Last time I went to Hampstead Heath parkrun, I spotted on their page that the nearest alternative parkrun was one I’d never heard of, Gladstone parkrun. The parkrun website informed me that this park is situated in Dollis Hill, a part of London that I have never set foot in, despite it being only ten miles away. When I read the course description and found it contained the words “undulating” “tarmac” and “views” I decided this was one for my to-do list.
My opportunity came somewhat faster than I expected. My planned trip to Southend thwarted by engineering words on the Gospel Oak to Barking line (again!!), I needed a local replacement that was on the tube. And so I set said up the Jubilee line to Dollis Hill. A grey line on a grey morning that took me to a rather grey and intimidating park. Loud music blared from a suspicious looking car. An empty bottle of Jagermeister, complete with two glasses, sat on a bench. The meeting point, the Pavillion Cafe, with its shutters down, looked like it hadn’t been open since the 80s. In the nearby “outdoor gym”, stoned looking teenagers loitered on the cross trainer.
I had arrived early, so set out to find the toilet, which is located by the ruins of Dollis Hill House at the top of the hill. A tip: do not follow the sign that tells you the toilet is to your right, because it isn’t. It is actually straight on from this sign (and then on the right).
When I returned to the cafe, loads of parkrunners had arrived and were now cheerfully sharing the outdoor gym facilities with the stoned teenagers. A large number of lithe looking club runners had now congregated, and I learned from the run briefing that the Clapham Chasers were having a little competition with the local club, Queens Park Harriers. The first timers briefing ended with “enjoy your race, I mean, sorry, your fun run!” I think I might have been terrified by this if I’d turned up a year ago but now actually count some proper fast runners amongst my friends I know they are just like me, only faster. The briefing did not contain any details about the course, so I had a quick chat with the tail walker, who was seemingly the only person other than me who did not look like Mo Farah or Paula Radcliffe. (The course is actually quite easy to follow and very well marked and marshalled.) I did not see any Cow Cowls other than my own and got the impression this is a bit of a Regulars parkrun and not popular with tourists.
The best way to describe the course is a bone shaking rollercoaster ride from start to finish. Like Hampstead Heath, it’s a two lap course with a “tail” leading in There’s no easy start, you set off on an uphill, then it gets steeper as you go over a railway bridge, then steeper still as you struggle alongside a road that reminded me of that road in San Francisco with the cable cars that’s on all the postcards. When you get to the top you plunge down immediately, then back up, then down, then up, and just when you think you have a bit of respite you realise that you have to run across some bloody grass. Finally, there’s a long stretch of downhill, but the tarmac is pretty awful, full of potholes and sprouting grass, so it’s not a smooth ride and getting a lot of speed up could prove dangerous.
Finally, at the end of each lap, there’s the reward of about 100 metres of recently resurfaced path, which cruelty and abruptly turns uphill again and then forces you to run at what feels like a 45 degree angle along the side of the hill.
And after that you do it all again!
As I puffed and panted my way round , I received a few cheers from stoned teenagers and a wandering tramp and couldn’t help but compare this to the arsey posh people on Hampstead Heath (less than 5km away). There are indeed some lovely views, including Wembley Stadium, but by the time I was at the top of the hill I was struggling to see straight so I didn’t really appreciate them.). The final stretch is smooth tarmac but this is once again cruelly snatched away as the course veers on to grass.
I was lapped by a Clapham Chaser (who was one of seven people to finish under 17 minutes) before I’d even got to 2km and I honestly thought I would be last because I hadn’t seen anyone who was over 30 years or 60 kilos at the start but apparently there were a couple of people behind me after all. One of the Queens Park Harriers took it upon himself to run with me for the sprint finish and really helped spur me on. (I expect he’d finished twenty minutes ago and started getting cold.)
My finish time was 40:28 although it had taken me 10 seconds to start moving because of a bottleneck at the start, and I was really pleased with this because that really was an eyewateringly tough course. I was surprised to discover it actually has less elevation overall than Hampstead – it really feels like there is more, perhaps due to steeper gradients?
It was definitely a strange sort of parkrun but in those 40 minutes I warmed to Gladstone Park with its funny paths, its rollercoaster hills and dubious people. The Pavillion Cafe was actually open by the time I’d finished and almost looked welcoming. I’d like to do this again, although not right away as I am still recovering.