesbit's 1906 novel  and the 1970 film adaption of it - feature a paperchase/hare and hounds race in the north of England. As mentioned here before such races, where a 'hare' runs ahead scattering a trail of paper and is chased by the 'hounds', were important in the early history of organised cross country running in the 19th century - hence many clubs retaining the name 'harriers' to this day.

In the story, the hare leads the hounds down a railway tunnel where one of them trips and is injured, narrowly escaping being hit by a train. But it all end's well, as the children look after him and in return the boy's grandfather helps secure the release of their father from prison. 

 '"Let me pass, please." It was the hare—a big-boned, loose-limbed boy, with dark hair lying flat on a very damp forehead. The bag of torn paper under his arm was fastened across one shoulder by a strap. The children stood back. The hare ran along the line, and the workmen leaned on their picks to watch him. He ran on steadily and disappeared into the mouth of the tunnel...

And now, following the track of the hare by the little white blots of scattered paper, came the hounds. There were thirty of them, and they all came down the steep, ladder-like steps by ones and twos and threes and sixes and sevens. Bobbie and Phyllis and Peter counted them as they passed. The foremost ones hesitated a moment at the foot of the ladder, then their eyes caught the gleam of scattered whiteness along the line and they turned towards the tunnel, and, by ones and twos and threes and sixes and sevens, disappeared in the dark mouth of it. The last one, in a red jersey, seemed to be extinguished by the darkness like a candle that is blown out' (E.Nesbit, The Railway Children - full text here).

The author (and socialist) E.Nesbit lived in various places in South East London from the 1870s until the First World War including Blackheath, Lewisham (Elswick Road), Lee, and Well Hall in Eltham. I wonder whether she ever saw Lewisham Hare and Hounds in action, the predecessors of today's Kent Athletic Club? They were formed in 1888 and certainly ran paperchases in the period when Nesbit was living in the area.

More running related literature:

Sunday, 19 July 2015

'Sporting Requisites of the Highest Class': Pre-First World War Sports Shops in London

I recently came across a couple of adverts from 1913 for sports shops in London - they appear in issues of Chin Wag, magazine of the Eton Manor Boys' Club which the Bishopsgate Institute has digitised.

F.H. Ayes Ltd was based at 111 Aldersgate Street (near to where the Barbican is now), and were 'manufacturers of every requisite for... lawn tennis, golf, football' etc.  The advert states that the firm was established as early as 1810. As well as sports equipment, they  manufactured board games and indeed wooden rocking horses. In the late nineteenth century they also installed 'removable grandstands for the Centre Court at Wimbledon' (John Lowerson,Sport and the English Middle Classes, 1870-1914, Manchester University Press, 1995).

Spalding's described itself as 'the great London House for Sporting Requisites of the highest class'. In this period they had two London stores - at 317/18 High Holborn and 78 Cheapside.  They also had shops in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Paris. But their home was in the United States where Albert Goodwill Spalding (1849-1915)  was an influential figure in the history of baseball- in an attempt to popularise the game in England he helped arrange a tour of baseball clubs in 1889, including a game at Kennington Oval (Mark Lamster, Spalding's World Tour: The Epic Adventure that Took Baseball Around the Globe, 2007). He opened his first shop in New York in 1885, and the company is still a big player in US sports. Interesting that global sports brands were already in existence, and present in city centres, more than a hundred years ago.

'For all sports, come to Spalding's'

Friday, 17 July 2015

Assembly League on Greenwich Olympian Way

253 runners (from 13 clubs) took part in the fourth of this season's Assembly League races, in north Greenwich on 2 July. It was a hot evening for a run along the river Thames on the Greenwich peninsula on a flat course that was about 60m short of 5k.

Kent AC athletes John Gilbert and Amy Clements finished first amongst the men and women respectively, and the club also won in both the men's A team and B team. Dulwich Runners won the women's A team, and Victoria Park Harriers the women's B team. That pretty much reflects the league placings with two races remaining - Kent AC in front for the men, Dulwich Runners for the women. Top three finishers/times:


1. John Gilbert (Kent AC) - 15:11
2. Dave Morgan (Serpentine) - 15:21
3. Rob Jackaman (Cambridge Harriers) - 15:29

1. Amy Clements (Kent AC) - 16:52
2. Clare Elms (Dulwich Runners) - 17:25
3. Alex Gounelas (Eton Manor) - 17:41

The route took us along the Olympian Way, which lets face it is as near as most of us are going to get to being Olympians. I assume the path, which runs along the riverside around the 02 arena, was so named in 2012 when the 02 was the North Greenwich Arena in the London Olympics, hosting basketball and gymnastics.

