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.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Running with the Stars (Part 2)!

June 17th, somewhere in Essex:  Follow those white dots in the distance, they're runners!

SO there we were, me and a 70s glam-rock guitarist, in the middle of a remote field, earnestly searching for a wooden box attached to a telegraph pole.

Before anyone calls for the men in white coats, I am not having weird dreams after eating too much cheese of an evening. Nor is this anything to do with my having spotted 70s rocker Suzi Quatro just a few miles away from this very field a week earlier.

No, the guitarist-in-a-field incident actually happened.

It was, in fact, one of several surreal scenarios which unfolded at the latest organised trail race in mid-Essex on Sunday.  Perhaps we should have expected a degree of bizarreness, for the event had been officially billed ‘A Midsummer Night’s Stream’. Don’t ask me why. I failed to spot any streams, and it took place at 10 in the morning.

The event was staged a few miles south of Great Dunmow by the inestimable Howard Jardine, he of Grange Farm/Dunmow Runners fame, who, along with Dave Game (Mid-Essex Casuals) really ought to have been on the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for organising all these wonderful runs that have sprung up across our fine county in recent times.

This one featured a highly scenic eight-mile route, well away from urban civilisation – so far away, in fact, that I managed to get lost in the car merely attempting to find the start  (outside a gastropub in a tiny hamlet, as it turns out).  This was not a good omen for the task ahead, and it meant I started the race relatively late, and therefore spent much of it going up hill and down dale in splendid isolation.

Anyway, having slipped the sunbathing Howard his fiver on the pub’s lawn, he punched his stopwatch and I legged it into the majestic silence of Garnett’s Wood on the first part of my eight-mile trek. You have to expect the unexpected on some of these runs, and I tried not to be fazed at the sight of a large wooden statue lurking incongruously among the trees. 

Apparently this was a likeness of the 12th century knight after whom the wood is named. It looked a tad sinister, to be honest, as did the monochrome Union Jack flying over a farmyard later on. A Union Jack in black and white? What was that all about?

After a mile or two I at last encountered fellow runners who’d set off earlier. They were going the other way. To great relief we soon established that none of us were going wrong as Howard had fiendishly designed a route that involved a certain amount of doubling back. Seeing people coming the other way was not necessarily a cause for concern, although it was rather disconcerting and a good test of one’s resolve and concentration. Who said running was a mindless sport?

It was around the four-mile halfway point that I encountered the above-mentioned guitarist. He loomed up from behind, travelling a good 30-seconds-per-mile-quicker than me, I would estimate, so I stepped aside at a footbridge and waved him through. At this point we both hesitated as our instructions sheet demanded we locate a wooden box attached to a telegraph pole. For a while no such construction presented itself to us, and momentarily we wobbled and stumbled with uncertainty through the long grass.

Suddenly my fellow explorer triumphantly spotted the wooden landmark. This confirmed our position and allowed us to confidently proceed. It was a moment of relief, as going off course in such a remote area would not be good news. Eight miles is quite enough for my ageing joints, without adding more due to wrong turns.

As my opponent surged off into the distance I suddenly remembered why I’d half recognised him. It was none other than Yan Stile of Mid-Essex Casuals, a stalwart of the local trail-running scene, whose CV includes a spell as lead guitarist with chart-toppers Kenny in the mid-seventies. Admit it, those of you old enough to remember 1975 loved to sing along to Kenny’s hits ‘The Bump’ and ‘Fancy Pants’ back then. Didn’t you? Are you sure?

Me, I preferred the likes of Sparks, Roxy Music and Steely Dan during that era, but my over-developed love of trivia means I was still vastly impressed to encounter a member of Kenny in a deserted field in Essex. Thirty-seven years later, there was no sign of those funny coloured trousers he used to wear on ‘Top of the Pops’.

Yan is still involved in the world of music, even though his days as a pop star were numbered after serious arm injuries sustained in a car crash. These days he’s the MD of a London company that supplies stage equipment to shows and touring bands. At weekends he retreats into Essex, swapping consoles for insoles, and microphones for mileage.   

As well as all this pop trivia, I also love a good coincidence. And it struck me as quite remarkable that I should bump into the man from Kenny (excuse the pun) just a few days after my ‘sighting’ of Suzi Quatro - also during a run in the same part of the world.
As regular readers of this column may recall, Suzi was allegedly seen during last week’s Springfield Striders 5-mile race, staged just down the road. The real coincidence is that both artists were part of Mickie Most’s highly successful RAK Records stable.

