97 miles of the South Downs Way, from Beachy Head to Winchester, divided into 18 legs of between 3.75 and 8 miles; almost entirely off-road, with some very difficult and even dangerous terrain for a runner; numerous ascents, excruciatingly steep, or long, or both; teams of 6 runners, each tackling 3 non-consecutive legs while the others shuttle between changeovers in a minibus; a challenging time limit for completing the race, with minimal support and no substitutions allowed; and some of the most stunningly beautiful scenery to be found in the British Isles.
So what is it like for a very average runner to take part in the South Downs Relay?
Most of you will know what it's like to run in a 10k race. So start by remembering how it feels to compete in a well-organised, well-attended SGP event, in which you go like the clappers trying for a PB, and how tired you feel as you cross the line. Now imagine that, to get to the start on time, you have to get up at 4am, and when you arrive just before 6am, you find...a windswept car park and a man with a clipboard: no milling crowds of runners and spectators, no flapping flags and bunting, no blaring rock music and warm-up routine, no race HQ and changing tent, no welcoming coffee shops and bars, no St John Ambulance. And no toilets. Not even a sordid chemical one.
Next, think of the run itself. You are frequently alone, save for the odd encounter with walkers, cows or sheep: you see few other runners, there are no marshals en route, no one to pace you, no one to yell encouragement, and no immediate help around if you come a cropper. There are no race direction signs, no distance markers, and no water stations. The hills you encounter are steeper than anything you'd find in a road race, sometimes so steep that you are reduced to a gasping stagger. (There was one on my first leg nicknamed The North Face - with good reason.) There are some stretches of fine grass under your feet, but also chalky paths littered with loose stones, treacherous forest descents criss-crossed by tree roots and all manner of uneven surfaces that will trip you or turn your ankle if you lose concentration. And you are not running for yourself, but for a team, who are relying on you to arrive at the finish unscathed and as fast as possible, with the worry of exceeding race time limits hanging over everyone.
Now imagine that you have to run a flat-out 10k under these conditions, not once but THREE TIMES in the course of a day, and somehow you have to fit in the vital business of eating and drinking, in a way that won't have you doubled up and vomiting by the wayside during your runs. And it turns out that the absence of toilets isn't confined to the start...
You may well be wondering at this point why anyone would willingly subject themselves to such privation and pain. To provide an answer, I cannot do better than to quote from the emails that circulated the next day between runners on both teams and their supporters:
Tony Johnson: What a great day with a lovely bunch of people!
Alan Pettitt: It was an amazing, if painful, experience. Alan sustained damage to a hamstring within the first yards of his first leg, but fought the pain to complete all three of his stages, the last one 4 minutes faster than predicted. Great running everybody.
Bryan Camfield: This is a great team event in a beautiful part of the country.
Julia Johnson support: An amazing day with great people and stunning scenery.
Paul Aylett: What a wonderful day with a nice bit of team building and friendly rivalry!
Tony Frankland: I think this is wonderful and am delighted to have the opportunity to take part in what is a great team event I think these things are really good for the club. I have to say that both times I have done this I have come away with an overriding sense of what a beautiful part of the world we are lucky to live in.
Steve Wigmore: Great day out- that's the 8th time I've done the SDWR and I hope I can manage another 8! The team's performance was fantastic.
Me: What made the day so great was your wonderful company, and sharing all the agonies. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your friendship, sympathy and support.
Fiona Clifton support: It was a brilliant day - I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Is there some correlation between being passionate about running and having a great personality? Do running clubs generally attract congenial, friendly characters? Having only been with the Joggers, my first running club, for just over a year, I have no idea. What I do know, however, is that our club is blessed with some wonderful people, and I spent an extraordinary day in spectacularly beautiful countryside with 7 of them. My team-mates and supporters were, without exception, good humoured, encouraging, helpful, generous, sympathetic and understanding, in the face of mounting fatigue, Alan's painful injury and various glitches and errors, the worst of which was mine. It was a great achievement to complete our task, but that wasn't what really mattered: the crucial thing was the way we achieved it.
Racing is ultimately a selfish activity: you're doing it to improve your PB, or to win a prize, or add to your medal collection. In the SDR, you're running for the team, not yourself, and the enjoyment lies in playing your part well and helping others to do the same. That's the magic of it, and that's why everyone who took part this year wants to do it all over again in 2014.
Mark Smee (Horsham Joggers)