On a grey September Sunday about 200 hardy souls gathered round the edge of Parliament Hill Lido for one of London’s most unusual races. They looked ready for a swim, but the tri-suits suggested a bike ride and run added into the mix. In fact, this was the 14th Hampstead Heath Duathlon. Many of the competitors were triathletes, others from local swimming and running clubs trying to outdo kindred spirits at their own games. There were also more than a few enthusiastic plodders like me, who excelled at neither discipline but like doing both, and in particular like doing both on Hampstead Heath.
What marks out the Duathlon out is the way it shows off so much of Hampstead Heath. Competitors swim in the Lido, Men’s, Ladies and Mixed Pond, and run between them across some of London’s most bucolic scenery. The finish, on the running track gives a taste of proper athletics.
All that felt a long way away as I shivered on the side of the Lido watching three waves of swimmers plunge into the water and then swim the regulation three lengths. Gasps from softies at jumping into 17c water accompanied each wave. Lengths completed, everyone gets out, pulls on trainers and runs off toward the bandstand. Summer Sunday mornings at the Lido are usually blissful family times. On this late summer’s morning there was no sun and a cold northerly wind on this morning but hardy Hall boys still had a paddle while waiting.
After probably a bit too long standing round in skinny shorts I jumped in and pushed off. My approach to swimming is heavily influenced by Roger Deakin, who advocated nosing slowly along, doing breast stroke, and taking in the scenery. As that would have seen me left well behind by zippy types in lycra I got my head down and bashed through the distance. After some dizziness getting on my way out of the Lido – surely due to having to put some effort into swimming for once – I got into my rhythm running to the Men’s Pond and was feeling in fine fettle exiting the water there. I’m not fast at any sport but if I can do one thing, I can swim round that pond in any conditions.
The other big incentive – for men at least – is that the Duathlon offers the chance to swim in the Ladies Pond. This is the second time I’ve done the event, and I remember thinking two years ago that here was a softer place than the y-chromosome pond with its spartan, wonderful facilities. Willows hug the banks and it feels like a secluded secret garden. This time I’m sure the water, from closer to the spring of the eastern arm of the Fleet, felt softer too. That it may be, or possibly my legs had just gone a bit numb.
The two longest runs connect the Ladies Pond with the Mixed, and that shortest swim with the finish. I made up a few places on others during the runs and warmed up a little before finishing, and a hot shower. Though I swim on the Heath year-round the 17c water felt like it got progressively colder as the course progressed, probably due to inappropriate clothing and being quite slow. 47 minutes was faster than last time, though, and will do me just fine.
The Duathlon has grown in popularity over the past few years, as triathlon participation rates have gone up. You don’t need to be a triathlete (I’m not) to enjoy this Duathlon though, just a bit of a masochist and keen on doing something active and silly on a Sunday morning. Watch out for entry forms, usually available from the Lido in early summer.