In a rare break in the cloud on a cold day the sun briefly lit up the hillside across the lake to let in glow bright green against the grey sky. It was also a brief moment of quiet, with most other people off in the distance following a grassy slalom back down to the lake side. I embraced the break, the short moment of clarity punctuated only by the soothing rhythmic sound of my ball bags blowing in the breeze as I watched a clown chasing a dog over a hill. These are the moments that I like to quote when asked "why" I do such things. This is the kind of thing I will reference should someone ask me why I created the "World's most unfair race".
This idea has been rattling around my head for a few years now. I've made half arsed efforts to find venues and try to get it done but it never went anywhere, mostly due to my own lack of drive. It's funny, if someone capable of running a 50 miler said to me "I reckon I can do it but I am worried about this little thing and that little thing and I'm going to wait until those things are perfect in my own head before I try one" I'd tell them not to wait but to do it, that if you are waiting for that perfection it will never come. That the fog of uncertainty is an unavoidable but thrilling part of the experience and although your flash-light might only be able to see a few meters ahead you can still get to the end so long as you have a vague understanding of what the end looks like. And all that guff.
And so by procrastinating over putting this event on I was being a dick to myself and that is the worst person you can be a dick to.
So about two months ago I found a venue, I booked it, mapped a loop and told the internet that this was going to happen. It was all a bit short notice, a bit cobbled together, but I know what a good event looks like, I knew what I was aiming for. That would guide me through any detail that I had to plan.
The idea was simple, so simple I can't believe no one has done this before. There was a loop of just over 2 miles (2.3 to be exact), there is a time limit (of 10 hours) and you have a bag of balls (1 bag each with 30 numbered balls in). The runner has 3 unique numbers to get from this bag on their running bib. After each loop you pick one of the balls out of the bag and hope that it is one of the numbers on your bib. If it is you can scratch it off and continue, otherwise you just continue. You finish the race when you have picked out all your balls.
Though simple I think this creates some wonderful complications. You have runners of different paces doing the loops, some get way ahead of others just because they have been lucky in drawing the numbers.
Someone will just get really lucky, finishing the race before most have even got warmed up. They can sit back and gloat for the rest of the day
Someone will just go for ages and ages without getting a single ball. They will start to think that there was a mistake in their bag and that their numbers are missing
Someone will get two numbers fairly quickly and think they are almost done. They will then spend hours and hours missing the one ball that remains in the bag and descend into an emotional mess
Someone will arrive at the race just before cut-off, with one shot to get the race finished. Only a fumble in a ball bag separates them from having something to show for 10 hours of hard labour and nothing.
Someone will nail the above.
I started the race with a warning that what they were about to do was very experimental. It hadn't been done before. It was really only then I thought about whether there was a reason it hadn't been done before. Was there a reason why something so simple had been avoided by the 1000s of race directors all over the world?
I was about to find out.
Incidentally I have another great idea that I can't believe no one has thought of before. Little bits of note paper that are sticky on the back so you can just stick them in places and write stuff on and remember it. They would be so useful. I have made them bright yellow and going to give them a snappy name like convenionotes.
We set off the 30 solo runners and 5 teams on a 2.3 mile loop around the Box End Park. It consists of about half a mile of flat running on grass followed by a mileish of slaloming up and down a small hill followed by about half a mile coming back to the starting point. It was all very well marked and I wasn't too concerned about people getting lost. In fact I could actually see most of the runner most of the time from the HQ.
It really was a sight to behold, 35 runners heading off into the hills and weaving in and out of them.
The first big test of the race was the efficiency of the ball bagging area. Each runner was instructed to enter the ball bagging area, take a ball and announce whether they were successful or not. It got a bit busy first off and I did offer runners the advice "In my experience when someone has your balls in their hands it pays to be kind".
The runners streamed in thick and fast after the first loop, it got a bit messy in the ball bagging area but fortunately no-one dropped a bollock and everyone got served. Dan Connors scored an early hit, pulling out his number from the bag, Amie Woodward also pulled one out. Most were unsuccessful, as expected. However they were fine with this. Amie had driven down from Hull in the morning, it would be a bit unfair if she was done in a couple of hours wouldn't it?
This race is a dream for maths geeks. I learned a new function in excel trying to figure out what the chances are of individuals finishing and also when I should expect my first finisher. With 35 runners and a 3 ball non-replace draw from a bag of 30 I was expecting the winner to be around 8 loops. Then maybe a finisher every other loop or so until the bitter end where there'd at least be half a dozen or so runners who will bust their balls until dark for nothing.
Just as the team of ball baggers were getting into the swing of things Amie, Dan and the team Dirty Gertie went and scored a second ball. The funny thing about this is that although they will think they are now "near" the end they are probably still miles away. With 26/27 balls left and only one to pick their chances were slim with each pick. It was going to be funny watching them suffer for the rest of the afternoon.
Piece of String Race veterans Stephen McCalister and Brian Robb each scored early balls too. Stephen drank a double whiskey for each correct ball he got and I think regretted getting one so early on. Sam Robson was enjoying not having any balls, Dan Park less so. Mimi Anderson who has more balls than most men I know in this case wasn't able to get her hands on the correct balls.
