It’s a fear that all runners have: racing your hardest, only to be overtaken by a rhino, a toilet, …or a guy in a chicken suit. Yesterday, I had to deal with that humiliation not once but four times during the Hampstead Heath Aquathlon (aka Pondathlon). Sigh…
But it was all in good fun! I promise it wasn’t my intention to do two races in one week, but when the opportunity arose to take part in the Pondathlon, there was no way I was going to say no! Two of my friends had participated in last years event and subsequently spent the rest of the year declaring it was one of their favourite races – so it came with high praise! With no online presence, the event is notoriously difficult to get into, but thankfully I was able to get a last-minute place with the Hampstead Heath parkrun team when one of their members dropped out.
The event is a tour of the ponds and pools of Hampstead Heath. You start by swimming three laps of the Parliament Hill Lido before sticking your wet feet into joggers and legging it over to the Men’s Pond. One lap around the pond and repeat for the Ladies’ and Mixed Ponds, before racing back to the Parliament Hill Athletics Track to finish. All up, it’s four swims of ~930m interspersed with ~5.4km of running.
I started in wave 6 with my friend Cat, which meant I could spectate for the earlier waves, including seeing other friends Jo and Simon crush their swims. The Lido is a strange pool because the shallow end is almost too shallow to swim in – a lot of people chose to run this section of each lap! While waiting, Cat & I were jibing each other about who could swim the Lido the fastest and so when the time came I set off like a rocket! I can be so damn competitive haha 😜 in the end I beat her by 5 seconds but that was not a pace I could keep up for the rest of the swims.
Enter: the chicken. I’d seen him walking around while we waited to start but had no idea he was in my wave until some 500m into the first run when I heard a ‘begawwwwk’ behind me. Oh jeez. The spectators lining the paths of the Heath were loving it as he streamed past all the runners. I was doing fairly well to keep up a fast pace on the hills, but the chicken was tearing it up!
The rest of the race was spent with me overtaking him in the swim, and then him catching me on the run. On the longest run section (from Ladies’ to Mixed Pond) we had a little chat before he dashed off with me in hot pursuit. I then realised something which would amuse me for the rest of the race: whenever the two of us overtook someone in front, that person first got ‘chickened’ and then got ‘chicked’!
(Note: Being ‘chicked’ refers to being overtaken by a female. Normally I am strongly against this phrase, because I find it sexist and offensive, suggesting that men should be ashamed if a woman is faster than them. However, in this context I found it appropriate, for humour’s sake)
The trickiest part of the pondathlon was not the hills of the Heath (although tough) nor was it trying to stick wet feet into shoes (without socks). What I found the hardest was trying to slow down my breathing between running and swimming. You need a much slower breath in the water than you get from running, and it would always take me a little while to relax into the water and not feel like I was panicking. It’s not normal to swim after a run, so it was an interesting experience to have!
If you can find your way into the Pondathlon next year, grab the opportunity with both hands. It only costs £10 to enter, and is a really fun event. There are marshals and markings on the course to help you find your way around the Heath, and you get to run past lots of members of the public who bemusedly wonder why you are dashing around with a pair of goggles clutched in one hand! Even better, it’s the sort of event that you could easily organise with a few friends – so there’s no reason not to try!