Coach @ Runs London – Maida Vale

August 10th, 2011 in Articles by 1 Comment

Mike Atwood, Faster Than Forty’s Editor at Large, spent time in London this summer — running races and tracking down bits and pieces of running-geek lore. Here is his second dispatch…

Maida Vale

I knew I had found my favorite part of London, the second I found Castellain Road. I was worn out fromMaida Vale Tube Station my overnight flight from Boston, but when I emerged from the Warwick Road tube stop, I knew I was home.

Maida Vale –this neighborhood’s name – it seemed to have a lyrical sound to it and, as I did some research, I realized how true this feeling was.  The famous Abbey Road is less than a mile away.

This was my seventh trip to London, but I’d never found this charming area filled with red-brick blocks and brownstones, tree-lined streets, green parks, and canals. If you want busy and high-end London – go to Chelsea or Mayfair. However, if you want a settled and close-to-Central London district with Edwardian and Victorian mansions (but still not cheap) try Maida Vale.

My first trip to London, in 1998, was spent in a hostel in bustling Bayswater. It was a nice area but very touristy, lots of Americans and other international travelers, but not that many Brits. Bayswater is full of gift shops, fast food restaurants, pubs, and even an indoor shopping mall. I think I opted to tour that week instead of running due to the congestion, sadly not realizing how close I was to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. My next trip in 1999, put me in a hotel closer to the Thames and I took some nice runs by the river and historical parts of London, but the traffic was annoying. A year ago, I stayed in Earl’s Court, a bustling center of activity on the edge of Chelsea. It took 10 minutes to jog up to Hyde Park for a run but it was again, a very busy area.

But not Maida Vale – especially toward Little Venice where I was staying. Many of my runs were from the front door of my flat.  It is quiet and serene. There are plenty of British residents who are willing to stop and talk. I spent an hour speaking with an off-duty British detective about good seafood restaurants – I found one on Lauderdale Road, La Cochonnet – American politics, and immigration issues in England. Turns out the detective was born in the U.S. but was brought to England and put up for adoption as baby by his young mother. He went on to rise in the ranks of the London police and was out on this Saturday looking for a wine store in the village. I’d say it was unusual, but after this happened four or five times with Londoners, you start to realize it’s sincere and hospitable. People have pride in the city and seem to want to make sure you’re enjoying your sojourn.

There are many running options around Maida Vale, without the worry of automobiles and sidewalks. I could head to the Paddington Recreation Ground less than a mile away from my flat. It offers a grassPaddington Recreation Area pitch, a running path, and a 400-meter track (not to mention grass tennis courts for those with racquets).

On another occasion, I ran up to St. John’s Wood and cut into beautiful Regent’s Park for an 8-miler. Three fairly serious Brit runners came by me and I ended up running with them for a couple of loops of the park. They were architects on lunch break from Central London out for an afternoon run and were impressed I had entered the London 10K Run – they had not even known about it – which seems the norm for local runners in the area. The London Marathon seems to be the only show in town besides an occasional 5K and 10K race in Regent’s Park. It seems these races are less common and barely advertised. Later, when I got lost in Regent’s Park, an older woman with a dog, who turned out to be a famous international art critic, offered me a ride back to Maida Vale after my 8-miler. This collision of culture and athletics was fantastic. The conversations and exercise were equally invigorating.

But what is so appealing about Maida Vale?

I guess when you realize poet Robert Browning, Star Wars’ Alec Guiness, the Clash’s Joe Strummer, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, the Cure’s Robert Smith, model Kate Moss, entertainer Joan Collins, and even singer, Bjork call it home, you know it’s good.  It’s a high-class area with that crowd, but artsy at the same time. The BBC’s Maida Vale Studios – where everyone from The Beatles to the Killers have recorded – is around the corner.  Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers, of the Showtime series The Tudors, was recently rushed to the hospital after yet another drinking binge.  Amy Winehouse lived in nearby Camden Town before her untimely demise. The area is simply hip.

And it’s full of runners.

The day of the London Run 10K, I slept late and woke fearful that I wouldn’t make it to the line in time. In 30 minutes I was in Oxford Circus (home of the recent riots), grabbed my Starbuck’s coffee (order it as coffee with pouring cream), and was on the line in Piccadilly moments later. London is a walk-able and run-able city to say the least.

I am a gregarious person, and on the way to the race, I met a woman and her son from Mexico who were running the race. They were new to running but the woman expressed interest in competing in the London Marathon and today’s 10k was the start of her training. They’d moved to London after opening a chain of high-end Mexican restaurants in Madrid and England, and I had the feeling that she was fairly serious about devoting some stress-relief time to training.  We parted ways but she offered me a meal if I came into their Hampstead restaurant called Mestizomx before I headed back to Boston.

As I rounded the corner into the famous Piccadilly Circus, 25,000 were making their way to the starting line of this huge race. I thought of Boston and how I was fortunate enough to get over the line in just over a minute. I began maneuvering around people as I got ready to run 10 kilometers through the famous streets of London. Only the thoughts of a pint at the Prince Alfred pushed me forward. It was 80 degrees and beginning to swelter.

On the way back from the 10K I met Abdi Madar, from Egypt, who happened to finish 6th in the race in 32:02. His run was remarkable given his husky build, claim of slow mileage, and the fact he had worked a shift at Formosa till 1:00 a.m. the night before and was back on for a noontime shift after the race. With PRs of 1:11 in the half-marathon and 2:26 in the full, he is one of Egypt’s finest. He invited me for a recovery run the next day, and I gladly accepted as I incredulously watched him head back to his job.

How could you not love the people in this city?

Michael J. Atwood was a standout runner at Boston College (class of ’93). For his full bio, click here. He was once named The Boston Globe’s “Coach of the Year,” but recently he has been bombing around the U.K looking for cool running spots. He has plans to run a sub-three-hour winter marathon.

Author: FasterThanForty

One Comment

Maida Vale is hip but it is not the centre of running in London. The running is urban, grid based and access to the parks is often restricted at sunset. There are good options for track training at Paddington rec but joining the clubs that use these facilities is expensive.

Instead look to Richmond Park (where the Kenyans train), or north of Finchley Road where you have access to Parliament Fields. 20 mile runs, off road and through London is a true delight.

The London Run 10k is popular – despite 25,000 entrants it is over subscribed. For locals it is expensive and covers only the edited highlights of London sights. The marathon or Royal Parks half marathon are perceived as better value. Even better are events such as Parkrun – free 5ks every weekend attended by several hundred locals, or runs outside London which showcase history. London has few buildings from before 1650 due to the great fire, many other parts of Britain will have building back to at least the 1200’s.

Worth mentioning London also gets dark in winter from around 5pm. A big factor in choosing good runs are those that are well lit. The canals, parks and tracks mentioned are poorly lit during winter.

M dans


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