Around 6 months ago my running club, Clapham Chasers, were hunting for someone to take over the reigns from the infamous Bryn Reynolds as chief organiser of our annual entry into the Green Belt Relay. No-one can really replace the 8-time (which was soon to be 10) stage winner with his meticulous attention to detail and invaluable prior knowledge, but how hard could leading 33 adults 220 miles around the greener outskirts of London really be? The question I was asked most frequently in the build-up was ‘well, at least you’ve taken part in the event before?’. Hell no; where would the fun be in that? It would be much better handing control to an absolute rookie who refuses to run in anything but ridiculous headbands and/or speedos.
So, after hours spent pouring over excel spreadsheets and making key decisions such as whether to order garlic bread or the standard bread rolls for a starting dish, I found myself standing in front of 32 fresh-faced runners outside Clapham Junction at 6.45am on Saturday morning. After blagging my way through a briefing of sorts without hundreds of queries coming my way I was confident people had some idea of what they were meant to be doing.
This confidence was somewhat dented when Ross Mcleod returned from his task of fetching drinks we were meant to be handing out to all runners at our various marshalling assignments across the weekend, with 10 litres of sparkling water. The worry now was how we’d offer the runners the choice of ‘still or sparkling’ before they’d charged past unable to comprehend why they’re being offered fizzy water in the middle of a running race.
Things proceeded to head rapidly downhill upon arrival at Hampton Court, the venue for the start of the race and stage 1 of the 22 split over the weekend. Barry Valentine had done some top-notch work producing each runner with a map of both stages they were due to run as well as clear details of which bus each individual needs to be on and when. At the same time, he also stressed that without a map and a mobile phone, the organisers would prevent you from starting the stage. Step forward Emily Harrison, who turns up at the start of stage 1, sans map, claiming her dog ate it (or some similar, terrible excuse). The Bazza/Spraggins combo can only do so much.
After the grand depart, the 30 of us not due to run until later hot-footed it back to the buses to follow the race and transport everyone to later legs. The drivers, under strict instructions not to crash the buses (unfortunately, Steven Pidgeon didn’t get the memo and managed that one within 10 minutes of picking them up on Friday evening), were let loose on the roads of Surrey, armed with probably the most fashionable visors I’ve ever seen.
It was a relief for the event finally to be underway after what had seemed like a ridiculously long build up during the week, dreaming of running out of safety pins and leaving runners stranded on the top of Box Hill. I wasn’t running until 6pm on the Saturday evening, but the day seemed to absolutely fly by as we got out on the course screaming on the other Clapham Chasers as well as all the other clubs taking part.
We got to stage 5 still hunting for our first stage win of the weekend, with high hopes resting on Ed Rees and Alice Whiley. In a heroic act of kindness, both sacrificed their leading positions to other runners, instead deciding they fancied running much further than the advertised stage distance, in an altogether different direction to the marked course. This is what Chasers are all about – kind, generous, caring and completely hopeless.
The wait wouldn’t be a long one though, with our secret weapon Carla Molinaro absolutely decimating the field on stage 6, coming 5th overall and beating the second lady by over 8 minutes, securing the first ‘stage winner’ t-shirt of the weekend, a rather fashionable orange number as advertised here.
By this point, having run stage 3 earlier in the day, Anna Symms had already sunk 8 San Miguels and a bottle of vodka; a brave act of potentially sabotaging her own performance on day 2 for the greater good. Others had sought out some rather quaint village pubs to ensure adequate post-race refreshment, feeling rather smug as others yet to go looked longingly at an ice-cold pint.
My stage (10) seemed to sneak up on me and before I knew it I found myself getting my kit on ready to run. We’d just sent some of the guys off to marshal the previous stage, and while Katie, Ania, Alice, Michelle and Cathyrn were busy trying to climb a wall to catch a glimpse of some butlers in the buff providing some private party entertainment, Ed Rees decided he’d put his own life at risk diving in front of cars to ensure the safe passage of runners crossing the road.
Ross, not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to help, nominated himself as chief leader of a group of lost girl guides, providing them with ample sparkling water and directions, letting them know we’ve got 8 more litres of the stuff in the bus if anyone wants it.
Completely unaware of this, I was lining up ready to run my first Green Belt stage, alongside Sam Andrews and Will (by complete chance all 3 of us are all doing Ironman Wales later this year). The event is organised by the quite brilliant Stragglers running club, and they have officials present at the start and finish of every stage to keep order, record timings and make sure everyone knows what they’re meant to be doing (no easy task).
Our particular leg was 9 miles through Epping Forest before passing through the village I grew up in, Coopersale, which was the main incentive for me to run this one. After a slight detour falling into a small crater within the first half a mile, I made my way back to the front of the pack, settling behind the leader who ran as if he was out for a pleasant stroll when compared to my ‘is this guy about to have a heart-attack’ gasping and panting.
Despite this, I heroically took the lead (he briefly went the wrong way), leading the runners through the Chasers marshalling spot to utter scenes of jubilation (some clapping and high-fives), before parity was restored as he passed me and drifted off into the distance. Coming into Coopersale, I knew my Dad would be out watching somewhere, and sure enough there he was, armed with his camera and letting me know the leader was a mere ’20 seconds up the road’.
