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Celebrating 50 years of the CERN relay race – and details of this year’s event!

As this year’s edition of the legendary race approaches, the time has come to look back on 50 years of exuberance, silly costumes, beer drinking and the occasional bit of running

First CERN relay race

The first edition of the CERN Relay Race, in 1971

The 2022 CERN relay race, the 50th to date, saw a record number of participants (156 teams of over 1000 runners and walkers) dashing across the Meyrin site. For the first time ever, it included CERN Alumni participants, who ran in locations across the globe in their own virtual relay race. Following this momentous anniversary, the race returns on Wednesday, 31 May for its 51st edition. The course remains largely unchanged, as do the conditions for entering the competition: teams of six runners belonging to the same professional unit (department, group, project, experiment or firm), will run distances of 1000, 800, 800, 600, 600 then 400 metres on the Meyrin site. But, looking back on more than 50 years of the CERN relay race, how has this landmark event of life at the Laboratory evolved over the decades?

The race’s rules have changed little since the first edition in 1971, when teams of five runners covered distances of 1500, 1000, 800, 500 and 300 metres respectively, representing a total of 4100 metres. The Focus Users Group, composed of Stig Lindbäck, Mick Ferran, David Townsend, Mike Gerard and William Hart, triumphed in  an impressive time of 12’42. This first successful event kick-started the relay race tradition at CERN, whose first decade was marked by debates around the race’s frequency and rules, and by the arrival of the first women’s teams in 1975.

In 1976, new summertime rules caused a one-hour time difference between France and Switzerland. Despite CERN adopting a compromise solution by shifting its official hours by 30 minutes, the race could not be organised during lunch hours. John Adams, Director-General of the Laboratory, gave permission for a 4 p.m. start on Friday, 11 June and agreed to fire the starting gun – the race was followed by a soirée dansante in the Coop restaurant.

home.cern,Life at CERN
Arrival of the 2022 relay race (Image: CERN)

Fast forward a few decades to 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the first and only gap in the event’s history, but the CERN relay race returned in full force on Thursday, 9 June 2022. 156 teams took part in this special edition, which was won by the “Doublé” team. Thanks to an online tracking app and much enthusiasm from the Running Club organisers and alumni, seven teams composed of CERN Alumni from across the globe were able to take part in their various locations. The winning team, the « Chasers », featured participants from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium, Canada and Norway. This new format allowed a familiar face to take part in the fun: David Townsend, who was a member of the first winning team back in 1971, commented when signing up, “I will be on a hiking tour in Cornwall in the UK, but I will find time to make my contribution, although not at my 1971 pace!”.

As the 2023 relay race approaches, determined runners are already aiming for the podium. Among them is the “Charly’s Tonight” team, which has been participating in the race for the past 20 years. When asked about their chances of winning this year’s event, team captain John Osborne was quietly optimistic “The team has bags of experience, and training this year is going well. Our strategy is being finalised – mostly over beers in Charly’s Pub in St Genis – and, after narrowly missing the podium last year, hopes are high for an improvement in 2023”.

We are counting on runners, spectators (and clement weather) to make this 51st edition the best one yet. Registration will be open on the CERN Running Club’s website until 48 hours before the event.

David Dallman (former CERN Running Club President), Rachel Bray, Sébastien Ponce and Roddy Cunningham