Wow, I didn’t realise I hadn’t done a blog for so long. Well this one isn’t going to offer a huge amount of insight into my life, but I know people love lists and I quite like compiling them, so this is a list of the top 5 races I’ve participated in. My own personal result isn’t a factor, although I admit I may have some rose-tinted glasses that bias my results a bit!
The list is in no particular order, and some are races anyone can enter, others a bit more exclusive. The only criteria I used to choose these races was if I felt they stood out in some way, whether it was atmosphere, race design, or the history of the event.
1. Cinque Miluni, San Vittore
There aren’t going to be many cross-country races that I look on favourably, but this one is so unique it is a clear standout. It’s a race that happens every year and goes around 5 mills, in the middle of a field. When I say ‘goes around’ the mills, it actually goes directly through one of them!! After 3k or so you run through a doorway, through a hallway and a kitchen, and then out again! A carpet is laid down over the concrete and it’s single file only, making for some interesting race tactics. What’s most incredible is that this race has been the venue for World cross-country championships and still attracts top international fields. Past winners include Bekele, De Castella, Tadesse, Ngugi….
I chose the race because the concept is so unique, and I love the fact that some of the top runners in the world still run through a mill in the middle of a race. Truly bizarre.
The course istself is 9.8k, and when I did it it was firm and fast, but with some very short and sharp bumps in, which can cause a few falls early on. It’s a very physical race, with jostling for position and very narrow. I participated as part of the European Club Championships, and was 22nd in 30.33.
2. London Marathon
To be honest, this is an obvious one, but still, I can’t not put London Marathon in here. While the course does pass some iconic landmarks, I don’t think it’s the most scenic marathon I’ve done (probably Florence), but no race has ever topped it in terms of pure crowd atmosphere.
I recall very few moments in races where the crowd has made my hairs stand on end, but turning a corner at about mile 10 (I can’t recall exactly where) in 2010 and hearing the crowd, 10 people deep, start cheering and banging was definitely one of them. Ok, I was a Brit running in a British race (and high up enough in the field that the crowd wasn’t bored!) but I still think this race must be one of the best (if not THE best) in terms of crowd atmosphere.
When I’m running a race, I notice very little around me. I rarely appreciate beauty of courses, or notice much that isn’t directly in front of me beyond the odd shout. London Marathon is one of very few races where crowd noise has really cut through my racing brain and made me think about what’s going on outside of the race. I could almost feel the extra adrenaline and had to control myself and make sure I didn’t get carried away and ruin my race plan!
3. Zatopek 10,000m, Australia
Now a lot of you will wonder how a track race can be special, and especially one that is 25 laps! Every track is 400m round right? And nothing much changes unless you’re running in a stadium with thousands of people cheering your name. You’re completely right – very few track races are that interesting but this one is different.
I’ve always found that people are very nervous about races on the track. They’d much rather do a road race or even a cross country. The reason for this is there is nowhere to hide. It’s running in a very raw form – purely down to how fast you can run. It’s also a small field and you’re in full view of everyone, all of the time. I’m the same – I analyse my time a lot more on the track and really notice when I’m slowing down. The constantly flat surface highlights the feeling of slowing down, and the man calling out splits every 400m tells you exactly what your pace is. Not to mention the lap counter which makes the race feel so much longer than it would on the road or cross country.
With all this in mind, the reason I like Zatopek so much is mainly down to the tradiiton of the event, the atmosphere, and the fact that everything focusses on the 10,000m. So often the 10,000m is tagged on to existing events because it’s so long and no-one wants to watch it. Zatopek is the opposite – the 10,000m is the pinnacle of the evening and crowds mve into lane 3 of the track to shout the athletes on. It’s also extremely well supported by the best Australian athletes and also gets an international focus – the only year I ran it I was 3rd behind the World Leader Emmanuel Bett and Australian 10,000m Record Holder Ben St. Lawrence.
I expect the fact the race is named after Emil Zatopek, one of the toughest runners who ever lived, adds a bit of romance to it, but it’s one of the very few track races I’ve done that really got me excited.
4. Peuerbach Silvesterlauf 6.8k, Austria
This race may seem a little obscure, and it is. It’s in a village in Austria about 2.5 hours drive from Vienna. Why I loved this race is because of the remote setting, the timing, course layout, and the whole event itself beyond just the race. It takes place on New Year’s Eve, and it’s bitterly cold (-5 or worse). A quaint tiny village that sees no tourists all year suddenly has some very high level athletes appear for a few days – and the village comes alive.
The course is great – 8 laps of the village with some sharp hills and chicane-like turns makes it feel like a Formula 1 race as the laps tick off quickly with the crowds cheering alongside the narrow roads. The fact it’s New Year’s Eve adds to the atmosphere and as soon as the race is over the party begins – no sports drinks here guys, you get an Austrian beer when you finish. The frivolities then carry on with a banquet at the town hall and free alcohol and food all night. There are very few stranger things than a load of runners from around the world at a party….. And there ais a big International draw here as Kenyans, Ethiopians, and Europeans all come to run the race. The quality is surprisingly high. I wasn’t fully fit but I finished 18th in a big elite field which shows the depth.
I was amazed at how well looked after the athletes are – costs covered and extremely well organised. The village has a couple of nice pubs, and the train ride to Vienna is beautiful for a day trip.
5. National 12 Stage Road Relays, Birmingham
The reason this event is great is because it truly brings athletes together as a team. Usually in distance events the team aspect is secondary because you can’t easily see which teams are winning and you focus on the athletes are at the front. A relay changes this, and with 12 in a team, and distances alternating between 3 miles and 5 miles, it’s absorbing to watch and can change so quickly. Unfortunately the attraction of the event has faded in recent years – top athletes don’t focus on relays as much as they used to, and dwindling enthusiasm for running means clubs now struggle to get 12 runners out. This of course leads to smaller crowds mainly consisting of hard-core athletics afficionados but still – it’s great to be a part of.
Teams still desperately want to win this event and when my Aldershot Team won it about 10 years ago it was a very special day. I was terrified as I took off on the 5th leg (5 miles) in 4th place on – knowing I was one of the weaker links. Team manager Mick Woods was screaming at me and I ran a solid leg to hand over in 4th. We went into the lead on the next leg and never gave it up to win by over a minute.
The event is steeped with tradition – fastest times include Moorcroft, Coe, Ovett, Farah and is a reminder of the community and team side of running that bonds runners together and create a real team spirit. It’s less common these days but when athletes used to train together at their club training nights, so much conversation would be made up of competing as a team and dreaming of how well the team can do this year. This gives everyone motivation, purpose and a reluctance to let anyone down. The sport has changed a bit now but these groups still provide the best environments for great results in my view.