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 first dispatch…
The Quest For The Purple Runner
I’m standing outside the St. John’s Wood tube station trying to figure out which red double-decker will get me to Hampstead Heath. A woman named Fay, who grew up in London and is my host in nearby Maida Vale, tells me the #46 should get me there quickly enough, or if I’m ambitious I could walk the two miles to Parliament Hill – one of the highest points in London.
“If you could run that 10 kilometer race the other day, you should be fine,” she says. “But be prepared to spend the whole day there.”
It’s true. I competed in The British 10K London Run with 25,000 others the previous Sunday. The course meandered from Piccadilly Circus down to the Thames River, past Big Ben, Parliament and Westminster Abbey, finishing right back up in Trafalgar Square. It was probably the most scenic race I’ve ever run, although my 171st place, 41:41 time was not my proudest finish. However, with the weather in the 80s and the sun beating down, this is an anomalous London summer and running has been challenging in the heat.
I’m on a running pilgrimage of sorts, but this journey to Hampstead Heath actually began back in a dorm room at Boston College in 1992. I was a senior distance runner and English major who devoured books like Once A Runner and Long Road To Boston. My well-read friend Paul Caron, a rather literary and spiritual guy, handed me a book he’d found called The Purple Runner. It was a novel by an obscure author from Boulder, CO named Paul Christman, published by an even more obscure-sounding Highgate Lane Press. I believe I read it in one night; I couldn’t but the book down.
I smile and bid Fay farewell, as she’s off to shop for shoes in the chic shops of classy St. John’s Wood. My only knowledge of the place is Mick Jagger’s reference to it in the Stones’ single, “Play with Fire.”
(Your mother, she’s an heiress, owns a block in St. John’s Wood.)
The #46 bus pulls up to the stop, and I get on with the mid-day riders, and we push forward past the American School near Abbey Road on the way to the fictional home of The Purple Runner.
The Purple Runner is about several runners – but most notably a female named Solian D. Lede from New Zealand, possibly based on Kiwi Olympian Allison (Roe) Deed, living in and around Hampstead Heath, trying to work on her marathon training but also discovering new truths about herself. It is an engaging novel in its own right – never mind just a running novel. The other main character is a nameless male runner who lives in the basement of a local’s cottage and throws down Gebrselassi-esque workouts that lead him to a sub-two hour marathon at London by the end the book. I was enthralled. This was the same year that Boston hosted the World X-C Championships at Frankin Park, my home course.
The Purple Runner seemed more like a symbol for something greater, a Christ-figure of sorts – Christman’s athletic take on Green Knight from the King Arthur legend. As an English major and competitive distance runner, it all seemed to make sense.
The world record in the marathon in 1992 was 2:06:50 and held by Belayneh Dinsamo, an Ethiopian (which bettered both Portugal’s Carlos Lopes by 22 seconds and Great Britain’s Steve Jones by over a minute). I’d later live in Boulder, next door to Paul Christman, and I met his good friend Jones on several occasions. Fiction became reality to me less than a year after I picked up the seminal book.
I arrive in Hampstead, a modern, bustling village, after being directed by yet another local on how to get to Highgate. Our discussion on the bus turns to London and how it has changed since my first visit in 1998 – it has become more diverse and dirtier in his opinion. I relate that I think Londoners are friendlier and the city is cleaner. He mentions the constant struggle between the Labour vs. Conservative Party and Parliament’s disgust with Rupert Murdoch and his news organization hacking Royal cell phones. He talks about his recent trip to Orlando, Disney World, and American politics – Obama – the world economy; I want to escape from that America to a more pastoral setting here in England.
I get off in Hampstead, then walk through a brownstone neighborhood until I hit the gate and enter the 790-acre park. It all seems familiar to me, probably due to the hand-drawn map by calligrapher Alison Richards that Christman included in his book. Once I enter the main area, I notice a huge swimming pool, a playground and 400-meter synthetic track. On the field beneath Parliament Hill, sits families having picnics and kids flying kites. I can see why Christman chose this setting for his 1982 novel. It’s a slice of heaven, idyllic, a place where a mysterious protagonist might escape to.
