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 café 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:

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