Running with “The Midnight Runners” in London

Posted on: 14 Feb 2019

I often find myself in London or the South East with work and whenever I am away from home I always pack my runners. It’s a great excuse to get out and explore somewhere new, though in the winter I do tend to take a head torch as much of Kent seems to turn off its street lighting to save the planet!

This week I was in London. Now there are many places I have run in London and some real favourites include the Thames, Hyde Park and Greenwich Park. There are of course hundreds of routes in London to try and the really great thing about running in London is that you will always come across something new or unexpected, like the time I found the Scotland Yard sign. As an architect I love city running, especially in London as there is some great architecture to discover and I constantly duck down new streets just to see where they go or what lies at the end.

Normally I would just go out for a solo run with my headphones in and crack out a few miles. However, recently I have been getting a few twinges and put this down to my training only consisting of running a couple times a week and not working on my core... yes, I am guilty of several cardinal sins... thou shalt do strength training and thou shalt stretch!

Whilst I enjoy running solo I thought that there must be loads of running groups or events in London and that I might try one of these out. A quick search on Google and a few options came up. New Balance store run on a Monday and Thursday night but unfortunately I was staying on a Tuesday night. There was a rumour of a pop up running pub just having opened to celebrate the London Marathon which suggested runs on a Tuesday night but as it had only just opened there was no firm mention of any runs planned.

Then I came across Midnight Runners which is a global community with clubs in 8 cities around the world including London.... and.... they appeared to run on Tuesday nights! Bingo!!! After looking on the website I downloaded their app called “My Crew” which connected me with a list of running events in London across the week. Some appear to be set up by members for impromptu runs and others are more structured such as track sessions, intervals or what caught my eye, the 10km Boot Camp... and yes, this is held on Tuesday nights. A 10km run along the Thames with 5 stops incorporating strength exercises. This sounded perfect, not only could I try running with group but I could work on my core too!

The meet up spot was Samuel Pepys, a typical bistro pub on the banks of the Thames where they had a secure bag drop. I was staying a couple of miles away and rather than take the tube, thought I would warm up by jogging there (because after all, I was only running 10km and my midweek runs at the moment are usually 8-9miles). 2 ½ miles and a few wrong turns later I found the place. I had arrived a little early and found a few runners in lycra drinking the free jugs of iced water outnumbered by the suits downing London ales. By the time the session was due to start the pub was pretty full of lycra and we headed off to the St. Paul’s end of the Millennium Bridge. There was around 130-140 people for the event, the numbers having been swelled by a large contingent of first timers who had been invited to join the Midnight Runners through the Hackney Half Marathon which Midnight Runners support and provide pacers.

The first timers (such as myself) were given an induction briefing to running in a group through the shared streets of London before we then had a group warm up session involving lots of jumping up and down and whooping. The Midnight Runners bring loads of energy with them and the event is marshalled by about a dozen ‘captains’ in orange arm bands with portable speakers. All the speakers are synced so the same tunes and beats are playing throughout. One ‘captain’ was wearing a huge speaker backpack and the volume was cranked right up.

We set off on our first stint towards the Tower of London with plenty more whooping and the music playing ever louder. The first stretch was run at a quick pace and to make sure you go the right way the ‘captains’ take turns to sprint to the front and stop at junctions to direct you, with high fives all round as you go past. The spirit of fun is engrained into this community and there is a real sense the Midnight Runners have claimed the streets of London for themselves. Many a tourist or couple walking romantically along the Thames were startled to be confronted with a wall of runners and some pretty funky beats!

Arriving at the Tower with the early runners I experienced the downside of being a quicker runner. Though the Tower of London looked incredible there was no time to enjoy the view as whilst waiting for everyone else to catch up we started doing 30 second planks with 30 seconds rest. Once the last runner arrived about 5 minutes or so later we carried on planking for a couple more rounds. Then we started the first of the activities... the planking apparently appeared to be just a bonus (or forfeit) for running too fast. This first exercise involved getting into pairs in the press up position facing away from each other and performing a synchronised inwards tuck followed by outwards stretch going side to side alternating with your partner so your feet didn’t connect with each other. This went on for 8 rounds with 30 seconds on and 10 seconds break and by the end of the session my core was already feeling the burn. 

