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A lesson for us all

There is something instinctive in human nature for the amateur to celebrate the professional. Radcliffe. Rudisha. Kimetto. We watch in awe as the extraordinary achieve the extraordinary. But there is something more extraordinary than this: the ordinary achieving the extraordinary.

That is not to say that Colin Dear is ordinary. Ordinary humans do not run marathons and ultramarathons. But Colin Dear is no Kimetto. But then Kimetto is no Colin Dear.

On a Friday afternoon, the head of media slipped out of the gates of his Croydon Continue reading

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A record-breaking Ramsay Round for the 21st century

When news of the success of the expedition to climb Mount Everest was revealed to the world on June 2, 1953, four days had elapsed since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had stood on the summit. When Jez Bragg reached Glen Nevis youth hostel at the end of a record-breaking Ramsay Round in the Scottish Highlands, the world knew in seconds.

Bragg’s round is symbolic of the technological age. Continue reading

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Book review: Runner’s Guide to London

‘There is something truly special about running in London,’ Hayden Shearman insists in the introduction to his new book Runner’s Guide to London.

I am not so sure. The longer you stay in a place and the more miles you trudge, the more cynical you become. The wonders you once marvelled at scarcely merit a glance.

Convince me, Hayden. Convince a Londoner who has been here too long and is emigrating – well, to Edinburgh – that there really is something ‘truly special’ about the London running scene. Continue reading

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Lessons learnt about running in London

After five years of living in London, I am escaping to Edinburgh in July. Escape is the apt verb. I imagine I’ve run around 10,000 miles in just about every London borough. This is what I have learned.

The perception of danger is greater than the reality

And this makes me sad. Rarely have I felt in danger in London: an I-am-going-to-be-stabbed/attacked/mugged-danger. The perception of danger is ever-present, however. Across Tooting Bec Common in the dark? Never. Down the wooded track that is a summer shortcut? No way. You know what might happen. And that’s enough.

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Passing runners do not make eye contact Continue reading

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The Grand National: England’s greatest cross country race

The year is 1876. Queen Victoria is ruling an empire; Benjamin Disraeli is her Prime Minister; Thomas Edison is seeking a patent for the telephone. At Buckhurst Hill in Epping Forest, 32 men gather at a pub, The Bald-Faced Stag, for the All England Cross Country Championship. It is mid-November and it is raining. South London Harriers’ James Gibbs is the race leader when the paper-trail denoting the course vanishes. The athletes blunder blindly through the forest, groping for the route. The race is voided. Amid the shambles, an English national cross country is born.

The year is 2015. Parliament Hill is abuzz and oozing. The multi-coloured flags of innumerable running clubs flutter in the breeze. Lines of tape have long replaced paper-trails. Some 8,797 runners Continue reading

Running with the buggy

The art of the buggy runner

I am seconds away from finishing my first London Marathon. I am 18. I have discovered the ambiguity of walls. I am suffering, limping to the finish line. Suddenly, a grey streak passes my right shoulder. I am being overtaken by a Womble. I have no energy to respond. I watch the Womble charge into the distance, arms madly aloft.

Galvanised, I become a better runner, far beyond the reach of Wombles. And so I am embroiled in the final stages of a five-mile pre-Christmas race in Blackpool. Continue reading

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Falling back in love with running in London

London and I have fallen out of love. I run along the River Thames, up to Buckingham Palace, through Richmond Park, around the Serpentine and over Tower Bridge. So what, I shrug. It was just a run. Another run. Miles – nothing more.

I have been here too long; I am blinded to the supposed merits – the geography, the history, the culture, the landmarks – of our capital city. I have become over-familiar. I have watched her pick her nose and break wind, eat with her mouth open and snore loudly in bed. London and I are trying to make it work, but our relationship has reached that inexorable stage of stagnation. We tiptoe around a seemingly inevitable destiny: break-up. I am casting envious glances to seductive others: Bristol, Edinburgh, even Inverness. Continue reading

Jonny and Arielle at the Tooting Bec track

The daddy of all compromises: trying to be a father and a runner

The essence of Nick Hornby’s biographical Fever Pitch is that Arsenal is the author’s constant in life. Amid the flux of education, work and relationships, happiness, sadness and indifference, Arsenal and football remain resilient to the vagaries of life. Come what may, for Hornby, it is Arsenal yesterday, Arsenal today and Arsenal tomorrow. The love is timeless and unconditional.

