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This Event Has Made Track and Field Cool
Why Night of the 10,000m PB’s is the remedy British club running has been looking for.
A few passers by peered curiously over the railing at the slowly emerging collection of tents, scaffolding and giant screens being assembled on Parliament Hill Athletics Track. It was 9 am on an almost oppressively hot morning on London’s Hampstead Heath, the city skyline glittering in the sunshine. In just a few hours this place would come alive, a bubbling cauldron of music, beer and laughter lit up by the occasional burst of fire. You’d think it was a music concert but no, it was an athletics race. To be more specific, an event solely dedicated to 10,000 meter running which traditionally has been the ugly duckling of track and field.
The Night of the 10,000m PB’s - shorthand for personal best - is Britain’s coolest track event. Possibly even the world’s. Founded in 2013 its positioned itself at the very heart of British club running, the system and structure that underpins the majority of running races in the UK. Many of Britain’s athletics clubs have histories dating back to the early 20th century or before. But that rich history has come with its problems: as the sporting landscape has changed, becoming increasingly glitzy and fast-paced, the allure of athletics has faded.
“I certainly think there's sometimes a bit of a detachment at the top between actually what fans want, and what young people want,” says Olympian, and keen spectator of the action, Ross Murray. “But you've got all these baby boomers, people in their 40's, 50's, 60's putting on events what they think millennials will want. I don't think they're often getting it quite right.”
The Night of the 10,000m PB’s has been the unexpected antidote to British running’s problems. You’d have thought it would be a sprint focused event or some fast paced format that would capture the imagination of the athletics community. Not athletics least sexy event.
The idea for the event came out of organizer Ben Pochee’s own feelings of disconnect. Training was fun. There was banter, wit and camaraderie but come race day that all disappeared. “When we started, what I was trying to do was just to get all that atmosphere and personality from our training groups and rivalry with local clubs and put it into a race event that represented that.”
Watching the The Night of the 10,000m PB’s come to life, it’s clear that Ben’s vision is being lived out. The day starts with the ‘slower’ athletes - think 35 minute 10k runners for women and 33 minutes for men - and slowly rises to a crescendo as the European Cup races close out the program. British athlete Steph Twell glides around the track in the women’s race to take the win in a startling 31 minutes and 8 seconds. The spectators are right up close to the athletes in lane three, a unique feature of the Night of the 10,000m PB’s. It was the first thing that stood out to athlete Verity Ockenden when she raced at Highgate. “I think just the sheer number of people there and how close they were. That's the first thing [that stood out]. You just really felt like everyone was actually invested in your performance.”
“I think just the sheer number of people there and how close they were. That's the first thing [that stood out]. You just really felt like everyone was actually invested in your performance.”
Bringing the crowd into lane three was just the start of the innovations that have made the Night of the 10,000m PB’s so unique. From the availability of beer, to the music, to this year’s newest edition, a huge gong instead of the traditional last lap bell, this event has pushed the boundaries of track and field. The bridge over the home straight which brings fans onto the infield might be Ben’s favourite innovation.
“I absolutely love the fact that people can now be on the holy infield land [...] you’re just trying to rip up the rule book a little bit in terms of what is allowed and what isn’t allowed.”- Ben Pochee
In some ways the Night of the 10,000m PB’s flies in the face of traditional club running: it’s boisterous and fun. It’s showy and loud. But in other ways, it is club running. Club running at its very best. Because, while it might have a new coat of paint, the crowds lining the track, the volunteers still taking down equipment at gone midnight, and the athletes pouring their heart and soul into their races are all, for the most part, club runners. They’re not all elite, and they’re not all runners, but they’ve all found home and a community in the club running scene. “All the different myriad of people who come together to make the event happen on the day, are all manifestations of that club scene,” says Ben.
“Highgate Harriers [the host club] has been around as a club since 1879 and it's just a voluntary club and that's the same nationwide for all the clubs [...] at their very root essence, that kind of volunteer philosophy, that kind of naivety and purity, of offering something for nothing to help people run is exactly what Night of the 10k PB's is. So I think that's why so many people have connected with it, supported it, got involved to help make it better, is because they can relate to it.”
In Ben Pochee, club running found one of their own to push the sport to the next level. “Because it came from somebody who's so ingrained in the club culture, and a big athletics fan, he knew what athletics needed. And he knew what the fans wanted,” says Ross.
Athletes didn’t want an alternative to club running, they wanted something that was grounded in the qualities that make club running so special - community, camaraderie and like-minded people. “They want to belong to something. Even very good guys have stopped being good runners and they get slower but often they'll still stay members of clubs and that's because they want to be part of something,” says Ben.
“And I think that's a bit about the event, people want to be part of it because it feels good. It's sport and everyone else is volunteering and we're all just trying to create something that creates amazing memories for spectators and the athletes.”
From the outside this event just seems like a giant party. And like all good parties, what matters most are the guests not the entertainment. The fire throwers, the alcohol, the music and the ‘lactic tunnel of love’ are all great, and make the event one of a kind. But what really seems to make it stand apart is that the athletics community feels like it’s their event to own. And they want to own it in style.
“I love my sport and I think it's really cool and I really want other people to think it's cool and I think the way to do that is for them seeing it as somewhere where you have fun,”- Ben Pochee
As flames shoot into the air and Italian runner Yemaneberhan Crippa crosses the line to roars from the crowd, tonight’s final winner, this little bubble of North London seems like a pretty cool place to be. Thanks to the Night of the 10,000m PB’s more people might just be seeing British club running as fun.