Thursday, 27 September 2012

How snobbish Walter created a sport for the masses!

Some cross-country races are wetter than others!
THE autumn equinox arrived last week to usher in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. 

It was the annual reminder I needed to dig out my battered New Balance cross-country shoes (faded blue uppers, but with bright orange laces). Inevitably they were encrusted with dried mud from a long-forgotten race of at least six months ago. They look a bit the worse for wear to be honest, but then so does their owner. 

Quite appropriate, then, that later in the week I should encounter the famous chap who first brought cross-country running to the masses. The man universally regarded as the founding father of the sport.

When I say I encountered Mr.Walter Rye - with his stern face, beard and bowler hat - I use the term loosely. Our confrontation was actually during the course of research for a book, rather than a face-to-face meeting. Walter has been dead and buried for 84 years after all.

So how come Walter can claim to have ‘invented’ cross-country running then? Well, apparently it all started after he read about public school steeplechases across fields in the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He was enchanted by the tale of the ‘Barby Hill Steeplechase’ in that book and in 1867 decided to hold his own version, to help him and a few pals from Thames Rowing Club get fit for the next rowing season.

This form of running had irst been adopted in public schools in the 1830s and became known as ‘hare and hounds’ and 'paper chasing'. To help runners find their way, the ‘hare’ went off alone to lay a paper trail for the pack of ‘hounds’ to follow, carrying a large sausage-shaped canvas bag full of torn or cut paper, usually obtained from a local bookbinders. A small handful would be dropped every 20 yards or so to mark the route. Occasionally short false trails would be laid to make the competition harder!

Walter’s idea to take this sport outside of schools and into the public arena would ultimately prove a huge success. But initially he never intended it as an activity for ‘the common man’.  Far from it. In fact, our Walter was a real snob who restricted his races to ‘gentleman amateurs’ from privileged backgrounds only.

He set up the exclusive Thames Hare & Hounds club and staged a series of paper-chases for the privileged in the London area. Before long others would being copying the idea and eventually men from all walks of life were leaping over hedges and five-bar gates and crossing ploughed fields as if their lives depended on it. 

Walter was known as a tireless organiser, laying trails himself and competing too, also promoting the sport vigorously via his professional writing. Despite his views on class, he was the undisputed ‘father’ of a new craze that still thrives nearly 150 years later.

But for years he had no truck with working-class runners, regarding them as gamblers, fixers and scoundrels, only interested in making money.  Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a man being excluded from a run for coming from the wrong side of the tracks, but this situation existed thanks to Walter and his class-obsessed fellow Victorians. 

In time things improved after the England Cross-Country Association was formed, but Walter and his snobbish TH&H pals refused to sign up citing their concerns about the purity of the sport. Their isolation would last for 40 years!

Walter’s efforts at organising the world's first cross-country championship took place in Essex in 1876 and ended in disaster.  The event would ultimately flourish and become known as the iconic ‘English National’, but Walter's first staging certainly didn’t go according to plan. It was held at Buckhurst Hill, on the edge of Epping Forest and involved the three senior cross-country clubs from London (Thames Hare & Hounds, South London Harriers and Spartan Harriers). Thirty-two men assembled on a rain-soaked afternoon and watched as a civil servant called Sydenham Dixon set off to lay the paper trail (‘the bloodless scent’) over an 11-mile route.

The runners headed after him through the trees, finding the going very heavy. But barely five miles later, soon after passing the Old Crown Inn at Loughton, the leaders found the trail suddenly disappeared.  Freezing cold and drenched to the skin, they were not amused to be stranded in the forest, miles from anywhere and without a clue where to go.

What had happened?  An embarrassed Walter was furious when he found out. This is how the story was reported in one newspaper: “It appears a local idiot had been entrusted with an extra bag of scent [paper], with directions to take it to the Old Crown, but had taken it to some other house in mistake. How anyone could entrust any uninterested person with so important a mission passes our comprehension. We do not even see why a second supply of scent was needed at all. It is a common thing for hares to carry sufficient scent for a 15 miles run in the ordinary way, so why not for 11 on a special occasion? The whole thing is unpardonable . . . several weeks of careful training was thrown to the dogs.”

