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.
I signed up for two races this week. Now, that’s nothing too unusual in itself: I take part in quite a lot of races. But there was something that was quite odd about the two races I signed up for: they’re both in October. It’s February. October is, like, eight months away.
Now, I’m rarely the most organised person. I’m not much of a forward planner; it takes me some work to map out a three-month marathon training plan, for example. So it’s a little out of character for me to be plotting out my running eight months ahead.
It also strikes me as slightly odd. Eight months is some time away. Lots of things can change between now and then. It’s quite possible that other commitments – work, family, that sort of thing – might arise for the two weekends in October I’ve just shelled out money to enter races on. So why have I signed up so early?
Because, if I want the chance of taking part in those races, I have to.
Here’s the thing. Running is a popular activity. Lots of people run. And lots of people who run like to take part in races. Some races are particularly well-regarded and popular. But any race can only accept a certain number of entries. If more people want to take part in the race than there are places in that race, you have a classic case of supply and demand economics.
This isn’t a problem with most races. There are lots of races, and the bulk of the them don’t fill up their places: many offer on-the-day entries, if you’re so inclined. The trouble is that, without a lot of research, you often never know which will sell out and which won’t.
Finding out a race you want to do is sold out can be incredibly disappointing. Last year, I ran the Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon in March, and very much enjoyed it. Having survived this year’s Houston Marathon, I figured I’d tackle it again this year. But, by the time I decided I’d actually be up for a mid-March half, it had sold out. Rats.
If you’re a race organiser, having more people want to do your event than can actually start it is a lovely problem to have. And those race organisers have found different ways to cope.
One of the races I signed up for this week is the Cabbage Patch 10, a very enjoyable ten-mile race based in Twickenham (and, of course, the winner of my award for the best race I did in 2016 that wasn’t the London Marathon). It’s a popular event: its been going for 35 years, Mo Farah is a previous winner and, in my experience, extremely well-organised. Plus, the course is a flat, fast and fun loop around the River Thames, heading from Twickenham down to Kingston and back via Richmond.
The event didn’t run in 2015 because it’s regular date clashed with the Rugby World Cup, which used nearby Twickenham Stadium heavily. And when it returned last year, demand was such that it sold out months before the start.
Doubtless aware of such demand, organisers opened the entries on February 14 – eight months before the October 15 race date. It’s a first come, first served entry system: entries will stay open until all the places are filled.
Organisers advertised the date entries opened at last year’s event, and have plugged it multiple times on their social media feeds. Which means that people who did the race last year, or are interested in it, will likely be made aware entries are on sale. People like me. And those people then have the chance to enter early, when they know they can get a place.
There’s clearly demand, too: there have been almost 400 entries in the first two days. And, again, this is for a race in October!
The other race I’ve signed up for this week is a bit more complicated. That would be the Royal Parks Half Marathon, which takes place in central London in mid-October. This is the tenth year the race has been held, and it’s predictably popular, since it offers a very rare chance to run through the streets of London on closed roads (there’s another way to do that but, well, it involves running a marathon…).
With demand greatly outstripping supply, the Royal Parks Half uses an online ballot system. The ballot is open to entries for a week or so, and then about a week later people are told if they got in or not. People who secure a place then have a week or so to pay up. If they don’t, they lose their place, which gets redistributed in a second ballot.
Reading about the event, it seemed a fun race and a good chance for a second run round the streets of London. I was tempted, but unsure: did I really want to commit to a half-marathon in October already? What if I found some other running challenge for that time that seemed more fun?
With the ballot about to close, I made the decision to put an entry in. After all, the odds were likely against me getting a place, and not having to pay up to enter the ballot (that was an option, giving slightly better odds to get a place through dint of being entered into the second ballot) meant that it didn’t cost me anything to try. And it was probably academic. After all, the odds were likely against me.
And guess what?
I got in.
Suddenly, my hypothetical musings about whether I wanted to commit to a relatively expensive half-marathon in London in October wasn’t so hypothetical. I had a week to either pay up, or lose my chance. And the race is a week before the Cabbage Patch 10, which I really wanted to do again. That’s quite a lot of race mileage in the space of seven days. Perhaps I should pick one. But… both are tempting. What to do, what to do…
As my credit card bill will tell you, I paid up for both.
So now, it’s a bit weird. I have no real idea what I’m doing for much of the rest of the year. I haven’t planned my holidays, breaks, work events, family gatherings much beyond the next few weeks. And yet I know that, health permitting, I’ll likely be tackling two races on back-to-back weekends in mid-October. You know, in eight months time.
And given that most races don’t offer refunds or deferrals if you can’t run, it’s a bit of a gamble. I’m paying up now, and just having to hope that, come October, I’ll actually be able to take part in both events. If not, I’ll be out of pocket.
Frankly, it seems a bit daft. But, as my Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon experience showed me, it’s the sort of thing you have to do if you want to be sure of a place in a popular race you really want to do.
And, well, it’s hard to think of a better solution. And, hey, if nothing else I can now tell you what I’m likely to be doing on two weekends in mid-October…
Oh, and I’ll just add this: you’ve missed the ballot for the Royal Parks Half but, as I write, entries are still available for the Cabbage Patch 10. So, if you think you possibly, definitely, absolutely might just be free on October 15, I’ll suggest you head here and enter. You know, while there are still places available…