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The day I was overtaken by Ronnie O'Sullivan on Hampstead Heath - Carl Marston's parkrun tour

PUBLISHED: 19:31 18 July 2019 | UPDATED: 19:31 18 July 2019

Hampstead Heath, the home of the weekly Hampstead Heath parkrun. Picture: CARL MARSTON

Hampstead Heath, the home of the weekly Hampstead Heath parkrun. Picture: CARL MARSTON

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Athletics correspondent Carl Marston is travelling around the region (and beyond) running in different parkruns. Here he targets the Hampstead Heath parkrun in London

A field of 467 assembles for the start of last Saturday's Hampstead Heath parkrun, on Lime Avenue. Picture: CARL MARSTONA field of 467 assembles for the start of last Saturday's Hampstead Heath parkrun, on Lime Avenue. Picture: CARL MARSTON

Parliament Hill Fields, on Hampstead Heath in North-West London, is one of the most iconic cross country courses in the land.

It is the main home of the annual South of England Championships, sometimes stages the England National Champs, and is generally considered to boast one of the toughest cross country challenges in the UK, usually because it involves wading through oceans of winter mud.

That was certainly the case when I paid my first visit to Hampstead Heath, for the South of England Championships of 2008.

It was an event I will never forget, for two reasons.

Ronnie O'Sullivan celebrates winning the world snooker championship in 2008, three months after beating this columnist Carl Marston in a cross country race on Hampstead HeathRonnie O'Sullivan celebrates winning the world snooker championship in 2008, three months after beating this columnist Carl Marston in a cross country race on Hampstead Heath

Firstly, the energy-sapping hills and the aforementioned cloying mud combined to present 15 kilometres of cross country hell; and secondly, I was overtaken en route by snooker world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan!

I was on my last legs when struggling over the line, at the bottom of Parliament Hills Fields, in 314th place (and no, I haven't memorised that finishing place over the intervening 11 years - I had to look it up instead!), caked in mud, as were the rest of a field of nearly 1,000 runners.

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Runners toil up the hill to the finish, with the trees providing some shade, during last Saturday's Hampstead Heath parkrun in north-west London. Picture: CARL MARSTONRunners toil up the hill to the finish, with the trees providing some shade, during last Saturday's Hampstead Heath parkrun in north-west London. Picture: CARL MARSTON

My defeat at the hands of O'Sullivan, which I think I have referred to before in a previous 'On the Run' column, was emphatic.

The now five-times world snooker champion, without a cue in tow, breezed past me at the half-way mark. I recognised him instantly, despite the lack of a waistcoat - he went on to finish in 189th spot, having taken four minutes out of me!

O'Sullivan was to lift the world snooker trophy again just three months later, so at least I could say that I had been beaten by a world champion - although not from the same sport.

O'Sullivan famously used running as a means to relax and help him cope with the mental demands of competitive snooker. Injuries have since taken their toll on him, but I note that he ran a swift parkrun (20:11) only last year, at the Roding Valley event.

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Despite the steep inclines, the mudbath and the defeat to O'Sullivan, I actually secretly enjoyed that first visit to Hampstead Heath, in 2008, with its panoramic views of the City of London.

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I had always vowed to return one day and, seeing as though I am no longer in shape to do justice to the South of England Cross Country Championships, I nipped along to this corner of north-west London last Saturday morning, to take part in the Hampstead Heath parkrun instead.

The run-down

Hampstead Heath, spanning 790 acres, boasts one of the highest points in London, a grassy haven with ancient woodlands, ponds (at least 25), a lido, playgrounds and a running track.

The classic view from Parliament Hill, looking out over the London skyline with Canary Wharf and St Pauls in the distance, is actually protected by law, and you get a sneak preview as you make your way around the two-lap course of the parkrun.

The run starts on Lime Avenue, opposite Well Walk, and begins with a fast downhill section, before turning right towards Parliament Hill viewpoint and then dipping back into the woods.

Lap two ends with a sting in the tail, a short but steep rise to the finish.

Last Saturday's results

There was a fine run from Rebecca Bunting, who was first lady and sixth overall out of a big field of 467 in 18mins 42secs. The London Heathside runner has a PB of 18:29 for this 5K course.

Records

The record field of 542 was established only the previous weekend, at Event No. 424. The first event, held in May, 2011, had just 50 finishers.

Hannah Viner (Highgate Harriers) holds the female course best of 17:23 from December, 2017. Richard Goodman (Shaftsbury Barnet) clocked the quickest men's time of 15:23 last September.

Carl's experience

I had half-expected Ronnie O'Sullivan to turn up last weekend, out of spite.

But this time Ronnie was a no-show.

There was no mud, no cold wind, no O'Sullivan - but there were still plenty of climbs, albeit on concrete paths and firm woodland trails rather than through boggy terrain.

I didn't run that well, but was happy to be just over 21 minutes on a tough course. Hampstead Heath remains undiminished in my eyes, one of the best places to go for a run in England.

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