Races such as the Podium 5k and the Serpentine Last Friday of the Month 5k are renowned for offering a stripped down racing experience: fast course, cheap entry, no medals or t-shirts.
It’s no coincidence that both events regularly record some of the fastest 5k results in the country, their simple formats clearly harking back to the heydays of British distance running, pre-internet, pre-corporately organised road races, pre-jogging boom.
With both events charging £5 or less to enter, graded to ensure runners are competing against those of similar standard, held on flat, tarmac roads and paths and publishing results on the same day, they are a competitive athlete’s dream.
In June, another fast – and potentially furious event for more reasons than one – the Summer Speedway 10k is billed to take place on a flat, two lap course near Chepstow, filtering entries by the fastest athletes.
Once the entry date has passed, only the quickest will be able to race, with a limited number of on-the-day entries for sub-31 and sub-34 runners.
The longer standing Serpentine 5k, based in London’s Hyde Park, boasts course records of 14:35 (Andy Arrand, 1999) and 15:56 (Rachel Townend, 2007), and offers an A and B race option, the former being open only to those able to run the distance in less than 22 minutes.
Entries must be made in advance (due to Royal Parks rules, and, until this year, only by post) for the princely sum of £2 for club runners, but on completion of the race there is no water station, no medals, just an official time posted later that day.
The relatively new kid on the block to basic racing events, the Podium 5k, has courted – and won the attention of – the very best in British distance running to every fixture at its tarmac cycle track 1.1km loop course at Barrowford since its inaugural fixture in October 2014, with new Podium records of 14:19 and 15:25 set this year by Olympians Laura Weightman and Tom Lancashire.
Costing £5 on the night and offering cash prize incentives to winners as well as course record-breakers, it is clearly aimed at those who want to run as fast as they can.
The sole organiser of the Podium 5k, Chris Barnes, does not hold back when asked why he set up the no frills event: “It is disgusting what is happening to the sport, with corporate idiots trying to make fast cash at the expense of runners wanting to improve their times.
“I got sick of the masses of expensive races organised by people who don’t care about runners or fast times. Dave Norman (Altrincham & District AC’s veteran elite endurance runner and Fast Running class of 2018 member) is one of only a few people organising races by runners, for runners (most notably the Trafford 10k), which pushes the top end to faster results.
“Sadly, he is in the vast minority of elite athletes who organise races, they are mostly put on by corporate types who are only in it for the money and don’t care about improving the sport.
“I want to encourage the higher end of racing, and based the idea on the simplicity and competitiveness of the Stretford track races (held at Longford Park, Stretford and hosted by Trafford AC), where you enter on the night, compete in a graded race depending on your form, then go home.
“Likewise, we grade the Podium entrants into either the A or B race, so you’re running alongside others of a similar standard, which encourages faster times.” As Barnes adds succinctly, the A race is for sub-18 athletes, the B race is ‘sub-anything’!
Asked what factors have contributed to national 5k standards falling (with obvious, elite exceptions), he is controversial but forthright in his opinion: “parkrun has given joggers the divine right to hog the racing line, which is a shame as it is a fantastic event but has ruined 5k racing.”
Just one glance at the Podium’s illustrious list of female athletes who have beaten the 17-minute barrier (with six having gone better and run sub-16) on the course, it’s fair to say Barnes is going some way to addressing the quality at the sharper end of the nation’s 5k racing.
Past male winners of the event – held on three to four nights a year – include Matt Clowes, Jonny Mellor and Nick McCormick. The next fixture is billed for June 15th, with a new sub-16 minute elite race added to the evening’s racing alongside the regular sub-18 and open 5k.
Weightman, who set the Podium 5k course record in March, is also the course record holder in the women’s 3k at the Armagh Road Races in Northern Ireland. A unique event where record numbers of men and women continue to break barriers in the 5k and 3k races year after year. It’s a long time established event that attracts the best of Britain and Ireland for its elite men’s 5k, open women’s 3k and open men’s 3k.
These races aren’t alone
The Summer Speedway 10k is due to be held on June 17th, and promises a flat and fast course, a slimmed down field, chip timing and a basic £12 entry fee, with any profits going back into cash prizes.
Organiser James Blore explains why he felt the need to set up a race which will rank entrants on their best recorded time since 2012 and only allow entry to the top-ranked athletes once the deadline has passed: “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a few years, but now more than ever I’ve felt it’s become something that’s actually necessary to do for the running community. And it’s my way of giving back to the sport that’s given me so much.
