Run to the Source – Q&A with Trail Runner Martin Johnson
Written By: SportsShoes
In May 2021, trail runner Martin ‘MJ’ Johnson took on his biggest challenge to date, running the entire length of the river Thames, from Woolwich in London to its source in Kemble, Gloucestershire. Supported by Patagonia and Centurion Running, he set a new FKT (Fastest Known Time) for the 184-Mile London Thames Path, finishing in a time of 38:35:46 and breaking the existing record by over 2 hours.
As an original member of Black Trail Runners (BTR), MJ ran the trail to provide inspiration for Black and Brown people in the UK who often feel excluded from rural spaces.
Our Sportsshoes Trail Ambassador Ben Mounsey caught up with him to chat about this incredible achievement.
Hi MJ, thanks for taking the time for this interview and huge congratulations on your outstanding achievement. Please can you start by telling us a bit more about yourself?
I’m a father of two from South East London, where I was born and raised. I’m mixed raced with a White British mother and Black Jamaican father who arrived in the UK as a 16 y/o boy in 1969.
Having been an occasional runner in my youth, I began run commuting in my thirties from my home in South East London to the various offices in and around the city which my job in Social Housing took me. This was initially a practical means for me as a new father to regain some fitness, whilst avoiding an expensive and often unpleasant commute on trains and tubes, but this routine and the mental and physical benefit it yielded helped ignite a newfound passion for running.
Through newly formed friendships I was introduced to the world of trail and ultra-running and in 2018 I ran my first ultra-marathon, a 50 miler along the Thames Path from Oxford to Reading. I’ve since gone on to run numerous ultra-distance races, with the 100-mile distance being my favourite and I joined the Centurion Running Ultra team in 2020.
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 and it was in conversation with BTR co-founder Phil Young that the idea of attempting to run the 184-mile Thames Path National Trail and of using the river to explore both the past and what it means to be Black British came about. I became a Patagonia Europe ambassador in 2021.
Credit: Matt Kay
Let’s talk more about your FKT on the London Thames Path. Can you please tell us a bit more about the route and how you found the challenge?
The Thames Path National Trail is a 184-mile trail which runs from the Thames Barrier in Woolwich SE London (a short walk from my home) to the source of the Thames at Thames Head in the Cotswolds Hills. It runs through several rural counties, through beautiful water meadows full of wildlife, passes lots of historic towns and cities and many quaint villages but perhaps most uniquely runs through the heart of London.
I still really don’t view the effort as a particularly outstanding achievement, after all the time is unspectacular and the feat of running these types of distances (and much further) is becoming increasingly more common. I do however take pride in the fact I finished the journey given the challenges I faced over the two days and in that we’ve hopefully inspired others to take on a challenge of their own whilst shining a light on what I believe to be the very important topic of diversity and inclusion in the outdoors.
In terms of the lows, the physical challenge proved much harder than I anticipated. Beyond the sheer fact it’s a 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 both physically and mentally. These two factors 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 leaving me unable to buy everyone a drink! That said, 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 & 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.
Credit: Holly-Marie Cato
You described it as a Journey of Discovery. What did you learn about yourself and the route?
Growing up in London I thought I knew the Thames and its path so well. I’ve worked in many locations along the path and used it for my daily run commutes, I've raced along various stretches and spent huge amounts of recreational time on and along the river both in my childhood and now as a parent with my own children. When we initially started talking about documenting the journey, we were focused on how the Thames Paths route from the inner city to the outdoors symbolised the journey we were hoping to encourage others to take, but as we brought Matt Kay on board to direct and we started to look more closely at the rivers past and specifically the Black history, it quickly became apparent to me that I only really knew the spoon-fed history, the postcard image of the Thames and that there was so much more significance to the journey and the history than simply the geographical element. I gained a deeper knowledge and understanding of the role the river played in the slave trade, more on the arrival of the Windrush Generation, invited from across the British empire to fill post-war labour shortages (particularly in the newly formed NHS), and more recently the weaponisation of race in politics during the 1980s, this helped to contextualise the experience of being Black in Britain over the past century and started to provide me with possible answers to some of the questions I found myself asking around why so few Black and Brown people in the UK felt a connection to and comfortable in the outdoors and greater clues to why participation in trail running and other outdoor sports is so low. Buildings and monuments that I’d past hundreds of times, unaware of their significance to Black history in Britain, such as Ivory House in St Katherines Dock, the Obelisk at the Naval college in Greenwich, The Tate, the Tower of London and County Hall now stand out to me and have altered the way I view and experience the Thames.
Credit: Matt Kay
You’re an active member of the Black Trail Runners Community. Could you please tell us about the mission and aims of the group?
Black Trail Runners (BTR) is a community and campaigning group and now a registered charity, seeking to increase the inclusion, participation and representation of Black people in trail running. The community provides a safe space for people of colour, who have perhaps previously felt that they don’t belong on the trails, to experience trail running and for existing trail runners to share the trails with people who look like them. Access, representation and skills being at the core of what BTR does. Examples of how BTR have set about achieving these aims are through trail taster days set up in collaboration with existing organisers and communities such as Centurion Running, Camino Ultra and Ultra X who run workshops to share skills and knowledge around things such as training plans, nutrition, gear and navigation and include group runs. Working with brands, event organisers and the outdoors industry to ensure people of colour are better represented in the formation of events, within organisations, across media platforms and within marketing of the outdoors or BTR’s first campaign an open letter to race directors to begin recording and reporting on participant ethnicity data in order that we can better measure the extent of the issues around participation and track progress against this.
