London was an easy choice for my first destination. In the past 2 weeks, however, I’ve found that the UK is much more than a temporary Olympic host, as it has a unique running culture that’s worthy of examination on its own. Here are a few non-Olympic-related observations I’ve made so far:
Running is a club-based sport in the UK, as kids and masters alike run for clubs in addition to or in the place of school teams. The athletic structure and racing opportunities of the American school system don’t exist in the UK, so clubs often offer better coaches, more training partners, and more competitions than schools.
There is a political aspect of track & field in the UK that isn’t found in the US. Championship teams (for the Olympics, World Champs, etc.) are selected by a committee rather than earned through a single race. Considerations include performance at the Trials, personal and season bests, and history at past championships. After hearing heartbreaking stories of friends who were not selected despite demonstrating that they belonged on the team, I have a greater appreciation for the objectivity of the US system.
In central London, backpacked runners abound, especially during rush hour. I haven’t figured out the whole story, but it seems as if the lack of parking spots and the hefty tax that drivers entering the city must pay not only promote public transportation, but also motivate people to run to and from work.
Tracks in the city require an entrance fee. Two friends and I ran to Millennium Park to meet up with an English running group, but were turned away at the track because we didn’t have the fee of 3.70 pounds (about $5). We were surprised that the facility was crowded despite the cost, and even more so since it backed up to a free and scenic running trail.
Finally, unlike the US, race walking is a common and serious sport in England. Race walkers train on the roads alongside runners and compete in the same road races that runners do. In fact, I passed a road race contested by more walkers than runners, most of whom were older men in club uniforms.
There’s still a lot left to learn about the UK running culture, but my focus for the next week will be the track & field portion of the Olympics. The women’s marathon takes off tomorrow morning and the men follow a week later, giving those of us without tickets a chance to watch some live racing through historic London. Although I’m hurting with the rest of GB over world record holder Paula Radcliffe’s recent injury and pull-out- tomorrow’s race likely would have been her last chance to claim an Olympic medal, and definitely the only one to do so on her home turf- I’m excited to rally behind the US women and Lisa Weightman, the Australian wife of Rice track alum Lachlan MacArthur.