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.
Here’s a really quite random list of places. Your challenge: to work out what they have in common (this is a bit like Only Connect, except with more options and not quite as difficult…).
Barwell Business Park, across the road from Chessington World of Adventure.
The Sprat and Winkle Line trail, Hampshire.
Sam Houston Race Park horse racing course, Houston, Texas.
Panshanger Park, Hertfordshire.
Parque de el Retiro, Madrid, Spain.
Leith waterfront, Edinburgh.
Sainsbury’s experimental pear orchard in East Malling, Kent.
Any idea? Alright, given the subject matter of this site you’ve probably been able to give it a good guess – so you’ve probably figured out that they’re just some of the places that I went running – either in a race or just for fun – in 2016.
Some of those places were lovely: The Sprat and Winkle Line was a pleasant trot through lovely English woods. The Parque de el Retiro was an amazing tour through a grand Spanish park. Some of them weren’t: sorry Barwell Business Park, but you are, and always will be, an anonymous collection of semi-industrial units. Although you do have that in common with the scenery surrounding Sam Houston Race Park.
But whether beautiful or bland, scenic or smelly (hello parts of Leith…), they’re all places that I was able to explore because of running. And for every place I’ve run that would make for a lovely tourist trip, there are plenty of others that I wouldn’t ever have gone to if I hadn’t been running in, through or past them. In a way, that makes running in such random and odd places – and yes, we’re talking business parks, industrial estates, schools, country backroads and so on here – really quite special.
Think about it. A joy of running a big city event like the London Marathon is that you get to see some world-famous landmarks from a different perspective. Running over Tower Bridge, or passing Buckingham Palace as I turned onto The Mall, during the marathon was a really cool experience. But it wasn’t like I’d never been across Tower Bridge, or visited Buckingham Palace, before.
But before I tackled the Larkfield 10k last year, I’d never been near East Malling Research Station. I may well never go back there again. But, thanks to running, I’ve been there, and I’ve seen it.
So there you go. I love getting the chance to run in some beautiful, scenic and spectacular locations – the centre of London, downtown Houston, heck, even just the Thames path near where I live in Richmond-upon-Thames. But I also love getting the chance to run in places that I might never think of visiting otherwise, no matter how unusual, odd, ugly or drab.
Previous Random Running Loves…
For some time now, I’ve been highlighting some of the randomly annoying things about running. But, clearly running isn’t all about annoyances – or else I wouldn’t keep doing it. So it’s time to show some positivity and celebrate some things I love about running. Now, this isn’t about things like the thrill of setting a new PB or the satisfaction of finishing a long race. No, this is a celebration of some of the more random things there are to love about running…
Race starts can be noisy places. As people huddle up before the start, there’s usually a fair amount of nervous pre-race chatter, often announcements from the race organisers, and maybe some cheering from friends, family and spectators. It all builds up in the moments before the start. And, when the gun goes… it very quickly all goes quiet. Except for the footsteps. So many footsteps.
Individually, running doesn’t make that distinctive a noise. What is the sound of running shoes bouncing into pavements? Tough to describe. It’s sort of a squelch. Or a squish. Squelch, squelch. Squish, squish. Sound about right?
So it’s not a notable, glamorous sound. But when you multiply it by a few hundred, or a few thousand, or even tens of thousands of runners? Then it becomes a glorious cacophony. A collective squelch and squish of shared sporting endeavour. And it’s a collective noise you’ll only truly hear if you’re in the middle of that pack.
There’s a sweet spot to the squishy sound of made by the footsteps of a pack of runners. It varies every time, but it’s always early in a race. It comes once you’ve left the noise and distractions of the start, and just before the pack starts to break up and spread out. When the runners are fresh, and their strides are confident. The chatter and cheers of the start area fade out, and as the runners settle in, everything goes quiet, calm and peaceful. Well, everything except the sound of all those running shoes hitting the ground.
Squelch, squelch. Squish, squish.
Okay, perhaps it’s odd to say I love any sound that’s best described with terms such as ‘squish’ and ‘squelch’. But it’s hard not to. Perhaps it’s all about what it represents. It’s the sound of communal effort, the noise of hundreds – or thousands – or people setting off on a new athletic adventure. What’s not to love?