Do all the former RAK stars live in Essex perhaps? Maybe my sequence will continue at next week’s run and I'll encounter another one of them? Errol Brown of Hot Chocolate perhaps? Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits? The surviving members of Mud? (The weather forecast suggests there’ll be plenty of the latter . . . )

During last weekend's run we were, of course, only a short distance from the home of Nik Kershaw, but due to my advanced age I have to confess that seventies pop stars always rate higher than eighties heart-throbs. On my trivia-monitor anyway.

Nevertheless, next weekend’s scheduled trail run near Halstead goes mighty close to the country home of Cream bassist Jack Bruce, who shot to fame in the sixties, so spotting him would surely trump even Suzi Quatro!

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s five books about running history at:

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Rocking Up at Suzi Q's

Suzi does a bit of post-run stretching in her Essex mansion's boudoir.......

WAS that really a famous face peering out at 164 windswept runners as we streamed past a 17
th century mansion deep in the Essex countryside last weekend?

Now, of course, it might be my imagination running away with me, but I could have sworn I spotted the pop legend Suzi Quatro lurking behind one of those upper floor leaded windows as we ran past on Friday evening.  

We were midway through Springfield Striders’ annual five-mile race north of Chelmsford at the time, and it transpires that this was indeed Hyde Hall, the impressive country house purchased by Suzi Q at the height of her fame more than 30 years ago.

And if it was her looking on, Ms Quatro could certainly be forgiven for putting on a glum and envious face.  This lively 62-year-old former chart-topper normally “goes for a run every day” we are told, but is currently out of action as she is nursing a smashed kneecap and broken wrist – and going through painful and lengthy rehab.

I am reliably informed her injuries are nothing to do with her running or rock’n’rolling, but the result of a spectacular and embarrassing tumble down the steps of an aircraft in Kiev a few weeks ago. Some of the gruesome details were posted on her fan club website and include references to bones sticking out, an operation to re-break a fracture and massive plaster casts being put on various limbs.

Perhaps the sight of us Springfield five-milers trotting past the house may have inspired her, or maybe it was just coincidence, but within hours of the race there was good news emanating from within Hyde Hall. Suzi joyously reported taking her first steps without the aid of crutches, and she also broadcast a Youtube message for her fans recorded from her garden. In fact (rather spookily) at exactly the same moment your Clapped Out Runner started writing this blog, Suzi popped up Facebook with the message: “Took my first steps today unaided around the kitchen, wow, wow, wow! Next stop rock and roll!”

Seems to me it’s high time Suzi gave up her solo jogging and joined one of her local running clubs! After all, despite the Detroit accent, she’s a true Essex girl these days. She moved into Hyde Hall way back in 1980 after spotting it for sale at £120,000 in the pages of Country Life magazine. A year or two ago, suffering from “empty nest syndrome” after the kids moved out, she put the house on the market for £2.3 million, but evidently no sale took place.

If her recovery continues to go well, we demand to see the plucky little rock’n’roller taking part in next year’s five-mile event – or, failing that, how about manning a drinks station in the front garden of the house? There are certain runners I know who would much prefer a glass of Champagne (like the one in the Youtube video) instead of the usual water or electrolyte drinks.

It would also give us the chance to stop and ask what on earth was going on with those baffling lyrics in Can the Can, and all that stuff about a “silk sash bash” in 48 Crash too.

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s books on running: Visit

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Meet the Drinking Club with a Running Problem!

Running and drinking: If you do one, you must do the other.......

RACE marshals. They can be good, they can be bad, they can even occasionally be ugly.  

But you know something extraordinary is going on when you arrive at a race venue and they line up to wave a cheery welcome at you, and then also give it large when you depart for home.

I don’t want to sound uncharitable, but the hi-vis brigade at my race last weekend were so full of vim and vigour that I couldn’t help wondering if they’d necked a few too many cold ones as they whiled away the hours waiting for 630 of us runners to pass by.

The evidence was all too clear I’m afraid. Firstly, the host club – Harvel Hash House Harriers – already promote themselves with admirable frankness as “a drinking club with a running problem.”  And, secondly, the marshals manning a junction about a mile into the race were happily waving us past surrounded by a ring of empty Carling cans. Well, if this is the way ahead, I think I’ll start volunteering for marshalling a bit more often.

