Marathon runners and race walkers are poised for thrilling and richly symbolic races on March 26 in Kew Gardens
If athletes taking part in the Müller British Athletics Olympic Marathon and 20km Walks Trials in Kew Gardens this month need to focus their minds on what is at stake, they merely need to glance to the side of the course during their race.
The event on March 26 coincides with ‘Sakura season’ – the time of year when cherry blossom trees come into bloom. Not only will it provide a picturesque back-drop but it is the national flower of Japan and a timely reminder to the runners that their efforts on the roads of south-west London could see them win a ticket to Tokyo.
Tom Bedford, the race director, describes it as an amusing twist of fate. It certainly was not in anyone’s mind when the Borough of Richmond venue was chosen ahead of Manchester, Dorney Lake and various horse and motor-racing courses to host the Olympic trials.
Instead, the main requirements were a fast, flat and sheltered course that can help athletes nail Olympic qualifying standards, plus the reliability factor of a venue during such an uncertain pandemic-hit period.
Marathon runners will tackle one small lap followed by 12 big laps, therefore passing the cherry blossom trees and Japanese gardens a dozen times. Organisers have worked in recent months with course measurer Hugh Jones to iron out some of the mild corners on the route, which means the course is not just aesthetically pleasing but fast too.
Bedford is certainly happy with the progress made and points to one particular straight that is almost an entire metric mile in distance.
Contenders like Steph Davis have already checked out the course and Bedford describes it as “more of a flat road relays kind of course” such as the well-known circuit used at Sutton Coldfield for road relays “as opposed to the kind of course you get in big city marathons”.
This is partly because the path is only about four metres wide in places. However, with small fields and multiple pacemakers to ensure the going is quick through the first 30km in order to achieve qualifying times of 2:11:30 and 2:29:30, this should not be an issue. Plus, the course includes none of the inclines that the well-known Sutton Coldfield course contains.
“Our intention has been to make it as fast as possible,” says Bedford. “My advice to athletes is that they just switch off and go to sleep for an hour and follow ‘the train’ and then get ready to go when the pacemakers drop out.”
Amusingly the event also has an unofficial mascot, which Bedford discovered at Kew Gardens recently with AW photographer Mark Shearman. ‘Eric the peacock’ (see below) is a Richmond resident although runners will be hoping he doesn’t stray on to the course on race day.
On a more serious note, Bedford has been helped by his father, Dave, the former London Marathon race director with organising the event. Among other things Bedford Jnr was based in Portugal during the winter and fell ill with coronavirus in January, so his dad stepped into help primarily with technical areas.
The duo have also worked closely with staff at UK Athletics such as competitions and events director Katie Brazier during what has inevitably been a tricky few months due to the pandemic. Was there a particularly bad moment when the race was in doubt?
Bedford says shortly after Christmas when the virus began to surge and hospitals were in danger of being over-run was a worrying time. The Richmond Runfest, which was due to be held at the same venue on the Saturday and Sunday following the trials events on Friday, was postponed until mid-May. Apart from this, the organisers have been keen to give the Olympic hopefuls a near-definite goal to work toward.
“It’s been tough for athletes and they have my utmost respect for how they’ve managed to get themselves through this with everything from problems seeing physios to not even having a national endurance coach in charge during the winter,” says Bedford.
Spectators will not be allowed on race day, but each runner will be permitted one Tour de France-style ‘soigneur’ to help with their drinks. After the mild controversy relating to the British trials for the European Indoor Championships not being streamed, British Athletics are this time showing the action from Kew Gardens while there is still the possibility BBC may show the races too.
This will be the first time for 40 years that a British Olympic marathon trial has been staged as a standalone race in a similar style to the US Olympic trials. In 1980 the AAA Championships and trial for the Moscow Olympics took place in Milton Keynes. It was won by Ian Thompson in 2:14:00 from Dave Black and Andy Holden as 195 men finished. Yet from 1983 onwards the national championships and trials have been part of the London Marathon and the battle for selection is often a ‘race within a race’ with television struggling to capture the action.
There are also obvious comparisons with the standalone US Olympic marathon trials that have taken place in recent years in Atlanta (2020), Los Angeles (2016), Houston (2012) and New York (2011) with the latter, in the city’s Central Park, on a similar multi-lap course to the one we will see in Kew Gardens.
“There is such an appetite for this event,” Bedford enthuses. “I’ve always been a fan of the American trials system. The men’s race will be great on March 26 but the women’s race is going to be an absolute cracker as there are so many top runners in it. And if the athletes can make it as competitive as I think it’s going to be then this kind of trials race could become the norm.”
The venue has great history, too, with the Borough of Richmond being something of a home to British distance running. Not only does the area feature popular training areas of Bushy Park, Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common but it was birthplace of the London Marathon and parkrun.
In the race for Olympic selection, runners and race walkers will finish in front of Kew Gardens’ iconic Palm House glass building. The most symbolic feature, though, will surely be the cherry blossom trees that they will pass on a long winding road that will end, for some, on the streets of Tokyo.
» A version of this article first appeared in the March issue of AW magazine