Last Saturday I went to watch people run 25 laps around a track, three times. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it might not be the most entertaining way to spend a Saturday evening. I'm a running fan and even I wasn't sure if it would actually be interesting. I was very excited to find out though. There's plenty of write-ups (see below) around telling you what happened but let me tell you what it was like..
It was a warm evening and at just after 7pm we walked from the edge of Hampstead Heath towards the track. A couple of joggers came the other way but as we got closer we realised that we were now in the area being used for warm up by those running. These runners looked normal though and surprisingly relaxed - none of that nervous jiggling or super co-ordinated kit you see on the starting line at the Olympics but rather some strides and jogging and yes, some short shorts.
As we entered past the kids playground and into the Highgate Harrier's home turf the sound of the samba band and the chatter of people got louder. I knew this event had grown since it started in 2013 but the crowds up the bank by the start line, waiting for fresh pizza in front of the first bend and in the run-through bar buying drinks and Like The Wind Magazine on the straight were still something of a surprise. I was trying to work out if all these people are runners. I've got nothing to base it on but at a rough estimate I'd say maybe 30% were those there for the event rather than because of a geeky love of running.
We took our £1 programme and joined some friends who had been picking out runners in each race and cheering them on. The test starting gun went. Looking down at the lineup and matching the names to the numbers we tried to cheer on the gents in the final B race. I had one runner to look out for but it wasn't necessary to have a hook-in to keep me interested. Watching the different running styles, the emotion on their faces and the to-ing and fro-ing as they battled it out was enough. The race felt like it was over in a flash, now for the Olympic Qualifiers.
The carnival band took a break, ready to be rejoined by their Rio style dancers in the next races. I'm told there was a faux Michael Jackson around too.
The men lined up. 28 minutes and top two would be enough to qualify to represent GB in rio. Andy Vernon had the time and only needed the place but the rest of the pack needed both. Now we were stood right next to the starting line and with a jump-inducing bang they were off. Perhaps because this is not my race and these were not my running heroes I didn't feel like there was that much tension as the race began. Fairly early on it became clear that the 28 minute requirement was unlikely to be hit but still the runners held on and seemed to be giving it everything. There was plenty of uncertainty about who would finish in the lead and in the end the end Ross Millington's 28:28 was an impressive time and one that I wasn't expecting from the early stages. If I've worked it out correctly that's 4'34/mi. I've never even run 5'34 for one mile let alone a minute off that for 10,000m.
The women's race was the big draw for me and there certainly seemed to be a spark in the air at the start. Jo Pavey, who has done so much for bringing women's running to the masses in the UK, was clearly hot favourite in people's hearts and minds. Having not raced competitively in 2016 though and, as I later found out, suffering from a chest infection she was always going to find it tough. My Marathon-running friend and I spent a good while trying to work out who the pacer was (a woman - hurrah!) and later realised that we thought we'd just seen middle distance runner Helen Clitheroe set a blistering start. I'm not sure if it was weird or ok, but I shouted as loud as I could every time Jenny Nesbitt , who I follow on instagram and has now been picked to represent team GB in the European cup. The sheer range of experience, age, running type and training background made for a great race. I'm sure I wasn't the only person though who didn't realise until the last lap that it was not Linet Masai, the Kenyan speedster who was leading the race but Jessica Andrews who took over 1 minute off her PB to finish first and automatically qualify for Rio in 31:58. The race was like a TV show - the exciting start, moments of panic and worry for those struggling and then a surge to a happy ending by an unexpected "underdog" (though some would say form pointed to this performance).
Mr B put it well when he said that the evening was a bit like watching greyhound racing. He wasn't making comment on the physical attributes of the runners but rather the immediate nature of the viewing experience and the way that you could feel the crowd had a real investment in the result. I've got tickets for the World Champs in 2017 but after this Im not sure I'm ready to go back to remote, stadium style events.
Do we really have to wait until next year for something like this?
Meter Magazine have done a fantastic write up with a video, interviews and pictures that really capture what the evening was like. You should definitely check it out, even if you only look at their beautiful photos. You can also read the Guardian's thoughts and hear Marathon Talk's coverage of it. There's more of Jessica Sumerling's great photos on her Instagram too.