Athletes descend on Parliament Hill in London, where under-20 wins are claimed by Harriet Knowles-Jones and Mahamed Mahamed
A night to rememberApril 29, 2017
There’s three weeks to go until the Highgate Harriers Night of the 10,000m PBs and organiser Ben Pochee told Euan Crumley about how the event began
Necessity was the mother of invention when it came to Highgate Harriers’ Night of the 10,000m PBs. The event was born out of a need – and a desire – to give aspirational endurance athletes the chance to compete to a high standard over the distance.
Not so long ago, it looked like the art of running 25 laps of a track was beginning to get lost. For those entering races, there were no guarantees of how many people would ultimately show up.
A case in point came at the British Championships of 2013 in Birmingham, when Alyson Dixon ended up as the sole female 10,000m competitor and had to start in the midst of a men’s field of 14.
That was the same year in which the starting gun was fired on Highgate, an event which has grown quickly and beyond all expectations. Last year, it provided the platform for both the British Championships and trials for the Olympics. In 2017, May 20 will see the Parliament Hill track play host to those looking to make the British team for the IAAF World Championships.
Faces such as IAAF president Sebastian Coe, Paula Radcliffe and Ronnie O’Sullivan will be seen among the growing crowds who don’t pay a penny in entry and are attracted by the chance to be at the heart of the athletics community, see some top quality competition and perhaps enjoy a drink or two at the beer tent which sits right on the track.
The man behind it all, Ben Pochee, had seen the erosion of a discipline he loved first hand. The long-time Highgate Harriers member, athlete and coach knew there was a way to fix it, however.
“My thinking was: ‘If I’m unhappy with what’s on offer then, rather than complain about it, maybe we can actually do something?’”
He knew he had to rely heavily on that sense of community and that, for his plans to work, he had to give the athletes ownership of the event. The onus had to be on those taking part if any momentum was going to be gathered.
“It was a simple original aim,” he says. “We became aware there was virtually no 10,000m where there was a real momentum – that if you committed to that race and you travelled that you could be 100 per cent sure there would be a deep field.
“There were a couple of 10,000m races but they were frequently so badly attended that decent runners and average club runners would all be in the same race and no-one would benefit – you’d just end up running 25 laps on your own. It just leads to an erosion of the event.
“I knew from experience that there are loads and loads of club runners that all talk about running quick 10km times and they are going on about “what’s a quick course?” and I was thinking “blimey, you don’t need a quick road course when you’ve got the track”. So it was about trying to find a way to bring together everyone that was looking to run quickly.
“I just wanted to try it. As an athlete, you are just so used to following the races that someone else offers you. So my thinking was: ‘If I’m unhappy with what’s on offer then, rather than complain about it, maybe we can actually do something?’.”
And do something he did. With a great deal of hard work, Highgate got off the ground and began gathering pace. Quickly.
“There was loads and loads of communication to start with,” says Pochee. “We put it all back on the athletes. They had to be aware that if they wanted an event that mattered and that was good then the onus was on them to turn up on the night.
“I figured it just needed one good event. If you get the first one off the ground, it could grow from there.”
He was right. But it wasn’t just raising the bar in terms of the action on show which has made a huge difference. Another aspect which created a lot of attention was the atmosphere brought by defying athletics convention here and there.
“I figured it just needed one good event. If you get the first one off the ground, it could grow from there”
Bringing in live music and entertainment, the aforementioned on-track beer tent and allowing spectators to stand right in the thick of the action have worked wonders.
“When I used to race I was very much an emotional runner and I wondered what could I do to create more emotion in the 10,000m?” Pochee continues. “Rather than have just a few people there, 50m away from the action, what about trying to get thousands of spectators to stand in lane 3?
“At some point someone has got to be brave and try new things. I love athletics but I think that the way it is being presented, currently, hasn’t moved forward. In fact I don’t think it’s really moved forward in 50 years.
“If you look at some of the old footage from White City when they used to hold big athletics meetings – they had more creativity than we do now.
“They used to have ‘Puff Puff’ Pirie (Gordon Pirie, one of Britain’s great post-war athletes) racing some of the greats – and they’d turn the lights off. You had spotlights just on these two athletes to try and create real drama and bring it to life. That was actually a brave bit of theatre to do for traditional athletics back in the 50s.
“Nowadays, at a big grand prix event, you could do it and I think there’s so much scope to make it accessible to people who don’t normally go to athletics but also to get that sense of sporting energy and people on the ragged edge. You want to bring it all to life.
“We’ve done it at our event by getting huge crowds within inches of international athletes. You can really see the whole racing narrative change and see really close up what people are going through.
“A few years ago a 10,000m meet was truly seen as the ugly duckling of athletics, with one man and a dog watching. I think if we can change the perception and make THAT event sexy then almost any event within the athletics portfolio, if looked at it in the right way, could be similarly stepped up, dressed up and made truly engaging.”