"If you see anything you don't want to pick up, just leave it. Tell me — and I'll decide if I want to pick it up!" says Joel, who's leading our expedition to clear plastic and other rubbish out of the canal at Little Venice. Ten of us are armed with buckets and some long grab claws, the sort you might see in amusement arcades reaching in vain for cuddly toys. I hope I'll have better luck using them to collect beer cans, old newspapers, plastic bags and whatever else is lurking in the algae in this west London canal.
But despite the messy nature of our mission, we're not wearing overalls. Instead, we're all in gym kit and trainers because we've just run three miles to get here — and we'll be running back again afterwards. This is because our plog (apparently the term for picking litter out of waterways) is organised by GoodGym which describes itself as, "a community of runners that combines getting fit with doing good."
GoodGym sandwiches good deeds between runs all over London, with group events like this taking place weekly across Camden, Southwark, Ealing, Croydon, and Greenwich. It's free to join in (and you get a t-shirt after your first run) although members can pay an optional £9.95 a month.
The swarms of shoppers seem to evaporate
I'm tagging along with (aka holding back) the Westminster group, whose run takes place every Wednesday. Meeting after work at the New Balance shop on Oxford Street, runners can get changed and leave their things, before trainer Joel leads the group in the right direction.
Having squeezed my way through the throng on Oxford Street to get here, I'm sceptical about our run actually starting outside the shop. Carla, who's also doing this for the first time, tells me she's not looking forward to running through the crowds — but somehow, when we step outside, the swarm of shoppers seems to evaporate.
Crossing by John Lewis, we make our way up Harley Street, towards Marylebone Road, then head west. So far, the run has afforded me the opportunity to feel smug. My inner voice is like, "Am I even doing anything? I must be like, an athlete, to just randomly go on a run and find it this easy. It's surprising how fit you can get from just doing yoga!"
However it's probably around this point that I start to find it deeply unpleasant, physically, as it seems my lungs are about to give out on me. Sheer force of will to save face keeps me moving, but I genuinely doubt I'll make it to the canal. This run has become the hill I'll die on. Literally. Because I'm not stopping unless I die — unless it is a traffic light, which is a legitimate reason to take a rest.
"At Easter, we handed out hot cross buns to the homeless"
I have already shaken off Emily, who seemed to be harbouring the illusion that I could hold a conversation while running. She's been a GoodGym member for a couple of years and tells me she does these runs once a fortnight, inspiring her to sign up for a 10K. Her favourite runs are when they hand out food to the homeless, "like at Easter — we handed out hot cross buns." Emily asks me if I run much. I think it is quite clear I don't. “I mIGht jUsT StRUgGlE tO aNSwEr yOu EmILy” I tell her, with what might have easily been my last breath, before I fall back to run with Kate and Sylwia, who are making their GoodGym debut tonight.
Kate is a nanny from Australia who's previously used Meetup to find people to run with, while Sylwia, a scientist from Poland, came across GoodGym when she was looking for active ways to volunteer. "The main thing for me was doing charity work," says Sylwia, adding, "with GoodGym, I like the variety of what you can do, and you can start straight away. I also needed to get back into running!"
The three of us are straggling — and this is even before we strategically time it to get stuck at two sets of traffic lights. "No, it’s dangerous," I say to Sylwia who's looking at me as if maybe we should go for it, what with there still being time to cross.
Once we've had a breather, we head towards the rest of the group who — quite some distance away — have had to stop and wait for us. "What happened?" says Joel, who seems genuinely puzzled. "Did you get stuck at the traffic lights?" he asks, really trying to understand how it's taken us this long to reach them. The rest of the group have probably done 200 burpees and whipped up a gourmet banquet for refugees in this time.
Bin juice runs over the handle of my bucket when I empty it
Back in the fold, there's nothing for it now but to soldier on until we reach the water, by which time I can't wait to pick up plastic. At this point, if I can stand still while I'm doing it, I'll pick up any thing. You show me skagheads' crusty old needles, soiled pants, or human remains that rats have been breeding in — I will pick it all up with my teeth and say THANK YOU.
