The GBR is a 22-stage running relay around 220 miles of the green belt that surrounds the outside of London. It takes place over a single weekend, starting at Hampton Court on Saturday morning and ending in the Hawker Centre, Ham, Sunday night. Its been going since 1995 and usually involves around 50 teams. Runners form teams of 11 people, and each runner runs one stage each day (unless you're a Harrier, but more about that shortly!). The course mainly follows footpaths, towpaths or minor roads, making it a very mixed terrain event. It's organised by The Stragglers running club, and all surplus funds from the race are donated to charity.
To the uninitiated, the Green Belt Relay might appear like a chaotic scramble on and off minivans from dawn till dusk for two days, and while most of the day is spent bundled in a van with a squashed banana under one thigh and a smelly hooped vest dangling behind your head, for one or two glorious hours you find yourself pounding the miles of a challenging and varied course.
If you’re lucky you’ll find yourself admiring the finest views the outskirts of London have to offer. Whether that be the grey/green snaky curve of the Thames, or the vistas afforded from the crest of the North Downs way (ask Stu, he Insta’d it). But GBR has its darker side and if you’re a little less lucky, or a masochist, then your weekend will involve punishing hills (ask Tim, he made some new friends–nasty blisters!) and the odd section of an M25 slip road–it's not all beauty in the Green Belt!
For the captain and campaign strategist (hats off to Alban) and our drivers, Alex, Victor, Matt P, Sam and Johan, as well as running, they also had to juggle pick-ups, drop-offs, and water stations that ran on a timetable where every minute mattered. For us mere foot soldiers we just had to follow orders; get on the right bus, don't run off to the pub when Alban says to stay in the van, don’t forget the maps, run and try not to get lost.
We got off to a flying start with Matt K winning stage one, which set off at 8.30am from Hampton Court, ahead of a Thames Hare and Hounds runner (a club that would dominate the weekend). Hare and Hounds took a wrong turn and lost a four-minute lead on Matt, going to show that on GBR being able to follow the route is just as important as spe
Both our teams were buoyed by Matt’s win and we set off to tackle the rest of the stages.
Every pick up and drop off had a different feel. The hundred-odd gang of runners, timekeepers and supporters would descend on unsuspecting Green Belt residents in order to cheer off the start of a stage. Once a group of runners stormed off into the countryside, the remaining team mates had an indeterminate amount of time before the runners from the previous stage arrive at the finish line. This means that each stage is run as a race in its own right.
Very fast runners often beat the next stage, arriving before it even started, but waiting around for your incoming team-mates gives you plenty of time to get up to some good quality GBR mischief–disrupting one or three cricket matches, scuttling past scowling bartenders to use the loos (strictly no boozing before one's stage) and shopping at the British Cactus and Succulent Society fair–an annual event which coincides with GBR. In hindsight though, adding spiky plants to an already full mini-van probably isn't the cleverest of ideas.
As for running heroics, every runner who had to jump out a van and start their stage without going for a pee due to tight turnarounds deserves a round of applause. Ayo also deserves a special mention for his titanic effort. Despite destroying his calf on the hills and limping the majority of the way, he still finished and was 30th out of a field of 52.
Tim also took on two monstrously hilly 13.5 mile stages with his classic Californian sunshine approach, and it was almost like he wanted to extend the route when he took a little detour into a churchyard 20 metres from the finish line of stage five. As you can imagine no one made any jokes about this...
While rain held off for most of the first day, it felt a little like the clouds were chasing us round the course. They eventually caught up with us just in time for our last stint marshalling a water station. Despite Jen, Ayo and Hannah very diligently filling up cups in the pouring rain, our wares were not in high demand, except for one runner who took two cups of water, and threw them both over himself despite the downpour!
While Edwin, Sean, Sam and Alban got quite soggy, it was James who was swept along in the torrential downpour unleashed after Matt ‘it-never-rains-when-I-run’ Peffers loudly tempted fate before their stage. QPH generally whooped and cheered the loudest when incoming Hoops were spotted from a distance, however for some reason we drew the line at cheering in the pouring rain and thought it would be best to withdraw to a local tavern instead of forming a finishing tunnel. Therefore, Matt P and James got a pint rather than a cheering squad–there are limits to our team spirit!
Then it was dinner time at the Cricketers in Chelmsford, perfectly organised by Emmie. The food was good and the chicken goujons were plentiful. After dinner, some of us braved the disco in the front of the pub, although one can't be sure sure if tracksuits bottoms and luminous orange t-shirts are suitable attire for a Saturday night in Essex... although saying that...then to bed in Chelmsford’s finest Travelodge.
The first stage started at 8am, so there was no lie-in to be had. However, first we had the very sad job of saying farewell to Ayo, who'd made the sensible decision not to run again on an injured leg. We all piled out of the vans to wish him well as he headed home.
Without Ayo, someone would have to step in and run his stage as well as their own. Luckily Jasper is selfless (crazy) and would run both, at a total of 14 miles, after running 13.5 the previous day.
For those with later stages, breakfast was a pastry and a coffee from the machine in the Co-op in Blackmore, but for Matt P and Johan it was a run to Thorndon Park, just under 11 miles.
As we cheered them off, everyone assessed the state of their legs and importantly when a beer could be justifiably consumed–after all we were all now awake.
Things were going swimmingly with everyone getting to their stages on time and running well. Hannah and Melanie ran toe-to-toe and Charlie and Jasper set off through thick undergrowth to finish their stage at Davy Down for the spectacular drive over the QEII bridge to meet the next stage.
At stage 16 we marshalled and gave out water at the top of a notorious hill cheering on Sam and witnessing Tim running his second gruelling half in as many days. We gave encouragement and secretly congratulated ourselves on not selecting the dreaded '16'!
Then something bad happened. Rich and Alex turned up for the start of their stage to find it deserted. Ok we're quite early...hang on we're not that early.. where is everyone?!
Then the dreaded realisation. This isn't the start of 17, its the end of 17!! What to do. Rich, like any level headed Northerner, headed to the pub, but then the decision was taken–the race would go on. Rich and Alex would head back to the start of 17 and run it anyway! Rich valiantly left his pint on the bar to do so–surely one of the greatest acts of sacrifice of the whole weekend.
Matt Kitching ran with Rich to keep him company (becoming the second double stager of the weekend) and the lads appeared at a deserted finish, with the team collecting photographic evidence of them crossing the line as well as giving them a huge cheer. I'm sure that they had a pretty unpleasant sense of deja vu as they arrived, but at least they could now relax and look forward to the most well deserved drinks of the weekend.
Then it was on to wave Martin, Gildas and Alban off for the final stage and dash over to the Hawker Centre for the final glory of watching our two teams finish the 2019 Green Belt Relay. With an exceptionally strong field of runners we were not in contention for prizes, but with Matt a stage winner and the rest of us happy that we had run our best and supported our colleagues, the weekend ended on a massive high (and beer!).
Full results can be found here.