The world was supposed to end on Saturday which would have been inconveneint. Well actually technically the world was not going to end but Saturday was the Rapture where all the good people are floated up to heaven and all the remaining heathens are to be tormented in a hellish earth until October 21st where we would all die. This could have been a problem for the weekend. Day 2 could have involved running in earthquakes and having to fend off swarms of locusts. More worryingly what if a team member was floated off to heaven on the Saturday? Then they would not be able to run on Sunday and the team would be disqualified. Interesting times.
Despite all that 39 teams of 11 runners braved the impending apocalypse and headed for Hampton Court Palace on Saturday morning to start the Green Belt Relay. The Green Belt Relay path is a 220 mile loop of London taking in some wonderful sights of the English countryside. Teams of 11 will run a stage of 6-13 miles on Saturday and then another stage of 6-13 miles on the Sunday. All the relay legs start at a fixed time (usually just before the runners from the previous leg will arrive) so it's not a baton passing relay as such. I did this about 5 years back and recall the panic of having to do two "long" runs on successive days.
Most people get worried about the navigation part of it, we each get issued with a map of instructions which half of the runners ignore at their peril. Some will come out in the weeks beforehand and run their course in advanced. Others will use cheating devices and program routes into their Garmins so that it beeps at them if they put a foot wrong. This made me laugh the previous night where everyone was panicking about uploading files onto a device and couldn't do it. What's wrong with a map and a pair of eyes?
We watched the start, 4 people from the 4 Serpie teams and 35 others left the wonderful surroundings of the Palace and started their journey into hell (Staines). We got into one of the mini buses and headed over to the start of our first leg, stage 4 starting from Marlow.
There were 8 of us in the Van. Me, Rich Phillips who took an early lead in the weakest bladder contest. Gav Edmonds was in charge of tricky reverse parking, John Nugent wore a silly hat throughout. Tanya, Sophia, Raul and Vicky made up the rest of the party. Our job for the day was to get to the starts and finishes of the legs we were running, run them and also do some marshalling on another leg. Sounds easy.
On our way to the start of stage 4 we had heard than Andy Greenleaf and Teresa Gaillard De Laubenque (I had to copy and paste that) had won their stages and no one had got lost yet. We got to the start of out leg about 90 minutes early and were lucky to find a pub that would serve us coffee. I had one of the "mountain" stages, 12.2 miles with some hills in it. Rich, Gav and Tanya were also running. I was in the Serpie Mixed B team.
The start was a slow 5k grind up a slight incline which was good as it stopped everyone setting out too fast. Most of the runners here are faster than I am so I was pretty near the back for much of it, tagging onto a couple of women who seemed to know where they were going. The map I had was really well done and there were plenty of signs, marshals and sawdust marking the way. However that did not stop Rich going wrong in the first few miles and taking in an extra hill. He'd even programmed his Garmin to beep at him if we went off course, it did but he assumed it was low battery or something.
After the grind there was some really nice undulating trail, not too many hills in the first half. Every mile or so there was a minibus of another team handing out water and cheering. It is such an amazing race format where the marshalling and water distribution is done by the others not racing right now. Around 5 miles in the Serpie van was there and Gemma (who I managed to miss completely) yelled at me to go faster. Normally at points like this I would stop and eat a sandwich or sausage roll or something. However this is not allowed on 12.2 mile races so I had to go on with just water.
It was getting quite warm and there was a perfect mix of covered trails and open fields. I passed Tanya who should have been way faster than me but was having stomach issues (I put it much more nicely when it's a girl). She later said to me that she didn't know me well enough to say what was wrong which I found funny. I talk about much worse with people I have never met before.
I seemed to get stronger as the race went on, passing the girls I had been following and some more runners too. I never bothered warming up and it could have been the legs loosening but I felt like going at it a bit and attacking the hills in the second half. There were quite a few and each one a perfect couple of minutes of effort, I wouldn't call them mountains but there were a few people walking them.
I finished in 1.38, quite a good time I thought. Rich had come second in abtou 1.19 and Gav had done well in 1.29 despite having to go for a "Forrest" half way through. Tayna managed to finish in good time too despite her problems. We hung around for a bit but soon had to make our way to the start of stage 9 where John, Sofia, Raul and Vicky were running.
Getting to the start was easy and we got there with plenty of time to spare. There was a lovely pub where we ate. We watched the start and watched some people finish the previous leg before heading out to our marshalling point which was around halfway in the stage and on a river where we shepherd people across the road. We got the the place it descbried (Anders end) where it crosses the river and set up. We could not figure out where the runners would have to go. After a good 15 minutes of faffing we spotted some runners 100 meters up the road crossing. We were on the wrong river, there was another very close. We missed John who ended up winning the stage and only managed to get there for half of the runners. It was quite a busy road and we had to stop people sometimes from running straight into it. Luckily there were others already there to help.
Reports were coming in of Stage wins, course records and epic navigational failures. The Serpie Mens and Womens teams were cleaning up and collecting most of the maroon T-Shirts for winning their races. There had been no epic fails on getting runners to the start of their stage and all appeared to be going well. Saturday night we stayed in a hotel in Basildon (Bas Vegas) which is as delightful as it sounds. Our bus got the stage win for making it to the bar first and started to rehydrate from a tough day of running, shouting and pointing.
