The first ‘proper’ race I ever entered was the Wedding Day 7k. As the name suggests, it takes place on a seven kilometre course. Even at the time, it seemed a slightly odd distance. But, as time passes, I’ve come to realise that it’s just downright unusual.
Years back, in the days before easy access to precise measurement equipment, online race comparison websites and the like, races were all sorts of strange distances. It largely depended on what course organisers could carve out of whatever roads, trails or paths they could get access to.
But, in the increasingly homogenised and standardised modern world, events have become far more standard in distance. Generally speaking, the vast majority of events are run over a handful of particular race lengths – 5k, 10k, 10-mile, half-marathons and marathons.
On, balance, that’s common sense. Those distances give people a good idea of the effort required to train for and complete in any given event, and it also makes it possible to compare progress on different races in different places at different times.
But that theory doesn’t entirely hold. No two race courses are the same: just think of the variation possible in both elevation changes and surface, for example. My best 10k race time was set on the virtually flat, wide Tarmac of Castle Combe Race Circuit. I can’t really compare the time I set there to my times on the Richmond Park 10k, which takes place on a hilly, mixed surface course.
But, most importantly, races of unusual distances are fun. They offer variety, something a bit different. And, frankly, the races I’ve competed in over unusual distances have been some of the most fun. I don’t think that’s coincidence: it seems the races organisers who persist with non-standard event distance races are the most proud of their events, and their history. The Wedding Day 7k is a great example. Another was the Treggy 7, a seven-mile trek in Cornwall featuring a great big, whopping hill.
Here’s another: last weekend I competed in the Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run. It features three different distances, and none of them are standard: you can take your pick from 8.2, 16.2 and 20.1 miles.
The distance stems from the course: it’s effectively a loop of the River Thames towpath and nearby roads from Kingston-upon-Thames down to Hampton Court Palace and back. The 8.2-milers do one loop, the 16.2 runners do two (a slight shortcut on lap two accounts for the fact it’s not quite double), while the 20.1-mile runners add an extra mini-loop early on.
Interestingly, the course is virtually the same one I’ve done several other runs on – the Hampton Court Palace Half-Marathon, and the Kingston 10 Miles. Those races add in extra loops and twists to make up standard distances, so the Kingston Breakfast Run organisers could do the same, but they choose not to. Excellent.
Now, the distances aren’t entirely random: the run is frequently used as a training effort for people tackling spring marathons such as London, with plentiful pacers to help people round in particular times.
Since I’m not doing this year’s London Marathon (boooo!), I just did it for fun. For fun? Yup. And on very little training too. Fun. Little training. So I did the 8.2-mile distance, right? Nah… I was planning to, but when I went to sign up, it was only a few pounds more to double my mileage… so the 16.2-miler it was.
Well, it’s only a few miles more than a half-marathon, right? Well, yes, except I’d only run further than 10k a few times since I finished the Houston Marathon back in January. And it was only a week or so before last weekend I really comprehended that, at 16.2-miles, the Kingston Breakfast Run would be the third-longest race I’d ever do.
But, strangely, I didn’t feel all that much pressure. Because it’s not like I had anything to compare the race to. I didn’t have a 16.2-mile PB, and it’s not like I’m going to tackle many of them – unless I return to the Kingston Breakfast Run again (hint: I will). With the inability to compare my time to pretty much anything else, I found myself free to experiment a bit more.
As a result, I set out at something approaching my half-marathon PB pace, with the intention to see how long I could keep that pace up past 13.1 miles. It’s certainly not a tactic I’d use on a marathon, when I’d be determined to run at a pace I felt I could sustain. But on this event, I felt free.
So off I went at my half-marathon pace, and yes, I did predictably struggle in the final few miles when the pace, and my lack of training, began to tell. But I didn’t mind all that much, and I just concentrated on having fun.
