21st Berliner Wasserbetriebe 5 x 5 km TEAM-Relay from 2 until 4 June 2021

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Hugh Jones writes about new English running phenomena. Hugh Jones is a former world class marathoner, winner of the London Marathon 1982 in 2:09:24, and serves now as the general secretary of the Association of International Marathons and Road Races (AIMS).

What makes people run? Kids run out of exuberance: they’re impulsive and impatient. Adults run for a purpose: to catch a bus or train. Elite runners are a curious blend of these motivations. Their youthful enthusiasm has been turned to the purpose of earning a living. Other runners - the vast majority of them – need something else to stir themselves into action.

What is it? What’s the magic ingredient that can attract thousands of people to turn up and run in one place rather than another? Here in London we have just had an interesting outbreak of enthusiasm for running. The most popular race distance in Britain is 10km, but until now there have been no really big races at this distance. At most they have attracted 2000 runners - nothing compared to the London Marathon or the Great North Run. All of a sudden, we have three 10km races in London within 3 weeks of each other, and they all look like getting more than 5000 runners.

At the London Marathon expo back in April, two races were launched: one around central London backed by a running shop, the other mostly within the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and backed by Nike. Both are scheduled for 22 July. A similar circumstance last year led to the cancellation of one such race, but this year the huge advertising push behind the Nike race has led to a discernible expansion of the running market.

The race was advertised in the free London daily newspaper that every commuter reads. There were TV ads, and there was a big poster campaign on the London Underground. Every window display at the Niketown shop in Oxford Circus focussed entirely on selling the race. This was all before the race entry system opened. When it did, it sold out its 10,000 limit in three days. Given the physical limitations of the course in the Botanical Gardens, runners will have to be split into three separate “waves”, starting 15 minutes apart.

The city centre 10km to be held on the same day, despite no visible advertising, is well placed to pick up all the disappointed runners who were not quick enough off the mark to get into the Nike race. These potential runners have learnt a lesson. The third race in question, which was a women-only event until this year, had 3000 enquiries before the entry form was printed. It will be run on July 1, but the 6000 limit is likely to be reached much sooner. Runners know they could be shut out, from their Nike experience. They want to be sure of getting into the race, and have to be firmly discouraged from delivering their completed entry forms in person, rather than trusting them to the post.

Does this tell us anything more than that advertising works? That it has worked so well in this particular case tells us something about what makes runners run. The advertising campaign was tied into people’s daily lives. They would be reminded every time they took the tube or read a paper. More than that, the adverts themselves brought the potential runner – the reader of the advert – into centre stage.

Using the names of the months in the race countdown, increasing health and joie de vivre is projected in the adverts as the race date approaches: April says: ‘catch that bus’; May says: ‘Run for it’; April says: ‘take a cab’; June says: ‘overtake it’; April says: ‘stand on the left’ [of the escalator, in the Metro]; June says: ‘Run up the right’. These are all actions that Londoners perform daily. The words connect with people’s everyday existence. Because of that, people get to talking about it.

The names of the months have a feminine quality: April, May and June are recognised female names. The biggest growth in running in recent years has been in women-only events. The ‘Race for Life’ series in Britain consists of sixty 5km races for women. The Flora Women’s Challenge is up to 16,000 entries after only three years. The Nike race was marketed as a women’s race – but it is open to men.

The most recent advert to appear in the tube: “July is a runner” features a sketch of what looks shockingly like a male runner. Should this surprise us? Men and women rub shoulders on the tube every day – why not in a race? The success of women’s races in recent years has shown a way forward for road running - which up to now has been an overwhelmingly male sport. Bringing women into contact with men and vice-versa has never been much of a challenge: it happens naturally. But only now are the circumstances being created which allow this to happen in road running.

Hugh Jones

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