The race in question was the annual Harvel 5-miler, a popular event staged in rural Kent not a million miles from the Dartford river crossing, but notoriously hard to find if you don’t know the area. The race instructions even recommended we should forget SatNav and GPS devices as this is territory beyond the ken of modern technology.

Instead, marshals were all over the place, expertly guiding cars down lanes so narrow that even single-lane one-way traffic felt claustrophobic. Parking was in a field provided by Farmer Jones, who also loaned his tractor, upon which the race clock was mounted.  Virgin London Marathon eat your heart out.

Nearby was a pub with a suitably eccentric name (‘The Amazon and Tiger’), which, as it turns out, is not only sponsoring the race, but is also the HQ of the host club. Could this be Britain’s most well-lubricated running club, one wonders?

For newcomers to our sport, unfamiliar with the concepts of ‘hashing’, Hash House Harriers, and training with beer, here is some background information: Hashing began in Malaysia in 1938 when a group of British colonial types got together to socialize and take exercise with like-minded folk. They adopted the nickname of their meeting place (The Selangor Club), which was known as ‘The Hash House’ due to its bland and unappetising food.

The first Hash House Harrier runs were copied from traditional 19th century British paper chases, which were the precursor to modern cross-country running as we know it. A ‘hare’ was given a head start, and using paper or chalk would mark a route to be followed by the chasing pack. The route would be entirely up to the ‘hare’ and would often involve streams, storm drains, fences and any other obstacles he liked the look of (Yes, that often happens here at Tiptree Road Runners on training nights too – but without the paper!). Arriving at the end of the trail was not the runners’ only reward, for at the finish-line would be a tub of iced beer, all ready for the party to begin.

The original Hash House group went a bit quiet after the Japs invaded Malaysia during the 1939-45 War, but eventually the survivors reassembled and in the post-war years other Brits living abroad soon began to notice what fun could be had if you spent all your leisure time running and drinking!  

Groups sprang up around the globe and today there are over 1,200 Hash House Harriers clubs in 160 different countries, all organising their own affairs with the complete absence of any central organisation.

Here at Tiptree Road Runners, we are not on the same level as the highly-refreshed Hash House Harriers, but I can report that our Wendy's recently-introduced 'social runs' from local pubs are proving popular. And, furthermore, this week the Diamond Jubilee Bank Holiday forced us to meet at a local pub instead of the more sober surroundings of the village sports centre.  On Tuesday night, in true HHH tradition, at least 15 of my colleagues dutifully ran five miles in the pouring rain before propping up the bar of the Beckingham Bell with their sodden, dripping bodies.

It is clear that all that beer and wine consumption isn’t doing the Harvel HHH group any harm, for their race last weekend was superbly organised in all respects. They know the importance of toilet facilities (all that beer has to go somewhere) and the runners were able to avail themselves of an extraordinary open-air ‘urinal’ feature at the race HQ.

Modesty protected by only a narrow strip of canvas at waist height, users were invited to aim their waste product at floor-mounted pictures of various unpopular characters – I think I saw the bloke who runs Syria among them. When it's quiet one can walk around before choosing a target, I suppose, but when I entered only David Cameron was vacant, so he duly got it between the eyes.

Although gender wasn’t specified on the signs, only male runners were using this unusual feature, but of course females could join in all the other fun, and did have the complete run of the village hall for their pre and post-race requirements. All this and the race entry fee was pegged at a reasonable level too, I am delighted to report.

Yes, entry fees are currently a bugbear of mine. In the last year or two it’s all gone a bit mental in my opinion – particularly where charity fund-raising is involved. My Tiptree clubmate Ian brought to my attention the other day that the Royal Parks Half-marathon in October is charging £50 per runner!

As a Clapped-Out Runner I can of course recall the days when most races cost under a fiver to enter, so £50 sounds simply crazy to me. It's beginning to feel like our sport is being hijacked by charities. Perhaps the day is coming where there will be two distinct types of event on the calendar: (1) the proper old-fashioned club runs (purely for sport and not profit) with nominal entry fees to cover costs only, and (2) the charity razzamatazz fund-raisers with all the frills.

When I put this to Ian, an experienced old hand, he pointed out: “The problem is that as races get bigger, UKA apply more regulations, which pushes race organisation costs up. Small club events can only cope with numbers in the hundreds – either they make a loss or have to push costs up to the point where club runners can no longer afford to race regularly, or they give up and there’s less choice – just mass participation carnival processions.”

* Check out Rob Hadgraft's published books about running, at