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Unique world championships for all

From the slowest to the fastest, March this year will see Copenhagen as the host for the World Half Marathon Championships, one of those world sporting events to which elite runners flock in order to prove their positions on the world scoreboard. But this year, in Copenhagen, there’s a difference.

World Half Marathon Championships

By Julian Isherwood
Jakob Larsen is one of those sports crusaders for whom organising a world championship is fun. Sitting at his desk in sportstown Denmark, the former Danish long jump champion and now director of the Danish Athletics Federation seems unruffled at the prospect of hosting 30,000 runners for the March 29 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships.

“We have a great team doing all the preparations, and we’re almost ready. It’s going to be one of those unique and unusual events in which everyone is able to take part in a world championship. No matter their pace – everyone will have the feeling of taking part with the best in the world,” says Larsen, whose application team beat both New York and Mexico City for the prestigious event.

Initiated in 1992 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in Britain, the halfie, as it is affectionately known by some, has been hosted predominantly in cities across Europe, but also in Canada, India, Mexico, Brazil and China. This year, the 20th IAAF worlds, for a distance that is seen as a highly demanding discipline, is to meander through the Danish capital for just under the hour that it takes the world’s best runners, to the three hours the slowest are expected to take.

At 21.0975 kilometres, or 13.094 miles if you prefer, the distance is one that is gruelling enough to be testing even for the full-time athletes, but short enough that training schedules don’t take over the lives of wishful, more amateur athletes.

As Thad McLaurin, an avid US long-distance runner once said – “One mistake new runners often make when preparing for a half-marathon is thinking that the 12- or 14-week plan takes you from the couch to the finish line”. Not so, he added, all of the training schedules reckon that you come to them with a weekly schedule of at least 15 miles, with a minimum run of 5 miles.

For Jakob Larsen, himself a keen runner of 30-40 kilometres a week, the advice is good and points to one of the benefits that this year’s worlds have for the sport, and no doubt one of the reasons that the Danes won the event ahead of five other cities.

“When we developed ‘The Case for Copenhagen’ we had three main themes – The Right Place, The Right Event and The Right Programmes,” Larsen says.

“This meant that we can host a fast, flat and scenic race. And as far as the event itself is concerned, it is one of the few global athletic events that we can hold in Denmark as we don’t have the necessary facilities for others. And finally we said we intended to include exercise athletes into the event,” he adds.

In order to foster interest in the event for those who would not normally take part in a world championship, a certain amount of start numbers have been reserved for athletic associations who have agreed to start training schedules for the event among their amateur athletes.

“20 associations agreed, and to date we have seen an increased membership of about 1,000 people, “ he says adding; ”Often people don’t equate their exercise running or jogging with athletics. But it certainly is and this is a general discussion we have been having in athletics – how to bring them into the family”.

“What we want to do is to connect the slowest in the world to the fastest – all of whom are at the same place at the same time. That is something you cannot do with football and many other worlds. But we can,” he continues.

That does not mean that new world records cannot be set. Although everyone will be starting at the same time, pace is obviously different. For the best men, results are expected just under one hour and the best women just over. The slowest are expected to take up to the three hour deadline when the course closes.
“But irrespective of how fast or slow you get through the course, the feeling will be the same. Everyone will be taking part in a World Championship with the best in the world,” says Larsen.

And that, perhaps is the main headache for the organisers, although thorough preparation means that everyone at least starts at the same time.
“How to get 30,000 people to a starting line could be something of a nightmare – and not least the process of getting them away from the finishing line once they have completed,” Larsen says.

Each contestant will pick up their start numbers – preferably in the days prior to the event – which will include precise information on how to move to starting points. In their applications, those taking part are being asked to furnish their expected pace as a method to put people into groups. Different pace groups will be asked to take specific routes to the starting area.

“The starting column will be about a kilometre in length and people will be placed according to the times they have given us. At the other end of the race – well that is perhaps an even bigger issue. If people don’t move away from the finishing line quickly, others are unable to finish the race,” Larsen says.

To solve that and other potential logistic nightmares, the Danish Athletics Federation has enlisted the help of some 1,500 volunteers to man the route and not least to diplomatically and with full understanding for the runners, usher them quickly away from the finishing area. With 10 finishers per second expected in the 1:45 and 2 hour time frame, this will be no mean task.

Time-taking will be through RFID chips (Radio Frequency Identification) in start numbers so everyone will receive their timing, and when they finish, something to drink and what remains a secret extra handout.

And to make sure that nothing is left to chance, a full rescue service presence is posted along the route, with special routes for extra rescue services in the unlikely event that these became necessary.

“We have been through all the possible scenarios and we’re absolutely confident that we are prepared for any eventuality. That preparation means that everyone – runners and spectators – can simply enjoy the 2014 World Half Marathon Championships,” Jakob Larsen says.

For the countries sending official participants to the race, each country can send five men and five women, with a total of 3,000 of the 30,000 participants expected to come from abroad.

“The tricky thing is to get people to the right place at the right time. We are holding an EXPO from Tuesday to Friday and urge everyone to go and get their starting numbers in that period. The problem is that not everyone can get there early and there are people who come from a long way away – and they have to have their starting numbers. So it is possible to come on the day – but really only for the few,” Larsen concludes, suggesting that those who may know someone in Copenhagen can get them to pick up start numbers.