The Cancer Research UK London Winter Run is a big event as far as running events in London go. 20,000 people on closed roads through the centre of the city – there are plenty of Monopoly board moments and it’s great fun.
2018 is just the fourth year of this event, the second for me (my husband and I have lived in London since July 2015), and it’s a great way to start the year’s running.
January in London is absolutely miserable weather wise, short days, almost constantly overcast, often wet and always cold, it makes getting out for a run a big challenge and I find my pace drops off dramatically and I get really frustrated. The beginning of February is a big deal for Londoners, we feel a corner has been turned and better weather is on the way…so far it’s still bloody freezing but the days are getting noticeably longer. So it’s a great time for a race and I was determined to treat it as an opportunity to really push myself and remind my body and brain that I can go much faster than I have been at 6am in the cold and dark.
So with my training pace having dropped to a disappointing 7.40min/per km I decided to set myself the goal of running 7 min kilometres to aim for a time of 1 hour 10 minutes or under. Not an unrealistic goal given my 10k PB is 1:04:37 just 5 months ago.
The temperature in London at this time of year can vary from freezing to low to mid teens a helpful trick I’ve picked up since being here is attaching my race number to my tights, not my top, at least during colder weather, that way if I need to strip off a layer my number is stays put.
Race day and London showed up with her best winter weather – a sunny ‘four degrees feels like one degree’ was predicted.
The start was staggered into nine groups leaving at eight-minute intervals. The organisation of this event is really impressive. The whole of Trafalgar Square is filled with activities including merchandise stands and areas to get photos with the race mascots – think polar bears, huskies, penguins and this year yetis – and a fantastic warm-up area with a big stage and fitness coaches to lead everyone in fun warm-up routines.
After the warm-up each group is funnelled around into the starting chute – I say funnelled because it gets pretty narrow and you end up shuffling along for about 20 minutes before getting to the start line, so staying warmed-up can be difficult, there’s lots of jogging on the spot!
The start is great fun, a big count down, lots of fake snow and cheering crowds and you set off by running across the top of Trafalgar Square with the National Gallery on your left and Nelson’s column to the right and you head straight up The Strand. Now we’re running through the theatre district, passing Kinky Boots and The Lion King and the decadent Savoy Hotel.
One kilometre down and I’m near to being on track 7:14.
The next landmark is appropriate – Australia House, the Australian High Commission, it’s great to see all the Aussie flags flying outside. Australia House also played the role of Gringotts Wizarding Bank in the Harry Potter films.
Two kilometres in and I’m on target – 6:59.
The next eight kilometres are all inside The Square Mile – the actual City of London – it’s probably my favourite part of London, it certainly fires my imagination like no other. This is where London was born – settled by merchants sometime before Roman occupation occurred in 43AD – the mind boggles. Today it’s the financial centre of the city and a strange mix of ancient and modern.
As we head down Fleet Street, The Old Bailey, more boringly known as the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, looms on the left (it’s current, grand, iteration was built in 1902 but a court has been held here since 1585). On the right, scattered among more modern shopfronts are Tudor pubs and facades dating back to the 1500s.
Up Chancery Lane now, the Knights Templar built this road around 1161, it runs through the Ward of Farringdon Without, not to be confused with Farringdon Within, named for their locations in relation to the London Wall (the Roman construction surrounding the city of that time).
Three kilometres in 7:08, happy with that.
Onto High Holborn now, there’s not much old city to see here with the exception of the beautiful Holborn viaduct, one of London’s first flyover-style road bridges, opened in 1869.
There’s an amazing drumming band playing here, everyone cheers as they run past, it’s a great boost, they were here last year too, I could stop to listen to them all day but I have a schedule to keep.
As we sweep around a left-hander at Christ Church Greyfriars there’s a lovely choir singing, more cheers! Christ Church Greyfriars is a pretty little public garden now, in the ruins of the church designed by Christopher Wren (he is responsible for London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and other magnificent buildings throughout the city). He rebuilt the 13th century church after it was destroyed in the great fire of 1666. And Wren’s church was then destroyed by bombing in the Second World War.
Kilometre four 6:46 woohoo!
The one and only drink station for the event is located at Guildhall, it’s a lovely relief to pop out of the shady streets into the sunshine of the courtyard. Lots of runners have stopped to take photos in front of Guildhall which was built in 1440 and is the only non-ecclesiastical stone building remaining in the City of London.
That’s kilometre five done in 6:44, killing it!
Closing in on one of my favourite corners of the Square Mile now – Bank Junction. Home to the Bank of England, which we basically do a big lap around, with a detour up the wonderfully named Throgmorton Street, a charming little laneway full of old shopfronts. Established in 1694 The Bank of England is the eighth oldest bank in the world and resides in a building as grandiose as you would expect. But perhaps even grander is the Royal Stock Exchange just across the road, it was established in the 16th century but the current building was completed in the 1840s after a fire destroyed its predecessor.
As we run between the Bank and the Exchange we’re greeted by the penguin party! There are lots of high-fives by several ‘penguins’ and some high-energy music that gives everyone a boost.
I had to stop for a quick selfie with the Royal Stock Exchange.
As I start to run again my Garmin beeps at me, apparently it got lost and thinks I’ve done the last kilometre in 4:53…in my dreams!
There goes my average pace but I’m not bothered, I’m having too much fun.
The next landmark is the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by the aforementioned Wren, it was constructed in the late 17th Century after its predecessor was destroyed in The Great Fire. St Paul’s sits on top of Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London and dominates the local skyline; in fact it was the tallest building in London until as recently as 1967!
Even if, like me, you aren’t religious, I can’t recommend a visit to St Paul’s highly enough, the cathedral itself is spectacular and the history of the place is astounding. Make sure you visit the crypt to see, among other things, the sarcophagi of Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.
St Paul’s brings up the 7km mark – 7:05, back on track.
The course mostly doubles back on itself from now on, back by the wonderful drumming band (8km 6:51) and it’s all downhill from here – a long straight stretch of over a kilometre down The Strand and I can see Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square up ahead, a quick glance at my Garmin and I realise I’m going to have to really push it to get under an hour and ten.
One last turn down onto Whitehall and I can see the finish line which is right outside Horse Guards, there are big crowds lining the finish straight, much more than last year. I push myself as fast as I can, in the last hundred metres or so I hear my husband shouting encouragement which gives me another little kick of speed and I’m over the line, experiencing that wonderful high as I gasp for breath.
I get a text with my official time – 1:10:46 – before I’ve even had a chance to check the Garmin (1:10:54) – so close, if only I hadn’t stopped for that selfie, haha! Pretty pleased with my last two kilometres though – 6:07 and 6:21 respectively.
If you’re travelling to London I really recommend doing a running event, Londoners are obsessive about running and you could honestly choose from several events on any given weekend. This was my seventh event here and every race I’ve done has been really well organised from big ones like Winter Run to smaller ones with only a few hundred participants, they are all fantastic, everyone is friendly, there’s fun bling and often other goodies included in the entry such as event t-shirts. And don’t forget that London is the birthplace of Parkrun so there’s plenty of those too – most of which start at the leisurely hour of 9am.