What’s in a (race) number?

This weekend I’m sticking close to home, and competing in the Ranelagh Harriers Richmond 10k. It’s one of my favourite races, and handily local – the route goes past my house twice. Oh, and the reward for finishing is a mug, which I heartily approve of.

Today I received the traditional race information email, which contained what is (to me, at least) an interesting detail: my race number. And for this Sunday’s outing, I’ll be number 27.

Why so interesting? Well, a few reasons. As a motorsport fan, I’ve always been interested in the use of car numbers, especially in categories such as NASCAR. Certain race numbers become synonymous with certain drivers. I’m fascinated by the various ways different series assign race numbers.

My motorsport interest means the number 27 has a particular resonance: for most Formula One fans that number is inextricably linked to Ferrari – and in particular Gilles Villeneuve. So getting to run with a big 27 pinned on my chest (once I eventually stop faffing and get it on there…) is pretty cool.

It’s perhaps because the number 27 resonates with me as a motorsport fan that I realised another interesting details: Sunday’s event will be the third I’ve done in just over a year with 27 as my race number. Which seems pretty remarkable, really.

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After all, most of the races I’ve entered attract several hundred competitors – and often more. So what are the odds of being given the same number three times?

Well, it isn’t quite as utterly random as it seems. The results for the three events I’ve been given number 27 for (aside from Sunday’s race, the other two are the 2015 Fullers Thames Towpath Ten and the 2015 Kington Ten Miles) are all done by the same timing company. As best I can tell, that firm assigns race numbers in alphabetical order. My surname is Attwood, so I’m always likely to have a fairly low number.

Assuming those events attract a roughly similar amount of entries with a roughly even spread of surnames, it makes sense that my race numbers are always going to be pretty close to each other.

Still, with that said, having the same number three times on three different events? It still seems… unlikely. I’m sure I could do some great statistical analysis to work out exactly how likely or unlikely it was, but I’m really not very good at maths and statistical analysis and that sort of thing.

Anyway, whether it’s an amazing coincidence or not, I’ll continue to be fascinated by race numbers, and how they’re assigned. The most popular seem to be either alphabetical, or simply by order of entry. Some events also assign certain numbers to certain categories (for example, the Wokingham Half Marathon assigned 1-2999 for men, and 3001-4500 for ladies). The bigger event, the more complex it gets. Seriously, just look through the London Marathon race information and read the section on how numbers are assigned. Fascinating!

My interest in race numbers perhaps explains why I’ve kept all of the numbers from all the races I’ve done – except one (ironically, one of the three in which I was 27), which I posted to my niece in America for complex reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture.

So I can tell you that the number for my first race (the 2014 Wedding Day 7k in Bushy Park) was 20. I did the event again in 2015, and this time was number 19.

The lowest race number I’ve been given is 10 (on the 2014 Castle Combe Chilly 10k). Again, that event assigned number in alphabetical order. A year later they changed the system and used different groups of numbers for different parts of the event (it ran alongside a triathlon), so I was number 2010.

The highest race number I’ve been given is 47,812. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was on the biggest race I’ve ever done, the London Marathon. Notably, there weren’t actually 47,812 runners taking part – it’s all to do with how they dish out their numbers.

Oh, and there’s another interesting coincidental oddity revealed in my stack of race numbers. I’ve done the Richmond Park 10k quite a few times. Numbers for that race, as best I can tell, are assigned in order of entry, rather than alphabetically. And somehow I’ve been given number 90 twice on that event. Perhaps I somehow just enter events at the same time before each race…

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What does any of this mean? No idea. Probably nothing. After all, they’re just race numbers. They’re only there to help identify you. They don’t actually mean anything. But I find it interesting.

Then again, that might well just be me…

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