Parental advisory, this blog contains swearing.
I’ve recently read Rob Deering’s Running Tracks and was reminded of a time when music and running played in perfect harmony for me.
Running Tracks brings together Rob’s love of music, running and travel, plotting those moments where they create sweet symphonies. Each chapter paints its own, visceral picture. You feel like you’re running alongside him, listening to the music, pounding the ground, and seeing the scene unfold before your eyes.
From leisurely plods over Cypriot hills to the business end of a tough marathon, Rob leads us on an adventure through amazing tunes and inspiring locations. It’s often funny, occasionally emotional, and always well-paced. Unlike his races, which he sometimes starts at a speed he can’t hope to keep.
Published by Unbound, Running Tracks: The Playlist and Places that Made Me a Runner, is available everywhere you’d expect to find it. I got mine from Bookshop.org, who support local bookshops through their sales, with over £1.5m generated to date. Give them a try next time you find your finger hovering over the usual app.
A little shuffle
I don’t always listen to music when I run. Sometimes I like a podcast (Rob Deering and Paul Tonkinson’s Running Commentary podcast is a regular favourite). Other times, I’m happy enough with just my thoughts for company. In those situations, my brain fills the gaps with a little ditty from its internal jukebox. There’s a never-ending playlist in there.
Back in 2016, when I did the Royal Borough of Kingston Half Marathon (from here, the RBKHM), I felt quite different about music and running. A lot has changed since those days. Crucially, my relationship with running has matured; it feels far less torturous now. Then, I needed musical distraction, otherwise I wouldn’t even lace up my trainers, let alone get out of the house.
Much like Rob, I used to load a little iPod Shuffle with carefully selected running tracks, clip it to my shorts and plug myself in. They were all “bangers”, which meant the iPod could serve up any tune it fancied without ruining my run. In fact, the randomness added an extra, often welcome distraction.
Despite my attitude towards running, I still put myself through the torment of an occasional Half Marathon – I enjoyed the race, if not the training. The RBKHM was my third, coming almost six years after I plodded around Peterborough in a Half of two halves. The first half was way too quick. Then I limped through the second half like a pound shop pirate, my right knee grumbling with every step. It was haaaaaarrrrrd (sorry).
A Half of three thirds
Unlike my Peterborough experience, the RBKHM is a Half of three thirds – unequal in distance and enjoyment. Starting in the marketplace, it loops around town, then goes north along the towpath towards Teddington. Winding among the suburbs, you head back into town and across the Thames before a quick trip through the tip of Hampton Wick.
From there, the course takes a scenic turn, following the Thames path between Kingston and Hampton Court bridges. It’s a stunning section – gentle underfoot and easy on the eye, with the leafy Home Park on one side and the river on the other.
At the other end of the Thames path, just before Hampton Court Bridge, lies Hampton Court Palace – former home of Decapitator-in-Chief, Henry VIII. And it was there, as the Palace’s ornate Tudor chimney stacks hove into view, that I lost my head.
I won’t do what you tell me
Rage Against the Machine provided the perfect soundtrack to the anti-establishment revolutionary I wanted to be as a teenager. Their breakthrough track, Killing in the Name, fuses angry sounds with rebellious words. And it says “fuck” loads of times.
In 1993, the then 17-year-old me thought it was ace. In 2016, as I bounded along the Thames, the familiar opening chords gave my little legs a big lift. As the bass burst in, I could already feel what was about to happen. When Zack de la Rocha uttered the track’s title through heavy distortion, I suspected things would go wrong – but only after they went very, very right.
As a song about rebellion and anti-establishment, it was inspiring to the innocent, optimistic teenage version of me. These days, I’ve grown cynical with age and experience. Plus, the world has changed since then. A lot.
However, that day on the riverbank, my legs rediscovered their youth. Like the final refrain, they stuck two fingers up to conformity and yelled “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” Unfortunately, it was my pacing plan that bore the brunt of their rebellious ire.
