mundane adventures in running
The nights are drawn in. Christmas approaches. Tuxedo season has started early this year. In November, hotels are already swelling with Christmas dinners, balls. Swelling to bursting: diner jacket clad waddling, women in the year’s party frock, hang around the entrances, sucking on cigarettes and e-cigarettes. Giggles, guffaws, tobacco, strawberry, vanilla and perfume hang in the air.
Last night I started my run at a party. Life and soul: I drank water as the other guests supped champagne. I’m working a lot at the moment, and I knew it would be the only time I’d have to take a long run for a while. I said goodbyes, and slipped into the loos to change into lycra. Black except for a fluoro yellow beanie. All my stuff, clothes, computers, note books, packed into a rucksack.
I started at Oval and headed out to the Thames. The River is a natural place to run in London. Pretty, civilised pedestrian paths, amazing views. It’s easy to zone out. There’s also something cleansing about it, like the river, for all it’s smudgy brown stink, filters out some of the city dirt and purifies the air as it whispers across its surface.
Between vauxhall and Tower bridge.
So many runners. Hundreds of sweaty and suffused runners. with bags running home and without bags tourists and some of the few who still live in central London. There’s no point in camaraderie. There are so many of us that there’s diversity in our numbers there’s no reason to feel fraternity in our shared activity.
I dodge tourists. I cross from side to side of the river, taking in the views of Parliament, of the Eye, of Tower Bridge from the vantage of the humps of bridges.
The water is high, covering the shore. Spanning from bank to bank, it looks concave, like it’s pushing out: a seething sopping mound of water rising from the river bed.
By the time I get to the Tower, about 6km, I’ve started to find a rhythm. The run is gently hypnotising me. My knee hurts. My bag is too heavy. The arepas con carne I had for lunch are weighing on my stomach. The dull, diffuse pain is become a cloud of mild discomfort, blending seamlessly with the repetition of my breath and my stride. I’ve become more mechanical, more plodding. I barely notice the cobbles underfoot, barely recognise that I’m moving as I wind to and fro across the path getting in and out of people’s ways.
Past Tower Bridge
Past the tower, under the bridge, across the dock, everything becomes calmer. There are far fewer people. Still the occasional throng of revellers at hotels. Still lostish looking tourists, stepping out of black cabs laden with shopping bags, people going home from work.
The streets here are darker, and more sinister, the pavement more lonely. The runners are more sparse. They seem a bit more serious too. It could be that they’re the ones who have dared to go further, to leave the well lit safety of central London. It could be that they are hyper driven, type A city workers. There are noticeably fewer women running here. There are noticeably more PWC branded running vests. £100 compression tights.
The Thames flows with Time. This place was the gateway to London for such a long time. Hardly now, so few people or things arrive at London by the Thames. All through Shadwell, round the Isle of Dogs, Greenwich, down to Erith you can feel the weight of history. This threshold has been crossed by a million ghosts. It feels more densely haunted even than central London with its palaces, theatres and Roman Remains.
The streets here are appropriately dim. Cobbled, the stones are shiny with dew.
A park I normally run through turns out to be shut at night, so I loop North. It takes me to the Highway. This road used to be tenements, slums. Packed full of destitution and murder. Now it’s just a fucking huge road. the violence of the place sublimated into a thousand tonnes of growling metal hurtling past me. I turn some music on, hoping a soundtrack can subvert or make sense of the unpleasant experience of speeding cars. My phone randomly plays Pentangle, Aphex Twin, Lord Kitchener. Each puts a different complexion on the experience, gives a different seasoning, shifts the way I feel about what’s happening to me and around me. Within and without.
Onto the Island
Canary Wharf is private land masquerading as public space. I can run there, but only with the consent of the billionaires and companies that own it. I’m not producing or contributing or adding to the space, and I don’t feel welcome. It’s a peppered with bit of stuff: phallic buildings, manicured walkways round docks, hulks of cranes hinting at the industry which used to happen. It’s beautiful but for all its spectacle the North of the Island feels anodyne and soulless. Canary wharf has managed to battle its history and subdue its ghosts in a way in which other parts of London have utterly failed.
Further south, the Island starts to feel more alive, more like a real place. Heading into Mudchute park was a plunge into darkness. I could see that it was truly dark as I stepped in. It would be silly to get scared. Just because a place is quiet and dark, just because it has the potential to mask evil, for muggers to lurk, and monsters to stalk, it doesn’t mean that evil is being masked. I had to trust it, trust my daylight experience of the place, to enter trusting it to be the same Park it always is. Music off, I picked out the path running South to Island Gardens.
Coming from the West End with its bright lights and surfeit of people, of fun, of commotion, it was strange to find myself here, with its dark, covered overgrown paths. With mud underfoot instead of concrete, dodging plants instead of people, hemmed in, with nothing to see. Long runs in London give a lot: the journey, the diversity, different stages marked out my markedly different sensations. Sheer lurching shifts from environment to environment can be breathtaking. Old, rich, bright, dark, human, animal, forgotten, mechanical, suburban.
Off the Island
A squelching sodden field at the bottom of Mudchute park takes you to the Greenwich foot tunnel. The lights were striking. The spiral staircase down took it out of me. The lights dazzled. The tunnel feels hallucinatory when it’s empty. When you can’t see the end, when there’s no one in it, pretend it travels round in a doughnut, that you can walk up and round, looping the loop infinitely. Walking glued to the path, orbiting.
Greenwich and home
The stairs out of the tunnel nearly finish me off. The run is starting to take its toll. I’m losing lucidity now, and just running.
This is the reward. For all the sights and sounds of the run, this is what I’m really aiming for: awareness without focus, the trippy feeling of being more alive and more conscious, but without being able to concentrate on much more than the act of running. Running home through the Lewisham alps: Greenwich to Telegraph hill, Nunhead, Peckham and eventually camberwell. I know the roads and could describe them, but it wouldn’t be honest of me to. I’m in something of a fugue by now. Snippets of memory flash in front of my eyes; narrowly missed by a car on Vesta Road, a realisation that my toenail has fallen off, a feeling of dizziness and nausea as I run the final kilometre up to Denmark Hill.
And then home. Done. Spent.
(route here, if you’re interested)