Running Man Memorial Race


Although I often say that I started running in 2011, that’s not strictly true. Not in the sense that I never ran ever before in my life before then; in the sense that I did almost have a running career that for one reason or another stalled, before becoming the lean mean long-distance waddling machine I am now.

My first memory of running is a cross country race in my first year at primary school. I remember being dead excited about the race for weeks, right up until the day before when my teacher explained that we would have our numbers pinned to our chests. Don’t ask me why, but my charmingly literal and slightly morbid five year old brain assumed that meant drawing pins, and that they intended to push the pin straight into our skin. Nightmares about gasping for breath with drawing pins embedded in my lungs, blood spurting all over the field and children dropping dead before they reach the finish line punctuated the night before the race. Still though, I didn’t feel as bad then as I did the next morning, when they safety-pinned numbers to our vests and nobody died and I felt like a div. I think I must have seen the video for The Wall a few too many times.

Fast forward about eight years, and I ended up somehow representing my school in a national athletics tournament. We’d moved to Northern Cyprus by this stage so this wasn’t as prestigious a moment as it might sound, but it was still the only thing I really enjoyed about that school and I threw myself into it headlong, trying out for literally every athletics event. I regularly aced the practice sessions for track, comfortably leading the long runs if for no other reason than I was the only student who took it seriously, but it became clear that I suffered crippling stage fright whenever anyone was watching me (not to mention collapsing from heatstroke pretty much once a week). So, with the national schools athletics meet coming up I was picked only as an honorary third choice entry for the 800m, knowing that there was almost no chance of me competing.

That is, until about 5 minutes before the event when I was sulking at the far end of the stadium watching everyone else having fun, and I heard my name crackling over the tannoy. I sprinted round to the start, heart pounding in my ears, just in time to line up and wearing only a cotton t-shirt and shorts. The gun fired, the heavens opened in biblical proportions, I wobbled around one lap and blacked out, drenched. I was not popular.

So having decided I would never never run again, I eventually ended up in one of the least active jobs I could find manning the stage door of a theatre (read: sitting on your arse for 8 hours a day without even a break for lunch to get up and walk around). By the age of 20 I’d put on about three stone and cut my hair short. My dad started calling me Liza Minelli.

Living back in Bromley by this stage, I started rifling through my mum’s old 80s exercise tapes which I could do when everyone was out. They didn’t seem to be making any difference and I felt like a massive twat even without the leotard. So one October day I decided I might as well walk the mile to the supermarket and combine a bit of exercise with a practical achievement.

Walking up the steep hill to Locksbottom, I passed what appeared to be a man of retirement age running down the hill. I had to stop and watch him. Although he wasn’t fast, his form was effortless, easygoing and he didn’t seem to be panting or straining. Most remarkably though, he was wearing just an old pair of running shoes and some shorts that Kevin Keegan would have been proud of, and that was it.

It turns out this was Dr James Gilson, who would later (unwittingly) become a local hero dubbed the Running Man. He regularly ran between 3-5 miles, always in his shorts and nothing else. I made a habit of my walks, finding the running man all over Bromley and Petts Wood, gliding over the ground like a wizard. Inspired by him to upgrade my stroll to a jog, soon enough I was less Liza Minelli and more Liz McColgan. Well, sort of.

So finding a Facebook page dedicated to him nearly ten years later was both a little surreal and completely brilliant at the same time. All the messages from people who he had similarly inspired, all the sightings keenly reported like a celebrity gossip column, a guest spot starting the 2013 Petts Wood 10k: it was obvious that he was loved. And when he sadly passed away earlier this year, it took almost no time for rumours about a memorial race to circulate and gather pace, and an incredible 2 months to turn those rumours into a race.

That’s how Mum and I found ourselves at the Petts Wood Royal British Legion at 9am on Sunday 29th June, not fully sure of the distance or the course, whether the race would be a one off or a regular fixture, but knowing this was the sort of race where details like that wouldn’t matter. The organisers, headed up by Petts Wood Runners’ indomitable Donna Carroll, had done a cracking job in pulling together race numbers, engraved finishers medals, volunteer marshals and refreshments, not to mention an Aladdin’s cave of raffle prizes donated by local businesses – all through the power of social media and a supportive running community. The £5 entry fee, donations and proceeds from the raffle and refreshment sales would all go to St Johns Ambulance and Cancer Research UK, and with photos of James everywhere and his family at the starting line there was no doubt as to why we were all here – to say thank you.

