Green Belt Relay Day 2: #stageloser

And so day 2 of the Green Belt Relay dawned, warm and sunny and with no sign that yesterday’s rain would be returning.

Despite having a late stage again on the Sunday I was in one of the earlier cars because of the way the driver’s car sharing schedule worked out. That meant leaving the Green at 8am, and another no-choice-but-Starbucks moment for the coffee run. The ladies from Costa teased me terribly by having put out their A board signs already but no dice; not open that early on a Sunday. Sad times.

Unnervingly for a teetotaller I was actually feeling weirdly hungover on the Sunday. One of the features of Green Belt Relay weekend, at least for the Eagles, is cake. We bring cake in the cars for the people who have already finished their stages, and in some cases as race fuel. I don’t eat a huge amount of added sugar, so a whole day surrounded by cake added to a couple of gels and a pasta pot which probably had its fair share in meant I was really not feeling tip top. But that’s the joy of this event, being able to combine stunning athletic achievements (!) with cake!

We started our day with a long drive east to drop Rhiannon at the start of her stage, which was at a friendly bowling club where they had nice loos and smiley bowling club people in fancy blazers. Places with nice loos are essential for an event like this and the stage starts are generally really well planned in that regard. There’s not a portaloo in sight the whole weekend.

Rhiannon duly dropped off and wished good luck, we headed to our marshalling spot. This was 2 and a bit miles into the stage and at the top of a nasty hill, where we set out what we hoped would be a welcome water station. I don’t think I was involved with any marshalling last year and this was a really lovely bit of the weekend. The hill really did look nasty from our vantage point at the top and it was already pretty warm by mid-morning, so it felt good to be standing at the summit cheering encouragement at the runners and handing them a cup of cold water. We were really impressed with the runners on this stage as there really wasn’t much between them from first to last, they all seemed to be doing really well. Our three Eagles went through fine, all still smiling and in one piece.

We also made friends with this horse, who we think must have mistaken our bag of empty used water cups for a tasty sack of oats.

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After a quick cup clearing tidy up we set off again to collect Rhiannon from the end of the stage. I hadn’t quite fathomed that she was running the Lullingstone Park leg – this is one of my favourite points on the route. The finish comes into this lovely country park where there is an excellent café (good coffees, yet more cake, and this year a handy Fentiman’s Dandelion & Burdock which was procured as a celebratory drink to save for later), more of those good loos and an abundance of really cute dogs to coo over. Seriously, people need to start checking under my jumper at these places, there were several I would happily have spirited away.

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From Lullingstone we pressed on (sans stolen puppies) to drop Smack off at the start of her stage, the fabled Box Hill. Before last year’s Green Belt Relay I’d never been to Box Hill and had only really heard of it because of that Jane Austen scene where Emma is really rude to Miss Bates and Mr Knightly has to be stern with her. My main impression of Box Hill, last year and this year, is that even the promise of Mr Knightly being seductively stern with me would not get me to run either up or down this bloody hill. There is one stage running up it and one running down, and looking down the hill towards Dorking I remembered just how tough last year’s runners had found these stages.

It made me very glad that my Sunday stage was a 6 miler billed at a difficulty rating of 1. I wasn’t stressing about this stage in the slightest, because surely with a description like that there would be loads of the slower runners in each team for this one? Right? Guys?

How wrong can you be? Milling about at the start of stage 20 I was dismayed by how many of the runners looked like they were going to be pretty speedy. Only marginally distracted by a very scout camp-esque trip into the woods to find a suitable bush to wee behind (this being one of the only stages with no loo at the start) and a chat with a group of Clapham Chasers, I sensed this was going to be another lonely one for me.

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The cut off for this one was 62 minutes, but there had been some debate at the start about whether it was a full 6 miles. If it was 6, then 62 might be cutting it a bit fine for me, especially if I got lost. If it was the 5.6 it said on the official GBR flyer then it would be fine.

I set off at the back of the pack again. I just can’t do the all haring off quick at the start and then calming down thing. It takes me a short while to settle in and I am better if I start slow and then pick up. I ticked off my first mile in 10:20 which was pretty much bang on what I was aiming for – my plan was to have a slow first mile and then creep up to about 9:40’s to make sure I didn’t miss the cut off.

This plan was going really well as I headed into mile 2 at a decent lick and I thought slightly catching up with the two runners I could see in front, a Frontrunner and someone from Pembroke Athletica (who claimed to be there to take the Toilet Seat for the slowest team but had a couple of ringers in there this year, the pigs!).

But then horses happened. The route was mainly on a bridleway for the first couple of miles and we were instructed to give way to horses. Just as I got to the start of a really narrow bit of bridleway two horses and their riders were heading in the opposite direction. I had no choice but to wait for them to come past (it was their right of way, fair do’s) but I think this lost me at least 45 seconds, and mile 2 beeped at just over 10:30.

I was slightly despondent at this point. I don’t mind being slow, but as this event is about teams of runners and a small but determined group heading off together into the wilderness (well, Essex) with a map and a cheery sense of blind optimism, it was a bit crap that I ran both my stages totally alone. What was the point of trying so hard, I thought, when you’re this far at the back? For the first time in a long time I got that horrible thought; you don’t belong here. What do you think you’re doing saying you’re a runner, taking a place someone else could have had and done better at?

Thankfully the route continued on a downhill for a bit for the next mile or so, and I was able to get back into my stride. Checking my watch at one point I saw I was running at 8:55 pace, which is amazing for me. Not for long, granted, but the rest of the run was a lovely even 9:20 – 9:40 pace. It was hot, it was tough, it was still a bit lonely at the back but my brain allowed itself to accept that this was some of the best running I’d done for ages, I was running at the top end of my current capability and that meant I was not letting anyone down.

The distance turned out to be just under 6 miles, and I ran it in 58 minutes. The first female finisher had been around the 37 minute mark so I was only 20 minutes slower than the leaders, and that sounds about right to me. I’m never going to run a 37 minute 6 miler, so I have to be happy with what I managed.

Also some people had managed to go wrong when the route went through a farm, despite there being a massive arrow sign pointing out where the BRIDLEWAY was in large capital letters, and I hadn’t done that, so that’s good! Although that means they ran further than me and I was still slower…..oh, but who cares!

Happy to be done, we wended our way to collect Thom from his stage before heading to the finish at the Hawker Centre in Kingston. Mr Duff was on this stage and happily we were there in time to see him cross the line, bringing all three teams home on the final stage. Standing in the sun in our matching Green Belt Relay 2017 tops, cheering all the teams in with barbecue and beers to hand was a lovely way to finish off the weekend.

This is such a fantastic event. It really does attract and cater for all running abilities, although I will say it felt like the teams were a bit racier this year. However it doesn’t matter if you’re last or miss the cut off, and the final finishers of the last stage got the biggest cheers we heard all weekend. It’s very friendly, really well organised and because the teams provide marshals along the route you feel more involved with the whole thing than at most events. Fast or slow, the differences in distance, terrain and who is running each stage mean that you really can’t worry about what anyone else is doing. You’ve just got to run the best you can, try not to get lost and see what happens. The Green Belt Relay is one of my favourite events of the year and I very much hope I make it onto a team again next year.

One thing I will say though; we had two first lady T shirt winners from the Eagles, Rebecca on day one and Bailey on day two. They ran brilliantly and deserve all the accolades they get.

But I don’t reckon any Eagle has ever managed to come completely dead last on both of their Green Belt Relay stages before. I’m pretty sure that’s a new club record.

Where’s my special Stage Loser t shirt, eh?

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