For Hornby, read me. For Arsenal, read running. I have run up clag-shrouded mountains in the western Highlands, pounded pavements in every British village, town and city I have ever visited, persevered non-stop for 19 hours in the hills of the Lake District, jogged 41 miles around a sweltering London in pursuit of the summits of the capital’s inner boroughs, raced horses in mid-Wales, grown dizzy circling a track in Tooting Bec, trudged through the mud of Parliament Hill, become hypothermic at Tough Guy, and been out-sprinted by a Womble in the London Marathon.

There have been life-changing runs. Winning runs. Inspiring runs. Good runs. Mediocre runs. Bad runs. Awful runs. Occasionally – very occasionally – I have felt like the hero in Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner: ‘The first and last man on the world.’

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Running is my thread, the simplest of sports that links a scrawny 12-year-old boy on a cross country course in Worcestershire to a husband and father on today’s seven-mile run around the better bits of Croydon some 20 years later. I will always run. I will always be a runner. Life will always attempt to intervene, attempt to woo you and I into lethargy. School tried. University tried. Alcohol tried. Jobs tried. Girls tried. Triathlon threatened to seduce me. Injury glowered. The dreaded monster ‘work’ forever looms.

But the thread – at times twisted and stretched, tense and ravelled – endures. And it needs to; the temptation of an easier, different life – a non-running life – is ever-present.

There is something more devastating to the delicate thread of being a lifelong runner, however, than triathlon, injury and work.

A baby.

It happened 19 months ago: six pounds of helpless flesh and bone called Arielle that turned two lives – mine and my wife’s – into bafflement and exhaustion. A baby means you do not sleep. A baby disrupts the rhythm of a life you have spent decades moulding. A baby distorts your judgement.

It distorted mine. I stopped running.

Even at three months, my daughter preferred nocturnal living. One night – a night that was probably no worse than many others, but seems, in hindsight, a psychological turning point – I frantically wrote in a diary: ‘Fatherhood is hard, desperately hard. I struggle for one all-defining adjective as every day the reality is shaped differently. Compromise. That is the great battle of being a parent and a father. Where do your priorities lie? Pre-baby, I ran a lot. Not as much as some, but up to 60 miles per week. There is very little more important than our health. As clichéd as that sounds, you only have to glance across a street, office or train carriage, to realise how many people forget or ignore that. They are fat. They have given up. They are lazy. Yet fatherhood has deeply compromised my sport, my running. I wonder if it will forever. Get your priorities right, some might say. Baby comes first, not an inconsequential trip to the track or a 10-mile tempo. She does, of course, but then other parts of my life do not simply stop because of her existence. No parent should feel guilty about maintaining a sense of independence, should they? Yet I feel guilty for even intimating that my personal pursuits might – for some minutes or hours of a day – be more important than the upbringing of my daughter.’

I re-read the words in the morning, pausing over one sentence: ‘Other parts of my life do not simply stop because of her existence.’

I resumed running.

But I was a different brand of runner.

Over the previous two years, I had looked to far-flung challenges. After completing a 13-hour Fellsman in Yorkshire and a 19-hour Bob Graham Round in the Lake District within six weeks, I became the fastest person to run the 66-mile Vanguard Way a year later. My running trajectory was seemingly clear: ultramarathons in the South and North Downs, the West Highland Way Race, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.

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Not with a baby.

I would run, I decided, but I would be a reasoned runner. A clever, time-savvy runner. A faster runner. That meant no ultramarathons, no trips to the Alps and no 100-mile jaunts through the south of England.

I stopped looking beyond what was on my doorstep and considered what I had at my immediate disposal: an outstanding group of club mates at Herne Hill Harriers, access to one of the most competitive cross country leagues in England, numerous races within 30 minutes of home, countless runs that could start and finish at my front door, a commute to work of eight miles. I live in south London. We have parks and pavements. The hills are modest. I would be a road runner by necessity. I would focus on shorter distance by necessity. Most importantly, I was trying to find time: quality time to train consistently and most effectively.

