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Innovative Podium 5k continues to strike right chord

Written by 
Published in Athletics
Saturday, 25 March 2023 06:36
Collaboration with SportsShoes has paid dividends with events becoming more popular, regular and crucially engaging

An athletics event at a go-kart track, four levels underground below the main shopping centre at Canary Wharf, shouldn’t theoretically work.

Given the Epic Karting circuit in Docklands had an abundance of tight turns, the surface was designed for rubber tyres rather than shoes and the venue contained no natural light, the setting, was peculiar to say the least.

If you, however, add a swathe of marketing – from a myriad of photos to slick social media cutdowns – to create hype, invite one of London’s most prominent DJs and crucially award prize money – £1000 for first, £500 for second and £300 for third – for podium spots, it can definitely work.

After covering the event last week (March 17), I got back home thinking it had.

The average age of those who attended almost certainly didn’t exceed 30. That wasn’t just the runners but those who flocked down to watch. Some might have not even known who was racing but with live music bouncing off the walls around the venue and a bar in the background, it didn’t matter.

People enjoyed themselves because the behind the scenes side of the event was as good as the action they watched.

That wasn’t to say the standard was bad. European Indoor 1500m silver medallist from 2021, Holly Archer, was the leading contender in the women’s race. She lost out to a superb Megan Davies in a close-run finish to the line.

Double British 3000m steeplechase champion Zak Seddon, coached by Geoff Wightman, claimed the plaudits in the men’s event.

Zak Seddon collects his £1k top prize (Simon Roberts)

“It was really cool. It sounded really loud with the music. There was so much noise and it was a really great atmosphere and it wasn’t like anything else I’ve seen,” Davies told AW.

“The event is completely different and I really enjoyed it. I hope so [if there are more events] and it’s changing the way the sport looks. It can be really easy to focus on times all the time so it’s really cool to come to an event where that’s not the importance.”

Seddon’s reflection of the spectacle was along the same lines.

“The atmosphere was unreal. Everyone I spoke to was just enjoying themselves and the sport,” he added. “That’s what’s so good about these events. You’re just running hard.

“It’s the time in the season where you’re not going after fast track times and just putting out a base. So to come out here and just really enjoy yourself, it’s perfect.”

Other athletes I chatted to echoed the same message. This was different. In a good way.

The fact that it was an event where times were insignificant and the primary focus was to claim the highest prize money was a refreshing change, in a sport where the stopwatch can get far more attention than rivalries and storytelling.

Those who watched from the sidelines were allowed to move around different sections of the circuit and although the racing environment was surreal, the view by the start/finish line was excellent and you could see athletes meander their way through the course.

The distance of approximately 2.5km didn’t seem to be too strenuous while the format of heats to finals worked, although the quality of athletes in the heats differed drastically at times.

Above all though, the reaction on social media was mightily impressive.

Podium 5k focused on drawing in a raft of photographers, videographers and cinematographers to encapsulate not just the action but the wider event itself.

Zak Seddon crosses the line (Simon Roberts)

That kind of marketing, where buzz centred around the behind the scenes aspect, as well as athletes, is crucial for athletics to not just survive but thrive.

In their own unique way, Podium 5k have so far achieved that.

It wasn’t a surprise that the videos I took on our AW social media channels exceeded 170k views. To put that into perceptive, 250k people watched our videos on social media over three days at the European Indoor Championships.

“It was great fun, course had more grip than expected and the racing line became a key part of the race,” commented Ben Short, who competed in the event, on AW’s Instagram. “Brilliant spectator sport as can see the racers multiple times per lap and Podium 5k always know how to put on a show. Bring on the next one!”

Other messages varied from “this is awesome, some fantastic ideas coming through” to “would be even better if they had bananas, speed boosters like Mario Kart”.

The crowd watch on at Podium 5k (Simon Roberts)

The main thought people had from Podium 5k’s Underground event, whatever their view on whether it was a success or not, was that it was innovative.

It created conversation around the sport, when on occasions athletics can feel stale and too repetitive.

Podium 5k’s events in the past few months have included a 5km race at Battersea Park and the Breaking 10 event in Barrowford, the latter seeing Emile Cairess break Richard Nerurkar‘s 30-year-old European 10 mile record.

The crowds are not anywhere near that of a Diamond League or a Continental Tour Gold event but by hammering home social media content, Podium 5k have reached hundreds of thousands of young people who will be inspired by their ability to make running look attractable and worthwhile.

Night of the 10k PBs is another example. The event, set-up by Ben Pochee in 2013 was initially created for faster running in the 10,000m but it has grown rapidly and is one of the most much loved events on the athletics calendar in the UK.

A combination of free entry and entertainment – including pyrotechnics and beer scales – plus athlete interaction with spectators you don’t find at an elite level, gives a feel of inclusivity for all those attending.

The athletes also get the opportunity to record fast qualifying times over a variety of distances. This year’s meet once again features British Championships and World Championships trials for the 10,000m with a total of £30,000 in prize money up for grabs.

No surprise then that On Running have incorporated it into their Track Night series which includes similar meets in Los Angeles, Paris, Vienna and Melbourne.

The financial aspect to making athletics desirable is obvious. By providing prize money at events for runners, who sometimes just run as a hobby and work in other jobs, it creates a clear incentive to race in the event. Win it and there’s even the prospect of a sponsorship deal.

Someone films on their phone (Simon Roberts)

By amplifying all of this messaging on social media makes a difference. With Gen Z – people born between 1997-2012 – consuming their content so vividly on Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and TikTok, you have to take what you’ve produced to them. They shouldn’t be expected to look for it themselves.

Days after the Podium 5k Underground event had finished, pictures and videos from the event were still being pumped out on social media. You would’ve struggled to miss it.

Alone, Podium 5k cannot change the perception of the sport. That’s the job of a global behind the scenes series on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Yet, they are making an impact. The market for athletics in the UK, from just the level of engagement on our social channels, is huge. Young people will compete and watch if something is marketed well.

Change and innovation should be applauded and not frowned upon. Athletics needs to catch up with other sports. And fast.

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