|The 'end of the world' in Essex (Andreas-Photography).|
THIS could be the best, most uplifting run you’ve ever done. On the other hand, if the weather turns grumpy, it could be the bleakest horror show you’ve ever experienced in running shoes.
And not knowing which of these scenarios might play out is what makes this event so intriguing!
So where is it? Well, strangely enough it’s tucked away here in Essex, in a part of the county relatively few people know about. It goes along a stretch of coastal path described thus in an award-winning book: “As hostile and remote as it is unique and noteworthy.”
Once you’ve left the start area and covered a few miles you’ll be about as far from T.O.W.I.E. as it’s possible to be – without actually leaving the county of Essex!
The location and format is a brilliant idea. It’s a 75-mile foot-race that is apparently the brainchild of local runner Roy Read and Maldon District Council. Ultra-runners can enter and have a crack at the whole 75 miles, or you can club together in relay teams of anything between 2 and 12 people. It covers a 75-mile route northwards - beside river and sea all the way - from South Woodham Ferrers to Salcott-cum-Virley, and will span the two days of the first weekend in October.
Many lovers of wild places will already know the nature of this territory, but it seems likely a large proportion of the field of runners will be heading out into the great unknown.
People have been transfixed by the landscape around the coastal edge of the Dengie Peninsula for many decades. Authors and travel journalists have used the phrase “end-of-the-world landscape” time and again. Apparently H.G. Wells was inspired to write War of the Worlds here and Alfred Hitchcock is said to have filmed part of his horror film The Birds here.
As well as a huge sky, there are surreal juxtapositions of man and nature in the salt marsh: a loud generator, a cluster of containers, a microwave transmitter, the wreck of Darwin’s Beagle and the oldest intact Christian chapel in England dating back to AD 654. There’s an old World War II fighter plane training area, and remains of artillery and aircraft paraphenalia can be seen at low tide.
Starting at S.Woodham Ferrers, competitors will follow the River Crouch until it meets the North Sea, before turning left through the remote Dengie Marshes to Bradwell-on-Sea at the mouth of the Blackwater Estuary. An overnight stop at Steeple will offer respite until morning, when the remaining 37 miles along the River Blackwater, through Maldon, Heybridge Basin, Tollesbury and Goldhanger will climax with a final challenge: five miles in Old Hall Marshes nature reserve, ending up in the hamlet of Salcott-cum-Virley.
Race organizers warn: “This event is no stroll along the river. Large swathes are uninhabited, isolated and raw, presenting a psychological challenge as well as a physical one. A prevailing wind can make the district a tough place to be. You’ll need both strength of mind and of legs to conquer one of Britain’s true remaining wild places.”
Entries open on Monday June 3 to individuals, relay teams or single-day runners. There is camping and breakfast provided at the end of Day One in Steeple. More information is on the main website www.saltmarsh75.co.uk or via e-mail at email@example.com or you can follow ‘Saltmarsh 75’ on Twitter or Facebook.
The route follows the public footpath along the top of the sea wall coastal defences as much as possible, so is extremely flat and navigation is straightforward, but participants will be very exposed to the elements for most of the way. If it’s windy - and it often is - you will know about it!
Less than five miles is on surfaced paths. The rest is on grassed paths and across fields. Therefore, trail shoes would be ideal although road shoes will be fine if the weather is dry leading up to the event. There will be 12 manned checkpoints offering basic refreshments and medical support.
The setting for the race was given high profile by a recent BBC2 documentary based on Robert Macfarlane’s superb book The Wild Places. In this, Macfarlane wandered around Essex “looking for wildness” and confessed to being astonished by what he found on the Dengie Peninsula.
As he gazed out over the saltmarshes he said: “It’s hard to find space like this in Britain – to be able to look out at the horizon and find your eyeline unbroken. It’s like a paraphrase of infinity. Extraordinary.”
Macfarlane strolled along the path where Saltmarsh 75 will be run and somewhere between Burnham and Bradwell, on the lonely sea wall, he sat down and spent the night - just for the hell of it! Just to taste the remarkable isolation and tranquility. There was no artificial light for miles and no other people or noise. He was amazed by this “eerily intricate region” where the saltmarsh stretches out in an ocean of grass and seems likes Essex’s own prairie.
Hopefully all the runners in Saltmarsh 75 will be well past this spot by the time night falls on October 5th, because it truly was, as Macfarlane noted, “The darkest, loneliest place in Essex.”
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