In doing so, I became a better – for me, that means quicker – runner. I made an agreement with my wife. Tuesday night – for interval training – was mine; Thursday night was hers for whatever she chose. The arrangement was hallowed. I would get up early with the baby on Sundays while she had a lie-in; she would take over and I would run. The rest I would fit in when I could.

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Jonny and Arielle at the Tooting Bec track

Running with the buggy

In 2006, I quit my job to spend three months cycling and walking some 5000 miles around the UK, climbing the 92 traditional county summits, from Inverness-shire’s Ben Nevis to Huntingdonshire’s Boring Field. It was my obsession, as long self-propelled journeys must become. I would set daily targets: to climb the highest point in Derbyshire and cycle 50 miles, for instance. If I failed to meet the objective, I would almost be reduced to tears, torn apart by my frustration at failing to meet an arbitrary goal that meant nothing to anyone but me – even if weather, illness or bad luck had been the cause.

Heights of Madness map

I would adopt the better part of this philosophy to running, I decided. Not the obsessional lunacy of run at all costs, but a logical, rational assumption upon beginning a new day: today I will run. Once you have emotionally committed to this idea, made it possible and probable, time is found because time has to be found. I would run to work or run home, rather than taking train and tram. I would escape at lunchtime or – being a teacher – during a free period. I bought a running buggy; now my wife and I could run at the same time. (I once used the buggy to run up the zigzags of Box Hill). I would get up early. I would go to bed late. I told myself that there were two forms of tiredness: being tired from life’s demands and being tired from running. My energy to run came from a different source, I convinced myself. I would always find the required energy. I would never be too tired. I built a rigid, virtually unshakeable schedule into my week: Monday recovery, Tuesday intervals, Wednesday easy, Thursday hills, Friday easy, Saturday race or threshold, Sunday long. I became more efficient at everything as a result: I marked by books faster; I planned lessons more quickly; I answered emails with greater alacrity.

Such was the rigidity of training and life – aided by the dismissal of apathy and procrastination – I could run around 55 miles per week. I lowered my 10k time to 34.19, my 5k time to 16.28. I raced on the track for the first time in 15 years. I was not a bad father. I was a father who recognised his existence was not exchanged at birth with his daughter’s.

And so the thread stretches into a third decade. I can see it coiling ahead of me, up more mountains, along more pavement, around more parks. Although I cannot see the end, I glimpse a knot a little closer, another test to the strength of the thread.

Baby number two.

It will be hard. But I will find a way.

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Ten ways to find more time to run

  • Run commute. – You have got to go to work; you have got to get there. Kill the time you may have spent driving, on buses, trains or trams by running. The run commute can be recovery miles, a longer midweek run, a tempo or threshold session or include a series of hill repetitions.
  • Be ready to run. – Have running kit, shoes, a watch and whatever else you need – money, refreshment and so on – ready to go. I would have missed evening training sessions on numerous occasions had I not previously set out kit.
  • Do not procrastinate. – Do not worry about the weather, where you are going to go or whether you are adequately fed and watered. Just run.
  • Do not use the ‘too tired’ excuse. – Life is tiring, even more so with children. You will feel less tired after running.
  • Buy a running buggy. – They are not cheap and they are bulky, but they guarantee you time outside. The cost alone will make you feel guilty about not using it.
  • Be more efficient at everything. – If you need to find time for family and running, make time by being more efficient. Take a shorter lunch break, avoid time-wasting and become faster at mundane, everyday tasks.
  • Establish a routine. – Humans are creatures of habit. Make running an indelible part of your daily routine. You will run today. It is as simple as that. You find time for other things. Why not running?
  • Compromise. – Ensure your partner is explicitly aware of your running plans. I train on Tuesday nights. That is the law in my household. My wife goes out on Thursdays. I unfalteringly abide by her law.
  • Combine racing with a family outing. – This, of course, depends on a number of variables – not least the mood of your loved ones and the length of the race – but why not plan a day out around a race in a notable location or a weekend away at a European marathon destination?
  • Remember, nothing is more important that your health and wellbeing. – There should be no guilt attached to exercising. Running stops you becoming that fat oaf sitting at home watching hours of television and stuffing his face with fast food. You are a runner; you are different.

