Nearly 30 years old: Chichester's city races that attract anyone from Commonwealth medalists to local nine-year-olds
Anyone who ventures into Chichester city centre on certain Wednesday evenings in February and March cannot have failed to notice hordes of runners of all ages charging round the precinct and adjoining roads.
They are taking part in the Corporate Challenge, a series of races over three Wednesday evenings in early spring each year which now attract a capacity of well over 800 runners, spread over eight races in a tightly packed two-hour programme.
Since the first race in 1992, close to 50,000 competitors of all ages have tackled the tight city centre course ranging from primary schools right through to seniors and veterans – and surprisingly in this fast changing world, the format has remained virtually unchanged throughout.
As was the case with the Chichester 10k, featured last week, and the Chichester Half Marathon, which we will hear about next week, the initial seeds were sown as a result of three interested parties coming together.
Chichester Health Authority were highlighting a “look after your heart” initiative together with Sussex athletics development officer Nigel Gates, who approached Chichester Runners with a view to putting on a low-key event of about three miles to encourage those who were not regular runners to have a go.
The shorter distance was just what the club members were looking for as a bridge between the end of the cross-country season and the start of the track and field season in late April/early May.
The format decided on was what, by and large, has remained in place ever since. Organisers wanted to use as much of the pedestrian precinct as possible so four laps of just over 1100m each was the solution.
In addition, as a spur to both experienced and new runners alike, the event was to be over three evenings, giving competitors an incentive to train and improve their times over the series.
The only change has been that the races are now two weeks apart to fit in with the race calendar, whereas the 1992 series had a gap of four weeks taking the event until late April.
The other major decision which has worked well ever since was to split the event into two separate races to minimise lapping on the four-lap course.
A time of 18 minutes has been the cut-off ever since which has resulted in virtually no lapping in the A race at all, while the B race field comprises slower runners and is not so intimidating for absolute beginners.
With the planning done in the autumn of 1991, organisers had just a few months to attract enough runners to this new event to make things worthwhile.
The idea was to tempt local and other businesses to compete as well as club runners. In the event a total of 229 competitors lined up with 54 brave enough to tackle the A race and a field of 175 in the B race.
Keith Toop prevailed in the first A race in a highly respectable 13min 19sec, from fellow Chichester clubmate Paul Froud in 13.29, with Toop leading his Waitrose team to victory over a staff team from Chichester College and Bognor employers LEC in third.
Occupying fifth place was veteran Dave Reynolds, whose time of 13.44 stood as a veterans’ record until 2017.
In the B race ex-Commonwealth Games 400m runner Martin Bilham came out of retirement to finish 66th, the man who is now Chichester 10k race director, Graham Jessop, was 76th and Chichester Health Authority’s chief executive Robert Lapraik led by example as part of their 15-man team.
The verdict was that the event had atmosphere - the new format was a hit. Despite incessant rain on the second evening a month later, the series attracted a combined total of more than 600 runners.
Further confirmation of the suitability of the distance was that the event attracted international steeplechaser Tom Buckner, who broke the 13-minute barrier for the 4500m course with a 12.53 clocking, still one of the fastest times ever. Buckner used the event as one of his warm-up races for the Barcelona Olympics later that year.
Also in the A race field was Jane Harrop, a fine cross country runner who posted a time of 14.42, which set a high standard for the women to follow in subsequent years.
In 1993 Jim Garland led a quartet of Chichester’s club members to a clean sweep with Toop, Froud and Gary Wright filling the next three places; the overall number of competitors had grown to just over 800 and Hampshire-based Marconi became the first works team to break the one-hour barrier for their four-runner aggregate times.
In 1994 the club’s newest junior star, Joe Foreshaw, showed his talent by winning the final race at the age of just 17. Also in the field was another 17-year-old James Baker, who made his debut with 15.18 in 28th place in race one.
It was in the early years that international distance runner Zara Hyde stormed round the course to place fifth in the A race in 1996 in a spectacular 14.15, a women’s record which still stands today.
As the years went by, the event grew in popularity in a very gradual manner and it was only in 2000 when the combined total reached the 1,000 mark with Michael East of Portsmouth AC lowering the course record to a stunning 12.41, a time he beat by a further two seconds in 2008, incidentally both Olympic years.
Fast forward to 2014, when there were 961 finishers on the first evening alone including a record 332 seniors and 674 juniors.
Junior participation started properly only in 1996, when a shorter traffic free course was established and there were only just enough runners to make a single race of 60 runners from primary and secondary schools combined.
Nowadays the juniors need six races just to themselves with four primary and two secondary events – so the decision to incorporate juniors into the race programme has certainly paid off.
Not only has it given a chance for local schools to have a great incentive to train their squads but some outstanding seniors have come through the junior ranks.
In the early years Charlotte Browning from Sidlesham Primary and then Chichester High School went on to be junior national cross country champion as well as a senior international and more recently Ben Collins still holds a couple of boys’ records while Chichester stars Harry Leleu, Will Broom, Ned Potter and Liam Dunne have all gone on to notch up senior A race victories while still in their teens.
The 29 years of the event have not been without their fair share of incidents, some to be dealt with while racing is going on.
The Shippams development meant re-routing the senior course in 2009 and 2010, a police surveillance van parked right by the finishing line a year or two later; resurfacing the precinct has brought a challenge on numerous occasions; an M&S delivery van got stuck in St Martins with the juniors bearing down on it; other delivery drivers evading the marshals and wandering onto the course and of course this year’s enforced abandonment of race three because of the UK lockdown.
However all in all the event has been relatively incident-free and organisers are thankful to the cooperation of local residents and businesses.
The event’s only sponsors, Evans Weir, entered a team in 1992 and have been associated with the race ever since and it would not be right to overlook a couple of runners who have lit up the city’s streets since 1992.
One of them graced our city for just a year while the other has been a permanent fixture of the local running scene since the mid-1990s, but in 2015 they became firm friends.
American doctor Chris Zablocki had just started work at St Richard’s Hospital when he turned up for a local parkrun and surprised James Baker by being able to keep up.
Zablocki, as well as running three autumn marathons in 2015, including a 2.15 clocking in Valencia, proceeded to place second at Parliament Hill the following January in the South of England Championship.
This form persuaded him to attack East’s course record in 2016 and in a thrilling countdown in the final 100m down North Street, he shaved a single second from the time with a 12.38 finish.
As for Baker, it is easy to underestimate his achievement of managing to stay close to the peak of his form for the past 20 years.
As well as going through a season undefeated in the race he holds the records for the number of race wins, number of top three finishes, number of times under 14 minutes and more recently he beat that veterans’ record set in 1992.
As for the future, it is difficult to know how soon local sporting events are going to be allowed to return – but let us hope that Chichester city centre will hear the pounding of feet in 2121.
This is the second in a series of three on Chichester's big athletics events
Read about the Chichester Priory 10k here - and don't miss our look at the Chichester Half Marathon next week