Last month, Martin Johnson became the fastest person to run the Thames Path. The 38-year-old Londoner completed the 184-mile distance in 38 hours, 35 minutes. But, as he tells Runner’s World, the run was more about breaking barriers than breaking records.
How did you first get into ultrarunning?
I’m a relative newcomer to trail and ultrarunning. I’m 38 now and ran my first ultra, the Thames Trot, in 2018. I’d played lots of sports growing up – football, etc – and completed the odd charity run but then I’d stop running afterwards.
At the back end of 2017, I’d stopped playing sport, had become a father and gained a bit of weight. For the first time, I felt like I was starting to age. I live in the outskirts of south-east London and would get the train into work. But a friend of mine encouraged me to run-commute instead. I guess that was the turning point – it was a way of avoiding the rat race and adding a bit of exercise into my week.
Why was the Thames Path appealing to you?
Growing up in London, the river has always been a big part of my life. It’s a symbol of coming home. It was also the scene of my first ultra and last year my first podium finish, at the Thames Path 100. So, it’s been an ever-present in my running journey.
The run was more of a personal challenge; the FKT was secondary. It wanted it to be a symbolic journey of someone running from the inner city to the countryside – and encouraging other people to take a similar journey.
Having discovered trail running later in life, and being the father of two young boys, I’m keen to encourage younger people into the sport. I think there’s an issue with trail running being a middle-aged sport. So this was about trying to capture the imagination of younger trail runners – and encouraging them to take their own journey to the outdoors.
What were the biggest challenges you faced during the run?
It’s a big deceiving, the Thames Path. The previous FKT was 40 hours, 47 minutes, which might seem a bit soft. But it had stood for about five or six years, and there’s a reason why. You’d think with a river, it would be very easy to navigate, but there are sections where you come away from the river and run through towns and villages. Also, where the river narrows in the Infant Thames, it’s very easy to get on the wrong side of it. But it’s the terrain that’s the big problem. The first half, from London to Reading, is pretty much paved and is very runnable. But it quickly changes underfoot around Pangbourne – suddenly it’s muddy trails. Generally, I think pacing is one of my strengths, but it was very difficult not to get carried away in the first half. Then there’s the distance – just shy of 184 miles – approaching double what I’d done before in distance.
Did you sleep at all?
No. If you speak to most 48-hour runners, they’ll tell you the optimum way to run it is to keep moving for 20-22 hours, have a 20-minute power nap, and then get going again. But because I was aiming to complete the run well inside of 48 hours, it was always the plan to just run through. I managed to do that, which was pleasing. And with no hallucinations – no pink dolphins or anything like that!
Do you think one of the reasons you were a latecomer to trail running was due to the idea that it’s not something Black people do?
Absolutely. Growing up in London, everything was geared towards football. There was athletics, but it was sprinting or shorter distances like 10K. Part of that is down to a lack of representation. I wasn’t made aware that this amazing world of trail and ultrarunning existed. On magazine covers, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. I didn’t have any cultural reference points growing up: family members or role models who could introduce me to the outdoors. I grew up in a bubble in south-east London – and trail running wasn’t on my radar.
It wasn’t until I got introduced to trail running that I found out there were trails near me. Particularly in London, we’re blessed with fantastic green spaces. I don’t like the idea of constantly jumping in the car to get my trail fix; I can just throw on my trainers and be out the door. The vision of the outdoors is of the Peak District or the Grand Canyon, but there are loads of cool trails and green spaces in our cities that can provide a great introduction to trail running.
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