If you think of London and running, Hyde Park and Regent’s Park come to mind, the green hills of Hampstead Heath to the north and to the south-west, where the counties of Surrey and Middlesex meet, Richmond and Bushey Park. These days both of the latter are used by high-class running talent: Craig Mottram, the Australian who almost beat Haile Gebrselassie at London’s Crystal Palace over 5,000 m in 2004 and broke through the 13 minute barrier, is seen there from time to time. South-west London with its good transport connections to Heathrow airport is very convenient for athletes who are racing in Europe during the outdoor season.
East London is more of a secret place for running, however. If you read the novels of Charles Dickens, the outstanding portrayer of London life in the 19th century, you would likely think that everything is dark and gloomy, with danger and violence lurking in the shadows. But east London is much more than these antiquated images of Whitechapel and “Jack the Ripper”, it has a jewel of greenery by the name of Epping Forest.
In Epping you can run for miles in the forest.
Orion Harriers have their club house on the edge of the forest. In Epping you can run for miles in the forest. There’s even a cross-country race every March, held over 15 miles of its hilly terrain. Rich in tradition and founded in 1911, the club’s membership of around 300 men and women have a taste for adventure. For many years there was a minority who would like to run in the forest at night, wearing flashlight on their head. This tradition has died away, not because of accidents or police raids, but increasing years and girth have meant this small band of runners are no longer up to it.
Be a marker for the turning point
But they still like their adventures and handicap races are a particular favourite of theirs. This is especially true at Christmas and one year there was a handicap relay race when a loyal club member volunteered not to run, but rather be a marker for the turning point: he stood on a hilltop and every runner would run up to him and then turn round, heading towards the next member of their relay team. By the way, because the weather was so bad, the relay was taking place on a golf course on the edge of the forest.
Our living landmark was told that he had to count every team, that way he would know when the race was over and it was time to come down. But it was a long afternoon, the snowfall grew heavier and the skies darkened … he forgot what he had to do. True to his task as ever, he stood on the hilltop, while the runners had long since sat down to their Christmas meal in the club house. Turkey and Christmas pudding were on the menu, and the winning team even won a whole turkey for themselves. At last the loner realized his mistake and returned to the club house, but the last Christmas pudding had been eaten.
The relay race continues to this day, but they decided to use a natural landmark rather than a human one.