I replied, telling him the chase was futile but that it was superb to see him all the same; he doesn’t get a chance to see me race much so it was really special for him to be there, a real highlight of the weekend. I plodded on towards High Beech, marooned in 2nd with no sign of anyone behind me. I decided to ‘turn down the engine’ and enjoy the closing couple of miles, which might have been possible if they hadn’t sent us up the muddiest, most churned up field imaginable. I crossed the line in second place; covered in mud, partially satisfied, but no t-shirt; beaten by my the much better runner.
We quickly hopped into the bus to dash over to the end of Day 1 where finally all 33 Chasers would regroup and share stories of a rather epic 12 hours, cheering in the final finishers before our chariots whisked us away to our base for the night, a step into the unknown with the destination an unproven entity. The infamous Miami hotel, location of previous Green Belt stopovers, had been shut down by the health authorities (this may or may not be true), so we’d decided to rest our weary legs at the Green Man hotel in Harlow.
The gamble paid off as the entire process ran smoothly and our pre-ordered food was efficient and plentiful; just what the doctor ordered where a group of hungry, tired runners are concerned. The awards were distributed based on some solid (and not so clever) performances on day 1 and ample rehydration took place, before people drifted away towards bed with a 5.45am alarm call looming large.
After a decent cooked breakfast, smug that was able to take full advantage as my stage was slightly later in the day, everyone was loaded back into the buses to start the 2nd day where we finished a mere 10 hours previously. There were some tired faces but all in all everyone was in good spirits considering the weary legs and lack of sleep.
We spent the morning following the route and supporting runners wherever we could, sharing the Chaser goodwill not just with our club but offering encouragement to all. The weekend highlighted to me the value of being part of a running club, and such a great one such as Clapham, where there really are some awesome people.
I’ve tried not to highlight people out in this report as it’d be absolutely impossible to mention all 33, but one of these people is Graham Sutherland. Graham works tirelessly behind the scenes at the club, sacrificing his free time for nothing to highlight everyone’s performances each week as part of the weekly running results update. It was Graham doing the performing on Sunday, with a superb 5th place finish (his highest ever), backing up a 7th from Day 1. Now if he’d just cut back on the cigs I’m sure we’d be looking at a podium finish or better next year…
Stage 16 brought vengeance for Alice as she managed to go the right way this time and pick up a fluorescent orange t-shirt in the process, before proceeding to refuse to wear it for the rest of the day or even acknowledge its existence as she’s far too modest. Either that, or she really hates the colour orange.
Unfortunately, I missed all this as I was limbering up for the start of stage 17; I did a quick mile warm-up during which my legs grumbled at me indicating that today might not be a good one. I tried to take as much pressure off as possible and decided to just run and see what happens – que sera and all that. We went through the opening mile and I was sitting at the back of a lead group of 5 or so, with the pace feeling manageable, but not easy.
It was a 10-mile leg, but much hillier than the previous day, so I knew it’d be a case of building into it. Around 3 miles we came to complete standstill as 5 horses walked out right in front of us, 2 of them getting completely spooked and bolting. We stood there for around 10 seconds, allowing the lead group to swell to about 10 runners, before eventually we were able to tip-toe around them.
From there it was time to stop horsing around, although I did keep trying to get lost with runners behind me helpfully shouting out the correct way when I was about to take a wrong turn. Halfway through the stage we turned onto the North Downs Way, and the group slowly whittled down to 3 and then just 2 of us. Then, without really making a conscious push, I found myself slowly inching away at the front, until I was running solo.
This now meant I had to do all the navigating myself, and I spent the next 3 miles convinced I’d definitely gone the wrong way. At one point, I stopped and asked an older lady if I was in fact still on the North Downs Way; thankfully she indicated there were some marshals just ahead. These marshals happened to be the Chasers, with Ania’s infamous cowbells indicating their presence well before I locked eyes on them. I let Katie know that second place ‘was coming for me’; it sounds like some sort of cheap horror flick, but I was running scared, not knowing how big my lead was.
I started to believe with a mile to go I might just do it. But then I caved, finally sure that I’d gone the wrong way, so I turned around and started running back the way I came. Within 10 seconds I nearly ran head first into the guy in second place. Pros; I was going the right way. Cons; I no longer have a lead. About turn, and back the way I came, out onto the final half a mile which is all on a road section.
As complete chance would have it, one of the Chaser minibuses drove along the road at that exact point, rolled the windows down and told me to get a move on, as the guy was a mere ‘100 meters behind’. In reality it was more like 50, but I think they were trying to make sure I didn’t panic. I managed to hold on for the win, securing one of those garish orange t-shirts in the process – I can retire a happy man.
The stage wins kept coming on Sunday, with Rose putting in a fantastic run to win stage 19, before Carla closed out the weekend in fine style, winning the final stage and finishing 4th overall. Danny and Jen brought the teams home in style, capping off an awesome weekend of running, drinking, high-jinx and all-round good times.
After dropping the minibuses back in (pretty much) one piece we made for The Wandle for some post-race celebrations, toasting impressive results and new friendships. For those that haven’t taken part in something like the Green Belt relay before, in my opinion it’s one of the best running events I’ve ever done. From the excellent organisation by the Stragglers, to the enjoyable, more relaxed atmosphere without all the pressure of times and PB’s, I’d thoroughly recommend getting involved.
I couldn’t have asked for a better group of 32 people to lead around the M25 in a minibus, with everyone making my life a hundred times easier than it could’ve been. I already can’t wait for next year.