Tag Archives: London Marathon

Early Amateur Running In & Around Blackheath

This weekend, Blackheath will see the start of the 36th London Marathon, but running on the Heath is nothing new – Blackheath has a long athletic history with recorded events going back at least two hundred years.  Running Past has covered the late Georgian long distance walkers – George Wilson, the Blackheath Pedestrian and Josiah Eaton, the Woodford Pedestrian.  Later in the century large crowds were drawn to the heath by the likes of William Gazley, the Star of Kent and Tom Cook, the Greenwich Cowboy for their running and related exploits.  These were all professionals, with wealthy backers, and large amounts of money changed hands through gambling.  The athletes themselves though probably saw very little of the money that was made through their efforts though – Cook and Gazley both seem to have ended up living in poverty.

Walter Chinnery

Walter Chinnery

The mid-Victorian period saw the growth of the gentleman sportsman, the amateur athlete, the development of athletic clubs, track and cross country racing.  One of the very first competitive cross country races of this era on Blackheath was on 5 October 1867 – a mile handicap steeplechase, which the Go Feet Blog posted about last autumn.  The race was won by A Maddock from Richmond, who had been given a 15 second head-start on Walter Chinnery.  Chinnery was a founding member of the world’s oldest track and field club, London Athletic Club (AC), which had been set up in 1863 and was initially called Mincing Lane AC.  The following summer he was to become the first amateur athlete in the world to break 4:30 for the mile in March 1868.  Chinnery was to become a wealthy stockbroker and was perhaps not atypical of the ‘gentlemen amateurs’ of the era – very different indeed to their forerunners of a couple of decades before like Gazley, who lived in comparative poverty on the Greenwich/Lewisham borders.

Three of the biggest athletics clubs in south London had their roots from the late 1860s and all had links with Blackheath and its environs.

Lewisham’s main club – Kent AC – has its roots in two clubs formed in the 1880s, Lewisham Hare and Hounds and West Kent Harriers.  The ‘Hare and Hounds’ element of the name was common in the early clubs and related to cross country races that mimicking hunting – a paper/flour trail being set by the ‘hare’ who goes off first for the ‘hounds’, the runners, to chase.  As the blog has noted before, this type of racing has its links back to  the fee paying Shrewsbury School and was adopted by rowers in Putney wanting to keep fit during the winter in late 1867 – became Thames Hare & Hounds – their history describes them as ‘a gentleman’s club’ in this era.

Lewisham Hare and Hounds and West Kent Harriers amalgamated in 1898 and their early training runs took them the still rural Blackheath environs of Kidbrooke.

unknown artist; Old Brick Field, Kidbrooke; Greenwich Heritage Centre; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/old-brick-field-kidbrooke-193789

Painting of Kidbrooke from 1889 – See notes copyright at bottom

Another local club Cambridge Harriers is now partially based in the Kidbrooke/Eltham border in Sutcliffe Park.  However, it had its roots in the Cambridge Settlement where students would live and work among the poor, devoting their time to philanthropic, educational and religious activities within the local community. The first of these was set up in Walworth by St. John’s College, Cambridge in 1884, followed a year later by the Clare College Mission in Rotherhithe.   Initially they set up a cricket club, but like the Putney rowers they looked to running to provide winter fitness.  Their first run was from close to the Dowager’s Bottom (a former name for this part of Blackheath) – from Tranquil Restaurant at 56 Tranquil Vale on 6 October 1890 with 15 runners turning out.

While Blackheath currently has no athletics clubs, there is one that retains the name despite the geographical association having long since gone – Blackheath and Bromley Harriers.  Their origins are much earlier than Kent AC and Cambridge Harriers and are a few miles to the west in Peckham, starting as Peckham Hare and Hounds, but changing their name to Peckham AC soon afterwards – like Thames Hare and Hounds their initial raison d’etre seemed to be to help keep amateur sportsmen (and it was men) fit for a range of other sports ranging from cricket to rowing and gymnastics.  Their club history claims that they were the earliest club to athletic club to offer both cross country and track athletics.

