The Green Belt Relay. Who can think of a better way of spending your entire day, than being shuttled around the outskirts of the M25 in a minibus, sharing close personal space with 43 other runners who have raced but definitely not showered, before getting a few hours kip and doing it all over again?
Ok, I’m probably not selling it. Keen enthusiasts of this blog will note with precision that I wrote up a review of the 2017 event, but 2018 never made it out of the ‘drafts’ section of these pages. I can only apologise profusely – being a literary genius sometimes has to take a back seat when other ‘real life’ things are going on.
So what is this ‘Green Belt Relay’? I thought the website would tell a better story than I can;
‘The Green Belt Relay is a not-for-profit annual running relay organised by The Stragglers running club, and all surplus funds from the race are donated to charity. The race is a 22-stage running relay around 220 miles of the Green Belt around the outside of London over a single weekend. The course mainly follow footpaths, towpaths or minor roads.’
This year, 52 teams were taking part, with muggins here solely responsible for the logistics and movements of all 4 Clapham Chaser teams. Worried that things were going to fall apart within minutes, fears were soothed when it was announced that assistant manager Katie Lysons would be signing on for a second season.
Those that know me know that I love a prompt start, so I forfeited a night in my own bed, instead pitching a tent in Lidl car park, ensuring I’d be in place at least two hours before anyone arrived, just in case. One by one, weary heads arrived on foot, before being loaded onto one of the four minibuses, for the trip to the start at Hampton Court Palace.
The extremely intricate and precise bus schedule nearly fell apart at the first hurdle, with Rose Harvey struggling to distinguish between the numbers 3 and 4. To be fair to her, she is a lawyer, so numbers may prove to be challenging.
It’s always a relief when the race gets underway, and time seems to move in fast-forward once the gun has gone. The event isn’t an actual relay with a baton, which any British team would most likely drop within minutes. Instead each stage is an individual race in it’s own right, with all runners starting together, at roughly the same time as the first runners of the previous stage are finishing.
The day generally flows nicely along, with a mixture of running, cheering, and general ‘bantz’ keeping everyone amused. Derek Green very unsuccessfully tried to get a cow to wear a Chaser bobble hat. Graham Sutherland smoked like a chimney in preparation for his first stage of the day.
The highlight of any Green Belt weekend is the annual visit to the Great Kingshill cactus show – truly a sight to behold. Located at the end of stage 4/start of stage 5, this festival of wonders is shortly due to be awarded national heritage status. The fact that entry is free is absolutely baffling, with organisers quite clearly missing a trick.
The atmosphere at the start of stage 5 was prickly, with the Chasers yet to secure one of the prized ‘stage winners’ t-shirts, awarded to the male and female winner of each stage (a complex system). Felicity Hannon ensured the wait was a short one, as she secured a sizeable 2 minute victory over those pesky Serpies.
Time was racing along, and I was facing the normal dilemma over whether to eat 2.5 or 3 hours before the start of my leg, convinced the answer would mean the difference between 1st and 31st. Arriving in St. Albans, Rose Harvey and myself were vying for the title of ‘most ill’ runner, with her rapid deterioration post-stage proving quite clearly she was suffering more than me.
We were set off in bizarre fashion, with a motor racing style ‘rolling start’, as we were funnelled down a narrow path with tree roots, looking to trip you up, lurking around every corner. As the lead two runners glided off into the distance, chatting away whilst running 5 minute miles, I quickly realised this probably wasn’t going to be the most enjoyable run of my life.
Still, no point in throwing in the towel straight away, with the thought of being beaten by cigar-smoking Seb Moulding driving me through the opening miles. Things quickly spread out and I spent most of the stage on my lonesome, until a chap from the Ealing Eagles caught me.
He went ahead, and I watched him miss the turning and go the wrong way. I briefly considered letting him crack on, before deciding that would be unethical, and shouted at him to come back. He caught me up, and passed me again, and I told him to push on, with my house of cards now well and truly folding inwards – definitely sick.
