The UK is the best place in the world to be an amateur runner
The UK may not have many record breakers but it has an abundance of low-cost club competition — and competition remains the most effective route to athletic success
Every year Running USA, the organization that oversees competitive running across America, surveys its members, asking an exhaustive series of questions that covers every aspect of life as a runner. The results of the 2016 National Running Survey have just been released, and of the findings, a couple that leap out reference entry fees: notably that half of the people surveyed feel that races in the US are too expensive, and 60 per cent would race more often if entry fees were lower.
As Tracksmith’s token Brit, still getting to grips with the US running scene, I find this interesting. In the UK, we may not have many record breakers but what we do have is an active and inclusive club scene with an abundance of low-cost competition, that sits happily alongside big city races like the London Marathon or Great North Run, or community driven (and proudly free) events like parkrun. It’s this broad spectrum of competition that makes me hopeful for the future of British running, because perhaps even more so than natural talent, competition is the primary predictor of a nation’s athletic achievement: in Kenya, competitive running is a way of life in the same way as soccer is a way of life in Brazil. Few nations outside the former communist countries are able to regularly produce world beaters inside a vacuum; competitors are born in the cool light of competition.
It’s a sunny Thursday evening in May, and in Victoria Park in east London 300 runners, each sporting club uniforms, have lined up for race #2 of the 2016 Assembly League. At 7.30pm the starter gives us an indication to go (there’s no starter’s pistol — it’s a public park and would likely spook bystanders) and off we run, racing 3.5 miles in a figure eight around the park’s broad, tree-lined and traffic-free avenues. I cross the finish line a couple of strides after the clock strikes 20 minutes, and as I pass along the finishing funnel, I’m handed the position marker #60. How often do you average 5:44/mile, even in a short race, and place 60th? There can’t be many capital cities around the world that have such strength in depth.
The Assembly League is a series of six races that take place in parks around London every summer. Races take place on a Thursday evening over distances ranging from 3–3.5m, and are only open to members of league-registered clubs. My club, Serpentine, covers the entry fee for its runners — just as they do throughout the winter for cross country league meetings.
British clubs are rarely teams in the US sense. Some are, with strong elite squads, but most are non-selective, offering a route through the sport to runners of all ages and at all stages of their sporting life, from the casual jogger who maybe dreams of completing a marathon through to serious elite athletes aiming for Olympic selection. There are few barriers, and in events like the Assembly League every place you fight for, wherever you finish, is a point your rival clubs miss out on. That’s inherently inclusive and contributes to a feeling that we’re all in this together, wherever you finish. Few runners are put on a pedestal, and many live their whole lives within the club structure, competing from age 8 to age 80, being at various times superstar points scorer to stoic timekeeper.
In Victoria Park, none of the runners in the top 10 is a household name, they’re just normal people who work normal jobs, and thanks to hard work and talent are able to run fast. There are no secrets — train with them and race with them often enough, and one day you could be mixing it for the win too. Keep pushing and you could go all the way.
It’s not a system without its drawbacks — many clubs are yet to join the internet age, so joining one can be a leap of faith — but once you’re in, you’re set to go as far or as fast as your ambition allows.
I spoke to three runners who have experience running on both sides of the Atlantic to get their take on the British club scene, and work out if the UK really is the best place in the world to be an amateur runner.
Carl Selya-Hammer is 35 and originally from Long Island. He runs for Ranelagh Harriers in South-West London, although he’s a second-claim member of Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets Athletics Club, the organisers of the Victoria Park round of the Assembly League.
“I came to running sort of late”, he says. “It wasn’t until I got my first office job in 2004 that I realized I had to run and be active. After my first marathon in 2005 (3:41), I immediately wanted to do another one (3:35) and then immediately ran a third one a year and half later (3:33). That was January 2007. In April 2007 I met a Brit on the subway on the way to a race who had joined Brooklyn Road Runners and he told me to come down. I ran with them in the spring, got a place in the NYC Marathon, continued to run with them in the summer, then proceeded to run a 3:02 in November 2007.”