Source - ebay March 2016

Source – ebay March 2016

Their links to Blackheath started in 1878 when they moved to the Green Man on Blackheath Hill and changed their name to Blackheath Harriers.  Like many clubs of the era they were founded for male athletes only – women’s athletics developed much more slowly and separately – the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) was set up in 1880, with the Women’s equivalent only coming in the 1920s – something covered in a post a while ago on the first women’s AAA championships which were held in Downham.  Blackheath, though were slower than most in integrating – they didn’t allow women members until 1992.

The handicap steeplechase from 1867 was quite common fayre of the early days on the Heath – there were press reports of a repetition in the second winter at Blackheath with 42 runners in an inter-club race in early 1880 (1).  The fixture was repeated the following year (2).

The Blackheath Society have a series of sketches of Blackheath Harriers from that era – including runs through Kidbrooke and in front of Morden College which they have allowed to be used here (see picture notes at end).


Their track and field competitions were held elsewhere – the 1881 Championships were held at Stamford Bridge – although press reports described them as a ‘disastrous failure’, due to the wet and cold.  They had a high number of entries though – including 83 for the handicapped 100 yards (3).


From the following winter there was evidence of that staple of cross country running with a mob match against Ranlegh Harriers, from Richmond (4).  Later that season the ground was ‘fearfully heavy going’ and conditions’ in ‘weather as unfavourable as could be imagined’ around Blackheath for the annual steeplechase (5).


Their major athletics meeting of the year moved to Catford in 1883 – to the Private Banks Sports Ground, by the stations.  The highlight of the fixture, on a grass track, was a then record of 4:24.25 for the mile by W G George of Moseley Harriers (6).  At another meeting at the Oval organised by the club in September the same year, W G George took a second off the record – 5,000 were there to watch events (7).

Race walking events were organised too – including one from Chislehurst to the Green Man via Eltham Church in 1903 (8).

They also had a rather odd annual bachelors v married men, the two reports found for 1905 (9) and 1906 (10), both saw victories for those out of wedlock.

Interest seems to have declined in Edwardian England – attendances well down at the 1906 Crystal Palace meeting (11).  Cross country numbers too reduced – a five mile race in late 1908 only attracted six entries, of these, only four made the starting line (12).


Blackheath Harriers were to move on from the Heath – by 1922 they were based at the Private Banks Sports Ground in Catford for track and field and they purchased a base in Hayes in 1926 for their road and cross country running.  Membership increased considerably after WW1 with the 500 level being reached in 1923.

From 10:00 on Sunday morning around 38,000 runners start the marathon on various parts of the Heath, of those around 100 will be from Kent AC, Cambridge Harriers and Blackheath and Bromley Harriers (Blackheath Harriers merged with Bromley AC in 2003).  The elite men will finish around 12:05 but amongst the slower competitors at around 4:30 pm will be the millionth London marathon finisher.



  1. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, February 15, 1880; Issue 1943
  2. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, February 05, 1881; pg. 90
  3. Daily News (London, England), Monday, October 10, 1881; Issue 11071
  4. Daily News (London, England), Saturday, October 28, 1882; Issue 11400
  5. The York Herald (York, England), Monday, February 12, 1883; pg. 8; Issue 9905
  6. The Morning Post (London, England), Monday, July 30, 1883; pg. 2; Issue 34663
  7. The Morning Post (London, England), Monday, September 24, 1883; pg. 2; Issue 34711.
  8. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, October 17, 1903; pg. 246; Issue 2212
  9. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, January 28, 1905; pg. 54; Issue 2279
  10. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, March 10, 1906; pg. 150
  11. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, May 19, 1906
  12. I.P.: Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, December 26, 1908

Notes on Pictures

The painting is by an unknown artist and is owned by Greenwich Heritage Centre  and is displayed via the Art UK website, and reproduction for non commercial research such as this is allowed under the terms.

Thank to the Blackheath Society for allowing the use of the sketches of Blackheath Harriers, it is just one of several hundred pictures from their fantastic photographic archives which they have recently allowed public access to – they are well worth a visit!


