So this was the 3rd Green Belt Relay that we have taken part in. This could become a habit. In fact, it already has. Last week I received emails from a couple of our runners counting down the number of sleeps until the weekend. People really have taken this event to their hearts.
After 4 months of preparation, the weekend was upon us. 3 teams, 33 runners, 2 reserves and one dedicated driver were ready to go.
My preparation hadn’t been good. My stomach issues have got in the way of pretty much everything since March. I wasn’t even sure that I was fit enough to get through 2 stages totaling 22 miles over 2 days. Things got a lot more ‘interesting’ last week when Ernie was attacked by a fox. Ernie is the stray cat who is living in the shelter we built for him in our garden. We couldn’t risk him being outside for a while, so I spent over a week cat sitting him in either the spare room or the living room, keeping him away from our elderly, rather poorly house cat. The result of this was about 3 or 4 hours sleep per night and this doesn’t make me a happy boy. Sometimes it’s hard to be an animal loving tree hugger.
Anyway, back to the Green Belt Relay. Have I ever mentioned how totally amazing this race is? If the answer to that question is ‘no’ then you haven’t been listening.
In short, it is a relay around London’s Green Belt in teams of 11 running 1 stage per day over 2 days, with each stage being between around 6 and 14 miles.
It’s an early start on the Saturday. The 3 teams met up at 6.15am in Burgess Hill to get to Hampton Court Palace for the 8.30 start.
Hampton Court Palace was as lovely as ever and we’re there in plenty of time for our 3 runners on the first stage to get ready.
And they’re off bang on 8.30am and the fun begins. We head off to the end of stage 1 to meet our runners and the other 2 vans head off to their relevant stages to get our runners safely to the start of the 11 stages on day 1.
My stage on day 1 was stage 7, from St. Albans, through Hatfield, finishing just south of Welwyn Garden City. A lot of the stage was on the Alban Way. It is a tarmac path which is protected from the roads around by trees and bushes. This is a lovely part of the race, but far from being the most picturesque of stages, which says a lot for the other 21 legs.
I really quite enjoyed it. I set off a little too quickly, but that’s nothing new. I slowed down a little towards the end, but that was more a choice than a necessity, given that this was only day 1. This is a pretty easy stage and the route markings were very easy to follow.
Our path crossed with our other 2 vans throughout the day as the start and the end of stages are in the same place. This is great as you get to swap stories about what has happened and you get to encourage people in at the end of their stage and cheer people off at the start of theirs.
It is a little unfair to pick out highlights, but there were a couple of special moments on day 1. Seeing 3 Green Belt first timers and pretty new members of the club off at the start was great to see. Seeing Nick, Gary and Helen come in at the end of the Epping Forest stage was great. I really want to do that leg one day. Glyn’s finish at the end of stage 4 was one of the best I have ever seen.
So, with the running over on day 1, we headed off to the hotel in Brentwood. The check in could have been slicker (although checking in 36 people at once was never going to be that smooth). Before you knew it, we had beer in hand and were off for a curry, 5 minutes down the road. The food was excellent again and catering for that many people at 10pm is not easy. They serve Quorn piece curries. It’s veggie heaven. Give that restaurant a medal.
With 5 hours sleep, we’re off again. Jaded and a bit sick with nerves, we head off to the wonderful Thorndon Park to drop off our first runners of the day for a 9am start. Pictured below, Jonathan treated his body more like a temple than I did.
My favourite start/finish location of the whole event is the end of 15 / start of 16 at Lullingstone Park. I just love it. The end of stage 15 is beautiful and I have very fond memories of running stage 16 in 2014.
My stage on day 2 was 19. We had wanted to run up Box Hill and during the planning we allocated ourselves the stage called Box Hill. It turns out that this is the stage that starts at the top of Box Hill. A school boy error for sure, but it certainly didn’t make things any easier.
Stage 19 is amazing. Difficult. Really tough, but totally amazing.
You run steep downhill for about 2km and then steep up for about 4km. After that, it is up and down for the rest of the stage. It takes you through Denbie’s vineyard and through some amazing countryside. Several sections are on the North Downs Way. It is totally different from the South Downs Way. There is a lot of tree cover and there are a lot of technical sections. I loved the forest trails. They were technical with tree roots to avoid and the uphill and downhill sections were short, so it was constantly changing.
I’m so lucky that I accidentally allocated this stage to myself. I can think of lots of people who would love to do it next year.
We dropped our last runners off at the start of the final stage and headed to the finish where everyone was gathering to welcome the runners crossing the line on the glory leg.
We did it in style as well. We were last over the line with all 3 runners hand in hand.
I always find the end of races a bit emotional. This was especially so. We’d got around the course safely and all of the vans were still intact. I feel a lot of responsibility on this event and the most important thing for me is that everyone is safe. After that, everything is a bonus. Luckily there were lots of bonuses. Club course records, great atmosphere in the vans, amazing countryside, Helen went under cut off for the first time and I wasn’t ill.
And we won a trophy. The Most Supportive Team. I’m so proud of this. We are never going to be the quickest people out there. That’s not really the point of why we spend time together in fields at the weekend. It’s all about enjoyable and supporting each other. So I got the chance to lift the Wissahickon Trophy. Oh yeah.
It’s hard to imagine what goes into staging this event. Organising the marshals (this is a self-marshaled event) is a huge task in itself. How on earth do you mark out 220 miles of course close enough to the event so that idiots get as little chance as possible to move the markings and signs? How do you handle a tree falling down on the day of the race, making the route impassible? The answer is with a huge amount of organisation, dedication and pride in knowing that this event is just the best.
The last 3 years have given me and Burgess Hill Runners that chance to test ourselves against some great countryside, to get to know each other better and to forget about the troubles of life for a whole weekend and immerse ourselves in the wonder that is the Green Belt Relay. For that, we will always be indebted to Peter, the Stragglers and everyone who makes this happen.
We already have new people asking if they can come along next year. Will it see 4 teams of Burgess Hill Runners taking part? That is a question for another day.
In the meantime, it’s off to the Hampshire Hoppit Marathon for me in June.
Take care, Neil.