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This article was first published in Men’s Running.

@MuirJonny

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Coming to a muddy field or park near you, cross country is back

It is New Year’s Day. I am trudging across an open field, decorated with wind-harassed red and white tape. The ground has slid away; the floor is a molten conveyor belt of liquidised mud. It writhes beneath the slap of ineffectual spikes. I am 15. I think I am in love. Love has brought me to Bourton-on-the-Water, to this running Armegeddon on the first day of a new year, to cross country.

I stagger to the finish. I am last.

I stand shivering by an open car boot, littered with safety pins. I fiddle with mud-drenched double knots, grow frantically impatient, haul the shoes off. I unpeel a vest. The wind reasserts itself. Hail falls. I invent some lavishly improbable lies about my New Year’s Eve activities. The girl nods. She says goodbye. I watch as the girl is driven away.

Cross country has got no less painful. Cross country retains the ability to ruin physically and emotionally. Nor am I any more adept at untying knots than I was 18 years ago.

The season does not wait for the clocks to go back; cross country is underway. The field, this time, is on Farthing Downs, an undulating swathe of greenness abutting Coulsdon in south London. Runners from the nine clubs that make up the first (and highest) division of the Surrey League assemble. We are a lean, lithe bunch. There are few passengers here. My aspirations are realistic. Two years previously, a week after winning the inaugural Broadway Tower Marathon by around 20 minutes, I came 75th in a field of 191 runners in a Surrey match in Richmond Park. Take this as a reflection of the league, not me.

We surge forward, jostling for space as a grass track cambered upward. I am running comfortably under six-minute mile pace. The leaders are running closer to five over the opening mile. Soon we are sent spinning downhill, spikes click-clacking on stone. Runners are everywhere. Cross country is as close to a contact sport as running can get. We are on shoulders, clipping toes, massing and swarming, overtaking, being overtaken, dodging and hopping here and there to find the optimum line. We are hurting; we know it will not be long – but it is long enough. We climb out of the ironically-named Happy Valley and return to the start. We have been running for 2.7 miles. I hear the time, 15.55, and contemplate the next 16 minutes of my life with horror. I am already on the rivet. I am painfully exhausted. I know it shows on my face. Yet here is a man who considers himself supremely fit. I am running 50-60 miles a week. I can comfortably hold six-minute mile pace for 90 minutes. But so can everyone else here. And more. And this is no normal race. This is among the best racing amateur athletics can offer.

I once ran a race called Hellrunner on an army camp in Hampshire. It is part of a breed of modern races that are pitched as masochistic and ‘tough’. The ground was frozen. The hills were modest. We waded through the Bog of Doom, a contrived trench of neck-deep water. It was cold, but provides the runner with a rest – a convenient break from what you came here to do. I finish fifth. They give you what is called a ‘survivor’s medal’ if you get round. Hellrunner? I have run in hell. It’s a place near Bourton-on-the-Water. It is Richmond Park when you are in 76th place a week after winning a marathon. It is the second lap of Farthing Downs.

I get on with it. I churn up the hill for a second time, wallowing in self-pity. Three or four runners pass, including one of my Herne Hill Harriers’ teammates. At this point, in this moment, I hate him more than anyone; I want to strike him. The second lap – the last lap – continues ugly: 180 or so slaughtered blokes salvaging seconds. Happy Valley is even unhappier; the climb out of Happy Valley ranks among my unhappiest moments. I long for the Bog of Doom. Life – my wife, my daughter, my home, my job – has gone; my existence has shrunk to nothing more than this race.

I am over the brow of the hill. The worst is over. I glance behind. I see a mob of multi-coloured vests. Go away, I think – or expletives to that effect. I accelerate, catch a runner in a Croydon vest, slip by on his right knowing how he feels, cross a road and enter the final 100 metres. I sprint, feeling heroic, light all of a sudden. Very soon, it is over.

