AW speaks exclusively to four British athletes who reveal their distressing experiences at the start of the Valencia 10km
The last thing you’d expect as an athlete going to a race is to fear for your own safety.
That is what happened at the Valencia 10km on Sunday (Jan 15). As soon as the gun went off at the event – a World Athletics labelled road race – athletes’ attention quickly turned to the wellbeing of themselves and others around them rather than the personal bests they were striving for.
Four British athletes have now described their experience of the event to AW and said that there was a “general consensus of panic” among the packed pens before the beginning of the race, to elite women “screaming on the floor” as they were trampled on by helpless runners who fell like skittles.
Only one of the four British runners that spoke to AW completed the race and all of them have various degrees of marks, from small scratches to swollen and bruised knees.
These are athletes who are not at a world elite level and largely funded their own trip, including flights and accommodation, to one of the fastest 10km races in the world. The aim was obvious. To record a time in Valencia that could lead to raising their profile and potentially getting bigger and better sponsorships.
It’s a quick course. The men’s world 10km record and second fastest time ever were both set in the Spanish city while half of the fastest 10 women’s times in history over the distance were recorded on the route.
There’s a reason why the Valencia 10km set the entry limit for the race at 12,000. It’s popular. Up to 100 Brits made the trip to Spain and quite a few, including Samantha Harrison, achieved personal bests.
However, many did not finish and dreams were dashed. Others did but it was out of pride more than striving for perfection.
An “inevitability” from the race build-up
Elle Twentyman, 28, went to Valencia to improve her 10km personal best of 33:30. The 2021 Brighton Marathon 10km winner was hoping to start off 2023 with a bang and forget about the experience of her last race over the distance, the Corrida Pedestre Internationale de Houilles on December 30.
The French event, which had a strict entry standard of sub-44 minutes for women and sub-37 minutes for men, had a giant tree just metres from the start line obscuring athletes. Such an object in close proximity to hundreds of runners made it impossible for some not to fall and Twentyman ended up on the floor.
She hit her head and told AW that the race organiser got in touch to ask whether she’d been involved in the incident.
Such vivid memories came back to Twentyman as she was preparing to start the Valencia 10km. Pinned together “like sardines”, athletes struggled to move either their hands or legs as they waited anxiously for the event to begin.
“Initially, they had separate areas. So about 20m for the elites and 50m for the sub-elites and then separate pens going back for sub-31, sub-33 and sub-35 for example,” Twentyman recalls.
“Theoretically, it worked but the men in the sub-elite pen were so eager to get forward to the next pen ahead of them then they were pushing up against the tape.
“I don’t want to sound dramatic but because it happened to me before, I almost felt like I was going to have a panic attack as I was completely trapped. I had nowhere to move my legs or arms and this guy was pushing up behind me.
“Even at that point there were men still trying to get in front of you and although there was no space they wanted to push in front of me. That pressure kept coming from behind but we were then pushed backwards.
“If you don’t have space to push your legs up, you’re going to go into the person in front of you which causes them to trip. I felt it [the impending crush] was unavoidable.”
In among the thousands of runners about to take on the Valencia 10km was Sarah Astin, 29, who finished 16th representing the Isle of Man in the 5000m at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Like most of the athletes, she was expecting a fast time but attention soon turned to the crowd around her instead of the race itself. Due to one of the athletes on the England team pulling out, Astin was promoted to the world elite pen. As a runner with a 10km best of 33:17, she thought it was strange that she was placed in front of elite men who could run over two minutes quicker than her.
“That scared me a little bit beforehand anyway and I was slightly confused why I would start in front of the elite men,” she says. I didn’t want to do that. I’d never been on a start line like that. Everyone was scared and it wasn’t great.
“On a start line you usually have your feet separated and ready to go but my feet were touching and we were literally waddling. They wanted to get going at 9.30am. I didn’t expect them to start.”
Another one of the British athletes in the mix was Dan Studley, 31, who won the 2019 Windsor Half Marathon and competed in the 2018 World Half Marathon Championships.
Like everyone else, he couldn’t move. “I was three or four rows back and I could barely breathe on the start line,” he tells AW. “You couldn’t move to press your watch and I was completely crushed. Then three steps later when the race kicked off there were bodies all over the floor.
“There was no personal space. You were just stood with your feet together and arms by your side. When you’re trying to get a personal best in the 10km, you want to be ready and set. It’s stupid really.
“The elite athletes weren’t protected. I appreciate there were a lot of them and it was a pretty unique race. The race director was hoping for a 100 sub-30 runners. If those were safeguarded at the front and given a few metres I think the situation would’ve been fine.”
The final British athlete that we spoke to was Josh Lunn. He, alongside Twentyman, Astin and Studley, all corroborate that while the athletes were split into certain pens based on their ability before the start of the race, the tape separating the pens either “broke” or was “left unmanned” and athletes poured forward into the next pen. One after the other.
At the front the world elite, including world 10km record-holder Yalemzerf Yehualaw, 23, were stretching out ahead of the big race. Just before the gun went off, as you can see on the Valencia 10km stream, the world elite men were pushed back behind the tape which marked the start line.
The momentum of those athletes getting moved combined with athletes from pens further back breaking through the tapes separating each section, meant runners, roughly 10m back from the start line, saw any space around them evaporate.
“There were two guys with some tape and there was one athlete who wanted to go under the tape when the two men were there,” Lunn says. “Probably five minutes before the start they moved away and one of the athletes jumped underneath the tape.
“That set a whole chain reaction off where everyone kind of panicked and they followed. So you’ve got all of the guys in the second pen at the front of the first pen. I remember seeing Sarah [Astin] and Lucy [Reid] who turned around and went ‘oh my god, what’s happening’.