A View From Mile 8

The 2015 London Marathon was oddly emotional for me – which caught me slightly unawares.  After being rejected in the ballot, I had decided to try the inaugural Ashford & District Marathon instead, but a serious, potentially life-threatening accident in January put pay to that.

The family watching place for the marathon is one of the quieter places on the course, close to the mile 8 marker in Deptford – as the road falls away slightly past the now redundant bridge over the former Grand Surrey Canal at what was Victoria Wharf.  I have watched or run every year but one for the best part of 20 years.

The early BBC pre-race coverage, with its reporting of Paula Radcliffe’s last competitive race, had already brought a tear to my eye.  We got to our vantage point around 5 minutes or so before the leading men, with nine in a group including the pre-race favourites – last year’s winner and course record holder, Wilson Kipsang, and world record holder Dennis Kimetto (who we have covered before on the blog) along with the eventual winner – Eliud Kipchoge.



A little bit further back was a group containing the evergreen  Serhiy Lebid, who was European Cross Country Champion a staggering 9 times, with lower places on the podium on a further three ocassions.  A minute or so back was a small group with the top British marathon runner Scott Overall.


The biggest cheer was for Paula though – like knowing that Mo Farrah was coming from a ‘Mexican wave of cheering’ when I was running along The Highway last year, this year there was a crescendo of noise as she approached us.  While she had been telling anyone who would listen that she was just there to enjoy herself and savour the atmosphere, the competitor in her wouldn’t allow to plod around like mere mortals – there was no way she was going to be anything other than first woman in the non-elite race.  She was only just behind top local runners John Gilbert from Kent AC and Dean Lacy from Cambridge Harriers as she passed.

My tear ducts opened as she passed and I was unable to cheer and encourage anyone for a few minutes, but it soon passed and I was back to my usual foghorn levels of encouragement – I managed to give myself a sore throat and ringing in the ears….

I saw a fair number of runners I knew in the crowded masses – including Beckenham’s Jim Addison who was  36th MV40 in 2:38, Clare Elms – 1st FV50 in 2:55, my old friend Dennis Williams, along with, I think, fellow blogger Neil from Go Feet blog – looking very relaxed with 18 miles to go.

Hopefully, I will get a place again for 2016, but I may be back at the same spot next year, without a place but encouraging other runners.  But seeing nearly 38,000 others on their feet inspired me so much to slowly build my recovery and running fitness and get my body back to the shape it was in January so I could run the distance again, in a time I would be happy with.

Since my first run a couple of weeks ago, there have been a few setbacks – the run found an area that had become weakened by the long lay-off, my lower back, and I could barely move the next day.  But some physio and a lot of strengthening and stretching has allowed me to re-start with more modest jogs of a mile or so and these have been just about pain free – three months after a serious accident and operation, it seems like progress.

London Marathon Odds & Rejections

The Virgin Money London Marathon 2015 winter training top of rejection arrived in the post a couple of days ago as I continued my long tradition of failing to get a place via the ballot, it will go well with the wind jacket from 2014. It is not something I am bitter about – I understand the probabilities, it is just disappointing as it my nearest race, well the start is anyway.

The odds on getting a place aren’t that clear as the splits between charity places – around 15,000 a year, international tour places, club places, good for age places, transfers from the previous year places, elite places, and sponsors places are not published; it probably only allows around 17,000 places for the 125,000 who apply before the cut off in the ballot.

I have never had a place through the ballot – I have had a charity place a couple of times, a trio of club places, a couple of ‘good for age places’ (those were the days…), one place for 5 consecutive rejections (a system abolished when Virgin took over the sponsorship) and a ‘bequest’ place – whereby you donate your entry to the London Marathon Charitable Trust in return for going into another mini ballot, if successful you get a place, if unsuccessful you get some reasonable quality training wear albeit with a Virgin Money corporate logo. I’m reasonably happy to do this as to money goes to help fund various community sports projects including bringing former private sector sports grounds into public usage, such as one on Shooters Hill Road.

