“Up and down like a stripper’s knickers” offered one participant. “Absolutely f**king horrible” spat a second. “SO MUCH FUN!” yelled a third. This year’s Green Belt Relay certainly inspired a broad range of heartfelt, if somewhat lewd, vulgar and shouty, reviews.
What manner of contest could elicit such passion? For those of you not yet in the know, the Green Belt Relay (GBR) is a 220-mile, 22 stage, 11 runner, 2-day race along a route circumscribing our nation’s capital. The race takes in, and often over, sleepy villages, disused railway lines, river paths, farmers fields and several areas of outstanding natural beauty. Highlights include the Chiltern Hills, the North Downs Way, Epping Forest and the elevated section of the M25/A13 interchange near Thurrock.
This is a race which takes some planning. Not, it must be said, by road captain Harriet Betteridge, who texted me just one sleep before the off with the portentous opening, “I’ve just started thinking about the Green Belt Relay…”
By Saturday morning, however, all plans, even Harriet’s, were complete. The journey began at 07:00, when Philly, Annette and Gary were found shivering in Crown Court car park, taken unawares by sub-30-degree temperatures in May. They were soon joined by three near-identical Volvos of worryingly similar hue accompanied by menfolk of worryingly similar name. In a race where clear communication is key, what could go wrong?
At this point I should mention the race’s semi-unofficial motto: don’t panic. From pre-booked village halls being locked and surprised to see us ‘for the 25th year in a row’ to guessing which part of the route will have been built on since last time, unknown unknowns are all part of the game, to be accepted and overcome.
Each obstacle is faced in the company of 50 other team reps all trying to get a signal too, yet somehow, and with the extraordinary support of some presumably stimulant-fueled race organisers, things have a way of working themselves out.
After tactfully ignoring Zoe’s 15th enquiry as to whether they had time for parkrun, Saturday’s 11 stages were muddled through with unusual calm; marshalling duties were completed and our squad was even polite enough not to trouble the top of the leaderboard. Day one ticked off. Onward to camp!
Ah… camp. After a day attempting to pilot somebody else’s 4×4 on unfamiliar lanes whilst simultaneously decrypting the user-interface of a 2016 Swedish ‘satnav’ (she’s polite, but you’re still going the wrong way), our club adds to its athletes’ burden by forcing them to pitch tents next to a secret nuclear bunker on a campsite which closes 20 minutes before they arrive. As one final insult, tradition then dictates an unlit walk on unpaved roads to a pub where water is rationed and which stopped serving an hour ago.
Yet, by 20:00 on Saturday evening, Bill had scooted off after Will to pretend to be Phil and Ellen had passed for Zoe (who was still out there, somewhere) so that pitches had been obtained and all tents erected pre-curfew. A local curry house – a place of magical realism where penguins dispense ice cream – stood in for the village pub and by late evening everybody was well-fed, still smiling and ready to go again on day two. Not sure about the penguin.
06:30 on Sunday and after a surprisingly chilly night, the team was feeling rather less well ready to go. Nevertheless, nylon homes were soon flatpack once more, safely stowed in their Swedes. Keys and drivers were exchanged and up rose the team for round two.
With the exception of our stage 17 marshalling squad, who showed a surprising turn of pace to overtake the lead runners while trying to reach their post on time, Sunday passed with an equal lack of drama. The weather was kinder today, with blue skies showing the North Downs at their best.
Unfortunately for everyone, Phil was still wearing the same t-shirt he had on yesterday morning whilst insisting he didn’t sweat. Windows wound down, our team battled on.
And then suddenly it was over. By 18:30 the adventure was done, runners and marshals were home – Sarah via an unplanned loop of Bushy Park. All that remained was to commence demolition of Chloe’s cake – left uneaten for two days for want of a knife. It turned out there were two in the tin but, well, it wasn’t in the spreadsheet was it? How were they to know?
Big thanks go to all this year’s participants. They approached the experience with both the compulsory relaxed attitude and the desirable sense of humour. I hope they got to know a few of their clubmates a little better. For a few brief hours they were able to throw a dust sheet over life’s cares and concern themselves solely with whether this one was the manual or the automatic and did Will have the bag with their pants in? They assure me they had fun, even if Strava commentaries suggest otherwise.
As always, this year’s team did their bit to augment the canon of great sports photography. Following on from previous standard bearers such as ‘Bill Finishing Strong’ (as described by Bill) submissions from 2023 included ‘Belt Interior’ (335 prints of this little gem) and ‘Will’s back’.
Biggest thanks of all go to Peter Kennedy and the organising team from Stragglers. Events like this are why I run.
See you next year.