|This is the baton. Make sure you don't drop it!|
WHAT’S the most remarkable thing ever to come out of Norfolk?
Is it Colman’s mustard? Stephen Fry’s brain? Henry Blofeld’s wine cellar? Lord Nelson’s battle-plans? Bernard Matthews’ Turkey Twizzlers?
Many folk reckon it is none of those things, but is in fact the Round Norfolk Relay, a unique annual running event which sees more than 1,000 runners processing around the edge of this much-maligned county, nearly half their trek taking place under cover of darkness.
Having joined in for the last three years, I can confirm this event is 27 hours’ worth of pure mayhem. For some it’s a little like childbirth, or maybe their first marathon: They fall into an exhausted heap and cry “never again” when it’s all over, but then find themselves coming back for more year after year.
Around 25 of us from Tiptree Road Runners are invading Norfolk across its southern borders this weekend, ready to do battle and armed with a big white van, a stopwatch, many snacks and a little stove for roadside brew-ups. It will be one of those occasions when I forego my status as a (Clapped-Out) runner and join the ranks of the roadside helpers (or Support Team member, to use the proper terminology). I shall try and be cheerful and helpful, just like an Olympic ‘gamesmaker’, but without uniform or high chair .
Much as I love our chosen sport, I have no desire to go running in the pitch dark at 3 in the morning, accompanied by a chugging Transit van in second gear behind me, complete with flashing lights and a ‘Go Tiptree’ flag on its roof.
However, a number of my clubmates do relish surreal challenges like this, and I am happy to be part of the back-up team, looking on with amusement while devouring snacks and coffee from a short distance away.
As well as the strength and stamina needed to cover 197 miles in 17 continuous stages, clubs who take part need logistical skills, patience and luck to master this event. It’s rather more complex than your bog-standard road race and you have to beware the effects of sleep deprivation as you grind your way onwards after dark, through quiet communities sensibly asleep in their beds.
The route takes the 60 teams along the entire outer edge of the county of Norfolk. Large chunks are on the coast, others in sparsely-populated and remote countryside. Some areas are flat, deserted and downright spooky. Norfolk is not a place for strangers to get lost after dark. There’s the odd bit of heathland, and if you get a bit delirious with exhaustion, you may imagine you just heard a werewolf’s distant howl. Don’t worry, it was probably just a weary race marshal shouting instructions.
After a quarter of a century organising this event, there was something of crisis recently when committee members decided they’d had enough, but thankfully new people eventually came forward to man the barricades and save the race. And participants seem pleased to find these new faces have not made the event any easier or less complicated.
In the case of my Tiptree team, we have been instructed to start running at 7 on Saturday morning. This poses a few issues for ‘night owls’ like me, but fortunately we have ‘larks’ among our membership too, and have again appointed the husband-and-wife team of Anthony and Vicky to lead off on the first two stages.
For the 20-mile night stages later on, we are employing two new secret weapons in the shape of ultra-runner Sean and relative newcomer Andy, a recent hero of the Arc2Arch Paris-to-London run. I suspect Andy will find the industrial estates of Thetford a little less exotic than Paris, although he will have a long stretch through the forest to look forward to.
Some of our early runners, who probably think they are in for a gentle scenic jog along coastal roads, have been warned about the hazards of running on shingle and also the wrinkly old nudists who sometimes come out of nowhere to watch them pass.
One female runner admitted the other day that during a previous run on Stage 3, an old chap from the local nudist beach came over and jogged alongside her for a while and struck up friendly conversation. He wasn’t wearing a stitch and was definitely not a fellow relay runner, because his wrinkled exterior bore no evidence of a number or a six-inch baton. After overcoming her initial surprise, one imagines the lady runner increased her speed to unprecedented levels!
All this makes me wonder whether they should put something in the race rules about 'averting your eyes' if approached in this way. However, Bedford runner Sarah assures me: “No averting here, I’m doing Stage 3, and will bring binoculars - these may be needed if it’s cold.”
Two male runners, Paul and Wayne, have done practise runs along this leg and have evidently already seen enough: “I’m running Stage 3 this weekend and my head will be looking straight down,” said Wayne, with Paul adding: “I just kept concentrating on my running while my escort and other friend pointed out the sights.”
Beaches, sunshine and nudity will be the last thing on anybody’s mind when the race gets beyond Great Yarmouth at sundown, and the long haul back to King’s Lynn begins. But this apparently grim section is not as bad as you might think. If you don’t believe me, consider this poetic verdict given by Ian from Norfolk Gazelles:
“It's Stage 12 for the fourth consecutive year for me this weekend, and I just can't wait. There's something very special about running this 20-miler in the dead of night with the great camaraderie, atmosphere and almost mystical aura it generates. What a great occasion and celebration of runners united! I'll be there again, homing in on those flashing lights ahead of me, like welcoming beacons, digging deep and never easing up until that all important baton is relinquished safely into the hands of my team mate. Bring it on!”
* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s published books on running at: www.robhadgraft.com