There was a great buffet meal put on for the end and in the hotel bar we got to all catch up together while looking at what happens in deepest Essex. It is quite grim. This is what we would all look like if we stopped running for a year, carried on eating at the same rate and tried to wear the same clothes.
I woke up before the 6.15 alarm and went downstairs for the breakfast. It was raining quite heavily outside, I was tired and the buffet breakfast did not start till 7.30. We were due to leave at 6.50 for the first stage starting at 8. I think I was put on the earliest stage for my proven record of being able to run when hungover. A nice run is a good cure for this, still have not found anything better.
The breakfast buffet was even labled already, I was missing out on sausages, bacon, black pudding, hash browns and fried eggs. I wondered whether the rapture really had happened, this was torture.
We made it in plenty of time to Blackmore where Rich, Gav and now Laura Beckwith who had joined the bus along with Tim Renshaw, Stephane, Antony and Fiona. Today's stage was a little shorter (10.9) and much easier than yesterday with no hills and little navigation. The first few miles were on a very quiet country road and undulating. I tried to keep up with Laura but my legs just couldn't. First time I met her she was saying I was running too fast and now here she was getting smaller and smaller in the distance. I was near the back again and pretty much alone, no one in view at all. This meant I had to read the map a lot more.
The map was easy, about 6 miles of country lanes and then into some fields after a church. The markings and marshalling were fantastic again and my finish was pretty slow, 1.26. I got to the end to find that Laura had won the stage, as had Richard with the course record. Rich came up to me as said "What happened to you?". I was 30 minutes behind him today rather than just the 20 yesterday but he assumed I had got lost. "nothing happened to me I'm just slow". Anyway he told me that Gavin was not in yet and he should have been here 20 minutes ago.
I tried to think where they had gone wrong and all I could think of was a sharp corner at the end which is well described in the map but once you get there the signs are not too obvious. I managed it fine by keeping the map in my hand but then over the next 20 minutes about 15 other runners started trickling in from different directions to the finish line. Gav eventually arrive looking happier than the others did and reported that he'd done over 14 miles, 3 more than he should. They all went straight on near the end instead of turning right.
In doing this event you have to eat when, where and whatever you can get your hands on. Over the weekend I ate mostly chips and ice cream and celebreted the end of this one with the latter. Our next job was to drive Fiona, Antony, Stephane and Tim to the start of their "mountain" stage, probably the hardest one in the relay. 13.3 miles of hills.
I did this leg a few years ago and it is a beast. I said to Fiona that she had to beat my time (of around 1.50) because back then I was a slow fat bastard. She said "well what are you now then?" Fair point. After waving the four of them off we headed to one of the highest points in Surrey to watch the runners slog up a great big hill.
Gav wanted some photos of people in proper pain so went down to the steepest part of the climb and set up while we prepared to clap. There was a temptation to shout abuse to get better photos, such as "you are doing really badly, give up now" and "you'll never make the cut-off". It seemed so cruel to do so as they slowly plodded up the hill, lucky the rain had stopped because it could have been muddy. Antony Bourne and 3 others were sticking with each other in the first group and then a couple more were several minutes behind. This was just after half way and they were all looking pretty knackered at this point.
Stephane and Tim came through not long later and so did Fiona who ended up winning the stage for the women. Antony came second in a close 4 way battle for victory. We missed most of the finishers because it was raining and we went to the pub and had chips. It's great how many pubs there are at the end/start of most of the stages.
Next job was to drop John, Sophia, Raul and Vicky at their stage, quite a short one and one that had the starter shout from his car as he drove off so to get to the end before the winner (John again) arrived. More reports coming in of how Serpies were winning everywhere. I was really pleased that Tanya had a great run today and won her stage, Claire Shelley won too as did Teresa again (I think the only lady to do the double). Hugh and Nick Torry won both stages in records or very close. Wes won his stage, Jeff won his and I can't for the life of me remember how Andy Taylor did? I think he did very well.
Having seen John and co finish and one quick ice-cream stop we headed back to the main finish in Kingston to watch the race end. The 2 min Serpie teams had pretty much wrapped it up long ago with win after win after win. Andy Greenleaf finishes the job for the Men's team in a course record time.
The prize giving was very lively and short, the way such things should be. Most of the club were handed large bottles of alcohol for their efforts.
This is one of the best weekends of running anyone would possibly have. The Stragglers do an amazing job of organising the event and getting everyone involved in the marshalling really helps it become such a social race. Strongly recommend this. It even helps if you are not an ultra runner :)
And on that note, a couple of years ago I contacted the organisers and got provisional approval to have a go at running this solo. I decided against it in the end as there would have been too much organising for me. However having seen more of the course and run 2 more of the legs I am convinced that it is possible.
220 miles non-stop. I would say that would take 60 hours on a good run. I'd start probably 24 hours before the race and hope to finish at the same time. The navigation is not too difficult and having done 2 of the "hilliest" stages I reckon there is nothing terrain wise to make it too hard. Well as easy as 220 miles could be.
And now I know most of the places to get ice-cream and chips.
Big Thanks to the Stragglers for putting on the event and Ian Hodge for organising the Serpie teams.