As the excellent Greenwich Peninsula History site demonstrates, this area was once known as Greenwich Marsh, and was the site of gas works and heavy industry before the arrival of the Millennium Dome (now the 02). There are still some traces left of old north Greenwich, one of the best of which is the Pilot Inn where many of the runners retired for a drink after the race.

Kent AC down by the riverside

Friday, 10 July 2015

Andy Murray - tennis and running

Andy Murray is going head to head with Roger Federer in the Wimbledon  semi-final later today, and it will not be a walk in the park. In fact, in the course of  playing a game of tennis, both players will do a fair bit of running. For instance, to win the Australian Open earlier this year Novak Djokovic ran 16.52 km over 24 sets - an average of 688m per set (source)

The running is naturally in short intense bursts, so the running tennis players do in training will often feature sprint intervals. Andy Murray's former fitness trainer Jez Green has said: "Running 200m and 400m targets the relevant energy systems for tennis better than steady state longer runs so they will make you perform better and longer in specific match conditions".

Andy Murray at Tropical Park in 2008

Andy Murray regularly trains in the Winter in Florida, including track sessions at the Tropical Park Stadium in Olympia Heights (near Miami) and running on the beach. An  observer of one of his sessions on the track there in 2008 watched him doing  10 x 200m intervals in the heat, while a 2012 report mentions him doing 400m intervals on the beach.. By all accounts he's pretty fast,  reporting in 2012  that he has run 400m in 53 seconds.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Windrush Aquathlon 2015

The Windrush Aquathlon in Brockwell Park on 28 June saw 118 people take part in the adult event and another 25 in the junior races. The adult race involved ten lengths (500m) of Brockwell Park Lido, followed by a 5k run over two laps of the park. Top three positions were as follows:


1. Alex Yee (Crystal Palace Tri) 23:29
2. Joe Dale (London Fields Triathlon Club) 26:47
3. David Kettle (Clapham Chasers) 26:55


1. Sarah Swaney (Clapham Chasers) 29:44
2. Ruth Gloster (Clapham Chasers) 29:56
3. Hannah Ewens (Crystal Palace Tri) 30:30

Alex Yee's time was a course record, a remarkable achievement considering only twelve hours previously he had run a 14:09 5k in the British Milers Club Grand Prix in Watford. 17-year-old Yee, a member of Kent Athletic Club as well as Crystal Palace Tri, has been selected to run the 3000m for GB in the forthcoming World Youth Championships in Colombia.

But the Aquathlon wasn't all emerging international athletes and record breaking times, it was also welcoming for those dipping their feet for the first time into the multisport world. I went along to support a friend who said: 'it was really friendly and inclusive for a first timer. I've never raced since I was a child and even though I was one of the last to finish everyone was incredibly encouraging'

Windrush Triathlon Club was set up in 2008 and trains regularly in Balham, Clapham, Dulwich, and London Bridge as well as in Brockwell Park. Its name of course references the famous 1948 Windrush voyage of Jamaican migrants to Britain, many of whom settled in the South London area. But its also a good name for a racing club - you certainly feel the rush of the wind when running and cycling and maybe swimming too on a windy day in the Lido.

I did try out the course the weekend before, but my swimming is too poor to take part in a race. I lived in Brixton, not far from the Lido, in the early 90s but in those days it was closed and abandoned. In fact it was squatted for a while and I remember visiting a friend there whose room is where the gym is now! So I'm going to blame my swimming form on the lack of a Lido at that time - great to see it flourishing now.
yes there was some very nice cake for the finishers

The finish line with the Lido in the background

I love this map (from the race guide), showing the route from the pool to the transition area (on the grass outside the Lido):

Friday, 3 July 2015

Arthur Ashe - proper hero

'Arthur Ashe: more than a champion' is an excellent BBC documentary about the great tennis player (1943-1993). Obviously I knew about his iconic status as the first black man to win Wimbledon (though not the first black Wimbledon champion for as the programme mentioned, Althea Gibson won the women's championship as early as 1957).  The prejudice he faced growing up in Richmond, Virginia - where he was prevented from taking part in some segregated local tennis tournaments - reminded me of current debates about the legacy of the pro-slavery Confederacy in the US Civil War. It was enormously political significant that a statue of Ashe was placed on Monument Avenue in Richmond, alongside the statues of Confederate leaders. Only last  week, 'Black Lives Matter' was sprayed on a Confederate statue there amidst calls to take down the Confederate flag from public buildings following the recent racist massacre at a black church in Charleston.