As I don’t want the hassle of raising around £2000/€2500/$3200 (other currencies are available) for a charity and I had a club place last year, so it looks like I will be looking elsewhere if I run a marathon next spring – perhaps an off road one for a change.

An October 2016 postscript

As there is a spike in viewing of this post around this time of year, no doubt for the same reasons as I originally wrote it, so I thought that an update might be in order.

The odds have deteriorated significantly since I wrote the original post, the ballot entry is now open for several days, rather than closing when 125,000 reached – 253,930 applied for the around 17,000 ballot places for the 2017 race – giving a 1 in 15 chance of getting a place.

Unsurprisingly, given the odds, I have had two more rejections – I now have a half marathon’s worth of ballot rejections. My family can add to this, in the last three years my children have put in five applications, all unsuccessful.

I have even given up with the ‘bequest’ – I added to my London Marathon branded winter tops last year – but there really is a limit to the numbers needed, so I’ll give the money I have saved this year to charity through a different route.

I had planned to run the inaugural Ashford Marathon in April 2015, but any thoughts of this went by the wayside with a serious accident.  I wasn’t sufficiently recovered in 2016 to think about marathon running but may try and build up fitness for one during 2017.

2018, 2019 & 2020 London Marathon Updates

There were a ‘world record’ 386,050  applications for a slightly increased 17,500 ballot places so predictably my application came to nothing – a roughly 1 in 22 chance of a place in 2018.  The slight increase in available places appears to have come through increasing the capacity of the course by starting runners in waves – my own experience of this in other races is that for the mid-paced runner it slows times as more distance is covered weaving in and out of slower runners.

Nothing different happened with the 2019 ballot which no longer even guarantees Good for Age Places, and a reduction in the number of club places available.  414,168 applied for the 2019 race giving a roughly 1 in 24 chance of success – the e mail of commiserations dropped into my inbox in October 2018.  There was a family success though – my son defied the odds and got a place for 2019 – it was our family’s combined 19th attempt to get a place through the ballot – sadly, injury prevented him getting to the start line, but he’ll be transferring to the 2020 race.  I’ve entered that too, when the ballot opened on 29 April 2019, but the odds are stacked against my participation through the ballot.

When doing the 2019 update, I realised that I could have been a little pessimistic in terms of the odds.  The oft quoted 17-17,500 figure of places in the ballot isn’t clear whether it is for those who make the start line or places offered the previous October.  If it is the latter, it is as previously described.

However, if it is the start line, the odds change as the organisers’ offer more places than they know will actually start as there is a relatively high dropout rate before the race starts – a combination of injury and those with places finding the reality of training throughout a dark, wet and/or cold winter just proved too daunting.  I deferred a Good for Age place on one occasion due to injury.     It has been suggested that the numbers of places offered for 2019 were around 55,000 with around 42,750 making the start line.  If this is correct, that would suggest around a 13% drop out rate.

Assuming that the proportion not reaching the start line is similar in each group, the 17,500 ballot starters would originally have been part of a cohort of 19,807.  There would be a 4.8%, or 1 in 21, chance of getting a place; not much better, but slightly less daunting.



The London Marathon – Mission Accomplished

Just as they had done for the Olympics in 2012, Londoners came out in their thousands to support the London Marathon athletes – in my 7 previous starts I have never seen anything like it as between 750,000 and a million crowded onto London’s pavements. The presence of double Olympic champion Mo Farah swelled the numbers considerably, as did the warm, sunny conditions. The noise in places was almost deafening as the crowds encouraged the runners – how on earth so many runners can shut out the unique atmosphere and listen to music during the race almost beggars belief.

It was a bit hot for running, temperatures were 11°C at the start to 17°C by mid afternoon, but they are the in-the-shade temperatures and, other than around Canary Wharf, there really isn’t much shade and with little breeze it felt much warmer. With most of the training having been done during the winter when it is possible to ‘get away’ with poor re-hydration on runs, Sunday’s heat will have come as a shock to some. I was somewhat taken aback by how many runners were ‘skipping’ the water stations at each mile along the course, and as a result not that surprised to see how many needing attention from the 1,200 St John Ambulance Volunteers in the final 10 kilometres or so. Sadly, there was a death too, as a runner collapsed at the finish line, which rather puts everyone else’s race into some perspective.

