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Polar bears and perishing cold – London Winter Run recap


I am not a winter runner. When confronted with sub-zero temperatures, leaden skies, howling winds and implacable bleakness, my reaction is more “kill it with fire” than “let’s go running”. This being so, it is unclear why I decided to sign up to the inaugural Cancer Research UK Winter Run, which took place yesterday in central London. The clue was in the name…

In actuality, I had a very good reason to be there: both my housemates have started running and this was set to be their first race. In the event, Jess was flu-stricken and couldn’t make it (booo) but Frankie and I headed to Westminster for 10,000 metres of polar bears and pitiless, pitiless chill.

Despite having four half marathons under my belt, I’d never actually done a 10K race before and was curious about the distance. Any given race length is a tussle between speed and endurance, with a 100 metre sprint at one end of the spectrum and a transcontinental sufferfest at the other. I hypothesised that, being terrible at sprinting AND at long runs, 10K might hit the Goldilocks spot for me.

Unfortunately, I spent most of the preceding week feeling pretty wiped out, and then the night before the race, managed a paltry 90 minutes sleep. (“I’d better get a good night’s sleep!” I told myself before bedtime, idiotically. “Got to be up bright and early for that 10K!”)

Naturally, it took me till 5am to switch my brain off, which was as cacophonic as a saucepan-hitting toddler. At 6:30am, I lurched out of bed, and by 7:30 I was at the Costa Coffee by the tube, sinking the first of two double espressos.

With 15,000 people expected, the organisers set us off in eight different waves. Since my start time was 9:30 and Frankie’s was 10:10, we headed there separately – an extra 40 minutes waiting might have been the tipping point for frostbite, and we weren’t taking any chances.

You could say it was cold, but then again you could also say “puppies are cute” or “bankers are greedy” and nobody would give you points for stating the obvious. It was February 1st in a wind-lashed island in the Northern hemisphere, in the middle of one of the coldest cold snaps of winter. Of course it was bloody cold – and the Winter Run was milking it accordingly.

The route stretched along the Victoria Embankment, from Westminster to Tower Bridge and back with a diversion around St Paul’s.

Screenshot 2015-02-02 19.56.19

See those ‘Snow Zones’? Those were machines that blew fake snow on your face. The ‘Swiss Winter Wonderland’? That involved cardboard cutout mountains. The ‘Polar bear hugs’? Loads of hug-happy volunteers dressed in polar bear suits. ‘Snow ball warm up’? Warm-up exercises led by Fitness First, to the accompaniment of ‘Let it Go’ from Frozen. The ‘Igloo bag drop’? Well, it was white, and sort of igloo-esque if you squinted.

While these gimmicks were fun, I was just too sleep-deprived – plus did I say cold? – to fully embrace them. In particular, I didn’t embrace the polar bears, which seemed to me best avoided, like chuggers. No, my objective was simply to get round. The sooner I reached the end, the sooner I’d get to head to lunch and summarily break Dry January.

We were started off by Jo Pavey, the European champion who last year ran a 32:22 10K, aged 40. In homage to Pavey, I decided I’d better actually run the damn thing rather than keeling over.

Now I jog the distance all the time, but I wasn’t sure what to do in terms of strategy. With half marathons, you have to rein yourself in to save energy for the final miles. With something like a 5K, you can afford to go full pelt. I suppose an experienced 10K runner would attempt a halfway house. In my case, however, I shot off as fast as my espresso-fuelled legs would let me, only to slow dramatically as the jitters faded.

The course was mercifully flat, and in places, very scenic. It covered some of the same ground as my last race, Royal Parks, which was 13.1 miles of autumn leaves, glittering water and yogic serenity. In February, it all seemed that bit more gothic, but I was psyched to be running along the river without accidentally photobombing tourists.

Since the distance markers were in kilometres, not miles, they flashed by oddly quickly. I barely had time to play a song between each one, much less to emulate my Royal Parks strategy and ruminate on a person who was important to me. Meditation, gratitude and zen-mastery? Haha, not this time, smirked the running gods. Literally my only thought was ‘owwww’.

One thing I need to improve is my panic response to discomfort. If you’re going fast, you’re going to feel sore (especially if it’s 1 degree C out there) but this isn’t actually going to kill you. You can detach yourself from the sensation, accept it and push though it, rather than leaping away from the pain as though in terror.

‘You’ is the correct pronoun here, in that I certainly don’t mean me. Personally, I tend to slow down or even stop, all the while berating myself for having felt that discomfort in the first place. Picture the worst kind of boot camp drill sergeant, laying in to a sulky coach-potato, and that’s my inner monologue – half of me wants to grind to a halt, and the other half is blowing a dog whistle in its face.

Anyway, I made it to the end with a time of 42:21 – almost exactly 10 minutes slower than Pavey, and a new ‘official’ 10K PB. Given my appallingly uneven split, I crossed the 5K point at 20:17, which means I somehow clocked a PB in that distance too. All in all I’m pretty happy – it means my long-term goal of sub-40 should be achievable with the right training, and I could probably run a sub-20 5K already. (AND I was 30th woman! Not a bad way to start the day.)London Winter Run


Frankie did well too, coming in the top 20% of women despite (a) only having picked up running in the summer and (b) being listed on the results page as a man.

We followed the run with steak and wine and a 90s teen movie marathon. What with the lack of sleep, and the lack of heat, I was naturally not at my most lively, but screw it. In the organisers’ parlance we ‘conquered the cold’ and helped to ‘freeze cancer in its tracks’. We also flicked fake snow out of our eyelashes – surely the defining trait of any successful winter run.

All this said, hurry up spring…


Photos taken from the Winter Run Facebook page – many more are here


Categories: Race recaps

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Abi Millar

British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands

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