The course was based on one of his training routes – starting on Frankswood Green (ironically next to St James’ Church), we heard a few words of tribute from his daughters, who explained with amusement that he wasn’t even aware of his celebrity status, before the starting pistol fired and off we went down Southborough Lane. I decided to run at my own pace rather than run together with mum this time; a decision I was uneasy about to begin with but I had lost a stone and a half since my last race and wanted to find I just how much I had improved. Turning left at Parkfield Way, the first mile or so of road turned into the Parkfield Rec and Richmal Crompton Fields, a beautiful and knee-friendly cross country stretch which took us around the golf course and past two schools. By this time the sun was high, the sky was clear and with such a relaxed atmosphere I couldn’t help but smile all the way round.

As we turned back onto the roads and into PWR territory I started to recognise more of the marshals, including the marvellous Anne Dunstan who has been so helpful to my mum and the beginner runners and kept our spirits high during the washed out Petts Wood 10k last October. The route wound around the residential streets, silent but for the sound of feet rhythmically hitting the ground on a sleepy Sunday morning, until the curve of Crescent Drive led us back to Queensway and the finishing straight back to the British Legion. The eggiest moment was a couple of hundred yards from the end, where we had to cross the busy high street to get to the finishing line, but with the help of the marshals and the throng of supporters I was over the line with a medal round my neck before I could even say green cross code.

Selfish as it is, I’m glad I decided to run at my own pace. For the first time in two years, I comfortably averaged a pace of 8:34 to finish the 3.4 miles in 28:51, and suddenly I realised quite how much I’d improved since April’s Brighton Marathon. Obviously the races themselves aren’t really comparable, but having not timed myself since then or had much opportunity to train due to work commitments, I’d lost a minute per mile average pace over the distance simply by losing weight and drinking a few less gins. How could that have so much effect? Try running with 18 pounds in a backpack, then imagine that weight not safely strapped to your back but instead wrapped around your thighs, belly and chest. All because of the football season summer break. Damn you, QPR.

In fact I was feeling so good I ran back along the course until I found mum just 5 minutes behind me, and together we ran the last stretch eyeballs out. Both proudly showing off our medals, we went to the finishing straight to cheer in the remaining finishers including two of James’ daughters and all manner of people aged between 6 and 60, all having immense fun. There was no competition involved (apart from the Lookalike Award, which sadly I did not win), just a fitting tribute to an inspirational man. Donna and the organising team had nailed it.

Mum and I hung around for the raffle giveaway at the end, but half an hour later Donna was still handing out spot prizes (an indication of just how many prizes had been donated) and we had to give up and go home. To all intents and purposes the race was knocked together as a tribute and not expected to be anything more than a one-off, but the prevailing feeling was “we’re doing this again next year, right?”. God I hope so.


Bromley 10k


me at Bromley 10k with medal

I’ve moved around a lot in my not quite thirty years – started off in South Yorkshire in three separate places with ‘field’ in the name, thus having a smartarse reply handy whenever my mum said “Close that door! Where you born in a field?”. Taken a tour of north west Kent, meanwhile furnishing myself with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bus network. Upped sticks to North Cyprus for four years, and learned how people lived before electricity – doing homework by the light of an oil lamp is not as romantic as it sounds. The relative civilisation of West London, where I fell in love with QPR and doomed my bank balance never to see black. But here’s a fact I don’t like to talk about much – for a good 6 years, like my mother before me, I was a Bromley girl.

So it seemed like entering the Bromley 10k, situated in Norman Park a 5 minute walk from my old stomping ground, was a no-brainer. Originally it was supposed to be one of the training races in mine and mum’s marathon schedule, but with her still recovering from an injury and me itching for another medal to add to my middle distance wind chimes I decided to go it alone.

The race is billed as the first in a series organised by MCC Promotions, the rest of which can be found behind the linky. The entry fee of £14 covers a medal (yessss), timing, a cotton t-shirt, a water station and a handful of plastic cones to mark the course – not to mention a very reasonable start time of 11am which suits my night owl nature. The course starts and ends on the athletic track but for the most part is run in a similar way to the Norman Park Parkrun, for those that know it – laps of the perimeter path with a switchback across the field to make up the distance. The Parkrun had actually been cancelled for a few weeks due to flooding (including the run due to take place 6 days after this race), and as soon as I saw the ground I could see why – that being said, I could also see why it wasn’t quite bad enough to justify cancelling a paid up race. With a field of around 350 runners, I imagine it was neither in danger of inflicting too much damage on the ground nor a small enough group of people to disappoint.