I thought I might be able to hang on with a mile to go, but coming into the last 400m, I realised if I didn’t go to the toilet now, I’d be going as soon as I stopped, whether I chose to or not. One (relatively) quick bush dive later, and I limped my way to the finish. 6th place, after running with 3rd and 4th for the first 6 or so miles.
Torture over, I watched Rose comfortably win the stage by a country mile – not bad for a sick note. Unfortunately, we then both started to feel pretty feverish, with her in a much worse state than me. We made a right pair, sitting in the front of the minibus, shivering away, feeling pretty sorry for ourselves.
Thankfully, other Chasers were fairing slightly better, with Alice and Gavin both winning stages late in the day to bring some more bright yellow t-shirts back to the hotel for dinner. The hotel then proceeded to forget I told them I was bringing 44 hungry runners for dinner, instead offering a spread fit for a sparsely attended 5-year-olds birthday party. The last straw was when cakes were brought out – 30 pieces doesn’t go into 44, last time I checked. Thankfully, they also served beer.
With a slightly fuzzy head, I was up at 5 the following morning to give the buses a quick clean and make sure everything was where it should be before chaos descended again. The cooked breakfast was a big improvement on dinner (not too difficult), and with everyone fed and watered we were on our way to the start of day 2.
Drinking beer seemed to have improved my condition if anything, and I was feeling slightly more perky than the previous day. However, in a complete reversal from my usual behaviour, I’d decided today was a day to be sensible, instead of slogging my guts out and putting my body in an even deeper hole.
Rather romantically, Katie and I had opted to do the same stage on Day 2 (Stage 14), an 8.2-mile affair from Upminster to Thurrock. You could look at it as our version of a date. Despite me leading her around the route a few weeks previously, worries were surfacing about not quite remembering which way to go, as she usually relies on ‘Spragg-Nav’.
Being the true gent that I am, and in my current state of life-threatening illness, I offered to chaperone her around, hoping that I might prod her on towards a first-place finish at the same time. Unfortunately, the plan was spoiled, as someone much faster turned up and proceeded to run away into the distance.
With Katie suffering from a touch of ‘gone-out-too-hard-so-now-I’ve-absolutely-blown-itus’, I was set loose on the rest of the field. We were already about 3 miles in, and I was down in around 10th position, but feeling much better than the previous day, so I charged onwards, seeing how many people I could catch.
By the time we were charging down the fairway of a golf course with a couple of miles to go, I’d worked my way up into 3rd. A wayward tee shot nearly put paid to my podium chances, as a ball whistled past mere meters from my head.
I kept an eye out behind in the closing stages (for runners as well as golf balls), but with no-one in sight, was able to ease up and enjoy the finish. Katie battled to the end and secured a top-10 overall and 2nd female. She always has to one-up me.
A quick stop for a post-race bag of cookies ensured optimal recovery straight after the stage. Nick Dawkins scored with a 10p Victoria Sponge, cheese-strings and a milkshake which he regrettably chugged down about 30 minutes before his stage, producing explosive results.
The rest of the day was spent supporting and marshalling out on the closing stages. Alice and Felicity both secured a glorious double with further stage wins, the latter despite getting lost and running a mile more than she was meant to.
By the time we got to the finish at the Hawker Centre, many beers had already been consumed (thankfully not by the bus drivers), with Nick closing out the team effort, Victoria Sponge in hand, surely now a tradition for years to come.
Quite miraculously, no one was left behind, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves at least moderately. After launching the photo competition earlier in the week, I received at least 57 photos of Graham ‘Seagull’ Sutherland simultaneously smoking and drinking a red bull, striking his trademark pose.
For those that haven’t done Green Belt before, it’s an event I strongly suggest you get involved in (and that’s not just because I organise it – if anything I’m sure that puts people off). It’s brilliantly organised by the Stragglers, who work tirelessly over the course of the weekend, with all profits going to charity.
It’s always my favourite event of the year and one I look forward to immensely. If you can think of a better way to spend a weekend than being carted round the M25 in a minibus, running, eating and drinking with good friends, then you’re probably a liar. Same time next year then?