Have you ever experienced issues with prejudice in Trail Running?
I’ve never experienced any direct prejudice in Trail Running myself, but I always caution against that being any sort of measure of prejudice existing. I know lots of Black or Brown runners who have experienced direct prejudice whilst trail running and my experience as a mixed race, male runner with a closer proximity to Whiteness, on account of being raised by my White mother in a predominantly White area would be very different to that of a female runner with darker skin for example. What I have experienced time and again is toeing the line as the only Black or Brown runner at events or races, or scrolling through an event website to be greeted with an endless stream of images of white runners, I’ve seen running forums full of comments dismissing the idea that barriers to trail running and the outdoors in general exist for people of colour and other marginalised groups. I’ve received direct comments such as ‘just go and run’ and have spoken at length with White friends and allies who have witnessed first-hand conversations between runners and even event organisers dismissing the idea that barriers to the outdoors exist.
Credit: Phil Young
Trail Running and other outdoor sports need to become more inclusive and accessible for all. Do you think this is now beginning to happen?
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 a 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. I feel that whilst there is perhaps more awareness and conversations around and on the subject, more needs to be done in terms of action and it’s true that these problems exist across other outdoor sports not just trail running ‘The Outsiders Project’ an independent platform for promoting inclusion and diversity within the culture and community of the Outdoors have provided great insight into the barriers which remain and explore ways in which brands and the outdoors community can contributing to further breaking these down. I’d highly recommend reading their report ‘Beyond Representation: The Future of Diversity and Inclusion in the Outdoors’, for those wanting to know more.
How do you think we can encourage and create more inclusion within the sport?
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, for me this involves a lot of listening to the experiences and views of marginalised and underrepresented communities and for those experiences and views to be amplified. We can set about the addressing the imbalance in representation of these groups throughout the outdoors industry, not just at participant level but at organisation level too, you’ll hear groups such as BTR saying “you can’t be what you can’t see” quite a lot and that’s because insufficient numbers of visible role models are a huge barrier to participation. Amongst many other things, existing brands and organisers should provide space and time for new communities wishing to access the outdoors and encourage and support them to acquire the skills and knowledge required to make their experiences as safe and as enjoyable as possible, which is key to retention and prolonged engagement.
Credit: Holly-Marie Cato
Aside from the lack of diversity in Trail Running, there are other issues that need to be addressed like sustainability and environmental concerns. As a Patagonia Ambassador, are you driven to become more environmentally engaged?
Absolutely, the realities of the climate crisis have never been clearer to me. Right here in Europe, on our doorsteps, we’re seeing and feeling the shocking effects of Human-induced climate change, major flooding, wildfires, extreme weather and changes to the mountain environments and other spaces we as trail runners and outdoor enthusiasts in general occupy have been increasing in recent years. This is causing damaging and extensive disruption in nature and is affecting the lives of many around the globe. The latest IPCC reports spell out in no uncertain terms that the consequences of failing to address these issues will be devastating and that the need for immediate action has never been more urgent. Armed with this information it becomes impossible not to become more environmentally engaged. I should add, I believe increasing diversity in the outdoors and encouraging new communities into these spaces has an important role to play in addressing these concerns too, for the more people, the greater number of communities we get engaging with, connecting to and invested in the outdoors, the easier it becomes to increase awareness and get new communities to care.
Sustainability and the preservation and restoration of the natural environment is at the centre of what Patagonia does and my understanding of these issues and most importantly what action we as individuals, as communities, as businesses can take to address them has increased dramatically since becoming an ambassador. It can be daunting and overwhelming, and even hard knowing where to start, I often signpost people to Patagonia Action Works as a great way to get involved with issues they care about and connect with grassroots groups working in local communities.
Credit: Phil Young
What challenges/races do you have planned for the future?
Like so many runners I’m excited by the full return of racing following the past couple of years and I have a few races and adventures lined-up. I’ll be racing in the Highlands, The Black Mountains and on the South Downs way over the next few months and I also hope to be on the Spartathlon start line in September, but I'm particularly looking forward to the Running Up for Air (RUFA) at the end of June, which 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. This is an issue close to my heart being a father and living in London where we have some of the most toxic air in Europe.
And finally, what tips/advice would you give to people who are thinking of taking up trail running?
Start local and small. I think sometimes we as a trail running community are guilty of creating the impression that if you’re not running 100’s of miles, gaining 1000’s of feet in vert, through the Grand Canyon, around Mont Blanc or similar then you’re not trail running. Seek out your local woodlands, or trails, leave the watch at home and go and soak up the natural environment. If you’re more of a social runner there are lots of trail specific running groups around like BTR, who arrange social group runs and offer advice on great places to run, on logistics, on kit and everything else needed to get going on the trails so it’s always worth searching for local groups.
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