Verity Ockenden leaves her racing shoes at home this year and will instead give her best impression as a cheering spectator. The Swansea Harrier explains why a visit to Highgate is a must, whether you are chasing a PB or supporting.

The 2017 edition of the Night of 10,000m PBs was my first ever race over 25 laps of the track, and what an event. Where else would you want to debut over the distance, but Highgate’s infamous night of racing?

A few years ago, at the beginning my scholarship at Lamar University, I was an 800m/1500m specialist and graduated two years later with more than a vague interest in the 5000m. However, it was my experience 12 months ago in Highgate that really cemented my interest in the longer distances.

I knew I was jumping in at the deep end by choosing this race as my first, but despite the incredible depth of talent present, I didn’t feel intimidated, because, with the increase in distance, came an increased camaraderie.

Race founder and director Ben Pochee has worked hard to cultivate this shared sense of sporting endeavour, and his exuberant group emails allowed no space for the self-doubt that can so easily creep in during the build-up to big races. Never before have I been addressed as a ‘woman of aerobic swagger’ and it still ranks as my favourite title of all time.

An unmatched atmosphere

Usually, my pre-race routine involves earphones in and zoning out to a bit of ‘Mom’s spaghetti’ but it was worth deviating from my habit at Highgate in order to soak up the atmosphere which was more than enough to get me psyched up to race.

Not everyone needs such a stimulus in order to find their competitive edge, but being quite a shy soul personally, I have learnt to exploit the performative element of racing.

To my poor neglected friends I describe racing as my version of going out partying. I like it to feel like an occasion to rise to and I enjoy a big stage such as the one created at Highgate, incorporating live music, fireworks and flamethrowers galore. For me, it was great to find so many of my running cohorts in one place, and to be able to listen to the likes of Sebastian Coe and Paula Radcliffe as I warmed up, added something special.

The race itself

Once the race was underway, The Swansea Trotters, also known as the Sea Pigs or the Crusties (the world’s maddest alumni running club) were out in force cheering for both Dewi Griffiths and I which made for a deafening back straight.

I don’t know if I was relieved or concerned about the gusto with which they took my mum under their wing, but when you’re hearing her being serenaded with a rousing rendition of Busted’s ‘Miss McKenzie’ by a certain Steve Jones (not the Steve Jones…sorry Steve) it certainly provides a welcome distraction from the body’s laments.

I think the beer definitely had something to do with the cheer, and although twenty-five laps went by in a jubilant flash, I was mighty glad that they had saved me a cold one too.

I crossed the line in 16th place running 33:37 and having raced a little too cautiously as a beginner, the first thing I said on finishing was ‘I want to do that again!’, a sentiment which I think was the ideal outcome envisaged by my coach Tony all along.

What I learnt

I learnt a couple of things for next time I toe the line in Highgate, chiefly being not to stay in such a dodgy-smelling AirBnB, or to overestimate my ability to tolerate half a shandy post-race and thus stay awake for any socialising.

Nevertheless, the Night of 10,000m PBs was a great opportunity to show my ‘non-runner friends’ what I am rambling on about most of the time, bringing a bit of meaning to the constant training updates I subject them to when asked if I’ve been up to anything ‘interesting’ lately.

One such friend (does a collective noun for them exist? Like the Muggles in ‘Harry Potter’?) is now an athletics fan after being immersed in my post-race endorphin-induced philosophising on how everything in running relates to life somehow.

It’s one of a kind

There are few athletics events on the calendar that I am lucky enough to go to as a competitor whilst also wishing I was a spectator, but Ben Pochee’s baby is one of them.

I experienced the racing side in 2017 and on Saturday I will get to experience cheering as a spectator. Jo Pavey, who I was more than a little star-struck with when I lined up to collect my race bib behind her, returns this year as a speaker in a Q&A session that I can’t wait to attend.

And while not racing this year I am really looking forward to participating from the other side of things; it’s not often I get to support my fellow athletes as much as they deserve as I am usually focusing on my own routine.

Perhaps due to lack of practice, I’m not very good at cheering either as I worry that whatever I’m thinking of shouting, “You’re doing great!” or “only five laps to go!” for example, will sound sarcastic. And I am sure by the time I’ve conjured up something better, the moment has passed and my friends have sped past un-applauded.

With this in mind, I’ve been practising my A-game by taking inspiration from Olympian Alexi Pappas’ efforts in the video below. Give it a watch and take your fandom to a new level in time for Saturday.

When you’re not racing like a champ you sure as hell better be cheering like one.

An in-depth preview of the women’s elite race can be found here, while you can get ready for men’s race here. Additionally, a pre-race chat with Ben Connor, one of the favourites in the men’s A race, can be found here.

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