Green Belt Relay 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

3 Forts Half Marathon

This was my first 3 Forts Half Marathon.  In fact it was my first hilly trail half.  I have done the 3 Forts Marathon twice, so knew what it was all about and this year just fancied doing the Half.

That was a pretty good choice, given the recent illness, as I would not have enjoyed the extra 14 miles.

They call this event ‘The Tough One’ and there is no doubt why.  This is the elevation graph for the Half.  The 27 mile race is certainly no less up and down.

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So, 3 Forts.  It’s low key.  Around 400 doing the Marathon (well 27 miles actually) and the same number doing the Half.  The Marathon starts 30 minutes before the Half, which works perfectly with the narrow paths in the first 2 miles.

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They send you your chip timing race number in the post or you pick it up on the day.  It’s easy.  Bag drop takes 30 seconds and they ask for a donation to their charity.  There is hot food and drink available.  Toilets, shelter, a group warm up.  You know, pretty much everything that you need.

The race heads out of the field at Hill Barn Rec in Worthing, up a road for 200 yards (this is the only section of road that you see – you come down the same section on the way back) and then you’re on trails.  Oh yeah.  Trails.  Thank god for that.  Bye-bye tarmac.  A summer of trails, grass and hills beckon.

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It is 3.2km straight up to Cissbury Ring.  It flattens out in a couple of places, but it is nothing more than a small respite.  Anyone at my pace will walk up here (if they have any sense).

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What goes up must come down.  That’s what happens from 3.2k to 5.3k.  You pass the first aid station and enjoy the freedom to stretch your legs.

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This section is very empowering and great fun.  Best make the most of it.  What goes down must go up, especially when the high point of the race is Chanctonbury Ring.

From 5.3km to 10.8km the elevation varies from steep uphill to slightly uphill, with the odd short section of rolling ups and downs.

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And this is the view back down the hill.

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The views are just fantastic.  One of the good things about walking up the hills is that you get the chance to take in the countryside.

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And the hills keep coming until you reach the highest point of the race at Chanctonbury Ring.  By the way, don’t expect that to be the end of the hills.

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From there, you have 3k of decent.  It’s lovely.  It can be a little tough on the knees and quads, but most of it has a gradient that is gentle enough for you to run it comfortably.

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And then comes the first sting in the tail.  Well to be honest, it’s the first of 2 stings in the tail.

There are 2km of ascent and it’s pretty steep in places.  I was wondering if I’d be able to run sections of it, given that I was only doing the Half and I’d had to walk it on the Marathon.  No chance.  I had to walk most of it.

You then have around 2km of descent and flat until you meet Cissbury Ring again.  Once you have walked over it (no way at this stage am I thinking about running up here) it’s downhill all the way.  You are now retracing your steps to the start.

So that’s it.  The 3 Forts Half.  My race was good.  I wasn’t ill.  That’s the most important part.  I had a time of 2 hours 10 in my head and went just under 2 hours 13.  That’s good.  Time is almost an irrelevance on events like this.

I pride myself on being able to pace myself well.  This can apply to hilly events as well as flat road races.  It’s just a different way of doing it.  I was as quick on the downhill sections at the end as I was at the start.  There was still something left in the tank.  For someone with my ability, walking up the hills and running the flat and downhill works perfectly.

If anyone wants to run this race next year, I’d highly recommend it.  It’s very well organised.  The timing is done by chip.  They have cake at the end.  The marshals are lovely.  The course is tremendous.  Not easy at all, but flat is dull.  For the medal hunters out there, the lump of metal is nice as well.

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That’s it, I think I’ll search out some similar Half Marathons in the future.

Take care, Green Belt Relay, here we come.