It’s worth noting for future reference that the athletics track entrance isn’t terribly obvious if you don’t already know it, and it would have been nice to see a few signs to point runners in the right direction. Then again, it’s likely that everyone who runs the Bromley 10k knows Norman Park and therefore already knew how to get in, so I followed the crowd that looked more like runners and less like hungover dog-walkers and eventually found it . It’s a tiny point, and churlish of me to mention it when you consider that the first thing you see when you enter the track is a pavilion, with a proper indoor changing room and proper toilets. I’d have paid £14 just for that. Race numbers were to be collected on the day rather than posted out beforehand, and with a small field there was not too long a queue. I should mention however that the bag drop consists of someone keeping half an eye on them under a gazebo, so don’t take valuables if you can help it.

Bromley 10k plan

The starting point is halfway round the track, of which three full laps are completed before peeling off to run four laps of the park next door, and back again for the final 300m to the finish line. The track makes for a gentle warm up to the race and a welcome flat finish and the design helps break up the monotony in a very compact and repetitive route. I spent the first kilometre trying to shake off my nervous pre-race jelly legs and didn’t really get a grip on the ground until we entered the park – by which point there was little ground to get a grip on. I don’t know if it was the effect of Christmas food, the elevation (which felt like Everest at times but according to my Garmin barely fluctuated) or the ankle deep bog swallowing my every footstep but even on solid ground I felt like I wasn’t making any progress. Judging by how badly I dealt with the not-quite-cross-country Petts Wood 10k back in October, the answer is probably just that I need to eat fewer mince pies and toughen the hell up.

Bromley 10k elevation

The course markings were pretty sparse and not too stringently adhered to in my stretch of the field – presumably accounting for the route coming up slightly short on my Garmin – but the marshals were very present in all the right places and as helpful and vocal as ever. Particular thanks goes to the chap who smiled wanly at me as I plodded towards him through the mud whimpering “Oh for fuck’s sake, please no more.” At the time it felt as though I was knee deep in bog, I was Atreyu trudging through the Swamp of Sadness – I was very nearly the bloody horse that drowned in the film and gave me nightmares for about a year. For the first time ever, I considered giving up on the race three laps in when I figured that I wasn’t even going to get a respectable time, let alone a PB, when I had nothing left in the tank and my ankle was asking me if I had left it in the mud half a mile back. The sight of my poor long-suffering boyfriend cheering me at the end of that lap spurred me on to finish – given that I’d dragged him out of bed on a Sunday morning to watch me in the freezing cold three trains away from home, I at least needed a medal to show for it. So finish I did – to my surprise, not only did I finish well within the hour I’d resigned myself to, I even managed a sprint finish and a time 4 minutes faster than Petts Wood – 56:49 by my watch.

0 3

So why on earth did it feel like a failed race? Even as we walked back through the course to get to the bus stop the ground looked nothing more than slightly squelchy. Has my perception of my effort levels changed so much that I can’t pace myself any more? I was obviously doing much better than I thought I was, and I wasn’t out of breath at the end – just stiff as a board. Is my warm up routine still not up to scratch? I walked a mile to get there, stretched, jogged, stretched again. Maybe I was using muscles I hadn’t properly prepared? Certainly felt that way later in the day – on reflection, my glutes must have been working bloody hard to lift my feet out of the mud time and time again and they wasted no time telling me so. Or was I simply being a drama queen?

I think I’m left with a feeling of having done well on paper but not in practice. I should be pleased with my time given the conditions – even excepting the conditions it’s not bad for me these days. I shouldn’t have been focusing on a time at all, given that I’m supposed to be preparing for a 32 mile run through similar terrain in 5 weeks’ time and just want to finish. Maybe that’s what niggling at me – so you did OK this time, but next time you have to do this 5 times in a row and you have to do it on a farm in the middle of Canterbury in the middle of the night in the coldest month of the year. Stop making a fuss and get on with it.

Not on the level of a Tough Mudder or a Hell Run, but not exactly a walk in the park either. Maybe I should just take the medal and bank it 🙂