Ashe and Connors at Wimbledon

I was less familiar with Ashe's role in the Association of Tennis Professionals, the union which helped shift the power from the tennis establishment towards players in early 1970s. Ashe's victory over Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1975 had another significance in this respect, as Connors had refused to join the ATP's boycott of Wimbledon two years earlier, imposed in protest at the Yugoslavian player Nikola Pilić being banned from the tournament. Although he had to retire from tennis due to health issues - initially heart problems and later AIDS- Ashe remained active in many fields up until the end. For instance he was arrested in 1992 for protesting about the treatment of Haitian refugees, not long before his death.

I was also unaware of Ashe's role as a historian - I must check out his work, A Hard Road to Glory: a History of the African American Athlete since 1946.

Of course like most tennis players, Ashe incorporated running into his training. Here he is jogging in London on 19 June 1979 during the Wimbledon fortnight

The documentary is available until July 25th 2015 on BBC iplayer

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Midsummer Running in Dulwich Park

'Why do they run away? this is a knavery of them to make me afeard'
(photo from Dulwich Runners)

Last Thursday 25th June, 150 of us did three circuits of South London's Dulwich Park taking part in Dulwich Runners' Midsummer 5k. Top three finishers for men and women were as follows (full results at Run Britain):

1. Alex Gibbins (Blackheath and Bromley AC) - 16:10
2. Phil Sanders (Kent AC) - 16:11
3. Warwick Norris (Run Dem Crew) - 16:21

1. Sorrel Walsh (Run Dem Crew) - 19:07
2. Julia Wedmore (Herne Hill Harriers) - 19.23
3. Melanie Edwards - 19:26

The race was preceded by a one mile children's event, which was all very cute but definitely cost me a place in the 5k later as the children stayed on to cheer their parents... I was running along quite happily when at the end of the second lap a child called out to the guy behind me 'Dad, there's a little boy beating you' (there was a junior runner ahead of us both). In no time at all, said Dad had moved up a gear, overtaken me and headed off in hot pursuit of his youthful rival. 

Midsummer running

'Over hill, over dale,
Through bush, through brier,
Over park, over pale,
Through flood, through fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere'

It was a hot evening, and where better to be than in the green outdoors? At this time of year with the days at their longest and the sun at its height, people have celebrated midsummer revels for thousands of years with dancing and games. In his book on seasonal customs, The Stations of the Sun (1996), Ronald Hutton notes that it was once common in many parts of  Europe to light festive bonfires on Midsummer Eve (23 June). An  Elizabethan ballad  mentions that 'the nimble young men runne leapinge' over Midsummer fires. There was no fire leaping in Dulwich Park this year, but plenty of nimble men and women of various ages running around.

The 5k route was more or less the same as the regular Dulwich parkrun route, above

The drama of the Green World

Writing about A Midsummer Night's Dream and other Shakespearean comedies, the critic Northrop Frye famously wrote of the ‘drama of the Green World’, with the action moving away from the confines of 'the normal world'  to a woodland setting of rebirth and dreams where the social order is suspended and contradictions are resolved. If the characters generally have to return to the normal world afterwards, it is to a better place than when they left it as a result of their adventures (Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism, 1957).

 For me, running races - perhaps especially in parks, woods and fields - functions as a kind of Green World in a similar way. A time and space outside of everyday life when we can temporarily leave behind worries about work or the state of the world, when the things that divide human beings are set aside for a common experience of focusing solely on the immediacy of our physical bodies and the terrain we move over, as fast as we can. And if we cross the line hot and exhausted, we generally feel better for it afterwards.

'O, I am out of breath in this fond chase!'

(all quotes in italics from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream)