Night of the 10k PBs: Athletics with a twist... and all down to one man’s vision

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It is a mystery why World Athletics has not come knocking at Ben Pochee’s door for ideas.

Two years before Seb Coe called for innovation on his election as president of athletics’ governing body, Pochee hosted the first Night of the 10k PBs in a corner of Hampstead Heath.

Just 100 people turned up, hardly an indicator of it having a seismic impact on the sport in this country. Last year, attendance was in excess of 5,000 and, tomorrow night, the track at Parliament Hill promises to have its biggest ever numbers.

This is athletics with a twist, the ultimate in elite meeting grassroots sport. In one race, there will be two-time Olympic medallist Paul Chelimo and Stanley Waithaka Mburu, a world silver medallist last year. In the top women’s race, Britain’s Jess Warner-Judd will be aiming to defend her title from 12 months ago.

But in race after race at an event which also doubles up as the national championships, 10k runners of varying levels will race around the track trying to attain their own personal bests.

Lane eight of the track is converted to a space where spectators are encouraged to lean against the railings with beers in hand, and inside the Lactic Tunnel of Love, a cacophony of noise greets the runners lap after lap.

Jumbo screens play out the races; there are circus performers from fire eaters to knife throwers entertaining either side of the various 10ks; and fireworks regularly fly up into the night sky.

Somehow, Pochee, a coach with the Highgate Harriers who also runs LGN Wellbeing Ltd, has managed to make 10k running sparkle in an event powered by volunteers.

And despite sponsorship from the shoe brand On enabling him to lure elite runners to the event, even that element has a grassroots feel to it, with them staying at the Premier Inn in Archway and running to and from the track.

Inspired by one-day cycling events in mainland Europe, on its 10-year anniversary he is shaking his head at its success. “I’d never try and pretend we thought it would grow to something like this,” he said. “It’s always been year by year, really.”

There are circus performers from fire eaters to knife throwers, and fireworks light up the night sky.

The basic premise has not really changed from the outset but, as he puts it, this year “I’ve turned up the dial on what we offer spectators”. It is a balancing act of appealing to the athletic aficionados, families of all ages and those simply looking for a fun Saturday night out. And, crucially, entry is free.

As for the secret to its success, Pochee said: “People come to see the fastest runners in the world take part, but it’s an event born of the grassroots community. There’s an opportunity to engage more people and show this sport in a better light.”

British athlete Chris Thompson will be in action — pacing rather than racing — and has been coming here since 2014. Nowadays, some of his friends come merely to shout abuse about him from the tunnel.

“It’s rowdy but respectful,” he said. “The tent is intense, and you do get a shock, but you ride the wave of that crowd. Every athlete sees it as an opportunity to run quick and the interactivity is unmatched. I ran London 2012 and my skin was goosebumps. Okay, this crowd isn’t as big, but it’s a lot more intense.

“For fans, it’s like VIP access for everyone. It’s like going to a nightclub and getting behind the red rope. It’s the one track and field event that puts fans and runners all on a par.”

This pocket of Hampstead Heath, with its almost T20 twist on athletics, may not have all the answers, but it has made a good start.