Ben Lerwill puts his stamina to the test by running, swimming (briefly), cycling and climbing in the capital city.
That’s right. Quadrathlon is a thing. According to the British Quadrathlon Association, it’s for “when three disciplines isn’t enough” – you’ll have to decide for yourself when that is. But following the watertight logic that states outdoor exercise is always a good idea, we set ourselves a unique four-discipline challenge in London, then drew straws to see who would do it. I “won”. Here’s how I got on.
Where? Regent’s Park & Primrose Hill
London has some beautiful jogging routes – I once lived in Mortlake and can vouch for the joys of running around Richmond Park, or along the Thames to Kingston. This circuit is far more central, and popular too: on a Tuesday lunchtime, I’m one of dozens of runners doing a clockwise loop of the park. As one of the Royal Parks it gives off an upmarket air, being lined with beeches and sweet chestnuts and ringed by big, butter-coloured townhouses. And within minutes of setting off, there’s London parklife everywhere: herons hunched over lakes, French school groups feeding pigeons, phone-chatting dog-walkers striding past bandstands.
The outer loop is around 2.8 miles, but I vary it up a bit, adding on a 1.2 mile circuit of adjacent Primrose Hill then factoring in some of the winding paths on the east of the park. There are maps everywhere, so it’s a good place to improvise. Primrose Hill (which has very few primroses and lots of hill) turns out to be a highlight, mainly for the blockbuster view it grants across the city skyline. Back in Regent’s Park, my route takes me along the perimeter of London Zoo. It feels undeniably odd to be running past camels and gibbons – I even spot an okapi – but it adds a feral something to the run. I finish at the Espresso Bar, the little white-tiled cafe on the Broadwalk. The hot chocolate hits the spot.
>Where? Hampstead Heath
I’ll be honest. I don’t want to get in. It’s late March, for crying out loud. The pond is the colour of, well, a pond in late March. A sign on the door of the changing room reads ‘Attention: This water is deep and cold. Competent swimmers only’. I’m at the Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath, which hosts the UK’s only lifeguarded year-round open water swimming spots (there’s also a Ladies’ Pond, and a seasonal Mixed Pond). I pay my £2 charge. Just as I arrive into the changing room, I pass a man striding outside to swim. He’s back before I’ve even got my trunks on, making comedy brrr! noises at me. No one else is in the water. This does not bode well.
I head outside and dip my toes into the pond. Mistake. It’s beyond cold. It’s freezing. Compelled by a sense of duty, I stand on the metal steps and try to summon up the will to fall backwards into the water. Five seconds pass. Then ten. Eventually I think how annoyed I’ll be with myself if I don’t take the plunge, and I topple in. The temperature of the water slams the breath out of my body. It’s horrendously cold. I submerge my head again and try a few strokes, in the hope that I’ll warm myself up. It doesn’t work. I won’t disclose exactly how long I stay in the water – but let’s just say I’ve had longer swims.
Where? Putney Bridge to Borough Market
Boris Johnson gets a mixed press. I can’t think why. Most people are in agreement, however, that the public bike hire scheme he introduced as Mayor of London is a positive thing. Almost eight years after its inception, it remains incredibly simple to wander up to one of the 750-plus docking stations in the capital, pay £2 and have a decent, three-speed bike at your disposal. I’m using a Boris Bike for the next stage of the challenge – a rainy seven-mile pedal along National Cycle Route 4 from Putney Bridge Tube Station (which is close to a couple of different docking stations) to Borough Market (likewise).
Being a National Cycle Route, it’s well signed and generally bike-friendly – although wearing hi-vis is still recommended. It’s a varied ride too, leading through quiet residential streets as far as Chelsea Harbour, where it picks up the river. Here’s pink-and-lacy Albert Bridge, here’s big bad Battersea Power Station, here’s 007-hangout MI6. Then it’s over Lambeth Bridge and into the belly of the South Bank. After the initial £2 for 24 hours, you can take as many sub-half hour journeys as you like (longer than that and you pay an extra £2 for each 30 minutes), so it’s worth breaking up the route. I stop first at Tate Modern for a quick gander at the Turbine Hall, then pick up another bike for the short journey to clamorous Borough Market, where £5 buys me an Ethiopian curry fit for gods.
Where? Up At The O2, Greenwich
The final stage of the challenge is an ascent of the north face of, ahem, The O2. It’s by far the priciest of the four – tickets start at £30 – and isn’t as taxing as they’d have you believe (expect carabiners and pickaxes adorning reception and a picture of Sir Edmund Hillary in the changing room). What it is, however, is fun. I join the sunset climb, just as the sky is turning a dramatic shade of Gotham City purple. The view from the 52-metre summit is a grand one: the history of Greenwich and the Old Royal Naval College in one direction, the twinkling skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in the other.
The pleasingly bouncy walkway that you follow over the dome is 320 metres long, reaching a gradient of 30˚ at one point. And when you’re at the top, you can while away the time thinking of the acts that have played beneath your feet – everyone from Prince to The Rolling Stones. Like I say, it’s fun. But so too is the walk back to the hostel later that night. I’m staying at YHA London St Paul’s, and I get off the Tube at London Bridge to wander along Bankside and over the Millennium Bridge. The bridge is quiet, the night’s chilly and the cathedral is lit in gold. For those few minutes, it’s as good a reward as any I can think of.