We break off into pairs, and I make my way along the canal with Carla, a vet from Australia who’s here for the social aspect. "I'm into running anyway, and doing good is a bonus!" she says. We are armed with the buckets and grabby sticks that Joel handed us from the supply at the Canal & River Trust. There's hand sanitiser for later, and there's also a stash of gloves, but Joel advises against wearing them, explaining: "If you wear the gloves, you might be tempted to pick things up with your hands, and you don't know what you might be touching— if you don't wear the gloves, you won't be tempted to use your hands!"
This plog isn't a one off. Joel brings runners to the waterway about once every three weeks, so I trust that he's speaking from experience and take his advice. I regret this the first time I empty my bucket, when bin juice runs over the handle. Stale beer, algae aperitivo and probably piss, are just a few of the ingredients I now have to touch with my bare hands. But hey ho — the stickiness gives me a better grip and right now I'm just glad I'm not running.
The plogging itself is fine. I've never been to Little Venice before, so I'm enjoying my stroll along the canal and I'm happy to pick up litter while I'm doing it. I'm not sure how I'd feel about this in winter, but tonight, in the sunshine, the place is absurdly pretty, and there's a lovely pub that I've clocked for another occasion.
"My first good deed was taking down decorations at an old people's home."
Goodgym packs all its group runs into 90 minutes, which includes the good deed, so it's soon time to put our away our buckets. "Do you want to run back?" asks Sylwia. "Um, I don’t think it's optional," I say, feeling sad for both of us. She sets off with Kate, and Ellie, who joined GoodGym a couple of months ago to lose weight for her sister's wedding.
"Keen," I think, as I watch them depart. Then I stand about, waiting for the inevitable. "You didn't want to join them?" asks Joel. I ask him what he means because, aren't we all running back anyway? "Yes, but they went ahead so they can run at a slower pace." FUUUUUUUCK!!! My entire being fills with a remorse that only a time machine can cure.
And so I find myself in the fast set, and I do not mean this in the F. Scott Fitzgerald sense. Suzanne, who's here with David, kindly hangs back to babysit me. She tells me she's done these runs five or six times before, and she enjoys the social aspect, as well as having someone to motivate her. "I'm not a self-starter when it comes to running," explains Suzanne, whose first good deed was taking down Christmas decorations at an old people's home, while her favourite was decluttering a garage at a youth centre.
David and Suzanne veer off at some point to head home, and somehow it is now just me and Joel en route back to New Balance. Despite my sweat soaked face and demeanour of desperation, Joel seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that I'm capable of having a chat, and so he asks me questions like, "what did you think of the volume tonight?" I do not even understand what this means and I think I might cry.
It feels like my lungs are about to give out on me...
Joel, a running coach by day, is one of GoodGym's longest serving trainers. He says it's really grown in the four years he's been doing it, from about 12 groups when he started, to the 52 groups currently doing good deeds all over the UK. "When I started, we went at a faster pace, but it's more relaxed now, so more people can get involved," says Joel, adding that for some activities, people can walk there if they want to, which means they can help out even if they don't want to run.
GoodGym recommends that anyone who signs up for a group run is able to run for 15 minutes without stopping. However, it offers to support people in progressing to this point, and holds starter sessions for anyone who's new to running.
For those who prefer to run solo, GoodGym also organises Mission Runs which involve running to an older person's house to do anything from changing a lightbulb to moving furniture, while a Coach Run involves a weekly run to visit an older person, to have a chat.
Back at New Balance, Kate, Carla and Sylwia are on their way out when I arrive. I think Sylwia has actually had a shower in the time it has taken me to get here. Would they do it again? All three give me an emphatic thumbs up, and ask me if I would. I mumble something about my hip, but the truth is, I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself, and I might just sign up again.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.