Interplanetary running – a 10k with a science spin

The minds of Nasa engineers and sci-fi writers have spent decades dreaming up ways of crossing the vastness of outer space: ion thrusters, warp drives, gravitational slingshots, the Infinite Improbability Drive and dozens more. The list is already so long that it seems unlikely humanity needs to add to it any time soon. But as of 2017, there’s a new kid on the block: running. And this new addition was launched with enthusiasm recently at the Olympic Park in London, when 600 of us crossed the start line of the Run the Solar System 10k race.

It’s a brilliantly simple idea. You start at the Sun, and the race takes you outwards through the solar system, passing the planets at appropriate distances as you go. The race ends at the planet Neptune, 2.7bn miles out (or 10km along the race course).

The reason I love this concept is that astronomical distances such as “2.7bn miles” get thrown around a lot, but unless you’re using them to calculate something, they all just boil down to “a long, long way”. This race lets you feel the distances, even if the feeling itself is how tired your legs are.

The vast empty reaches of space … so to speak. Photograph: Thomas Alexander Photography

The run also let me indulge in one of my favourite activities: stereotype-busting. There’s often a perception that if you like science, you’re probably not into sport, and vice versa. I don’t see why that should be true, and I’ve always done plenty of both. I remember my school teachers being surprised because I chose to do GCSE PE even though I was “academically minded”. But that GCSE taught me the basic anatomy and physiology that provided the foundation for a lifetime of sport. And aside from being sporty, I’ve spent a good few decades living in a human body and it turns out to be very useful to know how it works. Anyway, the race brought together a lovely mixture of people – the science enthusiasts, the runners and some who were a bit of both. And the bloke who turned up in a full body suit showing all the muscles of the body – like the posters you get in the offices of physiotherapists – deserves special credit for covering (or uncovering) the best of both worlds.

I have also never before done a race where running with earphones was specifically encouraged. But the physical race was partly a showcase for the Run the Solar System app, created for National Science and Engineering Week by the British Science Association and Six to Start (the team behind the game Zombies, Run!). This free app tracks your position using GPS, and as you reach the position of each planet, you’re rewarded with a bit of commentary and some original recordings from planetary missions. The inner planets are really close to the Sun, so within the first half kilometre I had whooshed past Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars and was well on on the way to the asteroid belt.

I hadn’t paid enough attention to the app beforehand, so I hadn’t realised that I was meant to give it access to my normal running music to play in between the planets. But somewhere just after Mars, I decided that I preferred it that way. When you have earphones in but no sound playing through them, you can only really hear your own breathing. And it sounded familiar – because that’s what you hear in sci-fi movies when an astronaut is inside a spacesuit in the emptiness of space. It’s a lonely sound, and it felt appropriate. This is what true space travel is all about: existing with yourself as you journey outwards for a very, very long time. It’s an idea that ultra-marathon runners will be very familiar with. In my case, I only had to run another kilometre to get to Jupiter, while surrounded by people in the middle of London. I wouldn’t normally bat an eyelid about running that distance. But the race had barely begun and my perspective on the distance to the outer planets had already changed. I worked out afterwards that my equivalent race pace was a little more than six times the speed of light, on the scale of the race solar system (go me!). Even so, the distance between Saturn and Uranus was a full third of the course. I had never really appreciated just how much further away the outer planets really are.

Putting those muscles to good work.

Putting those muscles to good work. Photograph: Thomas Alexander/Thomas Alexander Photography

It sounds trite, but it really did make me think about the patience needed for interplanetary travel. Both science fiction and science fact concentrate on arrivals and departures. When the recent New Horizons mission reached Pluto, there was huge excitement about the few days it spent close to everyone’s favourite ex-planet. But no one mentioned the 10 years it had spent doing not a lot on its way there. Listening to the sound of my own breathing, I was much more aware of the distance I was covering than normal. Space travel is a game of patience, and I’m too impatient a runner to even have attempted a full marathon. 10km got me to Neptune. To run to the nearest star outside our own solar system would have been the equivalent of 2,190 marathons. So, I’m not going to Alpha Centuri any time soon, either in the app or in reality. And, as someone on Twitter pointed out, none of this includes a return journey.

Crossing the finish line was weirdly satisfying. It did actually feel as though I had ticked off the stages of a long trip. Even if you never think about planets or science or whether we’re alone in the universe, I highly recommend giving the app a try. If nothing else, it will give you a bit of context next time a robot parachutes down on to the surface of another planet. And I really hope that this sort of thing becomes more common in the running world. The freedom and the fun of running are awesome already, but using our legs to take us on adventures of the mind as well as the body might just be my new favourite thing.