As they dithered around in the cold and wet, some runners began to feel unwell and at least one was given a massage with some brandy to get him warm again.  Another runner grabbed the brandy and put it to more conventional use – pouring it down his throat: “Next thing I remember is waking up in the Old Pavilion Music Hall!” he reported later.

This Epping Forest disaster was soon forgotten and an undaunted Walter organised a re-run of the championship a few weeks later on Wimbledon Common. This was won by Percy Stenning, who ran along smoking a pipe! It proved a big success and the sport of cross-country running has hardly looked back since.

Here in 2012, we don’t smoke pipes on the run, or bother with paper trails any more, but getting lost in the woods does sound distinctly familiar!

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s books on the history of running, at

Thursday, 20 September 2012

What Not to Do With a Relay Baton!

Tiptree's Paul Dellar speeds past Cromer pier.
ONE day – possibly years from now – a beachcomber with metal detector will make a strange and unexpected discovery along the coast just east of Wells-next-the-Sea.

The high-pitched beeps from his machine will lead to a hollow cylindrical object, around nine inches long, made of light metal and coloured yellow.  A few minutes of internet research will probably lead the finder to deduce that this is a relay baton once attached to the hand of a runner in the annual Round Norfolk Relay.

Having plucked the stray baton from deep in the moist sandy mud, there'll be no need for him or her to worry that the remains of the runner are also in the vicinity.  For I am happy to report the athlete in question is alive and well!  Not only that, he this week revealed to me the truth behind ‘The Mystery of the Missing Relay Baton.’

The runner was one of a record entry of around 1,000 who took part in last weekend’s 26th annual Round Norfolk Relay. As a unique and colourful event (197 miles, lasting more than 28 hours), this event always produces some weird and wonderful stories after the whole show comes to an end in King’s Lynn. 

And it was after escorting my Tiptree clubmates safely around the course as part of our support team that I first heard the curious rumours about the runner from another club  sinking in quicksand, calling 999 on his mobile phone, and narrowly escaping with his life. As a trained newshound, my instincts of course led me to track down the runner in question this week!

Turns out his name is Craig Stephenson, an experienced athlete in his forties who runs for Garden City Striders. He was running Stage 4 (Wells to Cley) when disaster nearly struck last Saturday lunchtime.

This is how Craig reflected on what happened: “I had made great time to about mile 5 and was feeling fantastic, and to be honest not looking at my instructions as the RNR signs were good. I saw a runner in the distance who had appeared to have gone through an opening in the fence so I followed him. Shortly I got to a ploughed field and ran around it thinking the path had been recently ploughed, but then came to a 5-feet deep drainage ditch. 

"The bottom of the ditch only had a few inches of water and some gravel in it, and I could see that the path was just beyond a gate past the ditch, so I thought it would be a simple fix to go through the ditch and back on track. Unfortunately the ditch had about a foot of mud in it. I fell awkwardly on my back and my feet were properly stuck, and I realised I could be in trouble as I was completely hidden lying on my back. 

"My main worry was that I couldn't get up and that my mobile might drop in the water. As it happened my mobile had no signal anyway, but I could only get one hand free to use it and decided it best to call 999 before I attempted to remove myself as I knew even with no signal you could usually get through. If I had signal I would have called my support cyclist who was waiting a few miles away. 

"To get out I had to throw my mobile away on the grass verge, remove my shoes and crawl out. It was actually fairly easy, and the fire brigade telephone operator held on the line to make sure I was OK. At this point somewhere in Norfolk a bell was ringing in a fire station, but the operator swiftly cancelled the call and I had to reassure him I was OK. Unlike my instructions, which were ruined, and my baton, which was left in the murky depths! 

"I then managed to further my agony by getting a bit lost twice as I had no instructions, not that I was following them anyway. I was plastered in mud, and several people pointed me out as I ran through the next two towns. And stank. I ended up running a decent time, including my bog snorkelling attempt, and I arrived at the next stage where the cyclist had already told the next runner of my misfortune and loss of baton. I cleaned up in the sea at the changeover! A couple of stages later a kind official, Gordon,  provided us with his £2.99 bike pump to act as a makeshift baton!" 

