On Saturday (May 21) Highgate Harriers hosted the fourth annual Night of 10,000m PBs – the de facto British Olympic trials for the 10,000m. SPIKES went. SPIKES liked it.
“They did what??” was the reaction of a non-athletics friend on Sunday when he was told about the beer tent on the track at Saturday’s British 10,000m Olympic trials. “I wish I’d have come now, that sounds incredible.” Yes, Jack, you messed up that one.
To be fair to Jack, I’m an athletics-geek, and sometimes I struggle to get excited about watching athletes run around a track 25 times. Not this time, though.
Approaching London’s Hampstead Heath late afternoon on Saturday, you could hear the music from about a mile off. The umistakable smell of a BBQ lingered in the cool summer air. Anyone passing with no intention of going to the track would probably have at least taken a peak what was going on.
"They did what??" Yes, this really is a beer tent on a track
A noticably young crowd of around 3,000 lined up around Parliament Hill Fields Athletics Track. There were familiar faces – Jody and Bayo Furlong, the world’s most famous athletics fans, for instance – but also many others who’d never set foot near an athletics track in their lives.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m a big athletics fan, but I am interested in sports in general,” said one spectator, beer in one hand, burger in the other.
“I did grow up in Highgate and have always known that particular track. It was interesting to see it being used for something a little bit more special.”
A bit more special is an understatement. Fans could watch from lane four of the track, a whiff of athletes’ sweat as they zoomed past included. One misplaced elbow could have taken out an Olympic hopeful. There were drummers, samba dancers, street performers, a fire thrower, even a Michael Jackson impersonator. Post-race interviews were conducted in a Lamborghini.
There were burger vans, pizza and, of course, there was the backstraight beer tent creating a tunnel of noise as the athletes stormed through. But it wasn’t just a giant piss-up. There were six races – 6 x 25 laps, that’s A LOT, even for a die-hard athletics fan – and the flowing drinks helped the crowd get behind every single athlete.
Samba dancers, Lamborghini and the world's most famous track fans right in the middle
Bayo Furlong was impressed: “It just shows people will come and watch track when there’s something interesting on. There’s dancers, there’s beer, they’ve promoted it really well – it’s the Olympic trials, I think it’s a really awesome event.”
And he’s right. It is the Olympic trials. Being a 10,000m runner in Britain isn’t easy. The interest in the event is often limited to Mo Farah, so much so that the 10k hasn’t even been part of the main British trials since 2014. Meet organiser Ben Pochee had had enough of the athletes not receiving the attention they deserved and set out to create something more fitting. 2016 represented the event’s fourth running, its first in an Olympic year. It has worked.
“The main thing that I liked about tonight was the fact that it was like a natural amphitheatre,” said another spectator, someone who doesn’t follow athletics at all.
“There was no stand, it was just like a grassy knoll in Hampstead Heath and everyone was there. There was a bit of a marquee and a DJ and stuff, but in essence it was just about the people.”
One of the main protagonists of Saturday’s spectacle was Ross Millington, who won the men’s race. The 26-year-old didn’t even need to catch his breath after his 28:28.20 effort, he was that excited. “It’s absolutely incredible,” he said with a smile wider than the River Thames.
“I have run road races that get close to this, but for this on a track I think is unheard of, it’s absolutely amazing.”
2003 European 3000m champion Helen Clitheroe, who acted as a pacer in the women’s race, echoed Millington’s sentiments: “It’s absolutely fantastic actually. Especially running through the tent-bar-area is really crazy and really lifts you. As a pace maker I had to be really careful not to pick it up through that section. But the atmosphere of the crowd all the way around the track is fabulous.”
Jess Andrews celebrates booking her ticket to Rio with competitor and close friend Lily Partridge
The undoubted highlight of the night was provided by Jess Andrews. The 23-year-old, who lives and trains in Andorra, won in 31:58.00, beating a field that included European 10,000m champion Jo Pavey. Andrews was left speechless. She had booked her ticket to Rio with a huge 83 second PB.
The celebrations that followed had athletes and spectators alike in tears. We can only hope more events will take note of what can be achieved with an athletics track, an idea, and no shortage of passion.
Highgate, it’s been emotional.