Pretty much two years ago, my running took a step forward in terms of seriousness. On a warm, sunny Friday evening in late July, I first pinned an oversize paper number to my chest, and lined up alongside hundreds of running enthusiasts in Bushy Park for my first race – the Wedding Day 7k.
Now, some things there might stand out. A 7k race? On a Friday? In the evening? Yup, the Wedding Day 7k isn’t your typical race. Although, since I’d never done a race before, I didn’t really appreciate that when I entered the 2014 edition.
First up, the name: the race was first run on an extra Bank Holiday held in July 1981 for the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Diana. It’s continued on the final Friday in July since then, albeit switch to the evening. I’m still not entirely sure why it’s a 7k, aside from the face the organisers seem, in a very British way, to revel in doing things a bit differently.
Still, a 7k mixed-terrain jaunt in a leafy deer park on a Friday evening made for a good next step after I’d completed a handful of parkruns. The extra distance from a 5k presented a new challenge, but it wasn’t quite as intimidating as a 10k would have been to me then. In fact, I was worried whether I’d struggle with fatigue over seven whole kilometres, which seems a bit ludicrous now.
Running in the evening meant I spent much of the day fretting over the event – with a carefully planned and prepared pasta lunch (hashtag carb-loading), and all sorts of other allowances. With the race taking place a short but not insignificant distance from the office, we set off very early to get to the start on time, using the trip there as a slow, steady warm-up jog.
Then came my first experience of collecting a race number and affixing it to my top. It was really quite annoying (I might even describe it as a random annoyance of running – oh wait, I already did…) and took a while, but I reassured myself it was something I’d get better at it quite quickly. Nope, still waiting.
The start was quite a sight – my first chance to really see the incredible variety of people who take part in paid-for races: young and old, fast and sedate, competitive athletes and determinedly fun runners. As they all massed together at the start, it was quite hard to even guess whereabouts in the pack I should locate myself. I settled on a solid mid-pack place. Well, it’s always better to be a bit too far back than start too far forward and end up getting swamped.
Then the start. Madness. The mass of runners set out at a multitude of paces, crossing paths and passing and repassing each other. My plan involved doing two steady five-minute kilometres in the first 2k, and then trying to up my pace a little to match my parkrun pace at the time – in effect taking it easy at the start, then doing my usual parkrun.
That proved difficult, in part because the volume of runners going at all manner of different paces and taking all manner of different lines around the course made running steadily a challenge early on. It was also challenging because of the innovative solution the race organisers had found to not being able to use kilometre markers in Bushy Park: marshals wearing jackets with distance markers on. I completely missed spotting the person wearing the 2k sign, and at a time when I was still timing myself with a £7.99 Casio rather than a Garmin GPS watch, meant a long, nervous period wondering why the second kilometre seemed to be taking so long…
As the race went on and I realised I had energy left, I began to up the pace. And the speed of my finish sprint proved to me that I was slightly too cautious early on. Not that I was thinking that too much as I tried to catch my breath and stop sweating in the queue to pick up my first finisher’s T-shirt.
What an experience. It was still about fun, and the motivation was still challenging myself rather than trying to beat others, but somehow it felt like a step up from, say, a parkrun. By Saturday morning I was already looking for future races to enter.
That was two years ago. I returned to the Wedding Day 7k last year, and it was as fun as I remembered. And I planned to be doing it for the third time tonight, until work intervened and required me to be elsewhere. Which is a real shame: there really are few better ways to spend a Friday night…