I ran the British 10K Run yesterday. I’ve run 10k events before – in Regents Park, Richmond Park and Hyde Park, but never on a London street course and never in an event of this scale.
The course was a good one covering some London landmarks on roads where it’s not normally possible to run. It started along Piccadilly, through Trafalgar Square, along Victoria Embankment and finally a lap of Parliament Square.
Looking at the map it looked like a fast course – the first few km a gentle descent to the Thames and from there on fairly flat. I;d trained well and figured, with the extra adrenaline from the race day atmosphere I could beat my personal best.
That wasn’t possible. For a handful of reasons I suppose. But more disappointing was that I didn’t really enjoy the race.
After dropping my bag at Waterloo Place I followed signs to the start line, a route which took me along Pall Mall and up Parliament Hill towards Hyde Park Corner. I arrived at Piccadilly around 9.05am in preparation for the 9.35am race start.
Now comes the first problem. I’d under anticipated just how busy a 25,000 competitor event would be. I’d also under anticipated just how difficult it is to organise an event of this scale. I stood in a crammed crowd, in the 30 deg heat for around an hour as we waited to start. There wasn’t really enough room to stretch the legs or to warm up, it was just a case of trying to stay hydrated and wait. And wait. Katrina & The Waves performed, an MC embarrassed himself, some old taxis paraded past (although I could see only their roofs), Sally Gunnell gave a speech, the Mayor of Westminster gave a speech. All I wanted to do was start running!
Athletes were being released in waves. A small number of elite athletes went first, but beyond that it was on a first-come-first-served basis. The first wave set off around 15 minutes late, watching the early leaders charge off on the opposite side of Piccadilly was a relief and little exciting. That soon dissipated as a runner next to me who had run the previous year estimated we still wouldn’t be running for another 20 minutes – his estimate wasn’t far out.
I’d guess I was in the middle of the field somewhere – waves seemed to be around 1,000 runners, and I was in the 10th or 11th wave released. The start line wasn’t marked, I don’t recall a banner or any chip-timing panels, reading the programme after the run it seemed a Routemaster bus marked the start line, but I don’t remember that. I just started my watch when I started running.
It turns out the lack of clearly defined start line was mirrored at the end of the race. Using up the last of my energy sprinting up Whitehall I was looking for a banner over the road or two inflatable columns to either side of the finish. As it was I found myself skipping over the chip timing pads and that was the finish – it would have been nice to have a clearly defined goal to be have been driving towards. There had been no KM markers either which I had expected there to be so I could control my pace and adjust my race strategy through out. I’d vaguely remembered that the water stations would be at 3km, 5km and 7km so that’s the only indication I had to work with.
The biggest obstacle to running a good time though, was, by far, the sheer volume of runners on the road. At most we had two traffic lans to run in – only single lanes once we came off Piccadilly and on the approach to Embankment. Given that the starting positions were on a first-come-first-served basis that meant having to battle though a lot of traffic – slow-moving runners and a lot more people walking than I’d expected. The field didn’t have too much of a fun-run vibe, I only spotted four or five costumes (and they were elaborate ones!) most people seemed to be keen runners. So I wasn’t prepared for people walking within the first kilometre – granted it was a hot day, but still, the first kilometre!
The first kilometre was fairly chaotic, with faster runners elbowing their way past the slower ones, weaving across the road in order to do so or hopping up onto the central reservation. I hoped that this problem would dissipate as the race went on and crowds might thin out. I was wrong – the problem got worse. I suppose, in retrospect, given that I was starting in the middle of the field I’d could only have expected to have encountered more and more tired and slowing runners as the race went on, but my brain wasn’t working like that at the time. As time passed more and more runners were feeling the effects of the heat, or of poor preparation and were turning to walking. In some cases where people were doing the race in pairs, or threes, or groups bigger than that, they’d abandoned running and taken to walking the course together – which just made them even bigger obstacles to overtake. This would be a problem would only increase as the race wore on – occasionally, where crowds were more populous or more vocal people would start running again, but that only resulted in the traffic piling up again once the crowds thinned – as happened as I entered the underpass just after Blackfriars Bridge and again on Westminster Bridge.
The heaviness of traffic meant it was difficult to find any kind of rhythm to build upon. My usual plan for a 10k is to start slowly, find a rhythm in the first 2km, gradually build the pace over the next 5km and then hit my top speeds in the final quarter. That just wasn’t possible yesterday. Having to concentrate on the crowd so much, to dart into gaps where necessary and slow when there was no way through meant my pace was all over the place.
The water stations were utter chaos. The marshals here have my sympathy, the constant barrage of the field was a tide that wouldn’t stop and the water stations were undermanned. Staff should have been positioned ahead of the actual stations holding out bottles, with other marshals directing racers passed the first table onto second and third tables. But what happened was that all the racers hit the first table wanting water where marshals were frantically ripping open crates of bottles and still not keeping up with demand.
Come the end of the race, despite the heaviness of the traffic, the heat and the difficulties of warming up before the race, I was only a smidge over two and half minutes off my PB, so it was a respectable time, but the most disappointing thing was that I hadn’t been able to enjoy the run. For most of the route I’d been consumed by the irritation of having to weave in and out of traffic, of being elbowed or kicked at particularly busy times – the three hairpin turns were particularly tricky.
On the plus side, the baggage area was well run and hassle-free – both at the start and the end – and there were plenty of toilet facilities at Waterloo Place. It is a fantastic route too, mostly flat and passing the London Eye, Trafalgar Square and The Houses Of Parliament – in fact, the highlight for me was running over Westminster Bridge just as Big Ben was striking 10 o’clock, it felt like a privilege to be on the course in that one moment.
I wouldn’t run in an event of this magnitude again I don’t think and I certainly won’t run in the British 10k again. If you’re planning on doing so I recommend getting to the start line as early as you possibly can to avoid the crowds.
I’m now aiming at the Royal Parks Half-Marathon in October and I’m hoping that will a be a bit better organised. The field will be half the size and I’m expected there to be a lot fewer poorly-prepared fun-runners who resort to walking the course.