Saturday 21 January 2017

The LOOP (London Outer Orbital Path) - Part 1 of 2


Over eight or nine days I'm running round the LOOP - the London Outer Orbital Path. A 152 mile circuit around London split into 24 sections and designed for walkers, with the start and finish of each section being convenient for public transport.

The route starts at Erith, on the southern bank of the Thames estuary, and runs right round London in a route that takes in many green spaces and less urban areas, to finish on the North bank of the estuary at Purfleet.

The purpose of this post is partially to record the journey, but mainly to share some of the photos I took on the way round. So far I've done half of it, I'll publish another post for the second half when I've done it.

Day 1, Monday 12th December 2016
Sections 1 and 2 - Erith to Petts Wood, 26.5km, 03:16:53

I'm starting where the LOOP officially starts. It's a short run out East, then South West - skirting round Dartford and heading straight toward Bromley.

Not too many navigational challenges today

General upward trend, as you'd expect heading away from the river and towards Kent

On a cold December morning I hopped on an early train to get the LOOP underway. With Christmas coming up, and Country to Capital soon afterwards, I know I'm not going to get the whole lot done within the same fortnight, but let's get started anyway.

First LOOP sign

Although I had the route well planned in advance using my mapping app of choice, OS MapFinder, and I'd spent some time thinking about the route, I was still surprised at quite how industrial and remote it felt at the start of this first day.

Looks a bit unloved out here

The LOOP follows the Thames Path Extension, the extra bit that runs from the Thames Barrier out to Crayford (if the previous 184 miles weren't enough Thames Path for you).

The commemorative marker signalling the start of National Cycle Path 1

It also shares its first few miles with National Cycle Path 1, though to be honest I wouldn't bother unless you're on a mountain bike. The first mile or two are well surfaced, but it gets a bit muddy after that.

This is where your recycling goes, along with old cars, white goods, and all sorts of other stuff

It's a fairly smelly and deserted industrial zone out here. There's plenty of machine activity in the recycle and waste processing plants, but I couldn't see many people. I saw no other walkers or cyclists on this stretch.

The Queen Elizabeth II bridge

I have looked down from the top of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge many times, at the widening Thames and grey brown industrial areas - I like the bridge, and it was a pleasure to see it from this side for the first time. I've never been on foot in this part of London before.

Looking behind me, back towards the Thames

The path curves to the right and heads up the River Darent, a tributary of the Thames flowing in from South East London.

<Insert usual rant about accessibility>

You know you're on a National Cycle Way when you reach a horrific anti-cycling machine and this one was no different. I never cease to be amazed by the bizarre scaffolding contraptions designed to keep everyone off the path apart from able-bodied humans with no luggage.


Shortly after the annoying scaffolding, I came across some muddy but friendly miniature horses. A couple of them trotted along side me for a little while - it would have been a spiritual experience had it not been for the big chainlink fence in between us.

2D bar codes get everywhere

The route took me over the A2 and through Bexley Village which was beautiful, I must go back and explore properly. A final climb up and over Scadbury Park Nature Reserve and then down toward Petts Wood station. The day was drawing in, I just about made it without being caught in the dark!

Day 2, Tuesday 13th December 2016
Sections 3 and 4 - Petts Wood to Croydon, 20.8km, 03:02:42

I like routes like today - where although it takes about ninety minutes to get to the start, and I have to go via Central London mainline stations, the finish is pleasingly easy to get home from - in this case just a tram from Croydon to virtually the end of my road.

The LOOP heads West now, across South London and towards Croydon

As every South Londoner knows, this is where they keep the hills

I set off bright (dark) and early (very) and almost over delivered as I arrived back at Petts Wood in the first rays of the day.

Bit dark in the woods, plenty of fairy tales start out like this!

Thankfully the first mile or two was on nice spongy leafy trails and not a root-laden trip-fest. It soon brightened up to a slightly lighter shade of grey and the pace picked up.

There was an eerie feel to the morning, still dim and misty

Running in the morning through parks is lovely, so quiet and peaceful. I saw remarkably few people, only the occasional dog walker.

Going for some kind of adventuring/manic/Blair With Project look here

Pausing briefly to remind myself why I don't take selfies very often, the day was now well under way. The route was a bit fiddly, but worth it - staying nicely in parks and away from major built up areas as much as possible.