And now you do what they told ya
As far as running tracks go, it’s not an obvious choice. A series of peaks and troughs build around repetitive chants that start sparse before working into a frenzy, each more uplifting than the last. What it lacks in continuous energy, it more than makes up in aggression. And that aggression, it seems, is hugely inspiring mid-way through a Half Marathon.
Much as I tried to resist, my legs leapt in unrestrained fervour, and I had to do what they told me. In fact, it’s all I could do not to pogo along the towpath as though back in the Reading Festival mosh pit of ‘93. Fortunately, I saw sense. The sight of a bald 40-year-old bouncing around like an angry teen would have been off-putting for the other runners, I’m sure.
Rather than headbanging, I let my legs pick up the pace, gradually increasing with each peak. By the final section, as the music rampaged and Zach de la Rocha bellowed, I flew along the towpath at pace, tearing through the crowds as though in a race against kids.
I didn’t have a GPS watch then. I was also really awful at pacing myself. Coincidence? I think not. However, I reckon that stretch still sits among my fastest miles. Even if not, it felt amazing. I’m sure I grinned mightily, like a much slower, less graceful Eliud Kipchoge. For a man who didn’t much enjoy running at the time, I really bloody well loved it for those five and a bit minutes!
But I still won’t do what you tell me
At Hampton Court Bridge, you leave the tranquil riverside and return to plodding along pavements (I should have said – they don’t close roads for the RBKHM). Hampton Court Way provides an amuse-bouche to the bitter pill you swallow at the Scilly Isles roundabout. I don’t think it’s uphill, but the final stretch along the Portsmouth Road feels like an ascent of Everest.
For the second time in the RBKHM, my legs rebelled. After a strong start and with my little boost along the riverbank, I was making good time. But the moment I turned onto Portsmouth Road, my legs once again flicked the vees at me. No longer than a parkrun, that final slog felt like a full marathon. Crowds of runners sailed past as if I were a wheezy toddler still learning to walk.
No matter how much I cajoled and encouraged, my legs responded with a familiar refrain: “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
At the edge of Kingston, the crowds swelled, the noise rose, and I soaked up the atmosphere, fighting fatigue with a final burst of pace. With cheers and smiles and the sight of my wife and daughter’s happy faces, I slumped over the line in a PB of 1 hour 50 something. Then I had a little cry.
I don’t remember any other music from that run. It’s unlikely to have been uninspiring, considering how I curated my playlists. More likely is that nothing else blended tune and place like Killing in the Name.
Either way, it was a memorable moment and one I should have learned from. But I definitely haven’t. The same way I haven’t learned from my experience at Peterborough, where I went off too fast. Or that time I did the Bath Half and… you get the idea.
In his book, Rob finishes each chapter with an alternative run and an alternative song. It seems only fitting that I do the same.
I’ve only done one Half Marathon since. In 2019 I completed my second Bath Half with a new PB of 1 hour 39 minutes and 50 something seconds. In the years since Kingston, I’ve developed a much better relationship with running, and I loved my second Bath Half. It’s a wonderfully well supported run around a beautiful city and, crucially, they close the roads!
If you’re looking for an alternative run around similar streets, the Cabbage Patch 10 is a legendary race that follows the Thames path between Richmond and Kingston. Starting in Twickenham, it crosses the river at Kingston Bridge, dips a toe in the RBKHM route, then heads up to Richmond, where you cross back for the home straight. There’s prize money and a cabbage for the winner. Don’t get too excited though, previous winners include Mo Farah and Richard Nerurkar.
As for an alternative song: Bombtrack by Rage Against the Machine carries the same anger and energy as Killing in the Name but with a steady, heavy pace that keeps the legs pumping continually. Driven by guitars with plenty of overdrive, its only shortfall is that it’s quite short, so you’ll need plenty more running tracks to keep you moving.
Header image by Mark Harpur on Unsplash