If nothing else, doing a 16.2-mile race was a good challenge: it pushed me on from a half-marathon, but without the sheer pain and effort required to do a full marathon.
Which is why I love unusual race distances: they don’t just become another 10k, 10-miler or half-marathon. They’re challenges in their own right. They’re events you can do for the challenge and fun of doing them.
Oh, and in the case of the Kingston Breakfast Run, there was also an awesome goody bag, courtesy of Lidl. Among other things, it featured peanut butter, a bag of seeds, peppermint tea, and shower gel. What more could you want? (If the answer was muesli, then don’t worry: there was also muesli).
A mug. Yup, instead of a medal you get a mug.
— James Attwood (@Atters_J) March 26, 2017
As noted in the past, I’m a big fan of events that hand out non-medal-based finisher rewards. It’s a nice point of difference that makes them stand out. A bit like having a race that takes place over an unusual difference.
Knowledge is power. It’s an oft-repeated phrase, and that’s largely because it’s true. When you’re taking part in a race, knowing how far you’ve gone – and by extension how far you’ve got to go – is incredibly useful knowledge.
In the age of GPS watches (which are great, although they can also be randomly annoying), most runners can have that information, and lots more, strapped to their wrist. But not everyone runs with a GPS watch. And even those who do wear them don’t always look at them. And that’s where distance marker boards come in.
They are brilliantly simple. It’s a sign which says how far into the race you are – usually every mile of kilometre. They’re used on most races, and they take many forms. Sometimes it’s a simple bright yellow sign with a number on it. On a big event, such as the London Marathon, they can be full balloon arches that stretch across the road. On one run I did, the ‘boards’ were actually people wearing jackets with the distance marked on them.
Distance boards provide useful information, and they’re also reassuring that you’re actually still on the right route for the race. They’re simple, they’re unobtrusive and they’re brilliantly effective.
So…. why have I included them in my ever-growing list of random running annoyances?
Because of this: they’re not always in exactly the right place.
Distance boards need to be put somewhere: maybe hung from a tree, attached to a fence or propped up by a post. And sometimes, there just isn’t somewhere to put them at the exact distance they’re indicating. Sometimes the people putting the distance boards up just don’t seem to have double-checked the measurements. Sometimes, they just seem to make a mistake. In other words, it’s not that uncommon to find the market board is, at least according to my Garmin, a couple of hundred metres early, or a couple of hundred metres late.
Is that a problem? Well, it’s certainly not an unsurmountable one, but it doesn’t really help. If you’re trying to pace yourself with a ‘normal’ watch not fitted with GPS, you’ll need to rely on the boards being in the right place to ensure you’re running the splits you want.
And if you’re running with a GPS watch, finding that it’s out of sync with a distance marker board can be disconcerting: is the board wrong? Is your watch wrong? How far have you gone?
Finding the distance marker boards are out of sync also creates other concerns. It’s not uncommon to find a race route is either a little short or long of the advertised distance. That can be reflected in the distance marker boards slowly slipping out of sync with your watch. But when that starts happening, it can be tough to know if they’re just errant boards, or if you’re going to discover that the course is too short or too long. Should you slow your pace in order to account for potentially running an extra few hundred metres? And if you do that, how daft are you going to feel when the finish is exactly where it should be, and it was just the boards being stuck in the wrong place?
Again, that’s not exactly a major problem, more a minor frustration – an annoyance, if you will. And given the brilliant job most race organisers do, I can forgive them for putting the odd distance marker board in the wrong place. Once again, this random running annoyance probably says more about my running psyche than anything else.
But that whole knowledge is power thing only really works if the knowledge you’re getting is accurate. And anything that causes you to doubt that isn’t welcome.
All that said, when I do a race, I’ll keep looking out for the marker boards. Why? Because each board is a quite literal milestone during a race, proof that you’re inching closer to the finish than you are to the start. Yup, even if they can be annoying, they’re always a welcome sight…
Read more random running annoyances here.