As for my race …..

0 to 5 km (Blackheath to Woolwich) 25:23
I was in ‘pen 2’ from the Blue Start on the ‘Heath, the widest and quickest of the three, and after a lot of waiting around at the start, I was running at just under my 3:40 target pace almost from the first 100 metres. I was probably bit too far forward at the start and had to keep resisting the temptation to follow the pace of quicker runners. I saw a friend just after the ‘Sun in the Sands’ but then ignored the crowds for this part of the race as concentration is crucial as runners weave in an out.


5 to 10 km (Woolwich to Greenwich) 25:40
I was in the groove, the pace seemed easy and sustainable but unlike one or two others resisted the temptation to speed up – a man dressed as a clown seemed to sprint past me just after the first drinks station I used in Charlton (more of him later).

10 to 15 km (Greenwich to Rotherhithe) 25:46
The Cutty Sark looked glorious in the sun as I passed early in this section as my almost metronomic running continued. The family were there in our normal spectating spot just before 8 miles, so lots of personalised encouragement. I used my first gel at Surrey Quays and running still seemed easy –as it ought to at this point.

15 to 20km (Rotherhithe to Tower Bridge) 25:53
I usually seem to slow down on the slightly upward Salter Road (named after Alfred Salter) but today it seemed easy as the crowds at the side of the road seemed set to make a party of the day – a couple of barbecues were already well underway and there was a big group of Sheffield United supporters watching before making the trip to Wembley later in the day. A big band was playing Weather Report’s ‘Birdland’ as I turned the corner into Jamaica Road and I had to resist the temptation to increase my speed to match the beat.

20-25 km (Tower Bridge to Westferry) 25:54
The half way point was passed at 01:48:17, close to my target, although a feeling of slight tightness in my right lateral collateral ligament, noticed first in Bermondsey, had become worryingly obvious. A couple of hundred metres after the mid-point the official cars and TV motorcycles started to appear coming the other way along The Highway, nearing their 22 mile point. I hoped to see a glimpse of the white of Mo’s vest, but it was clear that his marathon debut was not going to be a winning one – it was the orange vest of the eventual winner, Wilson Kipsang, and runner up, Stanley Biwott, that appeared first, with the Mexican wave of a cheer for Mo appearing around 90 seconds later.

I had hoped to see the family as well as people from my running club on Narrow Street, but it was much more crowded than when I had run through there in the past and saw no one I knew.

25-30 km (Westferry to Canary Wharf) 26:45
Along the eastern side of the Isle of Dogs, the course narrows considerably as the right hand lane is cordoned off for emergency vehicle usage. For a couple of miles the pace dropped the route was blocked by those who had gone off far too quickly and were paying the price by walking or jogging slowly – the clown seen in Charlton was one of these. I lost nearly a minute along here and while I was still feeling full of energy, the pain on the outside of my knee wasn’t going away.

30-35 km (Canary Wharf to The Highway) 29:02
Soon after Canary Wharf the pain in my leg got much worse, I knew I had to do something about it – I tried a number of different stride lengths and paces to try to ameliorate the pain. I settled on a slightly shorter stride than normal and slowed down to around 9 minute mile pace. I saw the family at Limehouse and didn’t feel too bad at that stage. The Highway seemed to go on forever though, and my quads started to fill with lactic acid – I knew that the final 7 kilometres weren’t going to be pleasant.

35-40 km (The Highway to Westminster) 30:20
My legs started screaming at me with the lactic acid on the light slope down to Lower Thames Street from Tower Hill; some St John Ambulance volunteers darted across the road to treat someone who had collapsed and I had to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. It seem to take an eternity to get going again and I knew then that if I stopped I would be walking the rest of the way, and would probably be struggling with that.

I tried all the psychological tricks I knew – it’s only 5 km to the finish, that should be easy – but my body wasn’t being fooled, I was in real pain – the miles that were speeding by an hour ago were going past at a snail like pace. I was hunched up with pain. People could see I was struggling and shouted out loads of encouragement – but all I wanted was to get it over with in silence, there was no chance of that….

