Hackney Festival of Fitness: 'We care about the good times just as much as the race times'

PUBLISHED: 15:32 07 May 2019

Hackney Half Marathon is the headline event of next week's Festival of Fitness. Picture: Virgin Sport.

Hackney Half Marathon is the headline event of next week's Festival of Fitness. Picture: Virgin Sport.

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As runners around Hackney and beyond limber up for next week's Half Marathon, we speak to Virgin Sport's CEO Jessica Frey about the biggest Hackney Festival of Fitness event to date.

The Festival involves over 72 fitness classes, sessions and workshops over three days. Picture: Virgin Sport.The Festival involves over 72 fitness classes, sessions and workshops over three days. Picture: Virgin Sport.

For many people, the training would have started months ago.

Dragging themselves out of the sanctuary of a warm bed before work, slipping in to their trainers and heading in to the cold for a few circuits around Hackney Downs, or London Fields, or Haggerston Park. A few more miles in the bank, growing stronger ahead of race day.

These dedicated folks are now just a few days away from taking their place at the starting line of the Hackney Half Marathon; the flagship race of the annual Hackney Festival of Fitness which returns to Hackney Marshes next weekend.

The Festival is growing at a rapid rate. Last year's event drew more than 50,000 runners and spectators in all – an increase of 30,000 from 2017 – and now Virgin Sport, the event organisers, are expanding the programme to three days, as they seek to establish it as the UK's largest outdoor fitness festival.

Fight Klub are back to run their fitness events on Hackney Marshes. Picture: Virgin Sport.Fight Klub are back to run their fitness events on Hackney Marshes. Picture: Virgin Sport.

“This year is going to be bigger and bolder than the last two,” says Jessica Frey, CEO of Virgin Sport.

“We're building micro-experiences, we've got a market that's free and open to the public with all sorts of food and local lifestyle brands and vendors; you could just come along and shop!

“You can also come and participate in fitness activities like stand-up paddle boarding, rock-climbing, boxing, cycling studios, then of course we've got the free 5k (on Saturday) and the Hackney Half which is the headline event.

“The atmosphere is very lively; we like to have fun after our hard work.”

The Half Marathon route takes runners past Hackney Empire. Picture: Virgin Sport.The Half Marathon route takes runners past Hackney Empire. Picture: Virgin Sport.

This year's Festival opens next Friday (May 17) with an outdoor cinema screening of Cool Runnings. There will also be stretch, mobility and pre-race warm-up sessions, as runners both casual and serious limber up for Sunday's race.

On Saturday, a huge variety of fitness activities will take over the Marshes, from Ministry of Sound HIIT workouts and Fight Klub boxing, to choreographed spinning sessions and yoga against the backdrop of a live orchestra. The programme has been designed to offer a mix of high and low intensity workouts for all ages and abilities.

Saturday is also the day for the Community 5k; a free running (or walking) event for anyone aged 13 or above. The route is around the perimeter of Hackney Marshes and all finishers will receive a medal alongside their official race-time. Frey says Virgin Sport have partnered with Nike to bring the 5k to more and more people.

“We've signed a multi-year partnership with Nike,” she adds, “and what we're working on is getting more young people moving. We've done a free 5k for the past few years, and this year we are trying to grow it to 10,000 people by having waves of runners all day.”

The Festival Marketplace will have places to eat and drink. Picture: Virgin Sport.The Festival Marketplace will have places to eat and drink. Picture: Virgin Sport.

The Hackney Half Marathon itself will take place on the Sunday, as thousands of runners head out in to the community to complete the 13.1-mile course.

This year's route heads down Mare Street, passes the Town Hall, proceeds through Broadway Market and via Hackney Wick. The race will take in green spaces in the form of Haggerston and Hackney Downs parks, and will cross over canals 12 times.

The course will feature six water stations courtesy of The One Foundation; a water brand which has raised £19.3million in its bid to provide the world's poorest communities with clean water and sanitation. The Festival has also shown that it is taking issues of sustainability seriously.

“We are taking plastic water bottles off of our course this year,” continues Frey. “We're making a progressive move to just go with cups; it's been a lot of work to figure out which cups to use and where the water will come from, and also how we make sure that they are recycled responsibly.

“We will be saving tens of thousands of plastic water bottles in the process.”

Frey says creating the Fitness Festival Village gives spectators – as well as runners – plenty of things to do, and that offering a varied programme of events is key.

“We want there to be challenges for everyone. That might be a boxing class, (or) that might be a half marathon; we know that there are different entry points for different people.

“Also, we know people like to dabble and try different things. They might not identify just as a runner, or as a boxer, they might want to come on a Saturday to do a yoga class, then run the half the next day.

This year's event is the first to be held across three days. Picture: Virgin SportThis year's event is the first to be held across three days. Picture: Virgin Sport

“We've always tried to be particularly inclusive and supportive to the back of the pack. We care about race times, but we care about the good times just as much.”

Hackney Festival of Fitness is on May 17-19 at Hackney Marshes. For more details and tickets, click here.

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