|Some go hell for leather, others just jog . . .|
THE Essex Way relay. It’s an 11-hour party held every September where more than 500 scantily-clad people traverse Essex on foot as fast as they can. They go from the county’s south-west corner to its north-east tip, a journey of 82 adventure-filled miles.
Some look upon it as a deadly serious athletic endeavour, desperate for victory and records, but the event’s founding fathers actively discourage anything that might be seen as elitism. There’s none of this nonsense about carrying a baton (as in a conventional relay), and nobody would bat an eyelid if you popped into a pub en route should you feel the need.
Unlike other races, Essex Way Relay etiquette requires runners to shout a friendly warning to their rivals who might accidentally go off-course. Yes, of course it’s tempting to chuckle and mutter "Serves the silly bugger right". But that’s not nice and it’s not the Essex way (excuse the pun). No, you must save your cunning strategies and your gamesmanship for another day – leave all that for the cut-throat cross-country later in the year!
And, don’t forget, when your team finishes its glorious 82-mile trek, all are obliged to merrily stuff their faces with fish and chips on Harwich seafront. Presuming, that is, you are prepared to tolerate the enormous queue outside the West Street emporium known as ‘Pieseas Chippie.’
Last weekend your Clapped-Out Runner made his eighth appearance on the Essex Way, alarmed to find it was hot, humid and there were wild animals on the loose. The official starter of Stage 8, in the middle of the genteel chocolate-box village of Dedham, warned us to “beware of horses, cows and other things.” What could he mean by “other things” we wondered? Was the infamous Essex Lion still on the loose?
In fact one group of participants did actually transport a large cardboard cut-out of the ‘lion’ around the course. It raised smiles wherever it went, although Cuthbert (the canine associate of your Clapped-Out Runner), was not in the least amused when its appearance interrupted his sausage feast near the Harwich finish-line.
As if the dreaded high humidity wasn’t enough to subdue my own running, the presence of a ‘shadow’ runner certainly made life interesting as I made my way across the eight-mile section to Bradfield. Whether by accident or design, this fellow carried no route instructions and had not done a ‘recce’ beforehand. He therefore stuck to my shoulder, candidly admitting at one point he was using me as a guide. Now I know what they feel like in those Paralympic races for partially-sighted runners. All that was missing was the rope.
In the spirit of the Essex Way Relay, I didn’t object, and even held open innumerable gates for him en route. Sadly the going was too tough to consider accelerating off into the distance, but what I didn’t expect, after eight miles of shadowing, was for the blighter to suddenly sprint past as we finally came upon the finish line. Perhaps he was expecting a race. He didn’t get one. That’ll teach him.
But my travails in the muggy heat of Britain’s driest region were nothing compared to some. Club colleague Sean Ketteridge had set out to break his own record for running the entire Essex Way solo in one go. His form and fitness suggested he could take a big chunk off his previous mark (13hrs 58mins), but unfortunately he felt unwell before halfway and quit at Cressing (he still managed an impressive 37 miles in a little over five hours). Sean is an experienced ultra-runner (ask his ultra-dog Murphy if you don’t believe me) and this was apparently the first time he’d ever been forced to bail out of a race, perhaps underlining how deceptively hot it was. No doubt he’ll be back for another crack.
Having to post a ‘DNF’ is bad enough for any runner, but even worse was to befall Harwich Runners’ Richard Newman, who collapsed towards the end of the 9.4–mile Cressing to Great Tey section. To their credit many runners stopped to help, and before long Harwich team organiser Peter Gooding and a doctor who runs for the club were both on the scene too.
An ambulance was called for, but couldn’t get close to Richard, who had hit the ground some distance from the nearest road, and so the Air Ambulance was summoned. Peter told me: “A farmer very kindly transported them and their equipment across the field to where Richard was. After about 90 minutes the farmer then moved him to the road to be taken to Colchester hospital. One good thing to come out of all this is the fact that runners can be such wonderful people. So many stopped and offered help and have since asked how he is. Amazing.”
One of the ‘Good Samaritans’ was a Harwich runner leading the race at the time, who sacrificed her potential victory by stopping to help. According to Richard’s wife, the doctors ruled out a heart attack, and were carrying out other tests to find the cause of his trouble. As of Tuesday he was still in hospital, and of course we all wish a speedy and complete recovery. He’s a consistent runner with a recent marathon PB of around 3:20 (Berlin), who runs 5k in well under 20 minutes, so being halted in his tracks in this way will have been quite a shock.
My own club, the small but perfectly-formed Tiptree Road Runners, managed to get three full teams out (30 runners) which means we again had 50 per cent of our membership in a single race. Even the Springfield Striders supremo Kevin Wright was impressed. His own outfit had a modest nine teams (90 runners) in action, but that represents ‘only’ about 30 per cent of their membership!
The Essex Way itself (a waymarked path from Epping rail station to Harwich lighthouse) was conceived in 1972 by the Campaign to Protect Rural England. The idea of a relay run along it was born in 1989 thanks to Thurrock Nomads, in partnership with John Good. In 2000, Fergie McKenna's determination and sheer bloody-mindedness helped rescue the event from the abyss when John quit. Nowadays it is truly ‘the people’s race’, with organisation taken over jointly by various clubs in Essex, each responsible for a different stage. At Robert Teer's instigation all ten stages were re-written in narrative form and it has gone from strength to strength alongside the boom in Essex trail running.
The ethos of the event is perhaps best summed up by Robert, who was once asked about the idea of compiling detailed stats so that runners could have a crack at setting stage records each year: “Personally I would counsel against going down that route,” he replied. “It could send a signal the Relay - characterised by simplicity, inclusivity and atmosphere - may be heading in an elitist direction. This was one of the factors which almost led to its demise in 2000. Apart from creating another layer of administration, records would be meaningless since course and weather conditions vary from year to year. Anyone bothered about times just needs to wear a watch!”
* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books on running, at www.robhadgraft.com