Green Belt Relay Part 1: Glorious Mud

The third weekend in May can only mean one thing – Green Belt Relay time!

This is such a brilliant event. It’s organised by the Stragglers Running Club, and since this was the 21st edition of this race I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’ve got the organisation down to a fine art. Not surprising maybe, but still seriously impressive.

The idea is that London is completely circumnavigated by runners over the course of the weekend. There are 22 relay stages covering 220 miles, and teams of 11 take part with each runner running a stage on Saturday and a stage on Sunday. The stages are all different distances and have difficulty ratings out of 10 depending on how hard they are to navigate (there is some waymarking but you still have to carry a map, and you need it!), how hilly they are, and how far.

So for example last year I had a flat 10 miler on the Saturday mainly along a canal, and on the Sunday I had a countrified 6 and a bit miler winding around farmer’s fields and woodland. Neither was massively taxing hills or navigation wise. However some poor sods have to run up and down Box Hill, so it’s pretty varied.

It’s all quite a feat of organisation internally within the teams as well; this year, as last year, the Eagles had entered three teams. So that meant 33 runners to deliver and collect to 11 stages on each day, between 9 cars. There’s no baton passing – instead each stage has a very precise start time, and the runners for the previous stage usually come in just after the next stage has started, if that makes any sense at all. The clubs taking part are also asked to marshal at certain stages because it would be impossible for the host club to do absolutely everything, so that has to be fitted in as well.

Basically what I’m getting at is that the whole weekend takes a huge amount of organisation and logistical planning, so before we go any further I shall say a big thank you to every person from every club taking part who was involved with anything logistical, as well as to the Stragglers themselves for hosting this event. I really think it’s the most fun you can have in fields in the Home Counties, with or without your trainers on.

The Eagles started the weekend at 7am sharp, half asleep and gulping down Starbucks (don’t judge us, it’s the only option that early on a Saturday unfortunately), piling into various cars and heading to the start at Hampton Court Palace. The first stage runners always get a great send off with lots of cheers and much clapping. Hampton Court as a starting point has the advantage of some of the fanciest loos on the whole route so that’s also a plus!

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I had a late stage on the Saturday and the rest of the day passed delivering other runners to their stages and hearing tales of navigational daring do which included one of our runners going along for a bit with a lady running a 10 mile stage who had only been running up to 5k beforehand (brave!), a detour into a cactus show, and one of our girls taking a coveted first lady T shirt for her stage. My personal favourite escapade was one of our runners taking a wrong turn near the end of his stage and somehow ending up following the waymarkers for the start of the stage he ran last year…but in reverse! This meant he managed to cross the finish line from completely the opposite direction than he should have done but hey-ho, he made it to the right place!

My own stage was pretty hilarious. I’d been really nervous because my Saturday stage was 9 miles, and just 4 weeks after London my legs are not feeling very speedy. This time last year I would have had no issues running 9 miles at the expected 10 minute miles but I was concerned I’d be pushing it. Especially as this one was rated 7 out of 10 for difficulty – it was a tricky one to navigate and one of our runners who had this stage last year described it to me as ‘lumpy’. Which coming from a fast runner who is good at hills was concerning.

I needn’t have worried, however, because for about two thirds of it I couldn’t actually get up enough pace for it to be an issue.

You see it was mainly on woodland tracks and farmer’s fields. And what happens in places like that when it’s been hammering it down with rain earlier in the day? Oh yes. Mud, glorious mud.

The first three miles were through part of Epping Forest and very pretty and straightforward. I had immediately settled into a position right at the back, not wanting to go out too fast and knacker myself with stitch by chasing people lots faster than me just for the sake of it. I stayed firmly at the back throughout.

After the forest we emerged onto the top of a hill looking down into a really stunning valley. I couldn’t really see the people in front at this point, so I decided it was worth stopping to take a picture – I’m not sure these do the view justice but it gives you an idea of why the Green Belt Relay is such a lovely event. What a view!

We then headed through Epping itself (I was extremely proud of myself for not getting lost on this bit, it was pretty twisty and involved a railway footbridge, a slippery set of steps and me being thrilled when I found a big group of Serpies marshalling and handing out water) and onto the Essex Way via a tiny path overgrown with brambles and cow parsley. We continued to follow the Essex Way through fields and woodland til the end of the stage.

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The second half, from about 4 miles, was so muddy it was just impossible for me to get up to any consistent pace. I don’t know how the people further forward found it, but it was like being at the back of a very busy cross country race in the middle of November – there seemed to be a lot of puddles to go around and in places the mud was several inches deep. I decided quite early on to forget about the pace and just try to enjoy it for the ridiculous state of affairs it was.

When I could run for any amount of time I was hitting a really decent pace and getting to the 10 minute miles, but there was so much leaping about like a mountain goat trying to find a solid surface that it was just very silly.

The final straw came when I knew I was within about a mile of the finish. We’d turned into the last farmer’s fields of the day and I managed to find a dry bit to run on. Unfortunately the dry bit I found was a precipice at the edge of a field above a 3 foot drop into tractor tyre furrows with more mud in the bottom of them, so I was less running and more behaving like I was trying to cross a balance beam. It was about to get worse though.

Up ahead I could see two of the runners from Burgess Hill, and noticed that I could see them because they were walking. Uphill. In what looked like some very, very sticky mud. This mud.

By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, they had disappeared over the crest and were away. Two dog walkers came over the top and started making their way down. I was very jealous of their wellies at this point. One of them spotted me and called out ‘oh, runner!’ and quickly put her dog on it’s lead. I burst out laughing at this and told her I was pretty sure she was safe from any running of any description for the moment. They laughed back at me, told me they’d seen the finish and I was nearly there, and I carried on to the reach the top with about 5lbs of the Essex Way stuck to each shoe shaking my head and laughing some more at why on earth trying to run up a mud travelator at nearly 8 o’clock on a Saturday night would be anyone’s idea of fun.

This whole situation was really beyond funny. My final mile clocked in at 14:48. 14:48!! Nearly 15 minutes for a mile! I have never run a mile that slowly in my life – that’s almost twice my mile PB and slower that Mo Farah run 5k in! But genuinely, I did run my best when I could. I was simply defeated by quagmires. This mud of Biblical proportions scuppered my chances of making the cut off – my time was 1:48 but it was recorded at 1:43.

Thankfully there were some Eagles waiting for me at the end of the stage, or I’d have cried. I’d probably have cried mud through, so thank goodness I held that in. I flopped into the car and ate some of the cake I’d been waiting all day for, holding off on having any in case it impeded my athletic performance – knowing afterwards that it wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference didn’t help, I can tell you!

Despite the pretty catastrophic performance I did still really enjoy this stage. It was such a silly situation that I enjoyed the absurdity of it, and I always like running through woodland (I had to stop myself from signing the theme tune to Robin Hood out loud, just in case I was actually closer to the other runners than I thought…!). I was glad to finish though, especially when I finally took my trainers off and realised that the level of mud had been such that I’d actually got thick dried in mud THROUGH my shoes onto my socks!

Anyway – we made it home about 10pm, tired, hungry, covered in mud and looking forward to doing it all again the next day.

To be continued…

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