“In the past 10 years at Chepstow Harriers I’ve seen races get ever more expensive (though not our club races) and the amount of extra stuff (that you really don’t need) get ever bigger as well.
“I could wear a different race t-shirt every day for six months without washing them! All these things are unnecessary and just add to the costs which are then passed onto the runner.
“Whoever thinks it’s good value to pay £30 for a 10k is nuts. I should say that events put on by running clubs are mostly good value – it’s the commercialisation of the sport we love by profiteering organisations that are ripping off runners and hurting the grass roots that are the lifeblood of athletics.
“There’s a big need for a simplification of things – that way you can keep costs low for competitors, and the onus should be on race organisers to make costs as low as possible so the entry price is cheap.
“Our sport is simple – chuck on a t-shirt, shorts and shoes, head out the door. Why complicate things?”
A fight for race places
Blore goes onto address the issue of races filling up so quickly that the top end runners often don’t get a look in, thus watering down the standards on the day.
He explains: “It is a real bugbear of a lot of people I know – if you’re not up at 4am in the morning ready to enter online, then tough luck, no run for you! This is having a knock-on damaging effect on good club runners and lower performance standards throughout the country.
“These runners are missing out on competing against those of similar or higher ability regularly, and have little or no incentive to get faster.
“We just have to look at race times over the past years to see that average performances have fallen and very few organisations (especially not our governing bodies) have done anything to address this issue.
“The focus for them has been the tiny amount of elite athletes and then the huge number of mass participation runners – not the good club or regional athletes in between who could possibly make the next jump up to higher level competition.
“It seems such an obvious thing to say, but training and racing with faster people makes you faster!”
Blore says his idea of taking the quickest entrants is a fairer system for faster runners, adding: “it’s better than a random shoot-out on the speed of your internet connection, and the response so far from club runners has been very much ‘about time too’ – we just want a real old school burn up”.
The Summer Speedway will begin as a one-off trial race, but if Blore’s concept receives sufficient support he envisages a series where the top end of club runners could compete against each other on a more regular basis.
“Imagine a Leeds Abbey Dash race with the same depth and quality field, but in the South West and South of Wales”, he adds.
Five turned up for the inaugural ‘Last Friday of the Month 5k’
The Last Friday of the Month 5k is organised by Serpentine Running Club, and headed up by Malcolm French, who has overseen every fixture since April 2000.
The event is in its 26th year (although the 5k originally dates back to the late 1980s when it was organised by The London Road Runners Club), and recently passed its 300 race mark.
French explains why the event started, who it was aimed at, and why it has stuck resolutely to its basic format: “The original race director, John Walker, wanted to give people running in the park during their lunch breaks an opportunity to come together once a month for a race.
“He wanted it to be a proper race with an accurately measured course licensed with UK Athletics. Five runners turned up for the first race and we’ve gone on from there.
“It’s no frills racing. Most runners work locally – although a fair number come from much further afield – use their jog to the park as a warm up, do the race, then run straight back to work and are back at their desks having their sandwiches within an hour.
“Essentially, the same is true of the volunteers who do the organisation and marshalling and who also have to fit the races into their work schedules.
“This means we have to keep things simple and what race equipment we do use has to be capable of being brought to the park by bus or tube. 10 minutes before the race, you wouldn’t know anything was going to happen, and 10 minutes after the finish everyone will have gone.
“Although there are medals for the first three female and male finishers, we’ve always taken the view that we will simply charge an entry fee that covers our costs. For a lunchtime race, that’s what the runners are looking for.”
It remains to be seen whether these three events and others like them will help to reverse the long time decline in the nation’s distance running standards.
‘Big’ running events such as the Great Run and Vitality series have their place, offering runners of all abilities the chance to enjoy racing against large fields and – for a sizeable fee – rewarded with a sparkling medal or technical t-shirt in return. parkrun also should be credited for increasing large scale participation in running events across the UK and, indeed, the world.
But it’s the sharper end of competitive racing that 5ks at Podium, Serpentine, Armagh and the new Summer Speedway 10k are trying to address – only time will tell if they succeed in their aim to enrich the top of the rankings tables with cheap, simple, ‘no frills’ race formats. Here’s hoping they do!