Great change comes from innocuous chats in the forest

One of the best views in London, apparently... Addington Hill viewpoint

Coming up to 2/3 of the planned 30km distance I was starting to lose the love for the day - whilst deciding if I should cut short or not, I rounded a corner straight into a tram stop. There's a tram stop just a few hundred metres from my house - I couldn't resist such an easy journey home, so I called it a day at 20km.

Day 3, Friday 16th December 2016
Sections 5 to 7 - Hamsey Green to Ewell, 31.2km, 04:10:06

Continuing the tour across South London, from East to West

Bit bumpier today

Today was supposed to be 25km or so, but I had the end of Day 2 to complete first (which turned out to be almost 7km). Good job I got cracking early on - it's a bit distracting for evening commuters when a sweaty runner arrives in their midst.

I love the way these headphones make my ears stick out

A brief pause for another selfie (my last, I promise) and then I found myself on more familiar territory. The LOOP follows a small section of the Vanguard Way, which I've run most of, and this section in particular as it's also part of the Croydon Ultra route - the first Ultra I finished).

Full marks to who did this - a choice of three paths, and I've got the wrong one more than once

I was delighted to find some guerrilla signage on one of the trickier junctions, I know I've gone wrong here before and I always have to stop and double check. I made good progress here on familiar territory - spirits are high!

Roundshaw Downs  parkrun venue, and one of only four events I've done more than once

It was to be a day of familiar places as before long I came across Roundshaw Downs parkrun venue. I have fond memories of this place, it being the parkrun I made by the skin of my teeth on the famous New Year's Day triple in 2012.

Nonsuch park, home of the first inaugural parkrun I attended

Round a few more corners and another parkrun was before me - this time Nonsuch Park and another one of the New Year's Day triple events.

Day 4.1, Sunday 18th December 2016
Sections 8 to 10 (part 1) - Ewell to Kingston-upon-Thames, 12.6km, 01:38:18

Somewhat truncated today, but nice and local from Croydon through to Kingston

Mainly downhill for this section, with a lump at half way

Today's run just never got going. The first few km went well, but quickly I felt fatigued and uncommitted - a rare run experience, but it happens from time to time.

Launch tube 13

As I wasn't running particularly quickly, I had trouble warming up. It was a cold Sunday morning and it wasn't showing any signs of warming up.

Another cold and misty morning in a London park

I decided to stop at the next convenient point and get a coffee. Shortly I arrived at Kingston-upon-Thames where there are a multitude of coffee options. Stumbling coldly into the local Bill's Restaurant I found myself ordering a breakfast as well as coffee. Only 10km in, but that's enough for today - time to warm up, and feed up.

Yup, this was the right decision today

Day 4.2, Thursday 22nd December 2016
Sections 8 to 10 (part 2) - Kingston-upon-Thames to Hayes & Harlington, 23.9km, 02:39:40

Heading up the Western side of the LOOP, some very familiar areas today

Gradually rising, but only 25 metres in almost as many kilometres

Back to Kingston-upon-Thames, a convenient 15 minute train ride away, and on a much brighter and clearer day it was time to pick up my Day 4 route in a more positive frame of mind.

Don't stray from the path

The famous Bushy park parkrun starting straight - imagine a thousand parkrunners thundering bye!

Before long I had arrived at another parkrun - this time at the spiritual home of parkrun and where it all began over a decade ago - Bushy Park. With around a thousand runners every week Bushy Park needs a wide and straight first kilometre, and some military precision when it comes to managing the finishers who arrive at a rate of 100 per minute at the peak.

It's no wonder many parkrunners have a run at Bushy Park on their bucket list. There's something special about this course, and it's well worth the parkrun pilgrimage.

Guerilla Christmas decorating in Bushy Park

A little further on I came across some decorated bushes. There didn't seem to be anything special about the bushes, they were just the lucky recipients of some festive colour.

Hard to run in London without being saddened by all the rubbish

One thing it's hard not to notice is the amount of rubbish on the route. Most of the parks and forests are clean, but as the LOOP grazes more urban areas the rubbish gets really obvious. The volumes rarely get as bad as in my photo, but I felt sad and wanted to capture the mess.

Maybe on these long runs I should take a big bin liner and fill it up each day? Maybe if we all did that we could make a difference? Of course, it would be far better if everyone cared about their environment in the first place...

Board walk across the marshes

The closing few miles of today's route go right past Heathrow. You don't really understand what a plane every 45 seconds is like until you run under the approach path (or live there, of course). I live under one of the final approach routes, but I don't get every single plane. Living here must be very draining.

