Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Trails of the Unexpected

"Sorry mate, the car park shut hours ago..."
STRANGE things have been happening in the world of Essex trail running lately.

A fortnight ago I heard the tale of an experienced female runner, accompanied out in the fields by her faithful four-legged hound, who got hopelessly lost during an event which started and finished at a pub on the edge of Tiptree. The runner and dog eventually found a main road and (allegedly) jumped on a passing bus in their desperation to get back before dark to civilisation. Well, back to Tiptree anyway.

With nightfall approaching, their actions were of course perfectly understandable. But it raises the question of whether there's anything in the trail-running rulebook about not catching buses? I remember my younger brother and his mate once got bored during a fun-run and hailed a taxi to get home, but I've not heard of a runner catching a bus before.

A week after 'The Bus Incident', there were further scenes of panic and confusion at a trail race on Danbury Common. Although the course was less than five miles long, it came with no fewer than FOUR pages of written instructions and a mind-numbing THIRTEEN clipper points to be visited!

One bloke from the host club Springfield Striders found himself out so late in proceedings that he was forced to bail out of the race and go and move his car, which would have been  trapped when the local National Trust volunteer locked the car park gates.  No-one likes a ‘DNF’ against their name in race results, so our hero duly moved his car up the road, and then hoofed it back into the woods to resume where he’d left off for two more miles of punishment!  The people in the nearby pub were gobsmacked, but he was rewarded with 38th place out of the 72 starters, even with parking time included!

I’m only grateful I took the decision to arrive good and early, which meant our car was safe even though I spent a mammoth 77 minutes running the five miles of ever-decreasing circles, repeatedly going off course, and stopping so frequently that I was easy meat for some vicious mosquitoes.

The main part of Danbury Common is not huge, so to create a five-miler within its boundaries was quite a challenge for man-in-charge Andrew.  He’s clearly a meticulous chap, though, whose characteristics must also include a well-developed sense of mischief.  If the route he created were to be drawn on paper with coloured pens, it would probably resemble the famous London Underground map (but without the station names to help you).

You know you’re in for a hard day’s night when you get confused just 50 metres after setting off. At this point runners hurtle towards you from the opposite direction. Things didn’t improve on entering the wooded area.  The fact that this area is used by mountain bikers means there were steep uphills and plunging ravines, in addition to narrow twisting paths.  The bike aspect meant we had a brand new instruction to cope with - ‘LBW’, meaning “Look both ways”.

When in doubt (which was often), you couldn’t possibly resort to following another runner, because the course’s many circles and return journeys meant the person in front was probably at a different stage anyway.  And there were no landmarks like churches, farmhouses or village greens to help ease your path either – just hundreds of trees, gorse bushes and pathway junctions.

And just when you thought all the angst was over because Andrew and his colleague ‘Uncle Len’ could be seen up ahead at the finish, there was a sting in the tail. You then had to go past them, veer to the right and re-enter the woods to locate the 13th and final clipper point.   Some of us laughed, some of us swore, and some staggered in so many circles they looked in danger of disappearing up their own backsides. It was quite a scene.

But runners are a dogged crowd and there were only two non-finishers out of the 72. The winner claimed a time of 43 minutes, while the last man home, representing Witham, deserves a medal for sheer persistence for his 2hrs 10mins (that's 26-minute miling!).

And thus it was something of a relief this week to return to a spot of uncomplicated road running. Tiptree Road Runners staged the second of our ‘Summer Series’ time-trials, a  5.7-mile road race out Messing way.

This competition is an internal affair, exclusively for the Tiptree Massive, with the final results calculated by a secret formula devised by committee member Mark.  Speed and improvement over the summer are certainly part of the equation, but Mark’s "X-factor" is the most significant thing, and nobody else knows quite what that is!  One thing for sure is that the ultimate winner will turn out to be a surprise package, and not one of the usual speed merchants.

The evening also featured a cunning new marketing strategy devised by senior club coach Simon.  In order to publicise our club name to the rest of the world, he had us all wearing our full club kit for this outing (on the pretext of having photos taken before the start).  We all obediently dressed for the occasion and the result was quite spectacular, as nearly 40 bright red runners invaded the sleepy ancient village of Messing to conduct the business of the evening.

Messing is normally so tranquil in the evenings that the village pub closes early due to lack of interest, and this Tuesday night’s high humidity meant things were moving even slower than usual.  Until we rocked up, that is. Bike marshal Kevin arrived with feathers in his spokes, having sped along the lanes so quickly that a passing bird apparently lost its life in his front wheel. We think the end came quickly and painlessly, but a moment’s silence was duly observed anyway.

It proved a draining 5.7 miles in the muggy conditions. Some of us were still recovering from the murderous North Downs 30k (18.6 miles in old money) just two days earlier. Others (including your Clapped-Out Runner) could only point to the humidity and the high pollen count. I have to confess that recent symptoms have made me suspect I’m developing Hay Fever for the first time, although there’s every chance it could just be Hypochondria. It’ll be something beginning with an ‘H’, I’m sure.

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books on famous runners of yesteryear, at      

A fine body of men and women, ready for action this week. Luckily the pub in the background was closed.

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