Jon Pepper, who ran 2.19.59 at this year’s London Marathon, was the race winner; John Gilbert, who ran 2.16.46 to finish second Briton in the same race was runner-up; Paskar Owor, a Ugandan international with a 10k best of 29.28, was third; Christopher Greenwood, the fastest over-40 to run a 10,000 metres in 2014, was fourth; James Connor, who ran 30.34 to win the BUPA London 10k in May, was fifth. James McMullan – an England international in mountain running – could only finish eighth.

I was 67th.

There was no ‘survivor’s medal’.

I grapple with the double knots on my spikes. I poke and jiggle with one, give up and move onto the next one. Nor will this knot budge. I reach for my heels, wrench the shoes off in turn, and toss them aside.

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Cross country: 1999

Keith

Mr Hamflett was a tall, angular man. He was old and bald. I would never be as old as him. I would never be bald. He had the look of a runner: lean, lithe and long-limbed. If he could run a mile in under four minutes or a marathon in two-and-a-half hours, I would not have known. Teachers were one-dimensional beings, their lives beginning and ending at the school gates. He was a maths teacher who took us running and of whom I was scared. He was nothing greater than that.

Our nickname for Mr Hamflett was no more thoughtful or cruel than the man’s first name, Keith. But rather than use our own voices when uttering ‘Keith’, we spent childish hours honing a brittle, nasal tone, trying to imitate Mr Hamflett, and sought to exaggerate, to perfect the voice. Continue reading

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London’s (satirical) answer to the Bob Graham Round: the Inner London borough summits – 41 miles, 12 summits, 6 hours

I looked down on London from The Shard recently. London – from some 300 metres up – is serene. It is also appallingly flat. Even the Crystal Palace ridge, away to the south and positively Ben Nevisian (to the Londoner) is smothered by perspective. It made my plan – a London equivalent of the great mountain rounds of the Highlands, the Lake District and Snowdonia – descend further into the realms of nonsense.

I was to run between the summits of the 12 Inner London boroughs, starting in Hammersmith and Fulham, travelling east to the Isle of Dogs, passing beneath the Thames to Greenwich, then turning west to gain Wimbledon Common. Together, these dozen summits add up to 957m – a slouching Scafell Pike. At no point would I venture higher than 134 metres above sea level. Utterly pointless. But then, is not that the point?

You will have heard of some. Hampstead Heath? Crystal Palace? Shooters Hill? Familiarity is likely to dry up there.

Down here in London, we are stuck with the capital’s vertically-challenged undulations, while our highest points have been built over, buried under concrete or adorned with telecommunications paraphernalia. The highest point within the M25 circle, far away from urban chaos in the North Downs, is 270-metre Botley Hill. They stuck a telecommunications mast there, naturally. I could hanker for the airy heights of the Lake District. Or I could make the most of what London has got.

There was no rationale. I had a free day. And having completed the Bob Graham Round in 2012, I liked the idea of satirising the iconic Lakeland loop in the streets of London, swapping mist-shrouded summits and knife-edge arêtes for iPad-touting tourists and cracks in the pavement.

I would travel solo, unsupported and Alpine-style with a budget of £15, a topped-up Oyster card and an iPhone. If and when I needed food and water, I would stop at a shop. You do not get that luxury on the Helvellyn range. While the Bob Graham Round commences in Keswick, beneath the imposing Skiddaw, I found myself in grey Harlesden on a Tuesday morning, feebly equipped with a wad of maps photocopied from a London A-Z. A yellow highlighted line indicated a proposed route, linked with red crosses that marked the dozen summits. Apart from a two-mile stretch around Streatham, I had not run a step of what I reckoned would be a 35-40 mile route.

