Serpentine Running Club bounced back from near extinction in the 1990s to become the largest athletics club in the country, says Ruth Jones
Serpentine Running Club was established after an appeal in the ‘Fun Runner’ column of Running magazine (now Runner’s World) following the inaugural London Marathon in 1981, calling for volunteers to form a team to run the second London Marathon. About 50 runners responded and arranged to meet by the bridge over the Serpentine on May 30, 1981 at 9.45am.
The group was diverse, with some beginners and some seasoned marathoners turning up, but all inspired to run the race the following May. The group came together each Saturday morning in the park to train, thus Serpentine Running Club was formed. The club was based initially at Hyde Park’s Alexandra Lodge, until it moved to its current base at the Seymour Centre in Marylebone in 1997.
In the early days, the club’s focus was very much on increasing the health and wellbeing of its members through road running. For many years the ambition of the club was to have both the fastest team and the slowest in any race and that philosophy largely remains.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing – the club nearly folded in the 1990s. However, the internet and subsequent creation of an extensive club website, combined with a revival in interest in running, helped Serpentine’s membership shoot up from 300 at the start of the millennium, to more than 2500, which has subsequently settled at 2000. In the mid-2000s, Serpentine developed a competitive triathlon section and launched its own youth division in 2013.
Where they train
Paddington Recreation Ground’s track is used on a Monday and Tuesday for the main sessions of the week, Battersea Park’s track is used on Thursdays, while Parliament Hill’s track facility is a base on Tuesday for the sub-37-minute 10km performance group.
Saturdays see athletes heading to Parliament Hill and Greenwich Park for hill training or to the Seymour Centre for Hyde Park social club runs, while the juniors train at Paddington on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. In addition, there are men’s and women’s training groups meeting throughout the week for threshold training and long runs, and technical skills-based track and field training accessed via Serpentine’s involvement in the West London Athletics Network.
Dave Chalfen is the club’s level 4 endurance coach for athletes running 10km up to the marathon, and holds his performance track sessions at Parliament Hill, while fellow endurance expert Karen Hancock also specialises in Children in Athletics schemes.
The club also has numerous level 2 endurance coaches, including Andrew Reeves and Andrew Robbins at the Paddington track sessions, Nicola Barberis Negra and Beate Vogt take the Battersea track groups, while Laura Fountain and Matthew Thomas are both based at Paddington in the week.
Serpentine compete in the Southern Athletics League, the Southern Counties Vets track and field league, the Metropolitan cross country league, the Southern and National road relays, southern fell racing championships, and the southern and national cross country championships.
The club’s “Serpies” travel en masse for the out of town events, with in excess of 50 runners turning up for cross country championships, and multiple teams participating in the road relays – and form a large and competitive presence at the Welsh Castles and Green Belt Relays.
Nick Torry is arguably Serpentine’s leading runner, representing England in the 2014 Commonwealth Games and having been the UK’s fastest marathoner in 2013.
Other standout performers include Andy Greenleaf, who has represented England on the country, New Zealand’s Glenn Hughes, who ran for his country at the IAAF World Mountain Running championships, and Richard Phillips, the current Welsh marathon champion. On the track, U15 athlete Awa Ndiaye is ranked joint first in her age group in the UK for 60m indoors, and Graeme Harrison won silver in the V40 category for 400m at the World Masters.
Serpentine dominated the SEAA Southern Fell Running Championships last September, with Glenn Hughes first male, Helen Palmer first female, and the club winning both men’s and women’s team competitions. The club’s marathon squad is so strong that Richard Phillips’ Welsh title earned in London with a 2:24.31 clocking failed to make the three strong silver medal winning scoring team last year. In the same race, Serpentine fielded 15 men under 2:40, 23 under 2:45, plus five women under three hours out of a total of 138 competitors, male and female, which was the largest single club contingent.
Serpentine organise the New Year’s Day 10km – attracting more than 600 entries each year – the Jekyll and Hyde Park Duathlon in October, and the Last Friday of the Month 5km – run continuously since 1992, inheriting the London Road Runners’ original 5km handicap format, and converted into the popular open race it is today.
Spreading the word
The club’s youth section has flourished since its inception in 2013, with the help of Westminster Council. Training sessions are held in term time throughout the year at Paddington recreation ground on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with junior triathlon training at the Seymour Centre on Monday evenings.
Serpentine is now working to take this further, developing satellite clubs with local schools in conjunction with England Athletics, to provide coached athletics for juniors in the community.
Need to know
Serpentine is already an established triathlon club, competing in the London Triathlon League. Chrissie Wellington and Rachel Joyce are both former members, who have famously gone on to world success as professional triathletes.
Several hundred members compete solely in multi-sport, and the club has been awarded the British Triathlon Star Mark by the BTF in recognition of the club’s management, coaching and competition achievements.
“It’s very exciting to have such a squad, willing to put so much effort and time into their running,” said coach Dave Chalfen.
Number of members: Approximately 2000
Fees: Seniors – £30 plus £30 joining fee plus EA fee; juniors – £10 plus £15 joining fee & EA fee. The joining fee covers the cost of the club vest.
Main base: Various all over London, see club website for details.
Club colours: Red vest with two horizontal gold hoops.
Facebook: Serpentine Running Club