The Pondathon

I was told a secret a couple of months ago by a fellow Chaser on a club run. He told me about the Hampstead Heath Duathlon, a fairly small and unadvertised event that takes place at the end of summer and entails swimming in the Parliament Hill lido and each of the three swimming ponds on the Heath, running in between. Well, how could I not try and get a place on that?!

Luckily for me I didn’t really have to try. The Hampstead Heath leisure team offered parkrun a place for a team of five at the event, and I was lucky enough to be invited to take part. Below is the race report that I wrote for the parkrun website:

Tim, me, Gemma, Michael and Damien getting ready in the lido

Ahoy there my fellow parkrunners and pondswimmers! Captain Hannah here, reporting (almost) fresh from the Hampstead Heath Duathlon, the annual event that sends 200+ barking mad Londoners running across the Heath and swimming in every available pond and lido en route.

Hampstead Heath parkrun was incredibly lucky to have been invited to join this event – evidence of how well behaved we have been on Saturday mornings! – and a team of 5 regular runners was sent to represent HHpr. The team was drawn at random from interested applicants, which meant that we had a great mix of abilities. After all, parkrun is all about the taking part, right? Our team on the final day was: Michael Carberry, ironman extraordinaire; Damien Lane, one of our top male runners and volunteers; Gemma Milman, a relative newbie to HHpr and rockclimber/swimmer; Tim Nicholson, gracing us with his presence during his marathon training; and me, a jolly jogger, cyclist, and parkrun enthusiast.

Whilst the day officially started at 8.30am with the opening of registration, the day actually began far earlier for most of us. Many of the entrants, through a mixture of nerves, excitement and distrust of Sunday morning public transport, had been arriving since 8am, and so by the time registration opened there was a bustling crowd of banana-chomping, goggle-wearing nutters milling around the edge of the lido. We were ushered through the poolside cafe to register with the excellently organised volunteers, who assigned us race numbers and wrote them on each athlete’s left arm so that we could be recognised as we (hopefully) crossed the finish line. Anyone that has met me at parkrun will know that my arms are covered in a collection of ridiculous tattoos, leaving no room for a race number, and so when I stepped up to be numbered I was thankful to see it was one of our very own race directors, Jess Mathur, who was doing the doodling. She opted to write my race number on my thigh instead, exclaiming that I would be ‘like a race horse’ for the morning!

There were over a hundred athletes competing in this year’s duathlon, starting off in three separate waves. As we crowded around Paul Maskell (Hampstead Heath leisure and events manager) and parkrun’s very own Paul Sinton-Hewitt (parkrun founder) for a health and safety briefing and watched the first wave line up at the edge of the lido, the HHpr team began to look at each other wondering what on earth we had let ourselves in for…

The first wave set off with an almighty splash and, even though I knew that they were the fastest entrants, I was shocked at just how fast they all were. I have always been a competent swimmer (at least I have always managed to stay afloat), but as the first wave freestyled its way through a speedy three lengths of the lido I began to feel a bit a reality check creeping in. You see, whilst I have never been exactly a record breaking runner and will never quite make it to the Olympics, being an average competitor means that my biggest worry is falling short of my PB, rather than being in last place. But for the first time in a long time I began to feel like I was totally out of my depth (pun intended) and that finishing last was a very real possibility!

There was no chance of me pulling out though. I was far too excited and I couldn’t let my teammates down. The parkrun team lined up in the pool together, offering each other words of encouragement right up to the last moment before we were set off on our first 180 metre swim. We had spread out significantly by the time we reached the end of the pool, walking through the few very shallow metres of water to tap the side before turning for the second length.

As I turned for my third and final length I saw my teammates one by one leave the pool and set off on their first run to the men’s pond. I tried not to be too fazed by this and kept up a steady breast stroke right to the end. But when I clambered out of the pool I realised that I was indeed the last swimmer out – my fears were coming true…

The race was not over though, my friends! The lido was only the first of four swims, and as I pulled on my faithful running shoes I found myself back in my comfort zone and feeling a little more confident. On the advice of a previous entrant I walked the first few metres out of the lido complex, letting my legs become accustomed to dry land, before setting off up the Heath. I was so happy to see the first pair of route markers a short distance along the playing field, especially when I realised that parkrunner Sopie was marshalling and cheering me on! Before I knew it I began closing in on the other competitors and slowly but surely overtaking them – it’s amazing what a bit of encouragement does, isn’t it?!

Over the first hill I was no longer in last place, but I wasn’t safe just yet. As we reached the men’s pond, kicked off our trainers and jumped off the jetty, the swimmers began overtaking me again.  Also, by this time the fastest third wave competitors had begun to catch up behind us and I could hear them jumping into the water as I worked my way around the largest of the three swimming ponds. This could have been really discouraging, but actually there was something quite nice about no longer knowing for sure if I was at the back, and as I settled into my swimming rhythm (a mixture of breast stroke, front crawl and frequent spluttering) I actually began to enjoy myself.

When I climbed out of the men’s pond and got my trainers and shorts back on I glanced around at the other competitors, some kicking shoes off and some pulling them back on, jogging around all of the other discarded trainers and garments. A normal duathlon would only have one transition between sports, and a triathlon only two. But on the Heath we were throwing ourselves in and out of duck ponds and running in soggy trainers and shorts to endure seven transitions in total: four swims and four runs, the longest swim being the exhausting 380m lap of the men’s pond and the longest run being the 1.5km between the women’s and mixed pond. By the time I reached the women’s pond and the half way point I had stopped caring about what position I was in and realised that this event was such a huge challenge that it really is the taking part that counts. With a new outlook on the event I noticed that many of the other entrants had developed a similar approach: the regular swimmers made the most of the ponds and jogged in between, while I joined the regular runners in their speedy stretches and spluttered alongside them in the water.

But the comradery did not last. It turns out there was a tiny bit of my competitive streak that had not quite drowned in the ponds. As my teammates had long disappeared ahead of me I knew that the last stretch of running was going to be my final opportunity to make up the lost time. Luckily this last stretch was almost entirely downhill and as swimmers cautiously descended I braced myself for the hard run to the finishing line, along the outside of the athletics track and then along the finishing straight of the athletics track itself. Oh, fellow parkrunners, I know that we all enjoy a good finish, but my word a finish has never felt as good as that one! As I reached the track I could hear the parkrunners cheering, my teammates now joined by other HHpr regulars who had entered individually or had volunteered for the morning. As I sprinted down the track towards them I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing (although the photos look like I’m grimacing…), so happy to have made it back to my teammates and so relieved to have finished.

A huge well done to the HHpr team:

Damien Lane – 40:54
Michael Carbery – 43:08
Tim Nicholson – 45:37
Gemma Milman – 55:18
Hannah McQuarrie – 58:09

To our other parkrunners who competed individually, or with friends:

Sheila Fitzgerald – 01:08:46
Richard Ashforth – 45:37
David White – 42:29

And an enormous thank you to our wonderful HHpr volunteers and cake bakers:

Kayleigh Dunn
Sophie Lea
Jessica Mathur
Joey Gardner-White

And of course, to Paul Maskell and the Hampstead Heath leisure team!!



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