40 km to the finish, 42.2 km (Westminster to The Mall) 13:40
The turn into Parliament Square couldn’t come quickly enough, my right leg was in agony, the left calf was giving off all of the danger signs of an imminent strain, but I knew by now that if I stopped I would never start again. Every step was hell , I kept expecting to see the 800 metres to go sign, but it was reluctant to appear, and when that was passed it seemed like an eternity before the first glimpse of Buckingham Palace to come into sight. That meant 200 metres to go and my body seemed to breathe a sigh of relief and while there was no finishing straight sprint, The Mall seemed relatively easy.

Finish Time 03:48:23

Post Race
I could barely walk down The Mall to get my bag; I was supporting myself on the temporary fencing like a drunken old man all the way down. By the end of The Mall though the pain subsided a little and I could walk unaided again, albeit extremely slowly, and I was now the proud owner of a rather pleasant engraving of London looking westwards from Tower Bridge.


The London Marathon – The Final Countdown

The training miles have been run, the wet weather has been endured, the carbs have been loaded and the number collected from the London Marathon Expo. All that remains is the small matter of tomorrow’s 26.2 miles, well probably a mile or so extra as the ‘thin blue line’ is rarely seen and a lot of extra distance covered getting around runners slowing down in the last 5 or 6 miles.

If going away for a few days before a big race, most runners would head for a break in the sun, with the last few easy runs in vest and shorts by a warm beach. So this week’s trip to Iceland wouldn’t be in the plans for many of the other 36,000 runners – but it was a fantastic stay which included a couple of runs in winter kit along the beautiful sea front in Reykjavik.


The London Marathon – A Rite of Spring

Sunday week will be the 8th time that I have lined up for my local race – the start line on Blackheath is just over a mile from home. As there isn’t much running to report on this week, I’ll do a look back on my previous London Marathons.

1997 – I had started running just over 2 years before on the advice of my doctor, I had been suffering from dreadful post-viral fatigue and she thought that running might help me get over it. She did joke ‘no marathons to start with’ …. so I waited a year until I applied. My training was pretty much single paced and I had little clue as to how fast I was running. I found it easier than I expected and got around in 3:59 – my last mile was by far the quickest to get in under 4 hours.
2002 I got a very late charity place a couple of months before the race and I hadn’t really done enough training but took a big chunk off my PB to come home in 3:30, sadly plus a few seconds.
2003 I had run a half marathon in 1:27 three weeks before and persuaded myself that the twice your half marathon time plus 9 minutes calculation was achievable…. it wasn’t, my fitness was probably around 3:15, so my early pace meant that there was little left by the time I reached the Tower of London and struggled all the way down the Embankment to finish in 3:25.
2004 – training was plagued with minor injuries, particularly plantar fasciitis, and it was a relief to get to the start more or less in one piece – 3:24 was a reasonable result.
2005 – should have ‘my year’, I was in the form of my life ….but broke a toe and heavily bruised the top of my foot and lost 3 weeks training and could still feel the broken toe on the start line – so 3:20 was a great time.
2006 – my fitness wasn’t quite as good as 2005, but I stayed injury free and managed metronomic pacing until 25 miles when cramp hit – the last mile or so were hell, particularly the last 400 metres on The Mall but the incentive of a sub 3:15 kept me going – staggering over the ‘line’ 3:14:36.
2007– it was all going so well until early February when I had to take evasive action to avoid colliding with an out of control small dog, my Gluteus Maximus strained badly and after then I was playing catch up, running through small strains that I should have rested up for. I was ‘cut up’ by another runner at a drinks station around mile 11 and trod on a bottle in the desperation of avoiding a tumble. The net result was that my sore calf became a strained calf and while I continued until around 15 miles, my journey to The Mall was on the Docklands Light Railway. Another passenger in the carriage was Haile Gebrselassie, who had dropped out further up the road with an allergic reaction.
2014 – we’ll have to see…..