As a runners it is easy to become cynical about new things in running: the latest shoe design or midsole material that promises further or faster; personal trainers growing beyond their weight-loss and fitness remit to start offering marathon training advice; a new GPS device or piece of software to track your progress; big brands getting involved in putting on races…
So as much as I tried to go to the Run To The Beat, Powered By Nike+, with an open mind, there was a nagging feeling that I might be part of a gimmick – a marketing exercise with no ‘real’ runners. At worst a badly organised, over-hyped cock-up. Certainly my last experience of the race, when my wife ran the inaugural Run To The Beat as her very first half marathon, was not pretty. She told me about delays, confusion amongst the marshalls and a badly thought out course. Thankfully she was resilient enough to not only beat my debut marathon time on her first outing over 13.1 miles, but come back for more (though it has to be said, not more Run To The Beats).
Add to this the reaction that I got from a few people – one tweet I received read
Corporate crap. Wouldn’t trust Nike to run a bath let alone a half marathon
– and the odds on this race being one that I would remember fondly, were narrowing by the hour.
In actual fact, there were a few things that I thought probably looked good on paper, or which fulfilled the sponsor’s brief but that might not have been thought through from the runners’ perspectives:
- The celebrity who starting the race was Adam Gemili, a sprinter, which given the amazing range of athletes that Nike sponsors might be considered an odd choice. That said, in an impromptu interview after the race, Adam offered some really great advice for all athletes of all types (I’ll post the interview in the next few days) and he seemed really genuinely enthused by the whole event.
- Apart from water, the drinks on the course were Vitacoco coconut water in a paper carton. Not exactly the sort of high glucose energy drink in a convenient bottle that I would expect to be provided to flagging runners
- The course was wiggly to say the least, with some very odd sections along narrow alleyways squashed between ugly industrial units and the muckier reaches of the river Thames. And some frustrating out-and-back switchbacks within the last mile that may have been added to make up the distance or to create more opportunity for spectators to catch sight of their runners – either way, it was annoying to run along a line of cones, reach the end and turn back round the cones to run the other way. Three times!
- The winner was a 3000m steeplechaser who told me after the race that he had to stop with a few miles to go, to help one of the two wheelchair competitors who had tipped over and fallen out of his chair, so at the sharp end of the race, there was not really much competition
And maybe this is the future of road racing. I read in Athletics Weekly recently that the organisers of the New Orleans half marathon, who had paid Mo Farah rather hansomly to make an appearance last year, have decided to stop inviting and paying for elites, instead focusing their resources on ‘the masses’.
I guess the cynical amongst us could summise that big brands are getting involved in races, not because they want to improve the state of distance running, but because 19,000 people and all their friends, families and social connections is a big audience and the brands are actually more interested in improving the state of their balance sheet.
Why Run To The Beat works
But I am not of that view. And here is why. I think that it takes big balls to try to put on an event like Run To The Beat. You have to be prepared to invest a huge amount in organizing the event, paying for the road closures, hiring the staff, etc. That is a risk that most race organisers are not prepared to take.
And the races like Run To The Beat are accessible as a result. You do not need to be a hardcore club stalwart with your 20 year old vest and tried-and-tested training methods to know about the race. You can see it on billboards and on friend’s Facebook pages. And if we are to build a legacy from the Olympics then surely mass participation needs to be a part of that.
Certainly one output of an event like Run To The Beat is that the sponsors gain the publicity that they seek. But I think that is a relatively reasonable price to pay to get people into running.
All of these thoughts were whirling around in my head as I left the race village – right in the middle of Jessie J’s set (sorry Jessie – I’m sure it was great) – and made my way to Greenwich to get on the train. I was happy to get a seat and struck up a conversation with the woman sat opposite me, proudly wearing her medal. She told me that the Run To The Beat was her first half marathon. Indeed it was her first ever run over 15km. She said that there were lots of things about the race that she thought could be improved upon. But they paled into insignificance against the things that made the race ideal for her – it was easy to find out about it. The communication from the race organisers was superb. She didn’t feel intimidated by the event.
And the best thing for me, is that she had ‘the look’ – a glint in her eye which told me that she had had a really great morning. And more importantly, she told me, she would definitely be looking for another half marathon soon. Another person bitten by the running bug and I think that Nike and the race organisers can be proud of taking at least one little step to changing the trend of inactivity and obesity related health issues in the UK.
As for me. Well I went to see what the race was all about. Having run 102km in the Alps last weekend in the UTMB CCC race, I wondered what my legs would be capable of. So I intended to take the race relatively easy and see what happened. Not being able to start my stopwatch at the start was an added bonus and force me to run by feel. Having started close to the front, I simply set myself the target of catching the runner in front and not worry about time.
So that is what I did. As I mentioned, I did find the course a bit too wiggly and there were some distinctly odd bits of running through industrial estates. Added to that, was the hill in the last mile which is not a memory I will cherish. But as I approached the finish line, running as hard as I could to avoid being caught, I glanced up at the clock and saw 1:20 which given the fact that only 7 days earlier I had just finished 24 hours of non-stop running/hiking, was pretty pleasing.
The Run To The Beat is not a race that will suit everyone. The fact that it has Nike as its main sponsor is going to alienate some. But there was a great atmosphere in the race village and for much of the course there was great support. Most importantly for me, there seemed to be a really inclusive feel about the race. If the future of distance running is at least in part, about organisations like Nike encouraging and facilitating people discovering how great running is, then I for one am all for it.