You’ve got to hand it to the Brits: when the occasion calls for it, they really know how to make a splash. On a recent Saturday in May, everyone on my Twitter feed was talking about the same joyous event taking place on the outskirts of London. The photos made me wish I was there. It wasn’t just the celebrity attendees, the historic setting, or the perfect weather—it was the spectacle of seeing so many happy people in one place, knocking back pints of ale and waiting for the procession to pass by. It’s a shame, I remember thinking, that there’s no Night of the 10,000 PBs in the U.S.
As track meets go, this one’s a doozy. Now in its sixth year, it is hosted by the Highgate Harriers, one of Britain’s oldest running clubs, on a public track in London’s Hampstead Heath park. The unusual format consists exclusively of 10,000-meter races, which begin in the early afternoon and go on into the night. While initial heats feature very good U.K. club runners, the final events of the evening have professional fields. Unlike more conventional track meets where spectators sit removed from the action, this one brings the crowds onto the track and into the infield. There is live music, beer, and pyrotechnics. As distance running legend Sonia O’Sullivan put it in a recent article for the Irish Times, the Night of the 10,000 PBs “showed just how engaging 10,000m running can be.”
From where I sit, if you can make a 25-lap track race “engaging,” you have something figured out. Here in the U.S., track fans like to gripe about the relative lack of popularity of our sport. With that in mind, I spoke to 10,000 PBs meet director Ben Pochee about what the rest of the running world can learn from his event. (In the true spirit of British modesty, Pochee told me he is hardly an authority on such matters. I beg to differ.)
A Low-Key Venue Can Be an Asset
The facility in Hampstead Heath is a community track, not a stadium. There are no stands to speak of and only a limited number of restrooms. At the Night of the 10,000 PBs, this modest venue belies the world-class level of competition. (The 2016 iteration even doubled as the official Olympic Trials to determine which athletes would represent Britain in Rio.) For the organizer, staging elite-level performances in a very non-elitist environment is a way to broaden the sport’s appeal.
“That juxtaposition was always part of the beauty of the event,” says Pochee. “We could show recreational joggers that here was a very basic track that they can use any day of the week, where people were running Olympic standard qualifying times.”
Running Is All About Emotion
Staging an event in an open public space, as opposed to in an enclosed stadium, also makes it easier to bring the crowds right up to—and onto—the track. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the Night of 10,000 PBs is the intimacy: the athletes and the spectators are only a few feet from one another, feeding off each other's energy.
“There’s so much emotion involved in competition,” Pochee says. “What I really want to do with the event is celebrate the fact that we run and race with emotion. But not in the manner of sanitized, big events that have everyone sitting politely in the stands and clapping from 100 meters away. When athletes perform and there’s a crowd emotionally engaged in that performance, I think it improves their chances of running quicker times.”
Runners Are Social Animals
“Our sport is about more than just PBs and numbers—there’s a social side to it which I think is huge part of why people run,” Pochee says. From the beginning, he was consciously trying to incorporate that aspect in a way that would appeal both to hardcore track fans as well as those with little to no knowledge of the sport. The event has what Pochee describes as a “circus vibe,” with fire jugglers, pyro acts, and, this year, live performances from the semi-finalists of the TV show Britain’s Got Talent. Even the name “Night of the 10,000 PBs” is meant to suggest a Victorian-era spectacle.
Beer Works Wonders
If you want to inspire a crowd to get enthusiastic about men and women running hard for 25 laps, it helps to have proper libations. This meet has two beer tents, each spanning across a section of the home and back straightaways, which runners go through on every lap. These are affectionately known as “lactate tunnels of love.”
Athletes Come First
Despite such bells and whistles, the event is very much centered on the runners. As Pochee points out, the competition initially came about as a response to what he felt was a paucity of 10K track races in the U.K. The idea was to provide very good athletes with a chance to run their fastest race in a distance that rarely gets contested on the track. It seems to be working. This year both the winner of the men’s and women’s “A” race came away with personal bests; Germany’s Richard Ringer ran 27:36.52, while Chemtai Lonah Salpeter, competing for Israel, came home in 31:33.03.
At the end of the day, the great achievement of the Night of the 10,000 PBs might be that it manages to inspire performances like that without the rigid formality of a traditional track meet.
“In the U.K. traditional athletics tends to be quite serious, and I think our event provides an opportunity for people to enjoy athletics in a more raucous, celebratory way,” Pochee says. “When we race, it should be like a big celebration–almost like a wedding.”
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