The Green Belt Relay is the equivalent of taking everything we know about the sport of running, compressing it into a ball and depositing it via a mighty throw somewhere in the park behind the Willesden Sports Center before you set off for the adventure of a lifetime.
Camaraderie, banter, constant snacking, breathless driving, raucous starts, and frantic finishes. And this almost didn’t happen until Charles and Maryam stepped forward at the very last minute, “to save our hides,” in the words of team Captain Harriet.
Running at most times, is an individual sport. But GBR brought the sense of team into it. Sure, there is an element of sociability around weekly track sessions and the odd pint at the pub but there are very few ways to know your fellow club members and the broader running community other than through adventures like these.
The Green Belt Relay is a not-for-profit annual running relay organised by The Stragglers running club. It 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 follows footpaths, towpaths, or minor roads.
Runners form teams of 11 people, and each runner runs one stage each day. Although the race is a relay, each stage starts at a fixed time. As much as the race is a competitive one, it is also a logistical feat with teams having to worry about transport, stay, marshalling, food to plan for any number of contingencies from an injured runner to traffic snarls. See http://www.greenbeltrelay.org.uk
We set off in the early hours on Saturday morning to the start of the GBR at the path next to the Hampton Court Palace. Armed with clipboards of schedules, water, snacks, and a giant pack of beer if things got truly apocalyptic, we really didn’t know what to expect. Only Charles (a 7-time veteran!), Matt, Georgey & Tim had some inkling on what the weekend had in store, but the rest of us were GBR virgins.
A big round of applause to Harriet and Tim – our indefatigable team captains who took the stress of planning this down to the last detail and in true leadership fashion refused to let the tension percolate through to the broader group. A special word of thanks to Mark who even though he couldn’t run, he sacrificed his weekend to help with the logistics.
Races, regardless of terrain, have a competitive element to them. The GBR had more like a weekend concert festival vibe to it as runners from 44 different teams took their positions on the start line on the Thames Path. In Matt’s words: “What I like about GBR is essentially the madness of it all. You take everything you’ve learnt over years of running about rest, fuel, hydration, warm-ups, back-to-back efforts, stretching, recover, etc. and just toss it all away and get in the van. Team spirit is amazing and almost all the other competitors are chatty, friendly. You help each other out. It couldn’t be any more different from the usual city half-marathons and alike that you normally run”.
A brief set of instructions mumbled by the timekeeper, a raucous round of cheers and applause and we were off. Perhaps the din was louder this year, given the GBR was returning after a 2-year hiatus.
After the initial rush of adrenaline, you start to savour the gorgeous countryside, blue water, even bluer skies, glorious trails punctuated by the odd walker or jogger.
The race organisers go to great but quaint lengths to ensure runners stick to their paths by putting piles of sawdust around tricky turns, sticking tiny squares of fluorescent paper and dishing out heavily annotated maps. The teams also spend hours poring over YouTube videos (where the pictures sometimes don’t match with the voiceover) and memorizing route maps.
But runners routinely end up running more than their distances as it is very easy to get lost in the beautiful countryside. Sample this chat on the 2nd day between Patrick and a 1st day stage winner from Thames Hares & Hounds at Stage 19 at Burford Bridge which was a 8.4 mile stretch. Even though runner was faster than Patrick and overtook him near the finish, Patrick won the verbal joust.
TH&H Runner: How far is the far is the finish line?
Patrick: Just over a mile.
TH&H (very frustrated): But I've run 10 miles already!
Patrick (pointedly): Well, don't run so fast then!
Saturday was picture perfect weather conditions for the early runners. You could pour it into a tall glass and top it with a Maraschino cherry and gulp it all down. But as the day progressed, it became hotter and the faces redder as the runners were greeted with cheers and cups of water at the end of their respective legs. While each stage comes with a difficulty level attached, they each have their own separate challenges.
In Jenny’s words as she came in storming to the finish line at her leg in picturesque Letty Green: “Seeing John Fawad and Saikat at the end of my day 1 leg cheering and whooping as I came to the finish line is my favourite memory. I was tired. I was dehydrated. I was having a sense of humour failure. But their cheers meant I had made it and it was all worth that one moment.”
Weather conditions on the 2nd day were far cooler and cloudier though intermittent rains made navigating terrain a trickier proposition and we had an early start after a hearty Italian dinner. Adrenalin levels were sky high despite the few hours of sleep.
Amidst the frantic driving, the drops, pickups, and the general sense of being knackered mixed with excitement, lay some of the fondest memories. Georgey putting ribbons in Matt’s hair and him rocking the look all weekend. Tim calling the Serpies captain a dick thanks to them parking on a disabled parking slot.
Fawad locking John in the van after meticulously checking the windows and the doors. Maryam and Harriet engaging in a lengthy authoritative discourse about the
pedigree of serial killers. Jenny and Patrick singing the Rocky theme tune as Saikat was finishing his leg. Charles relaxing in the sun at Gt Kingshill cricket ground, forgetting about having to run later at Epping Forest.
There were some memorable running ones too. Patrick’s singing-dancing stage finish on Sunday. John overtaking the same guy three times on a leg. High-fiving Tim in the middle of his challenging stage on day 2 while driving to pick up race marshal Mark. Watching John finish strong after his tough stage on Day 1 (when others finishing the same leg looked like they were about to die). Harriet whizzing to the finish line at the final stage on Day 1 in the backdrop of a golden sun in an empty field. Charles staying in front of an Eagle and catching a Serpie on the flying downhill 100 mph stretch to Ripley! Harriet flying down Box Hill on Day 2 at the finish of her stage. John, running up a few hundred yards from the finish line, to reel us in.
A photo finish sprint between a Serpies runner and Georgey at Dobbs Weir on the first day. As Maryam puts it, “the best memory was running the last leg and thinking I was last, only to be told by the marshals that there were others behind me, and I got to overtake three other runners. Sprint finished and cheered on by my team.”
But in the excitement of the weekend, there were those periods when you could take a moment to look around you and relish on what you have set out to achieve (run 220 miles around London in a single weekend with some amazing people). Team Captain Tim with the final words:
“My favourite moments during The Green Belt Relay are always, during the two days of chaos and the constant excitement of race starts and finishes, the surprise moments of total calm, when suddenly you find yourself with fellow runners, with 30 minutes to find something to do. There is usually a pub nearby, or a cricket match, or a nice view where you can have a rest. These moments are often with people you know, or haven’t seen in a while, or have never met before. I had many moments like this during this amazing race. At the end of stage 10 and the start of stage 11 for example, we had just set Harriet off for the final leg of the day and we realised we had a half hour or so before Charles would finish. So Matt, Patrick and I found an outside table and had a pint at the Green Man pub in Toot Hill. Perfect!”
16th team positions out of 32 mixed teams. 30 out of 44 overall.
Silver lining for debutant Harriet on stage 11. Second lady. She also got a bronze by being 3rd lady to climb Box Hill on stage 18.
John coming 10th on stage 21 and no one picking up the wooden spoon. The wooden spoon is awarded to the slowest team of the competition who takes the most cumulative time to finish the run. Lots of solid middle of the pack performance.