Spikes16 Nov 2015

All the World's a Race


Race The Brownlees

What challenge do you take on after you've raced and beaten London's Tube and New York subway? We speak to James Heptonstall, the long jumper who now makes viral videos and races Olympic champions in his spare time.

Some London commuters spend their whole working lives fighting the Tube and never come out on top. But last year two canny Brits calling themselves Epic Challenges proved that man can beat the daily grind, racing the London underground on foot and winning in two rounds.

A raft of challenges have followed, and for their latest, James Heptonstall and Noel Carrol, wound up racing real life Olympians Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, triathlon gold and bronze winners respectively at London 2012. Olympians they are not, but the Epic guys are no slouches: Carrol works as a strength and conditioning coach for Arsenal FC. Heptonstall, a development consultant by day, competed in the long jump until a few years ago.

That athletics background proved handy when the pair made their most well-watched vid. Their race against London's Tube was spawned following a conversation in the pub (the seat of so many great ideas), and it was only natural that Heptonstall should take on the sprint challenge.

“I used to do loads of training for the long jump,” Heptonstall, a former Kingston Athletics Club member tells SPIKES. “11.11 was my 100m PB, and 22.11 for 200m. And I used to do 4x100m and stuff like that as well.

“I trained almost every day for long jump at university. I was really focused on it, trying to see if I could break through.”

The big break through didn't come, his highest achievement was representing the south of England. Nonethless, his track and field past feeds directly into his extra-curricular activities these days.

“The race the Tube video was over one stop, just shy of 400m,” he says, forgetting to mention the two ticket barriers and 75 steps that also made up the course.“So for me that was pretty good. It was basically a sprint, although there was a bit of lactic.

“I sometimes got roped into 4x400m when I was doing athletics – it was never my favourite! It’s a tough event.” There's not a versatile sprinter who can't relate.

Epic Challenges

Smiles at the start line from (l-r) Jonathan Brownlee, Heptonstall, Carrol and Alistair Brownlee

That first video notched over 6.5m views, and the former captain of the University of Birmingham track team was the star (even getting spotted by a member of the public on the tube). His heroics led to the next challenge in New York, and again he came out on top. It was another demonstration that those core athletic skills were still in tact, even with his jumping days behind him.

Heptonstall's sand pit high point came when he competed against World, European, Commonwealth and Olympic champ Greg Rutherford – “a privilege” not dampened by the fact that Rutherford embarrassed the competition by going out to beyond 8 metres. These days he plays touch rugby for the England international side, and has appeared at world and European championships. The transition was aided by the physique he developed during his track days.

“Basically my speed and agility from plyometrics and the training that I’d done was very useful in the game,” he says.

“I never had the bulk for proper union or league. The touch rugby takes out the contact, which plays to my advantage really, because I can use my speed a bit more.”

Their challenge against the Brownlees took the form of an urban triathlon along the banks of the River Thames; the Epic team swimming 340m, cycling 8.6km and running 1.2km, while their rivals took the Emirates Air Line, the 108 bus and a rickshaw – “the more comfortable journey” as Jonathan puts it.

Not surprisingly for an athlete more used to land pursuits, the swim leg was the most troubling for Heptonstall.

“I used to do stuff in the pool coming back from injury when I was doing athletics,” he says, but never did anything competitively. And not against a pair of Olympians, either.

The outcome was close, with only “45-seconds” separating the winning and losing pair. Yet there was no bad blood, and the four all settled down to enjoy a nice cup of tea after they were done.

“They were definitely competitive. There was some good banter at the start – good lucks through gritted teeth type thing! Yeah they were really good at the end, we had a cup of tea and were chatting about our challenges, showing them a few that they hadn’t seen.”

Heptonstall won't reveal what he and Carrol (who is more of a middle distance man: 5km in 16:25, 10k in 33:47) have lined up for the future, though given his passion and background in athletics, something more closely related to his jumping past could be next. Watch this space.