After a couple of years away from running clubs, working in France, Selya-Hammer found himself in London. “On my first weekend, the same Brit I met in NYC introduced me to a club he joined out of Richmond Park, the Ranelagh Harriers. I suppose the club captain saw I had potential and made sure I was present at some key races, all of which were cross country races. I had never run cross country, and honestly didn’t realize this was something people did beyond high school! Needless to say I was shocked at how extreme it was.”
His first race in club colors was the Southern XC Champs at Hampstead Heath — 15km of late-winter mud and unrelenting hills that really doesn’t compare to cross country anywhere else in the world. It was a baptism by fire, but he was hooked.
“I started racing like I never had before’, he says. “The cross country fixtures, year after year, were just incredible, and really gave me a solid base of racing that I never could have had in New York where we were really limited by how many races NYRR put on in Central Park, and how many races we cared to pay for given how expensive they were.”
If the competition was making him faster, the spirit of racing for a club kept him going through the tough patches.
“I really felt like in the US, running clubs were basically a group of people who trained together, and there was a sort of league table where teams competed against each other, but it was very much an afterthought. Compare this to the UK where it feels like a team sport, where we rally together, and see our hopes rise and fall through the cross country season.”
The Boston and London Marathons take place only six days apart and both are renowned for their fast times. What’s noticeable when you watch both from the side of the road is how club singlets dominate in London, particularly among those runners who cross the line between 2:20 and 3:30. This is something Selya-Hammer sees too: “As far as numbers, the UK clubs are far larger”, he says. “It seems like everyone who runs races is part of a club, which is far from the case in the US. There is such rich running history in the UK — Ranelagh was founded in 1881. The running club scene in the US is far more cobbled together, and I’d say outside of NYC and perhaps other big cities, it would be hard to have a similar club scene.”
This year in London Carl ran a marathon PR of 2:36:43. That’s over an hour off his PR in a decade, and it’s an improvement he credits largely to club racing. “The racing scene in London is phenomenal. From mid-October to the weekend before Christmas, I raced every single weekend. You would have to work really really hard to accomplish that in NYC, a place with a big running scene. Racing so often in a club, you begin to have intra and inter-club rivals to measure yourself against, which helps. Something else potentially unique to the UK is coaching. I trained with a coach from 2012–2014, and have just started working with Steve Hobbs who runs with VPH. I have made incredible progress thanks to coaching — that’s something that seems to be pretty normal here and I really think that has made a huge difference. That and the fact there are plenty of local runners I’ve met who are willing to do the training with me. Finally, all the good things about running clubs and the sense of community they foster has been aided and reinforced by Strava — Strava has made me even more dedicated in the past two years, while also expanding my circle of running friends.”
Laura Stewart grew up in Canada but now lives in London and runs for my club, Serpentine. “I was always sporty in school,” she says, “but never really liked running. I didn’t join a running club in Vancouver because there was too much else to do. I was skiing all winter and hiking/camping all summer so didn’t really feel the need to run for the sake of running.” Vancouver is truly blessed when it comes to the opportunities for outdoor pursuits, and it was the lack of skiing in London that led Stewart to running. “When I moved to London I started running to explore and entered a few races. One of my friends, Laura Fountain, was a member of Serpentine and kept going on about how I should join — It was super easy, really welcoming and I haven’t looked back yet.”
To a Brit, traditional road and track running in North America appears to be somewhat polarized: the sport does a great job of bringing people in at the bottom and it does reasonably well at making heroes of its stars. But, the only link between the grassroots and the elite appears to be the college sports system, a brief window in which to convince the world of your potential. The UK club system, while not as good at creating 21 year old phenoms, does at least give people a route through the sport later in life.
