s UK Athletics prepares to ditch the capital, in talks over bringing a (very) early end to its 50-year post-2012 Olympics legacy deal at the London Stadium, Londoners can at least take solace in the fact that the city’s best track meeting is back and going nowhere.
After two pandemic-forced postponements, the slightly clunkily named Night Of The 10,000m PBs returns to Parliament Hill, home of Highgate Harriers, on Saturday evening, with its usual promise of high-class international fields and uniquely raucous lane-three, ‘beer ‘n’ cheer’ atmosphere.
The event has, in the past, been dubbed the ‘Glastonbury of athletics’ for its social and celebratory, festival feel, but it is much more intimate than that, a grassroots endeavour which has blossomed out of a tight-knit north London running community and become one of the most popular and most lauded on the domestic calendar.
“Even the best guys, that’s why they run, I believe,” founder Ben Pochee tells Standard Sport. “You run because it’s part of your life and you want to socialise with other people who run but for some reason we tend to hide behind the fact that we all just want to be better runners. I tried to tap into that for the event really, trying to leverage it to be a social event.”
It was back in 2013 that Harriers member Pochee initially set out simply to provide the best British athletes with a regular chance to congregate and push one another to quick times, the majority of races over 10,000m in the UK tending to effectively turn into solo time trials because of a lack of depth.
“You had poor people like Andy Vernon, who at the time were like the next Mo [Farah], and the only way they could go out to get the qualifying times for the Olympics and the World Championships was to stump up air fare and go over to America to race,” Pochee explains.
It quickly became much more, hosting the British Championships over the distance for the first time in 2014 and therefore becoming the official trial race for whichever major championship was scheduled for later in the summer; Europeans that year, then worlds for the first time in 2015 and the Olympic Games in Rio a year after that.
As a spectacle, “the seeds were there” from the first edition, Pochee says, when the event’s trademark novel policy of allowing spectators onto the track during races to watch at the closest of quarters was born.
“That’s normally the hinterland, no one’s allowed to go near it. Everyone’s normally 30 metres either side, sitting in seats, clapping politely,” Pochee explains. “We thought: ‘What can we do to challenge the traditional athletics model?’ Not that it doesn’t have its place – I don’t think athletics has to change and all be like this – but I thought there was scope for the option to explore.
“All the networks and friendship groups that go with running are all so tightly interwoven, there’s all that emotion there and I just think we were negating it all by having people so far removed from the action. The goal was to try and find a way to bring all those connections and friendships and emotions that come with it to life.”
There are now giant marquees filled with spectators (“lactic tunnels of love”) on both straights and a bridge over the track that allows fans to watch from the infield, a luxury afforded when your athletics meet does not feature javelins and hammers being chucked about. And it is not all about the racing, either: included in the whole circus this year will be a stunt show, DJ, fire breathers, a climbing wall and, well, an actual circus production.
You can create special things without necessarily having a multi-million infrastructure
Such is the growth that the Night of the 10,000m PBs is no longer just a night of 10,000m races. For the first time, the historic Emsley Carr Mile – won in the past by the likes of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Hicham El Guerrouj and Haile Gebrselassie – will be on the card, having more usually been run as part of UK Diamond League meetings of late, as will the more recently created Millicent Fawcett Mile, for female athletes.
The 25-lap events remain the feature, however, with Jessica Judd, who finished 17th in the Olympic final last year, headlining the elite women’s race, while a pair of former winners, Germany’s Richard Ringer and Italy’s Yeman Crippa are among the leading contenders in the men’s, both travelling over despite the fact that, unlike for their 2018 and 2019 wins, the European Cup will not be on the line.
That all of this remains completely free for spectators is a non-negotiable that Pochee has fought hard to retain. He is unpaid for his unenviable organisational graft, while the night itself relies on volunteers and what he calls a “patchwork of everyone’s good will”. Swiss running brand On have come on board as chief sponsors, but every penny the meeting attracts is funnelled back into improving the event. Hence the circus.
“Our track, without all the stuff, is a completely basic, council-run track,” Pochee says. “Obviously, you’re not talking about forty- or fifty-thousand people at our event but it does maybe prove that you can create special things without necessarily having a multi-million infrastructure in place.”
As British athletics prepares to cut ties with its £468million Olympic home, this corner of Hampstead Heath offers both the sport both a lesson and a capital presence.
“London’s last international venue for athletics!” Pochee muses. “I quite like that!”