There was a team of three guys from the Kirkstall Harriers. They were pretty quick, treating the race like a weird interval session. They were bangong out the loops faster than any other, 4 per hour. However despite their speed and determination they were failing in the ball selection department. Three Northern Lads - No Balls. Sounds like a great idea for a sit com.
Dan came back in. He was "winning" the race in the sense that probabilistically he was closest to the finish. But clearly that wasn't going to happen for a while as he reached into the bag and OMFG he went and picked it! He got the last ball. After 5 loops, about 11 miles of running and an hour and a half he's only gone and won the race! What are the chances? That was incredible. I had to reach for my stash of medals earlier than expected. As I was draping the medal around Dan's neck I thought it would be funny for Amie to see this as she was "so close" to finishing.
But NO! She only went and finished too! And in only 4 loops! Just to recap - she drove all the way down from HULL that morning, to take on an EPIC CHALLENGE and then after 9 miles of running she's done. In my experience it's never a waste of time driving out of Hull but Amie went on a did a "victory" lap nonetheless just to make it worth the drive.
While she was doing that and Dan was enjoying a not-very-well-earned cup of tea Dirty Gertie came in and it HAPPENED AGAIN! 3 balls in 5 attempts. This was getting stupid now. Science where the hell are you you dick? This really wasn't supposed to happen. The chances of this happening are pretty astronomical, about a Bzillion to 1. I had used probability distributions to determine how many medal ribbons to buy, I bought more than enough, way out in 5 sigma territory and it was possible I was going to be shown up. I really should have put more faith in that fortune cookie instead of statistics, what did it say again? "You will reap what you sow".
So really I was contemplating the possibility that this was all going to be over my lunch time. I guess that would be in good time to go and watch Leicester City win 17-0. However it took a little while for the next person to finish.
5 hours actually.
AS plenty of runners picked up a second ball there were still loads without any. This was expected but it didn't make it any less funny. Barrie Williams ran a ridiculous number of laps before finally getting a ball. That'll teach him for running in a Motorhead T Shirt and Sandals.
Rich Cranswick and Chris Edmonds were trying to get their money's worth and trying their best to not pick the correct balls. They failed and managed to pull some out. Chris was running with his dog, poor thing had not idea what it was doing, just like it's owner. Incidentally seeing someone running an ultra with a dog was what gave me the idea of the Piece of String race.
Claire and Dan were running together. This is the kind of thing I wanted to see. A couple running together, one getting luckier than the other and then it all ending in divorce.
Sam and Dan Park are good friends and Sam is a bit faster than Dan. Wouldn't it be lovely if Dan got the balls and finished in good time to mock his friend for still busting his balls?
The runners got into the groove, running into the ball bagging area and selecting their balls before celebrating or commiserating with a cup of tea. I think it takes a certain type of person to enter an event like this, someone who can handle lifes irregularities with a smile on their face though this was not always the case with Fiona or the Kirkstall Harriers. I think the Harriers were not entirely sure what they were getting themselves in for.
When the runners finished they were offered the memento of their ball bag, which seemed to excite them more than I thought it should. Some liked to count their balls at the end, just to make sure. I've done this at the end of some ultras too, it's prudent.
Special mention to those who slogged it out to the end. I had decided that anyone can start a loop before the cut off but that's it, that is the last loop. At around 7 there was a stream of 7 runners heading in with one shot left to make the race count (apart from Dan Park who still only had one ball. He was kind of like one of those football teams that get relegated in February.
And one by one the runners picked and missed. Some incredible distances were covered by the runners who had nothing to show for it. I think it was summed up well by Frank who later said "One person runs for an hour and wins, I run 100k and get nothing". It was true, Brian and Frank ran almost 100k, would have got a Spartathlon qualifier if they did one more lap except that it wouldn't count because it would still probably be a DNF.
I'd like to thank my helpers on the day. James Elson for setting up the checkpoint and Drew and Claire for helping with that. Noel Jones for giving me the original idea for the location and being a great ball bagger as was Rob Westaway. Massive thanks to Lindley Chambers of Challenge Running who covered the First Aid for me. No one died and in my book that's a success. Did you know I had a book out?
The guys at Box End were brilliant, it is so much easier to put on events when you have people who want to see stuff like this happen.
There will be another Bingo Race on the 10th October. This will probably be 12 hours so slightly more evil. Details to follow.
In the meantime I am going to have prizes in the future for doing various things. These being;
The Luckiest Bastard Award - Dan Connors - For finishing the quickest
The Luckiest Bugger Award - Amie Wodward - For finishing in the shortest distance
The Get Some Balls Award - Claire Turton - Who took the longest to get a ball
The Just Give Up and go Home Award - Dan Park - For going right through to the end but having the least balls
The So Close but So Far Award - Brian Robb - For spending the most time "nearly there" without actually getting "there"
The Most Pointless Award - The Kirkstall Harriers for running 26 pointless loops