“You had to go forward as everyone was pushing from behind. So we ended up at the front of the start line. I don’t know how many people were in that first pen but they had pushed all of those people to the front and there wasn’t any space.”
Studley’s experience of runners getting into pens that didn’t match their vest number is similar. “People did what they wanted,” he adds. “They were jumping under the tape. It would’ve been very easy to be recreational runner and be on the front row with world record-holders. It was too easy to get somewhere you shouldn’t have been.
“I was behind some tape, waiting about 10m behind the start line and they just poured forward. The world elites then had to come back on the start line.”
The gun goes off and carnage ensues
At 9.30am the race began and thousands of runners leapt out of their position. Success stories followed. The most notable performance from the event was Yehualaw giving her own world 10km record a fright. The Ethiopian clocked 29:19, missing the illustrious mark by just five seconds.
Behind the first few rows of runners was a different story though. Given the close proximity of the athletes it only took one to fall to create a cacophony of chaos.
All four British athletes told AW that they only took “between three and four steps” before falling into the bodies that had already hit the ground in front of them.
“As I tried to get up I immediately got pushed back on to the ground and that happened around six or seven times,” reflects Lunn. “The worst thing was that there was a girl on the floor next to me was screaming.
“I genuinely felt like I was being crushed. That’s when I got worried as I didn’t know when it would stop and I couldn’t get up. That was not great.
“Those thoughts [asphyxiation] went through my head. It happens very quickly. I didn’t see the other side of the road but I definitely knew there were one or two people below me and three of four people on top of me.
“I don’t think my breathing was any different to normal but I was just sort of panicking. Straight after it didn’t feel any different and I was just thinking I’d lost a lot of time and my mind was on the racing.”
The organisers, on Instagram, stated: “According to our reports, no one suffered serious injuries. Some runners suffered bruises and one elite Brazilian athlete a dislocated shoulder.”
For Twentyman, the crush was déjà vu from her last 10km race in Paris.
“The falling down is one thing and the initial ‘oh my god, that hurt’ but then the scary part is that you just can’t get back up as you had hundreds of people that keep running over the top of you,” she adds.
“They just stand on you, run on you and push you back down.
“I didn’t really realise how much my back and back hurt from it after I tried to lie down and thought ‘this really hurts’. My first thought was ‘oh no, not again’. I was thinking ‘what was I doing wrong?’ and in a way found it a relief to watch the video and that it was nothing to do with me. You don’t really process it at the time.”
Studley told AW he had raced for over 20 years and this was the first time in his life he failed to finish. Battered and bruised, he got up to find his race bib had been ripped off his running vest.
Studley, Lunn and Twentyman all recount how they spent between “20-30 seconds on the floor” and tried and failed to get up nearly “half a dozen times”.
“I caught up with Sam [Harrison] but my back started really aching and my back and front numbers got ripped off,” Studley says. “All my adrenaline drained when I started moving I was so flat. I used all my energy trying to get up.
“I’m surprised [no one was critically injured]. The way I was getting crushed on the floor, it would have only needed one runner to stamp on my head instead of my back to create a potentially very serious incident.
Astin however was more fortunate and escaped the melee with just a few scratches. She however pulled out of the race around the 6km mark.
“I was just sprinting and thinking ‘get me out of here’. As I started in front of these fast guys everyone was still flying past me because I started in the completely wrong part of the race,” she recalls. “I understand the girls aiming for world records but a lot of girls didn’t want to be there and we were running blind.
“I was actually sick the day before and probably shouldn’t have started the race but I was fine on the morning. I genuinely think I got further in the race than I would’ve done because of the adrenaline!”
Lessons to be learnt
The key question is how do you help prevent a situation like this from occurring again?
While all four athletes suffered similarly distressing experiences at the start of the Valencia 10km, they each have slightly different solutions on how to mitigate such events in the future. All ideas which seem sensible.
“We needed more segregation between the waves,” Lunn says. “If you had a bit more space or people starting on the other side of the road I think you would’ve been fine.
“If those two men hadn’t moved and held everybody back then the risk would’ve been lower. The other thing that I found is that because you had so many high level people was that when you mix in them in it can be quite dangerous.”
Astin, who helps organise races outside of her running, even suggests that the race could’ve been stopped and restarted by “marshals with radios 200m away from the line” but is sympathetic with organisers who “wouldn’t have known how to react to such an incident”.
“I know there are 12,000 people on the start line but you could’ve got everyone back if you started 10 or 15 minutes later,” she adds. “They could’ve even had a team of people 100m to 200m down the route on the radio just crossing the road and saying to the runners that they have to stop because they need to restart the race.”
Twentyman, who finished the race in 33:30, will hope that her next 10km is not as rough as her last couple. Recharging the batteries is now on the agenda but she says “walking is painful and going down the stairs is difficult”. Twentyman hopes that the next Valencia 10km includes a wider start line.
Studley, who spent £300 to run in Valencia, wants protection for elite athletes and better policing of the pens.
When approached for comment, World Athletics said: “The safety of runners participating in World Athletics Label races is our utmost priority.
“We will liaise with the race organisers to assess the incident and discuss the safeguards they will put in place to prevent any such incidents in the future.”
In their statement on Instagram, the organisers added: “We apologise for any inconvenience this incident may have caused to all involved. The safety of the participants is most important.
“The organisation had arranged a thoroughly distributed exit so that runners could be placed according to their intended marks in the enrolment process.
“Nevertheless, it didn’t all go well. Due to the density of runners, we absolutely understand that we need to step up the improvement measures again at this point. We will study from now on possible changes in the exit for the welfare and safety of riders, which is our utmost interest.
“After this incident, the race went on with total normality with about 10,000 participants reaching the finish line.”