When Martin Johnson first started running alongside London’s iconic River Thames, it was his commute to work.
“You soon start building up that endurance,” Johnson, 38, says modestly – recalling how swapping trains for running shoes had seemed a great way to weave exercise into his life, after becoming a dad and inching further into his 30s had seen his fitness drop.
Just a year later in 2018, Johnson ran his first ultra, the Thames Trot, and last summer he became the fastest person ever to run the entire 184-mile Thames Path National Trail – from Woolwich in south-east London out to the river’s source, the Thames Head in Gloucestershire – beating the previous FKT (fastest known time) of 40 hours and 47 minutes to complete it in 38 hours 35.
Now, the story’s been turned into a film by Patagonia called Run To The Source, directed by black British documentary filmmaker Matthew Kay (available on Patagonia’s YouTube channel).
It’s a beautiful look at how one runner’s challenge and a far bigger picture can overlap – giving viewers a glimpse into the sometimes “brutal” realities of taking on an ultra, tender moments of support, pride and sacrifice between Johnson, his family and everyone involved in getting to the finish line, and the sheer power of representation.
As Johnson says, “We were wanting to tell a story and inspire our community” – a story that spans the black British history that runs deep through the river, to the current day challenges of representation and inclusivity in sports like trail running, and the outdoors in general.
A sense of belonging
During his early days of trail running and ultras, Johnson recalls how he’d often be the only black runner on the start line – something he admits was “uncomfortable”.
He got involved with Black Trail Runners (BTR), a community and campaigning group that ‘seeks to increase the inclusion, participation and representation of black people in trail running’.
“Beyond the sheer impact that seeing other people who look like you perform a particular activity has on motivation, many rural spaces are seen and presented as white, middle-class spaces, which can impact on the ability of people from non-white backgrounds to feel safe in these spaces, and reduces their sense of belonging in them,” says Johnson, explaining why groups like this are so important. “In fact, this is often cited as the main reason people from these groups fail to engage with the outdoors.
“Groups like Black Trail Runners create safe spaces for new communities to enter the outdoors or engage with new activities, and crucially learn the skills required. Equipping new groups with skills not only enhances their enjoyment, but helps [people] to build confidence and ‘hold their own’, contributing to a deeper sense of belonging.”
This sense of belonging is a crucial part of what it means to ‘feel safe’ in certain spaces – it’s not just about the risk of overt physical harm. Although there have tragically been plenty of examples over recent years that this remains a big issue too – Johnson’s challenge poignantly took place on the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd in the US.
It’s also about “amplifying stories”, Johnson adds, “ensuring their communities are seen and heard”, and campaigning “to affect policy and system change in the organisations which govern outdoor activities”.
A deeper meaning
In the film, he talks about opting to start in London and run out to the source, rather than doing it the other way around – which would have meant finishing nearer his bed!
But there was a deeper symbolic meaning in choosing to run ‘into’ the countryside – something he held close when things got tough towards the later stages of the challenge.
Water-logged meadows meant Johnson faced the trickiest conditions at a point when his feet and legs were already battered; it impacted his pace and there were moments when completing in record time seemed uncertain (although he did eventually set a new FKT, Johnson didn’t hit his own original target).
“The physical challenge proved much tougher than I’d anticipated. For the first time since beginning to run ultra-distances, I was faced with my body beginning to fail, knee and calf issues from the 130-mile mark, combined with unfavourable conditions underfoot brought by some unseasonal flooding. I had to accept that my target time was not going to be achieved.
“As disappointed as I was seeing the time slip away, this was always about far more than time and the FKT,” Johnson adds. “I was clear in my mind from very early on that I would finish the journey, regardless of how long it took or how hard it became. I definitely thought about the community a lot during the difficult periods.”
He’s honest about the “emotional comedown” though. Because he didn’t hit his target, Johnson “didn’t feel worthy of the FKT label” and worried he’d “let the community down” at first.
“Over time, seeing the impact the run and my story was having within the BTR community and beyond, allowed me to accept and own the outcome, and appreciate what I’d experienced and achieved,” he says.
“I had individuals thanking me or letting me know how it had inspired them to sign-up to a race, go for a run, or join BTR. It reminded me what this was all about in the first place.”