Saturday, 28 May 2016

Green Belt Relay 2016

Warning: bragging alert! There will be a fair amount of bragging in this post. If you're disgusted by it (I can't blame you) - just stop reading now and do something more productive instead. Or go for a run, for that matter.

You've been warned.

Last weekend I took part - for the second time - in the Green Belt Relay. It's an awesome relay race, organized by the Stragglers running club.
In short: 220 miles over two days (Saturday and Sunday), divided into 22 stages, running around the Green Belt of London. 40 teams of 11 people each, 4 of those teams being Serpies.

Green Belt Relay is one of my favorite running events, fighting for the 1st place with the Welsh Castles Relay (coming soon...).
Before I'll start bragging (you've been warned, remember?), let me explain - if by any chance you're not a Serpie who took part in the event, and are just looking for pictures of yourself here - how it works.
The race is a team relay. Each team consists of 11 members, so you get to race twice over the weekend. Important part of the race is navigation - the stages are not fully marshaled (there are marshals only in potentially dangerous places, like a busy road crossing). Stages are marked with arrow stickers and sawdust, but it's not necessarily enough. So every runner has to learn his/her stage beforehand. Or try to follow someone who knows what he's doing (that can be risky though - it was proven many times that not always someone acting confidently actually knows what he's doing - that applies to racing GBR as well). Or to suffer frustration of getting lost and losing precious time trying to find the way back.
There is no baton passing - every stage has predefined start time, and the overall result is calculated by adding the finish times for all the stages for a team. So basically it's 22 separate races. Logistics is fairly complicated, as you need to deliver your runners to the start, support them on the course, do some marshaling, then pick up your runners (or whatever is left of them) from the finish, and proceed to another stage.
How we usually sort this out is that we have 4 minibuses, each one of them having people running stages several hours apart from each other. So for example on the Bus 1 you have people running stages 1, 5 and 9. On the Bus 2 - stages 2, 6, 10. And so on.

Our club has won quite a few editions of this race, actually every year since 2010. So this year we were aiming at retaining our title again, especially that we had a fairly strong team.
Personally I was also quite interested in winning at least one stage. Winning a stage in this kind of race is a great fun and an absolutely amazing opportunity for bragging and being unbearably annoying. The "Stage Winner" t-shirt that you're getting at the finish line - and obviously putting on straight afterwards - is encouraging it even more. For some time you feel like a stag with the biggest... antlers in the whole forest. You won the fucking stage and for the next hour you're the king of the village!

Ok, back to the story.
The race starts at 8:30 at at Hampton Court. After watching it, my bus leaves, as we have runners running stage 2 with us.
We went to the start, our runners started preparations. The rest of us was just walking around, trying to wake up (we were leaving from central London around 6:45 am, so most of us had to wake up around 5).
Start of the race at Hampton Court
Finally stage start time comes. 3-2-1 and off they went. We waited a few more minutes to see first finishers of the stage 1 (start of the stage is always very close to the finish of the previous one). The first one to finish the line was Clapham Chasers runner. Our man was second.
But we knew already that most likely - as the year before - the first place will be decided between us and London Frontrunners. Last year we won by just 9 minutes, due to numerous navigation problems we've experienced during the weekend (not only us though - every team was affected, as the navigation on some stages can be tricky at times, and playful locals changing markings are not helping with that).

We went to organize a water point several miles into the stage. While waiting for the runners, we were watching constant stream of walkers, doing some kind of charity walk. Some of them were truly touched thinking that we've prepared all this water and cheering station for them...
Runners showed up eventually, with our guy in the lead!
Other our runners (we had 4 teams) were doing well too. We waited for the last runner to pass and then headed to the finish line.
When we got there, our winner was already out doing a cool-down run.
By the Stage 2 finish line
Start of Stage 6
By the start of Stage 6
By the start of Stage 13
The next few hours are quite busy - driving between stages, marshaling, supporting. Checking the results of the other stages while on the bus - we're doing well! In the lead since stage 2, and the gap between us and Frontrunners is slowly, but consistently, increasing.
Our runners run stage 6 - very good effort again (though no stage win this time).