Craig certainly seemed none the worse for wear for his experience and completed his run into Cley in a great time (1 hr 37 mins) in the circumstances, still quicker than 21 other teams.  As one of his fellow runners remarked: “That was one heroic run and a very decent pace after all that mud wrestling!”

Later on, messages from the travelling support teams were sent to the Richard Allinson Show being broadcast through the night on BBC Radio 2. Craig’s adventure in the mud and his misplaced baton got a couple of mentions on there, which were heard by a number of other RNR support vehicles who had their radios on. Craig’s face, previously stained brown, was by now rather red!

Although my Tiptree colleagues all ran superbly and registered the club's best time in four visits to the RNR, I’m pleased to say none of them needed medical attention or a call to the emergency services. Our man on Stage 10 (Sean) did suffer what we runners euphemistically call ‘stomach trouble’ - but as a hardened ultra-man he soon brushed this off. Luckily nobody offered him one of those bacon butties they conjure up at the Lighthouse cafĂ© in Hunstanton.

With around 1,000 runners in action, the law of averages suggests that inevitably one or two are bound to come a cropper. I understand that Chas Allen of Norwich Road Runners collapsed in the road in the middle of the night during Stage 12 (Scole to Thetford) leading to his spending several hours in the West Suffolk General Hospital. Phil Bower and his Thetford AC colleagues, plus a female member of CONAC, were among those highly praised for their efforts in helping Chas reach hospital.

His colleague Ivan Colman was touched at how everyone rallied around to help Chas. Said Ivan: “He didn't mention anything about being unwell at the time we arrived [at Scole]. We arrived 15 minutes ahead of our incoming runner and gave him his number and chatted. He was up for it and we were the leading team. 

"Off he went, but after about eight miles he went down. End of race! But most importantly he's doing fine now although he had us all worried. His health was more important than anything, but the team did a great job and wanted to finish for him and ended up coming 3rd overall. This episode shows what makes this race a cut above the others – for it doesn't matter what club you represent everybody is prepared to help each other. What a family we have!”

The ‘family of runners’ of which Ivan so eloquently speaks included some rare characters, doing their thing amid a great atmosphere, helped by superb weather. Even in the deep, dark depths of rural Norfolk at 4 a.m. you could still see plenty of smiling faces.

Our own runner on Stage 14 (Feltwell to Wissington) typified the spirit of the event. Tara is a wedding planner, and her hectic work duties on the Saturday back in Essex lasted until long after midnight. But without hesitation she jumped straight in her boyfriend's car and came directly from work to the nearly-isolated wastes of West Norfolk to meet the incoming runner and take the Tiptree baton onwards to Stage 15.

An hour later the finish to Tara’s 7.27-mile stage saw her welcomed by little more than a dimly-lit sugar beet factory and a small cluster of people shivering at the roadside. Not only that, her grateful colleagues had to quickly whizz off into the distance to follow the next runner.  A hot drink, some friendly faces and a quick rub down with a rough towel would have been nice . . .  but no such luck in chilly Wissington at that time of the morning!

Among the other cheerful characters doing his bit at the RNR was musician Leo Altarelli, who runs for Bungay Black Dog RC.  Leo is one of many experienced runners for whom the RNR is a favourite event. He says:  “It was exciting to see the runners coming out of the shadows to hand their batons over to fresh-faced team mates ready to take on the challenge of running into the night. The atmosphere is electric, there is a buzz of nervous energy and a carnival feel to the whole thing.”

I’ll give the last word to Leo, via his excellent recording of his own song ‘Run and Become.’   Listen to it via this link:

PS: Congrats to RAY LINDSAY (Norwich Road Runners) on 20 appearances at the Round Norfolk Relay. Proof, if it were needed, that Luton Town supporters have great stamina and fortitude!

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s books on running, at the website:

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Naked Truth About Norfolk!

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:

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Doing it the Essex way . . . .

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