It was a study in contrasts. Three weeks after walking to the start of the Chevron Houston Marathon among the stately skyscrapers and brown-beaten bail bonds offices of downtown Houston, I was back in race action. Except this time, my journey to the start involving a pleasant Sunday morning drive through the rolling countryside of Surrey and West Sussex.
On a grey, occasionally misty morning, my 60-mile jaunt from Richmond-upon-Thames took me through small towns and villages with quaintly English country names such as Haslemere, Fernhurst, Crinkly Bottom, Midhurst and Cocking (Alright, one of those isn’t real, as those who grew up in the mid-Nineties watching British Saturday evening family TV fare may spot…).
My destination was another quintessentially English attraction: the Goodwood Estate. Depending on your interests, you might know Goodwood for its grand stately home, its ‘glorious’ race course, its small airfield or even it’s sculpture garden. If you’re a motorsport fan like me, you’ll better know it as the home of the Festival of Speed motorsport event, and a historic race circuit that still hosts occasional revival meetings.
My destination last weekend was the circuit, to take part in a race – but there were no engines involved in this one. The circuit was the new-for-2017 host venue of the Chichester Priory 10k. A long-established fixture on the West Sussex running calendar, the race had previously been based out of the nearby county town of Chichester. The move was made, according to organisers, for ‘organisational and practical reasons’ – in part involving the challenge of closing roads in a busy town on a Sunday morning. Moving to a race circuit that’s part of an event used to holding big events must have seemed an ideal solution.
Once some teething issues are sorted out, I don’t doubt it will be. But last weekend… not so much. The problem seemed to be that substantially more cars turned up to Goodwood than expected by the venue and organisers (about 500 more, according to a local newspaper report). And venue staff and organisers struggled to get all those cars into the circuit and parked quickly enough. As the 10am start time for the race approached, long queues began to develop on the roads around the circuit.
I was completely oblivious to this. I always prefer to get to a race early to ease any parking-related stress, and arrived about an hours before the start. There was a short wait to get in, but I parked up easily and then stayed warm in my car until it was time to commence my pre-race warm-up. It was only when heading to the start area that I heard the commentator mention a delay.
The problem was exacerbated by the clever route the organisers had devised. The race started right outside the main gate of the circuit before taking in a six kilometre loop on closed-to-traffic roads in the local area. It then returned to the race circuit, finishing with a lap of the track. As a motorsport fan, I’m a bit of a sucker for runs that take place on race tracks, and this was a brilliant combination of a road run and a race track.
That said, having the start line on the road outside the circuit proved a problem: because it meant the traffic queueing to get into the circuit was stuck on the race route. There was nothing the organisers could do but delay the start until the road was clear.
The delay totally around 30 minutes in the end – hardly ideal on a cold day, but not enough to take the shine off an otherwise fun event with a great route. It did get me thinking though…
You see, a circuit such as Goodwood is, in theory, a genius place to use as the start venue for a running race. And I’m sure it will be in future, so long as the minor teething problems are addressed and organisers are ready for the right number of cars.
Why so genius? Well, think about the facilities needed to cope with a run that attracts nearly 2000 runners: you need somewhere for them to park (or, alternately, a viable way to get them to the start on public transport), and you need somewhere for them to warm-up and gather pre-race – such as a race track and big paddock area. You could do with some buildings for the race officials to base themselves in… just like the sort you’d find at, say, a race circuit. Oh, and it’d be great to have a really spectator friendly venue. And yes, you guessed it, a race track scores on that point too. The fact that race circuits offer several kilometres of smooth, traffic-free paved surface to run on is a massive bonus.
As noted, I’ve also done races at Castle Combe and Silverstone circuits, and both work brilliantly for similar reasons. It’s not just race circuits either. I’ve done races that start at other large sporting venues (such as Sam Houston Race Park in Texas, where I started 2017 with a 10k), and which benefit from offering a similar infrastructure to base a race out of.
Other venues can work: there’s a half-marathon which is based out of Thorpe Park when the theme park is shut out-of-season – essentially giving organisers access to a massive, unused car park. The Valentines 10k in Chessington, which I’m competing on this weekend, has used a clever combination of a semi-industrial business park (good for weekend parking when nobody is working) and a nearby college (a big building with toilets and showers to base the race in).
Schools and colleges, in fact, are popular places for runs to be based out of: when they’re not being used on a weekend they tick the boxes of parking, facilities and space really well.
Obviously for atmosphere you can’t usually beat the vibe of starting a race in the middle of a town or city centre. But such races usually involve more pre-race hassle for runners: they might have to hunt around for parking, and then walk big distances to get to the race start. That’s fine on occasion, but it does add an extra level of pre-event stress to proceedings.
By contrast, having a race based at an out-of-town venue in return plentiful parking, loads of space and access to some wonderful places to run seems a perfect compromise. And, once the teething troubles are sorted, I’m sure that can be demonstrated with next year’s Chichester 10k.