Still with smiles and plenty of whooping the mass of runners then made our way across Tower Bridge to our next stop outside the Mayor’s offices. A handy stone benched area was not for sitting but for Tricep Dips whilst we once again waited for all the runners to arrive. Again we got into pairs locking our feet together and performing boxing sit ups where each person took it in turns to either hold up your hands to be boxed in a 1-2 left right action (think Rocky Balboa sparring in lycra outside to hard funky disco beats), then alternating so the next sit up you boxed into the other persons open palms. They repeated the 8 rounds of 30 second with 10 second breaks and the hardest part was probably lying back on the cold pavement slabs which were very unforgiving. However, the location was stunning as we all exercised to the backdrop of Tower Bridge and the Tower of London lit up at night and HMS Belfast moored alongside.

We set off on the next leg running along the water’s edge past London Bridge through the underpasses of Borough Market where the tunes got louder and echoed with even more whooping and high fiving. This was part of one of my favourite routes and so I knew it well but it was a whole new experience doing it with Midnight Runners. The next stop was the Tate Modern and thankfully a nice grassy area but for some reason we stayed on our feet for this exercise stop. Once more those of us near the front performed some sort of New Zealand Hakka style squatted side bends which, had I known what was coming, I would definitely have arrived late for.... We were brought in closer in a huddled circle around the mass of portable speakers and told to give ourselves just enough room to get in the squat position. For us newbies it would be our first introduction to Sally. Sally is the subject of a song by Moby which essentially goes “Bring Sally Up, bring Sally down, lift and squat gotta tear the ground”. The idea being you go up and down with Sally but spend a lot longer down than up, including at each chorus where you seem to spend an eternity holding the squat position. Feel free to give it a go yourself...

After that brutal set of squats we set off again up the Thames towards Westminster Bridge. As I turned to run I staggered sideways into another runner and after offering my apologies proceeded to repeat this into the same runner as my legs had apparently stopped working. It took them a moment or two to wake up after those squats and I quickly got myself back towards the front of the pack. The great think is that with so many ‘captains’ carrying portable speakers you are never far away from the music whether you are spaced out towards the front, stuck in the pack or bringing up the rear. It really doesn’t matter as each stretch is only a mile or so at a time and the group concertinas back together at each stop.

We arrived at an underpass below Westminster Bridge and started to line up on both sides facing each other. To keep us from cooling down we started doing jump squats combined with crossing our legs after the jump up..... My jelly legs had still not fully recovered from the Sally Squat challenge a mile ago but no one was complaining and everyone was still smiling. Once we were all grouped together we linked arms across our backs in 2 strings of 60+ lining the underpass and facing each other. It was like we were all bout to do the Can Can but instead we proceeded to lift one knee forward then drive it back, alternating legs every 30 seconds with 10 seconds rest. The worst bit about this exercise was everyone’s backs were really really sweaty.....

The next leg took us over Westminster Bridge which by this time in the evening had quietened down but still required us to negotiate avoiding the tourists and late night couples. We ran down the Thames and back across Hungerford/Golden Jubilee Bridge back over to Southbank. Once more we ran past some of my favourite places such as the skate park outside Festival hall where there is always something to see and we passed more bemused tourists out late watching the skaters pulling their tricks.

We arrived at the National Theatre during what must have been the interval for a show as our arrival brought thumping tunes and a mass of sweaty bodies lying on the piazza floor proceeding to do bicycle sit ups. This was interrupted only but the claxon sounding letting the bemused theatre goers that the real show was inside and not outside! For us it was hard work as our backs lay on the hard paved ground with some choosing the wooden benches as a slightly more forgiving surface. Once the last of us had arrived we got into pairs and carried out a series of push ups facing each other and side fiving with alternating hands on every push up. This repeated what felt like more than 8 times but at least we were on our hands and feet which seemed to give my bruised back a little respite.

The final stint was a push on to the Tate Modern and across the Millennium Bridge to where we had started. Everyone gave some extra effort to try and produce a fast finish but after a 10k bootcamp it was fair to say there were some tired bodies out there. As we neared the end of the bridge, those that had finished formed a pair of lines and put out their hands. With high fives all round I ran down through the lines until I got to the end which grew longer and longer as more people finished. We waited forming tunnels with our arms for those towards the rear until finally over the bridge the last 2 figures appeared to a tumultuous cheer and round of applause. No one was left behind and everyone stayed to welcome the last runner home.

It was the hardest 10k I had done but never once did I stop smiling. It was cheesy in places but the music, the smiles, the high fives and constant whooping, all raised the energy levels, making it the most fun 10k I had ever done.

Thank you Midnight Runners, you were amazing.... and next time I’m in London on a Tuesday night... I will be sure to join you again!

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