Hampstead Heath is a festival site. London Marathon Events branding has been plastered around the Parliament Hill track since the early-morning. Not one, but two marquees cover the two straights, complete with rows upon rows of London Pride beer cans to be downed by distance running fans later in the day.
Feathered flags are everywhere. An orange Strava inflatable straddles the track at the end of the first marquee. Two giant screens at the top bend are ready to beam the live Vinco stream to the public present and more online. Coffee stalls, programme sellers and clothing brands already line the first bend.
How do you top last year’s trackside Lamborghini? A vintage open-top London bus draped in event branding stands out on the infield in an inspired nod to this summer’s world championships.
The bus becomes the elevated platform that keeps the commentary team on top of all the race twists and turns. It’s later the podium setting that elevates the night’s worthy winners to the heights their efforts deserve.
Thunder and fireworks top and tail the afternoon’s action. The crash between the youngsters’ relays and opening 10,000m race threatens a downpour that thankfully never arrives.
Conditions remain steady, breezy only for the fifty metres or so of the home straight still exposed to the elements. Wafts of cooking burgers and pizza blow across the track. The arrivals of distance running legends set tongues wagging and selfie requests into overdrive.READ OUR HIGHGATE HARRIERS NIGHT OF THE PBS PREVIEW
On the track, long-time leader, Rowan Preece, surrenders a chunky last-lap lead to be pipped at the post by Kent AC’s Lawrence Avery in the first race of the day. Three further sub-32-minute finishes come in the second race of the day. A tight humdinger follows in the third. The first-ever women’s development race takes the running total to 87 personal bests out of a possible 116 so far. 75% of runners go home with a new track 10,000m mark before 6.30pm. The Night of the PBs certainly lives up to its billing.
A pause for breath. It’s standing room-only for the legends seminar as a crowd flocks fifty metres back across the track to hear the pearls of wisdom dispensed by headline acts, Seb Coe, Paula Radcliffe and Wendy Sly. British distance running is the topic. Returning it to its former glories the inevitable theme.
The shoots of recovery are already beginning to show. Saturday night is certainly playing its part in attempting to rekindle peak seventies and eighties success.CHECK OUT THE STORY OF THE NIGHT IN IMAGES BY SIXTH COUNTER
Three races and a total of 56 runners took part in the first running four years ago. One man went inside 30 minutes and just two women competed full stop. Fast forward to Saturday and 199 competed, 19 British men dipped below 30-minutes, three went inside 29 and 53 women finished across two female-only races. How Aly Dixon’s sad solo effort in the 2012 British 10,000m Championships seems such a distant memory now.
For all the bells and whistles that make the event the spectacle that it is, the race is beginning to prove its worth in performance terms.
In 2012, the year before the Night of the 10,000m PBs, 41 men went inside 31 minutes and 17 dipped under the 30-minute mark. This year, the stats stack up at 58 and 27 respectively. The number of women that have gone inside 36 minutes over the last couple of years has shot up by a third and more compared to five years ago. While the times at the sharpest end still need refining, the depth at such a decent level means we’re now in a much better place to begin.
Four races down, three to go. The climax of the evening still to come. Four 25-lap races just aren’t enough to satisfy the clamour. The brief respite from the racing action offers up more London Pride and lengthy queues for the burgers and pizza soon to sell out. The festival enters its twilight hour.
The sun is setting and with the cooling temperature comes an anticipation of the championship races ahead. Olympians and familiar grassroots faces arrive and go through the same registration routine of the hundred or so that have come before.
Fireworks mark the first sub-30-minute effort in the final warm-up act. Three-deep lane three revellers swell by the minute to grab their spot. Hype man, Scotty 2 Hotty, whips up the crowd with rhymes while the back straight Soar DJ drops more bangers. Flatcaps and Fisticuffs bring live guitars and an alternative vibe to the home straight dwellers.
If event organisers and volunteers can put on an event like the Night of the PBs, and the distance running community can turn out in such numbers to support, then the least the grassroots gods can do is put on a show worthy of their elevated status.
Andy Vernon, Beth Potter et al duly delivered.
It’s all part of the service, Andy tweeted after.
With the race sewn up on the final lap of 25, it’s an apt and excellent touch from the grassroots hero to high-five the thronging masses with 250m to go. It’s Andy’s second win in three attempts – beating his own top-ranking time at the event to boot.
What’s more, Andy’s recognition of the part he plays shows an awareness of what the grassroots event is all about – and what the rousing crowd pivotal to the unique atmosphere care for and want to see. Granted, he mightn’t have done the same if he’d been closer to the qualifying time. But with his top-two spot secure, it’s that small touch that breaks down the barriers between the elite and grassroots support.
On to the final event and it’s clear Olympian-turned-triathlete-turned-World-Championships-bound Beth Potter is in a different league. Her triathlon routine is evidently paying dividends. The time in the pool sees her looking stronger than before, graduating to top honours this time around with an impressive turn of the screw in the last couple of kilometres.
It makes you wonder whether there’s any need for Beth to bother with the racing element of the whole triathlon thing. Maybe she could just go with the 50 miles per week and tri training and stick to racing on the track instead. Her cross training success certainly offers food for thought on what really is the best foot forward for distance running athletes.
Thousands flock out almost as soon as the last runner has crossed the line. A few stick around to see the championship winners crowned atop the open-top bus. Glitter cannons shoot up as the last of the revellers watch below.
Within an hour, Parliament Hill returns to its more typical setting. Feathered flags are taken down, marquees dismantled. The Highgate Harriers Night of the 10,000m PBs is closed for business for another year.
Words by Bo James
Image from Martin Black