TUNNEL VISION

Beneath London lies a marathon course of epic proportions for those prepared to take up its unusual challenges. Just try to avoid rush hour

Words: Warren Pole

Photos: Patrick Gosling

(Runner's World)


IT’S TEN AM on a weekday morning at King’s Cross station, slap bang in the epicentre of London’s teeming commuter heartland and despite rush hour technically being over, the concourse is still rammed with people hurrying, panicking, babbling management speak into their mobiles and stabbing furiously at their Blackberries.


Amid this human swarm, I am preparing for what has to be the weirdest race I’ve ever run.


How weird? Well for starters, I’m on my own. In a normal pre-race situation, fellow participants lend a legitimacy to your wearing of tight shorts and thrusting Mr Motivator-esque stretches. Alone in the middle of a train station and without that friendly cover, I look more like a notorious sex pest than a marathon contender.


Secondly, not only are there no other participants, there are no officials either so no one will know when I start, when I finish, or indeed whether I complete the course at all. There is nothing to stop me from loafing in the nearest pub for the rest of the day before telling the organisers I did in fact set a blistering time.



The weirdest race start ever – hit start on the stopwatch and get on with it


But this race is anything but a normal marathon. Called the Underround, it comes without the fanfare of the traditional marathon. Instead this is running stripped to the bare essentials. It’s a personal quest, a matter of honour, a race that reaches the simple core of running because it’s just you, your stopwatch, and your will to carry on as your body and mind tell you to give it up.


The brainchild of ultra runners Rory Coleman and George Eyles, the Underround came into being by accident during a 50-miler. At a time when both men’s minds were clearly well addled by the distance, their conversation turned to fell running.


“No fell running down in London, eh?” mumbled George.


“Well, you could always run up and down inside the tube stations…” replied Rory.


Most people would leave it there. After all, running in tube stations is plainly a ludicrous idea. But not these two, and by the end of the race the Underround had been created.


The deal is simple. Sign up via the Underround link on Rory’s website (rorycoleman.com), pay a tenner, and you’ll be sent the route. This takes in 42 tube stations in central London. You then run between them above ground, and on arrival at each, leg it down to a platform, touch the yellow line with your foot, then leg it back up to street level in search of the next one. 42 stations, 84 ticket barriers, 26.5 miles and more stairs and escalators than you can count later, you’ve run the Underround.


Travelcard in hand, I hit the start button on my stopwatch and run through Kings Cross before diving down the stairs into the Underground.


Through the barriers and I’m on my way to my first escalator of the day, jinking through a sea of meandering office workers making their zombie-like way into the subterranean world below. Before they notice I’m there, I’ve gone, and am jogging down the stairs working out my options.


The biggest question is which line has the shallowest platform? Make the wrong call and I’ll be in for as much as extra half mile’s worth of running at some stations.


I’m sure one day someone will spend days working out with surgical precision the most efficient platforms at every station in search of an all-time Underround record, that is the nature of racing after all, but as I have a life I haven’t done this. I’m flying blind.


I plump for the Piccadilly line and am there moments later, forcing my way through the somewhat bemused crowd on the platform to stick a toe on the yellow line before hotfooting it out of there.


Running up out of the station and into the cooler air of the traffic-clogged Euston Road offers a respite of sorts from the filthy tube station atmosphere, swapping it for carbon monoxide and the distinct ‘eau-de-pavement’ only found on London’s most congested thoroughfares.


Next stop is half a mile away at Euston where I miss the pedestrian crossing into the station and have to hurdle a series of bus lane fences to avoid the time loss of doubling back.



Six stations down, just 36 to go...


Five or six stations later, I’m into a rhythm and with platform crowds dwindling things are going smoothly.


Until I reach Paddington. Here I get seriously lost trying to get out of the tube station thanks to the exit being completely different to the entrance, and then my travelcard packs up, refusing to let me through the barriers.


A sympathetic guard opens them for me, but if I have to rely on this approach at every station I’m going to lose a heap of time. With my mind whirling over this potential derailment I make a hash of the route from Paddington to Bayswater and as this is a solo event, there are none of the usual signs – other competitors, route markers, wildly waving marshalls – to alert me to the fact I’ve run almost a mile in the wrong direction before realising my mistake. Curses.


As the trashy environs of Bayswater tube finally hove into view and I dodge a throng of gaudily-clad foreign exchange students while making a beeline for the entrance it strikes me the travelcard problem could be caused by the magnetic strip getting soaked by my sweaty hands. I wipe it on my shorts and offer it into the barrier with fingers crossed.


Success. Hallelujah.


But as more stations come and go and the clock ticks by, a fresh challenge rears its head because, for me at least, running can play merry havoc with my digestion. I’m keen not to do a Paula Radcliffe, but with no official ‘rest stops’ en route, I need to find one urgently without wrecking my race time.


Salvation comes in the shape of a well-known coffee chain. After years of paying for their exorbitant frothy swill I figure the least they can do is save me in my hour of need.


Suitably relieved, it’s back to the task in hand as the route draws me into the centre of the West End then spits me out the other side, hurling me on towards the river as station after station blur by.



Another platform, and another yellow line


Some are emptier than others, some I’ve never been into before despite living in London all my life, and far more than I would ever have imagined have no escalators which means a horrific amount of stairs and fabulously burning quads and calves by the halfway point. Many of these stations do have lifts, but I figure this really isn’t in the Underround spirit. 


One of the best things about this route is the way it forces you through pieces of London you would never otherwise see. One minute you’re among the swanky set in the backstreets of Knightsbridge with their miniature dogs and giant 4X4s, the next you’re slumming it with cider-sinking dossers behind Victoria, then before you know it you’re dodging credit crunched bankers in the City, and at every turn this cityscape is punctuated by statues, parks and monuments you never normally have time or reason to see.


The best discovery is an underpass on the way to Mansion House. Here, not more than 50 metres from the River Thames and right next to one of the capital’s busiest thoroughfares is a deserted quarter mile tunnel. Running through it alone, this barren concrete slice of the urban jungle is all mine. It’s a bizarre moment of tranquility in the middle of one of the world’s most congested cities.


It’s not all peaches and cream though as by the 20-mile point my knees are starting feel the effects of endless concrete pounding. By this stage tiny patches of grass become oases of soft running joy and even station stairs are proving a welcome relief.


Pushing on through Farringdon as the five-hour mark passes there’s just one station left before the finish. Running past the myriad pubs, restaurants and cafes in this area all wafting their tempting aromas into the street has me ravenous. I want a giant plate of fish and chips. Instead I glug back another gel. It’s really not the same.


Russell Square is the last station on the route and so it is with wobbly-legged horror I discover there are 177 steps to the platforms. Going down is fine, coming back up nearly finishes me off.



Just the hack back to journey's end at King's Cross and the Underround is over


Staggering back to street level and the finish on the concourse at Kings Cross is in my sights. I jump red lights, slalom pedestrians and dodge buses, willing the end nearer.


With 5:36:34 showing on my watch, I hit the finish and it’s all over. I’m blowing hard and sweat drips from me. There’s no medal, no t-shirt, no friends on hand with Mars bars, nothing and my Underround ends as bizarrely as it begun.


Sitting on the tube home the smug glow of satisfaction is immense. Nobody knows why I’m smiling, nobody cares, and if I told them it’s unlikely they would understand either. It’s just a running thing, pure and simple.

 

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