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A Night to Remember

Nestled at the foot of London’s Parliament Hill lies a community running track of the same name.

Exposed to the elements, unsheltered by the steepling stands you find at the Olympic stadium less than six miles away and home to club sessions and school meets, its location at the bottom of the slope offers a natural vantage point for spectators of such occasions.

But for the most part, those keen observers number in their tens.

For the past four years, however, on one summer’s night, that has all changed. The few onlookers are joined by thousands more who crowd onto the hill to watch what has fast-become the premier 10,000m meet on the UK calendar.

What seems an incongruous place for the making or breaking of the dreams of aspiring Olympians and World Championship contenders becomes a one-night carnival, at its centre a series of white-hot, high-end races in which the best of British – and many from further afield – do battle for the right to wear their national colours.

Welcome to the Night of the 10,000m PBs.

This is the discipline Mo Farah has claimed double Olympic and world gold in. It’s the event that has elevated Britain’s most decorated runner to the status of Knight of the Realm. And yet, far from the flashing bulbs and booming tannoys of the grandest stages in athletics, it has been a distance kept in the domestic backwaters.

Ben Pochee, a lifelong Highgate Harrier, one of the clubs who call the track home, decided to do something about that.

“The problem with 10K track races has always been that if people aren’t feeling 100 per cent they pull out.

“At the top end you don’t want to subject yourself to 25 laps of a track unless you’re on good form. So races were often half-baked; there was rarely anyone around you running at your speed so you would essentially be running on your own.”

It was a far-from-ideal situation for anyone in need of a quality race and a quick time over the distance.

“All the guys who wanted to go to the World Championships had to get a qualifying time,” says Ben.

“But there was almost nowhere in Europe where you could get into a good enough quality 10K race to get the qualifying time, so they were having to find the money to go to America to race.”

The problem was highlighted in 2013 when, on the weekend of the British Athletics Championships, the 10K was scheduled on the Friday night, away from the glare of the public who would come to watch the racing over the rest of the weekend.

“In the men’s race only 13 runners turned up,” says Ben. “In the women’s race, one. People’s expectations were so low they thought there was no point going.”

One year later – the second year of the Night of the 10,000m PBs, British Athletics agreed to allow Pochee’s burgeoning event to incorporate the British Championship race. “They agreed we were doing a better job, which was great, and it’s grown from there.”

The back straight of the track is cloaked in a marquee housing a bar and DJ, with the crowds permitted to stand on lane three, bringing the punters closer to the action than they could ever hope to be in a major arena.

It has helped turn the British 10K title into a prize battled for in a raucous, party atmosphere rather than a race no one can be bothered to turn up for. And with support from London Marathon Events Ltd, the organising company of The Big Half, Ben has been able to spread the message about this free event for spectators far and wide.

“It really has allowed me to ‘pump up’ the event and make it attractive to people who don’t know athletics - to push the event into more than a running race that attracts people from across the spectrum.”

And, ultimately, it could conceivably lead to a stronger pool of runners competing at the 26.2-mile distance, says Ben.

“Part of the original ethos of the London Marathon is to support British athletes to help them run faster over the marathon. A lot of people believe that to run a quick marathon you need to optimise your ability to run 10K on the track. You then use it as a springboard to go into the marathon.”

The 2017 Night of the 10,000 PBs takes place on Saturday 20 May. Click here for more info.

Photo: Andy Waterman