Martin Johnson on running the Thames towpath

Martin Johnson

by Trail Running staff |

Patagonia ambassador Martin Johnson talks about his inspiration for his successful FKT along the Thames Path National Trail

Hey Martin, where are you currently and what are you up to?

Martin Johnson: I’m currently in Charlton, south east London, where I was born and raised and where I continue to live with my partner Anya and two sons Herbie (9) and Ned (4). At present, I’m attempting to juggle work tasks from my role as a technology programme manager within social housing, with making final preparations for the exciting launch of Run to the Source (see below for video) and figuring out logistics for a hastily arranged trip to Northern Ireland in few days' time where I’ll be taking part in a backyard ultra event, a form of race with no predetermined finish which requires competitors to run the same 4.167-mile loop in less than an hour, on the hour, every hour until only one remains. I’m obsessively flicking between weather sites in search of more favourable forecasts, as currently, an anticipated storm and high winds look set to make for an interesting weekend of running.

What gets you motivated to go out and run these days?

Martin Johnson: Right now I‘m finding motivation in my desire to regain fitness following a period of injury and to continue the journey running has taken me on in recent years, taken me to some wonderful outdoor spaces I’d otherwise never had reason to visit and helped me form many new, rich and hopefully lifelong friendships. More generally I’m motivated by the physical, emotional, and mental benefits I experience through running, benefits which I’ve felt stronger than ever as we’ve negotiated the uncertain path of recent times. Running has provided an escape, an outlet for me to release some of the stresses and anxieties, whilst also helping me maintain a sense of connectedness to the world and communities around me.

Let’s talk about Run to the Source**. How did that film come about?**

Martin Johnson: Growing up in London, the Thames has been an ever-present backdrop in my life. It went on to play a pivotal role in my discovery of trail and ultrarunning too. It was the Thames Path National Trail I would take in and out of central London on my run commutes which grew my love of running. The same Thames Path was the scene of my first ultra marathon, a 50-mile race from Oxford to Reading. As my physical capabilities grew, I felt that one day I’d like to attempt to travel the full length of this river which I thought I knew so well. Then in 2020, I became an original community member of the newly formed Black Trail Runners (BTR), a community and campaigning group seeking to increase the inclusion, participation, and representation of Black people in trail running. With the community being formed during the pandemic opportunities for organised, in-person events were limited and much of the community’s initial activity took place online. During a conversation with BTR co-founder Phil Young, where we were discussing ways of inspiring and engaging the community further within the restrictions, I mentioned my ambition to run the Thames Path National Trail and made the mistake of adding there was a current recognised Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the trail.  We were quickly agreed on how the river provided the perfect metaphor for much of what we were trying to achieve with BTR, here was a national trail which uniquely runs through the heart of a major city, its journey from the Thames Barrier in Woolwich South East London to the Cotswolds Hills in the British countryside symbolic of the journeys we were encouraging Black and Brown communities from London and other towns and cities to make in discovering and reclaiming outdoor spaces in the UK. The river itself carries so many dark secrets of history far from the cherry-picked version we’re taught and we felt we could use the physical challenge to help tell this story. With the support of Patagonia for whom I’d become an ambassador, we developed the initial idea further and the project became part of the Run To film series. We were keen to have the film shot and directed by a Black filmmaker from the UK who would have encountered first hand some of the challenges and issues explored in the film, that search led us to the supremely talented Matt Kay who then took that initial outline and expertly shaped and developed the narrative into the film we have today with a clever and powerful mix of archive footage and spoken word running alongside footage captured from the run itself.

You have spoken in the past about the need for inclusivity in the outdoors and the film focuses on this issue. Can you tell us more about what the situation is right now and the route we should take in order to become an inclusive and welcoming outdoor community?

Martin Johnson: Here in the UK many rural spaces are seen as White, middle-class spaces. The 2011 UK Census stated that over 97% of the Black, Asian, or minority ethnic community live in urban areas. History has created inequality and barriers which combine to prevent many people of colour from forming relationships with the outdoors or even discovering it at all. Many people of colour lack the sense that they belong in the outdoors. Although there is limited ethnicity data around trail events, my personal experience and that of many other Black or Brown trail runners, of being the only person of colour toeing the line at many of the events we attend support the largely acknowledged view that these inequalities and barriers exist. Work undertaken by TCO London through the Outsiders Project explores many of these issues and shows these are of course not exclusive to trail running but are evident across all outdoor pursuits.

I think in order to become an inclusive and welcoming outdoor community we must first acknowledge the issues in play, then set about unlearning the ‘rules’ that govern how the outdoors is portrayed and who can access it. This can begin with greater representation throughout the outdoors industry, not just at participant level but at organiser level too. Existing brands and organisers should support and provide space for new communities wishing to access the outdoors, to acquire the skills and knowledge required to increase the chances of enjoyable experiences and I’m a big advocate of encouraging and facilitating early access for young people of colour from inner cities.

You have lived - and run - near the Thames for many years. How has your relationship with the river changed since making this film?

Martin Johnson: I've become far more aware of the role the river has played in shaping the world around us. It's now impossible for me to run along the Thames path without being reminded of the issues and the history which the film helped me to explore, landmarks which I'd ignorantly jogged past hundreds of times now have meaning to me. So time spent on or along the river will forever be more reflective for me.

There is a really tough sports challenge at the heart of this film. What were the highs and lows of running the FKT?

Martin Johnson: The physical challenge proved much harder than I anticipated. Beyond the sheer fact, it’s a really long way, considerably further than I’d ever attempted to run in one effort before, it was the first time since beginning to run ultra distances that I’d had to contend with my body beginning to break down on me. Knee and calf issues coupled with some unseasonal flooding along the path between Oxford and Thames Head made the final 50 miles particularly uncomfortable. Ultimately combined to see my target time drift away which was the main low as I'd hoped to run a considerably faster time and this also meant we missed last orders at the pub so I was unable to buy everyone a drink! However, the highs far outnumbered the lows, the amount of support I received in the build-up and on the day from family, friends, BTR community members, and the wider ultra running community was incredible. Runners I'd never met before but who had heard I was making the attempt showed up along the way to offer support and or join me for stretches - I'll never forget that. Herbie, Ned and Anya popping up along the way and being there with me at the end was special and the number of messages I received following the attempt from people who shared how inspired they'd been are some of the many highs.

What would you like the viewer to take away from the film?

Martin Johnson: I hope the film might prompt viewers to seek out some of the lesser-known and shared histories of the lands around us, which have shaped our societies and the layers of privilege which exist within them. I also hope the film might inspire any viewers from marginalised groups who have perhaps previously felt unable to explore the outdoors or felt they don’t belong in rural spaces to seek them out, because they’re great and can provide so many enriching physical, emotional and social experiences.

What have you planned next? Do you already have any new projects in mind?

Martin Johnson: Running wise I have a few races and adventures lined up, and I'm particularly looking forward to the Running Up for Air (RUFA) later this year. Running Up For Air is an endurance challenge, involving running up and down a mountain or hill for 3, 6, 12, or 24 hours, all in order to raise awareness of air pollution, an issue close to my heart being a father and living in London where we have some of the most toxic air in Europe.

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