Looking for a new challenge? Want to get stronger – both mentally and physically? Then why not take a leaf out of Agnes Arnold-Forster’s book and start running the length and breadth of the Underground?
A few weeks ago, I was standing outside Hendon Central station, somewhere along the outer reaches of the Northern Line. It was grey and raining, I was only about four kilometres into my 21k run, and I had to bend down to untangle a frayed plastic bag from around my ankles.
If I was the star of my own film, this would be the moment when the record would scratch, I’d look to camera, and a voice-over would say: “I bet you’re wondering how I got here?” Unfortunately, I’m not the star of my own film, and this is a situation entirely of my own making.
I’m running the London Underground. Past every stop, down every line, and along every branch. All 400km – or 250 miles – of the thing. Since running past Hendon Central, I’ve done all the Northern Line (yes, both the Edgware and High Barnet branches), all the Victoria Line (I managed it in one go), all the Piccadilly Line and about a third of the District Line.
I haven’t always liked running. A few years ago, while on holiday with some friends, I impulsively signed up for a half marathon, having never run/walked more than about 3km before. My friends inevitably bailed, but I managed to drag myself through the training and around the mercifully flat course.
I didn’t do it quickly, but I did do it. Since then, I’ve realised that my favourite kind of running is the very long kind. I’m not fast and I certainly won’t win any races, but I am committed. If I start, I probably won’t stop – to the point where last summer, I ran a solo, self-directed marathon. It took ages and I nearly threw up at the feet of some alarmed commuters, but I love the sense of achievement, the time away from the mental hustle and bustle of work and deadlines. And if I’m being frank, I enjoyed having the bragging rights.
After the marathon, I needed a new challenge. Some googling suggested that I run the Circle Line, but that didn’t feel quite long enough (it’s a mere 23km). So instead, I decided to run the entire Tube map. This was, admittedly, a bit of a leap, but I also wanted to raise money for a charity that’s important to me and figured I needed to do something seriously impressive – and unusual – to persuade people to part with their hard-earned cash.
The charity, Our Brain Bank, was set up by my godmother Jessica Morris before she died from a glioblastoma in 2021. Glioblastomas are the most aggressive form of brain cancer and they are almost invariably terminal. My godmother (or rather godless-mother) was my mum’s best friend from university and they share a birthday. She wasn’t just hilarious, kind, compassionate, funny and fun, she was also incredibly driven, a true creative and a peerless communicator. Becoming a cancer patient often means surrendering, at least in part, to doctors and their never-ending tests and interventions. Our Brain Bank is about returning some of that agency and autonomy to patients.
Running the London Underground seemed like a great idea. Like Jess, I was born in London and grew up here. I thought this challenge would get me fitter, raise lots of money for charity and provide me with plenty of time to think about Jess, but I also thought it might help me explore my city. London isn’t exactly small, and even though I’ve been here for 30-ish years, there’s still much I don’t know. Surely this would be a great way to uncover some hidden gems.
So far, that hasn’t really been my experience. Mostly, it’s involved running down A-roads in the rain. I’m sure there are lovely pockets of Edgware, Morden and Hatton Cross, but either February isn’t the best time of year to start exploring London suburbs or my route didn’t take me through the best bits. Because I’m often running very long distances (I try to run at least 15km in one go), I tend to take the most direct route from one station to the next. This usually requires a jog down main roads and sometimes even along the grassy verge of a minor motorway.
I also didn’t anticipate quite how much time I’d spend not just running along the Tube, but sitting on it. I tend to start in the suburbs and run into the centre – partly because the distances between stops gets smaller as you get more central, and partly because when you’re tired, it’s easier to navigate through places you know. But this does mean I often spend an hour or so – before the run has even started – taking the Tube out to zone six, seven or even eight.
Despite all this, however, I have loved this challenge and telling everyone about it. People are intrigued and impressed; it makes for great dinner party fodder and is a fantastic substitute for a personality when your real one has been driven out by endless Zoom calls and the daily commute. Most of all, I love the almost-meditative state that you get into when running far. I’m not trying to run fast, I’m not trying to complete the challenge by a certain point, and I’m certainly not racing anyone. Instead, I’m just plodding on. One stop to the next, thinking my thoughts, and taking in the scenery, however bleak.
There is also something helpful, for me at least, about using Tube stops as markers of distance travelled. I never have far to go to reach the next milestone, and each one is its own mini-success. I plan, eventually, to run a marathon and then an ultramarathon as part of this enterprise. Even 50km (the approximate length of the Metropolitan Line) is manageable when divided into 1.5km chunks.
There are many ways to be a runner, each one as valid as the next. Despite all the rain, pollution and tatty plastic bags, this challenge is my kind of running. I’ve not finished it yet, so maybe by the end I’ll feel differently, but I love the sense of completeness, the slow and steady pace and the feeling of doing something not many others have done before. Maybe once I cross the “finish line” (I’m ending with the nice and easy Waterloo & City Line), I’ll have to think about what next to do. The Overground, perhaps?
For more inspirational fitness stories, check out the rest of the Strong Women Training Club.