Hampstead has a rich history, a location connected with literary giants such as John Keats and D.H. Lawrence not to mention psychologist, Sigmund Freud, who took residence there toward the end of his life. The trails are plentiful as are the heaths. And there is a traditional English pub nearby
I begin my hike up Parliament Hill, which takes me less than ten minutes, and find a bench to sit and soak up the amazing view of the London skyline. I decided to forgo a run here, opting to get my seven miles done back in Maida Vale when the temperatures cool down. The week has been hot and sunny compared normal London gray weather and for a moment I feel a spiritual sense overcome me. Could this be Paradise? Did Christman feel the same sensation as he lived this simple life and composed his novel? I sit and eat my Tesco meal deal – a ham and egg sandwich with salt and vinegar crisps and a Fanta. I imagine the two or three pints of Bombardier I might have tonight at the local pub, the Prince Alfred back near Castellain Road. I can see St. Paul’s, the London Eye, and Westminster Abbey in the very far distance. The view is breathtaking.
I think about the effect that Christman’s great novel had on me at 21 years old as I stare down at the running track and turn to look at the dirt paths that wind in and out of the woods and by the swimming ponds. However, I also think of the plethora of great English runners – many of the heroes from own youth. There was Seb Coe, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett, Peter Elliot leading the middle distance crew, all achieving world best times (Coe’s 1:41 800 meters is still the most amazing of them all, in my opinion). I wonder how these Northern Europeans achieved world records, won gold medals and ran with the likes of the Africans (and still could today). Don’t forget distance greats like Charlie Spedding, Dave Moorcroft with his 7:32 – 3,000 meters and 13:00.41 – 5,000 meters before modern training techniques had been truly perfected and fully understood. Before them was Dave Bedford’s dominance in the 10,000 meters in the 70s. Roger Bannister started the revolution in 1954. Maybe it was because of these heaths and trails that all these Brits dominated the world scene.
However, Christman’s Purple Runner is distinctly American. He is a disfigured protagonist, who runs absurd times and workouts over the paths of Hampstead Heath. Speculation has left many readers to believe it is Steve Prefontaine, who apparently faked his death or perhaps survived the car crash in 1976. Or is it Gerry Lindgren who remained missing up until Kenny’s Moore’s 1985 Sports Illustrated investigative article that found him in Hawaii. A combination of the two? Certainly both would’ve run fine marathons but a sub-2 hour effort? Still unfathomable.
I finish my lunch and make my way down the trail. Runners pass by on their afternoon jaunts seeking only solace and fitness. There seem to be more people running here then back in Maida Vale or even the streets of Central London – where an occasional runner with a backpack runs past on the Thames on their way home from the office. But here in the country, the air is fresh and the scenery pastoral. I follow signs out to Kenwood House to see what that area holds. It’s more of the same but with a huge Victorian mansion that stares out into a huge field where Londoners soak up the temperate day. Someone told me it was in the movie Notting Hill with Hugh Grant and Julie Roberts.
Christman lives in Santa Fe now. He has just finished ‘keying in’ and editing the originally typeset story for the tentatively upcoming 2nd edition of The Purple Runner. We’ve caught up a few times by phone, and he even wrote a blurb and review for the short story collection that I finally published 17 years after leaving our complex at Mohawk Green in Boulder. I’ve told him how much his book meant to me and encouraged him to write a sequel to The Purple Runner, but I’m sure Salinger faced the same demands. Instead, he has ambitions for Hollywood and is developing a teleplay on another story. His life is simple and quiet: teaching at a local school, running, hiking, and biking around the trails of New Mexico. He’s doing well. He was a good neighbor to our post-collegiate crew back in 1993 when he put out his internationally famous Running Stats newsletter that dominated the sport until the mighty Internet stepped in and made race results a commodity.
I sit back and take it all in. I start to fade off and as darkness begins to fall, I realize why Keats chose to write Ode To A Nightingale here. But something awakens me and I sit up to see a purple-clad figure move quickly into the woods. But then he is gone like the legend that Christman created for us 30 years ago. Nobody is going to catch him on his home course of Hampstead Heath.
Michael J. Atwood was a standout runner at Boston College (class of ’93). For his full bio, click here. He has coached several Massachusetts high schools and was named The Boston Globe’s “Coach of the Year.” He has plans to run a sub-three-hour winter marathon.