Almost literally running past the end of the runway at Heathrow

Full disclosure: Yes there's a little digital zoom in the pic above, but not much!

Launch tube 7

That's the end of Day 4 - and the first half of the LOOP. Some familiar areas, and some very new and different. I am enjoying these runs - London can be a lot greener and pleasant than you may imagine. Get out there and run, walk, or cycle and see for yourself.

Bring on 2017 and the second half!

Sunday 15 January 2017

Race Report: Country to Capital

I've fancied a crack at Go Beyond Ultra's Country to Capital race for a while. Mrs has run it twice before, in 2014 and 2016. Until relatively recently, entering a 43 mile race would have felt like lunacy - but now with two 50 mile races to my name 43 miles felt quite manageable.

Country, to Capital

The race is just as it says on the tin. It starts in the country, Wendover, and finishes in the city, Little Venice near Paddington. The first half is primarily on well used trails away from built up areas, and the second half is along the Grand Union Canal towpath and moves through the industrial outskirts, urban ring, and re-developed centre of London. 

Probably being a little hopeful with the duration of the calendar entry

Mrs and I entered the race at the same time and were assigned sequential race numbers - amusingly, a transposition of our Ironman 2012 assigned numbers (and reason for the name of this blog).

We stayed over at The Red Lion Hotel (noisy) so we could get up at a sensible time and have a light breakfast ahead of registration at The Shoulder of Mutton pub just up the road.

* Other configurations are available

Registration was very busy, with over 300 entrants to get through it was bound to be crowded and chaotic. We bumped into James from Centurion and old friend and parkrun tourist Mike.

Me and Mrs, ready to go

Morning, Mike!

It was cold, but not unmanageably so. My choice of merino t-shirt for base layer, long sleeved merino mid layer, and long sleeved outer seemed to have been the right choice. A little later than the advertised time of 08:30, and after a race briefing that was spoken over so much I didn't even realise it was happening, we were off.

The race starts with a 300m sprint down the road to a narrow chicane onto a pathway. Those who want a shot at winning know getting through this early pinch-point quickly is essential, so as the main pack jogged down the path the front runners set off at full tilt!

Mrs and I had decided to run together, not something we've done in a race before. We ran together a lot last year, particularly during the 6-day traversal of the North Downs Way, but we haven't run together in a race - and not for as far as 43 miles.

Assembled for the start, out of the car park and left down the hill

The opening stages of the race went well, we stayed together and made good progress. About 10 miles in Mrs started to feel a lack of energy, like she couldn't get properly warmed up or into a good rhythm. She's got an amazing diesel engine for running - once she's up to temperature she can run forever, but today it just didn't seem to be getting going.

Having covered the first third of the distance fairly well, we slowed considerably up to half way where the route joined the canal. Without talking about it too directly we covered the option of DNFing a couple of times, but decided to push on.

Jogging slowly, but still covering ground, we made our way down the first section of the canal and to the left turn to Paddington - that marked 30 miles down, 13 to go.

The run down to the first pinch point

The going now was slow, with a fair amount of walking. We made sure to walk with purpose when we did walk to continue covering as much ground as we could. In between the last two checkpoints we decided to stop trying to run, and route march the last 10km (6 1/4 miles). That took the pressure off trying to run, and meant we could focus on fast and deliberate walking.

Darkness had fallen and we were wearing our head torches. The temperature dropped markedly, and that helped motivate us to keep going. Mrs moving well, despite aches and pains and a lack of diesel engine, and we were covering a kilometre every 10 minutes. 

Made it!

We got to the finish in 9 hours and 51 minutes for 293rd and 294th place out of 312 finishers - a full hour slower than Mrs had run it last year. I'm proud of our race - we kept going, stayed together, and pushed on through to the end. I'm proud of Mrs for pushing on and finishing when it would have been so easy to throw the towel in. It would have been very easy for us to stop any number of times - but we didn't. 

How not to pace 43 miles - lots of walking, and only walking (briskly) for last 10km

It was a pleasant surprise to see Louise at the finish, and she joined us in the pub afterwards to chat, warm up, and refuel. I don't think Mrs will run Country to Capital again, she's come to the conclusion, after three completions, that she just doesn't like the course. I will consider it next year, I feel like I have unfinished business and I'd like to see what kind of performance I can put in.

All worth it in the end - another one for the collection