Want to see the future of athletics? Don’t join an online queuing system or apply to join a ballot for tickets. Don’t import the latest cricketing wheeze and try and apply it to a totally different sport. Go to Parliament Hill athletics track on a Saturday night in May – no tickets, no entry fee, cheap beer, a whole lot of laps of the track – and the best night out in the sport.
The Night of the 10,000m PBs is now six, and was started in 2013 by by Highgate Harrier’s Ben Pochee out of frustration at the lack of racing opportunities over 10k on the track for top level club and indeed elite athletes. That, athletics fans may remember, was the year that Aly Dixon was the sole woman in the British Athletics Championships, running with the men in a very lonely 25 laps of the Alexander Stadium. How are any athletes, elite or club, supposed to find that extra level to perform when the stands are empty, there’s no competition and it’s essentially just a time trial?
Well, Saturday night could not have provided a better contrast. With the crowds standing in lane three cheering on every race, an RAF typhoon flyby, talks from five-time Olympian Jo Pavey and Aly Dixon herself, a series of graded races and a whole lot of that beer, the atmosphere was truly electric. The evening culminated in the European Cup 10,000m races, with Richard Ringer of Germany winning the mens and Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter the women’s titles. But perhaps most significantly for the host nation, the mens race saw three Brits under 28 minutes – youngster Alex Yee (in his 10,000m debut at that!) plus Chris Thompson and Andy Vernon. The last time three British men broke 28 in the same race? 35 years ago. Told you: the future of athletics is right here.
As for me, I was lucky enough to take part in the Strava mile chase – just four laps of the track for us, but hunted down with a 40 second delay by Hannah England – 2011 World 1500m silver medallist. What an incredible event to be part of – the crowds lifting you, shouting your name, the curve of the track ahead of you hidden by the throng of people, the marquees you run through, the bridge over the track … The four laps went back almost too quickly – and that’s quite possibly a sentence that’s never been uttered in the context of a mile race before, at least by me. It was even something of a family affair, with my other half taking part too, and our kids watching on.
The buzz (and the “dear god my lungs” cough) lasted well into the next day, and ended at about mile two of the Sutton 10k, when I realised that no sleep, not enough food, and a bit of a system crash were about to result in my first ever DNF. But I’ll try and shrug that one off, because nothing should take away the high of Saturday night. I urge you all to mark next year’s event in your diaries as soon as you can – did I mention it’s the best night out in athletics?