Finally comes my time to run - stage 10. 9.7 miles from High Beach to Toot Hill, mostly through the Epping Forest.
I had some problems with my hamstring all the week, so wasn't quite sure how hard I could push. Nevertheless, the plan was simple - if there are runners around my level - stick to them and try to kick at the finish. If the leading group is stronger than me - then try to minimize the damage.
After half an hour of warming up I know I can run and my hamstring shouldn't make to many problems, but I definitely struggle to run really fast. Good the stage is nearly10 miles long, not one.
We set off and one runner - from Stock Exchange AC - immediately takes the lead. He goes really fast, but I feel I can keep up with him. I'm following him just a few meters behind, through forest paths, poodles of mud and fallen trees (ok, there was just one, at the very beginning but it still counts, doesn't it?). We cover first km in 3:40 - decent pace for an off-road ten-miler!
I don't know who is behind me, I'm focusing on staying in touch with the leader. Then - by the end of second km - we're approaching the first hill. Shite. That's a hell of a hill I think, climbing up. I'm an utter rubbish at hills - and it quickly becomes apparent. 4 runners fly past me - Clapham Chaser, Frontrunner, Thames Hare and Hounds, and British Airways AC.
Fortunately - as the Experts On Things Going Up And Down say - whatever goes up, has to go down at some point. So the uphill turns into a downhill. Good. I'm gaining some field, but there is already quite a gap between me and the leaders.
Over the course of next few km I'm overtaking BA and Thames Hare and Hounds runners, and can see the Frontrunner around 100 meters ahead of me. Clahpam Chaser is another 100 meters ahead, and the leader - 100 m more. The course goes up and down, twisting through beautiful forest. Occasionally we have to cross a road, cheered by the Marshals.
Another long uphill on the road to Coopersale, turn right by the school, past the cricket ground and back into the forest. I know we have only a few km to go - straight through the forest, then onto the fields, up the hill to the water tower - and back on the road. The last 400m will be on a tarmac road, slightly downhill, all the way to the finish line.
I'm pushing hard now, but my gap to the Frontrunner is not closing fast enough. And then - a miracle happens! When I'm emerging from the forest, I can see the Frontrunner and Clapham Chaser coming back from the right! They took the wrong turn, that have costed them a couple of hundred meters. And that's not all - the leader is approaching us from the front, unsure if he went in the right direction! I'm assuring them that it was the right way - and we continue together. The race starts again, with about 2-3km to go.
We go strong, and the Frontrunner is slowly falling behind. But the terrain is really hard, and we're going uphill most of the time - I'm falling behind the two leaders as well.
We're approaching the water tower at the top of the hill, and that's it - only 400 m down the road to the finish! I'm starting to kick, but the gap between me and the leaders is about 40 meters. And they kick as well - I can see the Clapham Chaser overtaking the Thames runner. But now I'm in a familiar situation, that's what I was waiting and hoping for during the whole race. I'm sprinting like my life was on the stake, overtaking the Thames runner, and I can see that the gap between me and the Clapham Chaser is closing quickly as well! Last push, last effort and here it is! I'm crossing the finish line 2 seconds ahead of the Clapham Chaser!

I feel so fantastic I'm not even noticing how freaking tired I am. Shaking hands with the other guys, my out-of-breath "sorry dude" to Clapham Chaser, and here it comes - one of the timekeepers is handing me my Stage Winner t-shirt!
I guess from that point I was unbearable for the next half an hour or so. Sorry to everyone who had to suffer that ;)
But trust me - moments like that are worth all the hard training, all the pain and all the sacrifices we make.

The next day was calmer. We were slowly increasing our lead over Frontrunners. I run stage 21. This time I knew I won't win. Few of our colleagues from Serpentine are also Frontrunners, and they were running for them this time. And one of them - who is definitely faster than me - was running stage 21 as well, so I knew I wont be able to beat him. Of course there was a tiny spark of hope, and sure as hell I had a plan on how to win it, but unfortunately he didn't want to follow it. Instead he just run really well and consistently, so I had to settle for the second place (that I had to defend at last 500 meters).

During the day we got to see more of the beautiful places around London. It's incredible that so close to the city center, there are so many scenic locations. Green hills and plains, forests, rivers. Old churches with small cemeteries next to them. And pubs, plenty of awesome pubs! Actually pretty much every stage' finish is by the pub. I was thinking that it would be a great idea for a somehow extreme, but surely highly enjoyable, pub crawl...

After the stage 21 we drove to Hawker Center, where the finish of stage 22 (and the whole race) was. It must be a great feeling to run the last stage, as at the finish line there are all the runners gathered together, cheering finishers. Unfortunately we missed apparently fascinating finish battle between our runner and the winner from Thames Hare and Hounds.

When all the runners finished, organizers where assembling the final results. In the meantime, we were celebrating with beers and burgers, sharing stories, bragging and in general having good time.

Overall Serpentine men team was the first team, with the Frontrunners 1 (they also had 4 teams) in the second, around 30 minutes behind us.
Our (Serpentine) ladies won their category, and our club took both Queens and Kings of the Mountains titles (for the fastest time over several very hilly stages).

Race Director presenting the fastest Veterans team (Sandhurst) with their prize - The Walking Stick

Great weekend, great race and I'm sure I want to do this again.
Last but not least, I'd like to say a huge thank you to organizers, my club mates, our drivers (especially to Sally and Ian who couldn't run this time, yet they offered to be with us and drive), all the marshals, and to all the other clubs for making it such an awesome experience. See you next time guys!

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