Which way to the race?

5 July 2005

There were a couple of first-time things that kicked off July 2005 for me. The first one took place on Sunday when I ran in my first 10K race around central London. The second thing I did for the first time was to set up a blog. The blog is not meant to have much to do with running but I thought I'd add a journal section to see how often I would post this kind of stuff. So, the first entry in this blog is about the curiously shambolic event that was the British 10K.

The first part of the competition was to find the start. For no good reason, I thought the race was due to start at 9am, not the 9.35am that was the official start time. Even so, I didn’t turn up ridiculously early. Sitting on Victoria Line from Brixton to Green Park, the train gradually filled up with people who were clearly going to the same place. The problem that faced us was working out exactly where the start was to be. Most people knew that it was outside the front of the Hard Rock Café on Piccadilly. A big clue was the big blue sign saying ‘Start’ on it next to a platform made of the customary wood and scaffolding covered with a few bits of tarpaulin. If only it were all that easy.

According to the guide distributed to entrants before the race together with a flimsy T-shirt and a discount voucher for some energy drink, runners were supposed to be honest with themselves and stand by the sign that corresponded to the time they thought it would take for them to get around the course. The only trouble was that there were just two signs visible, both for times well above an hour. Even I do can 10km in an hour. But decided to be more conservative than honest and perched opposite the 1.5 hour sign close to where the Hyde Park Corner underpass joins Piccadilly.

It turned out that nobody told the stewards anything about starting slots. They had been standing for half an hour halfway down Piccadilly collecting runners who had dropped off their kit outside the Institute of Directors at Pall Mall armed with nothing more than a piece of string between them. Those runners who took a short cut through Green Park to get to the start line who found themselves milling around trying to work how the start was going to work. While they wondered, “Colonel Bogey” and a big-band version of “We All Stand Together” – better known as the homicide-inducing “Frog Song” – blared out from the loudspeakers on an apparently endless loop. A day after Live8, a day before the official WW2 commemoration started and three days before the announcement of the 2012 Olympic venue, the race organisers were milking every link for what it was worth. The music was just the beginning.

Then the stewards turned up with 10 000 runners behind them. The starting arrangement suddenly became clear: it was one step away from chaos. The idea of having people organise themselves into neat groups based on how long they expected to take was nothing more than a bit of wishful thinking. It was only after the start that I realised that I had a lucky break as I was well past the Ritz before the crowd waiting to get going ran out. And it took three minutes for me to get started even from what was a comparatively good position.

Before I and thousands of others were able to get through the start point, we had the usual speeches, most of them pumping up the London 2012 bid. The Westminster Town Cryer left most in no doubt that ringing a bell at every opportunity and shouting can lead to a separation from reality. As the first runners were away, including former Olympic champion Haile Gebrselassie, the Town Cryer suddenly blurted out over the tannoy: “Go on Spiderwoman. Er…no. Wonderwoman.” I don’t remember a Lynda Carter lookalike being among the front runners, so I still have no idea who he directed the comment at even after the correction.

Within a few minutes I was off. Unfortunately, exactly how many minutes remains a mystery as I completely forgot to look at the clock by the start line as I ran past it and did not bother taking a watch with me. Or a mobile phone, which seems to be today’s running accessory for those who don’t believe in iPod holsters.

Trafalgar Square, about 2km down the line, had another selection of wartime hits pounding out from the loudspeaker and it was not until the Embankment end of Northumberland Avenue that we got The Clash’s “London Calling”. On the Embankment a lone DJ and four girls from the Loughborough University dance troupe had pitched up to do a spot of disco-style encouragement. It was just after that someone shouted, “It’s Haile Gebrselassie!” And it was, the Ethiopian runner was hurtling down the Embankment in the opposite direction aiming to make a sub-30 minute time. There was a quick round of applause and he was gone. It would take me another half hour just to reach that point from the 2.5km point I was at.

The number of people all trying to run down the same stretch of road meant that they ended up mixing with the few onlookers who had ventured out comparatively early on a Sunday. But that was nothing on the situation that faced the amateur athletes as they got near the finish line. Getting to the finish meant running along past Blackfriars Bridge, doubling back up the Embankment and then taking another detour with a hairpin bend at the end on Westminster Bridge. After a couple of attempts I think I got the strategy right for dealing with the hairpins: take them wide and keep running rather than risk tangled ankles by cutting in tight and colliding with about ten other runners. Even after 8km, the crowd had not thinned out that much.

By 9km we were getting “Chariots of Fire” over speakers placed at the foot of Big Ben. The clock struck the chimes for half-past ten as I neared the north end of Westminster Bridge and turned for the final stretch. People were yelling out “Last few hundred yards” to anyone who was paying attention. Working out how many hundred yards was not all that easy as the organisers had managed to confuse just about everyone taking part in the race by putting in a final hairpin just yards from the finish line. But people knew they were five minutes away from the end as they turned back onto the Embankment for the final stretch past the Ministry of Defence building.
One woman running for a bowel cancer charity was cheerfully ringing up relatives on her mobile in an athletic version of the “I’m on the train!” announcements you can hear at 6pm on the way out of London on any overground rail service. “I’ve just passed the 9km marker!” she yelled. “Where are you waiting?” The phone seemed a bit superfluous.

The one thing I knew about the finish was that it was by the Cenotaph: the organisers were keen to maintain the link with the VE and VJ celebrations as well as the 2012 Olympic announcement, and anything else they could find as a publicity hook. The catch was that it was the other side of the road. Coming round into Whitehall, I realised that, as the end of “Jurasalem” played out from this set of speakers, there was at least one more turn before I could find the finish. So, at the end of Whitehall it was another wide turn to avoid a dozen legs and then a matter of running back towards the Cenotaph. The finish was easy to spot, although not because it had a big sign saying “Finish”.

There were two clues: one being the clock and the other the big crowd of people who decided that, once past the finish line, you can stop dead. So, the end of the race turned into the pedestrian equivalent of a motorway pile-up. Stewards morosely asked people to keep walking but they were meeting friends, family, anybody who wanted to say hello. So, the sprint finish I saved out petered out a bit in favour of avoiding a collision. The clock counted its way round to one hour, three minutes and 23 seconds, which meant I had taken more or less an hour to get round the course.

I found a piece of wall that did not have any people by it to get some stretches in as my left leg started to protest about the pavement pounding I had been doing for the last hour. Then I set off in search of my finisher’s medal, which was with the bag drop at Pall Mall. For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, the back of the medal carried a picture of St Paul’s Cathedral. You might think the Cenotaph might have been a good choice, or Nelson’s Column. Even the Hard Rock Café might have made an appropriate if tacky and incongruous image: at least it was on the course. But it summed up the organisation of the event: a nice try but not quite on target. And that was my first go in a race like this, just wait until I’ve done some more before I get really scathing about the organisation.