Stewart agrees: “That’s a fair assessment. After being a ‘sporty’ girl in high school I stopped participating in almost all organised sports in university because the gap between participation and competition was too big. There came an age when I wasn’t good enough at any sport to get on the teams and the only participation leagues were at the intramural level, which were fun in a play-volleyball-for-one-hour-then-go-to-the-pub-for-three-hours way, but not really anything that would encourage growth and development in sport for individuals.”
“I do think there is something special about grassroots running in the UK but also think it has a long way to go to providing a strong route for everyone”, she says. “For example, I see a lot of top down coaching still happening. The kind of ‘the pros do a 10 x 400 track workout so everyone else should too’, and a lot of other things like marathon training plans being copied down to amateurs and ‘participation athletes’ alike. Another example is the pathways for women are developing but are still very beginner-heavy (C25K) and participation based, but I’d like to see more emphasis in clubs and organizations on providing more steps for women looking to improve. To be honest, if I see another ‘free women’s running group’ offered by a brand or organization to cover their women’s participation targets then my eyes might roll out of my head.”
This is something Stewart is doing something about herself, leading a Monday night track session for adults at Paddington Track in London. “I don’t want to be the person who just points out the problems, like the lack of a pathway for women athletes, but want to be involved in the solutions. I’ve invested in the training to become a coach with the purpose that it will be something I do and am involved in for the rest of my life.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic is Tom Mackay. He grew up in London and was heavily involved in cycling, but since moving to New York five years ago, running has become his primary athletic outlet.
“I ran cross country in school,” he says, “but growing up during the fledgling years of the cycling boom in England, cycling was always where I saw more of a long term future. Although I did do a few races with my local running club, Hercules Wimbledon.”
He now runs with Black Roses in New York, and doesn’t remember British running having the same community around it that he’s discovered in American crews.
“Of my friends who I ran with in school on the cross country team, almost none went on to run at university or even at any sort of competitive club level”, he says. “In New York, there seems to be a much more seamless transition from kids who grew up running cross country in high school, maybe running for their college — but not always — and then moving to New York and immersing themselves fairly effortlessly in the racing/club scene here.”
College sport doesn’t really exist in the UK. Everything is student-led — coaching, admin, funding — so students participate in sports, but it’s a long way from the conveyor belt to professionalism that exists in the US. As a result, the US appears to have a huge number of hungry and ambitious 22 year olds looking to take running to the pro level, but fewer 30 or 40 year olds who combine running just below the elite level with the pressures of full-time work and family. The figures back this up: 100th place at this year’s London Marathon in the non-elite field ran 2:32:17; six days earlier in Boston, 100th place overall ran 2:37:46.
As a 24 year old, not long out of college himself, does Mackay see advantages to the US system?
“Definitely”, he says. “I don’t think I ever felt like running in England is doing enough to incentivize a younger audience into getting involved competitively. I’ve found myself frustrated with how stale the general perception of running is amongst young people in England — I’m always struck by how The London Marathon has become the be all and end all. With the New York Road Runners’ ‘9+1’ system for getting a spot in the New York Marathon, I believe that it encourages people to engage with their local running community and culture in a much more natural fashion. I can’t tell you the number of people I know in New York who have actually surprised themselves by how much they have enjoyed the challenges of racing different distances and terrains, whether that’s a 10 mile race in the Bronx or a 5K in Red Hook, just in order to get their guaranteed places for the New York Marathon.”
This point exemplifies the issue of so many British clubs being stuck in the pre-internet age — few are communicating with millennials on the platforms they use or in a way that is appealing to them. “Every year I see a new bunch of my twenty-something friends get a charity spot for the London Marathon,” says Mackay, “and every year I see the demands of the distance — demands they are not prepared for — sap any enthusiasm they have for running, or for the larger culture of running that is so important to making racing engaging. I’m testament to that: I ran my first marathon when I was 18, hated it, then brooded on it for four years after before deciding to give running another go.”
The British system is far from perfect but what it does have at least is a sense of community and a level of competition that makes running rewarding and keeps people engaged, even when the going gets tough.
The trick is getting them to discover club running and racing in the first place. Because once they try it, they’ll be hooked.
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