Serpentine coach David Chalfen reflects on the vibrant and inspiring growth of endurance track meets in the UK
“Road racing is just rock n roll, track racing is Carnegie Hall”, thus wrote Marty Liquori, former USA 5000m hero. Younger readers may wish to google Liquori, Carnegie Hall and for all I know, rock n roll. I like it though. It captures that extra intensity that track races bring to both athlete and viewer – the closed environment, the unsparing metronomy of every lap being the same, the constant visibility of competitors throughout the ordeal.
Robust consultation with Mr Craggs has assured me that this is an endurance forum and that at least 99% of readers are not going to very soon be trying to look cool in the Doha Call Room; so basically the track racing season is now all but over.
One of the great pleasures in recent years has been the inspiring growth of endurance-only track meets. It’s fair to say that their number and depth has a major Southern basis, a very obvious impact of our horrible house prices meaning that everyone aged under 35 has loads of time to pile up the 25 lappers when in a normal society they’d be sorting an attic bedroom, in magenta.
This isn’t the place to go on about the races themselves, they are, in essence, what we expect of 5000 and 10,000 metre sorties; feel OK for the first third, they get quite tough after about two thirds, then follow some really grim gurning laps, before a searing last 200m when you realise that the beer queue isn’t getting any shorter and you really must get past that slightly annoying guy who just 2 years ago was a borderline- tubby parkrunner before he read Pfitz and Douglas and has been in bed by 10 o clock ever since.
That’s all a given. No, the real tough part to negotiate (and most definitely tougher for coaches than athletes, as we also have to deal with both increasing age and girth and propensity to reinvent our pre-internet pb’s to see what we can get away with) is the whole entry, seeding and pacing caper.
It’s a draining scenario, with almost no let up from mid-April when Ben Pochee opens the curtains to early September when the Ladywell 10000s are done and dusted. Entry timescales are a nuanced mine field; chase it too early and you look like a socially maladroit loser with no other interests; leave it too late and you look like well, similar really, but with the not insignificant hindrance of missing the sodding race that you deliberately didn’t try to enter too early to avoid looking silly.
Then, if you have somehow found that narrow window when you can actually enter the thing, there’s the whole seeding shenanigans. In Highgate 10,000s’ early days it was a statistical joy to behold quite how many guys were all in that self-assessed sweet spot of 29.59 10k shape, until it became apparent that the races are seeded until they are full, rather than in predetermined time bands.
Once seeded, there’s the debilitating reflection, denial and belated humility phase when the athlete goes from chest-beating over- achiever to wishing to renegotiate down to the next race. They see the pacing data and suddenly what was a strong domestic club race seems to have half the Scandinavian and Low Countries’ Federation squads all pitching in chasing Euro Under 23 QTs.
Jeez, cross country leagues were never this stressful. It is a unique part of the sport, where bona fide national level runners can one week be challenging for a win and the next time out, in the same shape, be busting their buns not to be last, depending on where the seeding cut off has fallen.
Joking aside, it has, for this coach, been the single most inspiring and exciting development in UK endurance in many years so as the season closes I’d like to record a huge thankyou to all the people who make it happen and most especially the athletes who put themselves on the line for nothing other than personal fulfilment and the chance to look clever if they negative split like the Serpie guys do.
David Chalfen coaches at Serpentine, and via RunCoach121 and gets perverse joy from seeing a Lap Counter showing 22.