Finding the summit of Hammersmith and Fulham – a roadside close to a Travis Perkins depot – and soon after Kensington and Chelsea – the exit to West London Crematorium – set the tone for the day. Great dollops of poetic licence cannot dress-up what was to come: lots of pavement-trudging, lots of head-scratching, lots of reflecting on the sense of all this. Even the highest point of the day, Camden’s Hampstead Heath, is located arbitrarily on the side of Spaniards Road, rather than the heath itself. Once around the heath, I was flying down Highgate Hill, past the summit of Islington and down into the recesses of London’s great smog-filled bowl. Dashing through Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Along the Regent’s Canal. Into the Isle of Dogs. Places I had never seen before, places I may never go again.

A school pupil on a trip jogged alongside me in the Greenwich foot tunnel. ‘Where are you going?’ he demanded. ‘Wimbledon Common,’ I said. ‘Coming?’ He stopped abruptly, laughing at the unfathomable notion.

The pavement radiated heat as I ran the first mile of the London Marathon en route to Shooters Hill, the distant summit of Greenwich. Then came an unremitting, sweltering slog to Crystal Palace and – as I climbed Sydenham Hill, the exertion of the day beginning to overwhelm my legs – I moved past the 30-mile mark. My left foot had felt uncomfortable for some time and as I ran along Crystal Palace Parade a mild niggling became a sharp, sudden pain. I sat on a wall on Westow Hill, the meeting point of four boroughs but the summit of just one, Lambeth, feeling sorry for myself – a feeling that intensified to Streatham Common. I thought of Tour de France riders who continue hopelessly with broken bones. They get back on their bicycles, nonetheless. I gulped the long-distance runner’s equivalent of a shot of EPO – a can of Coke – and vowed to get on with it and get it done.

I did. The last five miles through Tooting and Wimbledon were not pretty, but Putney Heath, the last of the dozen, was mine. The top was a prominent tump, a rare non-concrete summit among the Inner London boroughs. On closer inspection, a lump of concrete jutted from the summit. The irony was not lost on me. It had taken me a shade over six hours to get here, running 41 almost-exclusively pavement miles, powered only by a cheese sandwich and copious amounts of caffeinated liquid. My feet were pulsing. Still, I have had worse Tuesdays.

I recommend no-one to repeat this endeavour, not unless you happen to share the inexplicable desire to visit the summits of the Inner London boroughs in one continuous loop. I think of it now as a journey, not a run: a journey that brought me closer to this complicated capital city. I glimpsed the best and worst of London: from the genius of the Greenwich foot tunnel, the towering symbols of business that rise from the Isle of Dogs and the near-wildness of Hampstead Heath, to the sprawl and stench of London’s takeaway culture, the Eltham street on which Stephen Lawrence was murdered and unceasing groan of traffic.

A grand tour of Inner London. Going as high as geography will permit. Re-discovering a city. Sometimes the most pointless of exploits serve the greatest purpose.

The summits –

  • Hammersmith and Fulham – Harrow Road (45m) – the road-side opposite a block of flats
  • Kensington and Chelsea – Harrow Road (45m) – exit of West London Crematorium
  • City of Westminster – St John’s Wood Park Road (52m) – road junction of St John’s Wood Park Road and Boundary Road
  • Camden – Spaniards Road (134m) – the road-side above Hampstead Heath
  • Islington – Highgate Hill (100m) – road junction of Dartmouth Park Road and Highgate Hill, close to Lauderdale House
  • Hackney – Seven Sisters Road (39m) – the road-side overlooking Finsbury Park
  • Tower Hamlets – Bethnal Green (16m) – a road bridge over the Regent’s Canal in Bethnal Green
  • Greenwich – Shooters Hill (132m) – the highest point of Eaglesfield Recreation Ground
  • Lewisham and Southwark – both Sydenham Hill (112m) – road junction of Crescent Wood Road and Sydenham Hill, close to the Dulwich Wood House pub
  • Lambeth – Westow Hill (110m) – road junction of Anerley Hill and Church Road, in front of the Grape and Grain pub
  • Wandsworth – Putney Heath (60m) – a prominent tump at the northern end of Wimbledon Common

Regent's Canal

Regent's Canal and summit of Tower Hamlets

Isle of Dogs

Greenwich foot tunnel

Cutty Sark

Putney Heath

A version of this article featured on the Guardian running blog in July and the November issue of Men’s Running.

@MuirJonny