It is 6.45am and I arrive at the Withdean stadium carpark to meet my team, jump in the van, and head off to the start of the South Downs Way Relay, one of the most enjoyable vents in the running calendar. In the van with me sit Gareth, Julian, Malcom, Simon, Hwyl and our driver Michael, and we hit the road to Beachy Head.Rewind 12 months and I’m sat in a very similar van, with a different team (the Vets) heading back from the race. A combination of inexperience, illness, injury and getting lost (by me mainly) had meant out team getting cut-of at one of the handover stages and receiving a disappointing “DNF” result for our efforts. We’d all worked pretty hard and this was a sad way to end our day.
This year I was running for the B team, pulled in from the reserves after a number of injuries, and faced with the pressure of Arena 80 B teams many years of prize winning. The first good news of the day is that cut-of times are going to be discretionary (a lesson from an overly strict adherence last year) and the weather (if a little windy) is looking kind.
Leg 1 and Simon heads off over the challenging seven sisters, chasing a group that looks largely made-up of very speedy A team runners. When we next see him he has made good time and before I know I’m of on my first leg of the day.
Leg 2 was the one I was dreading, I did feel confident in the route, twists, turns, steps, ups and downs all leading to a long uphill finish. I struggle at the start, my legs just wouldn’t get moving, but after a while I get a bit of a rhythm going. A couple of indecisive junctions, but no going down the wrong routes and I make it to the long uphill. I adopt a walk-run approach, quick running followed by fast walking and I make it to the final downhill. I’m not delighted by my time, but I’m ahead of my predication and I gratefully hand over to leg 3.
The rest of the team are performing brilliantly and the driving goes smoothly as we move through the first third of the race.
My next leg is number 7, the leg where I got lost last year. I’ve practiced this one several times since and I know exactly where to go. The Arena A and Vets teams have caught up with us at the handover by now, but I’m determined not to get caught by them on my leg. I take the start easy and do my best to hit the downhill stretches as fast as I can. The up-hill stretches are another story, with the head-wind being at its strongest. I’m under estimate again, and many minutes quicker than last year so I’m pleased not to have let the team down too badly.
The next set of legs are picked off with a good degree of effort by the rest of the team, and I enjoy the battle that has developed between the A’s and the Vet’s. They are minutes apart and swap the lead a few times before leg 15 where the A team start to develop an unassailable lead. It was a great effort by both those teams throughout, and some good banter at the handovers.
I’m enjoying the scenery and the tam spirit so much that it is a real mental effort to get back into racing mode at the start of leg 16, my final run of the day. The leg starts at the Sustainability centre, and we anxiously give the marshal our expected handover time. We are a little outside the cut-of time, but discretion is applied and we are allowed to continue. A time for the race is guaranteed!
Leg 16 is my shortest leg, and I know that I’m going to struggle on the final ascent. So I choose to hit the start, and the two downhill stretches, as hard as I can. The run feels easier than expected and I’m pleased to pick of another team on route. Looking back after the final downhill stretch I see that as well as the team I’ve passed another team is closing in. This gives me all the impetus I need to push on to the end and, although I’m spotted walking on the final hill, I beat my target time and don’t get caught by the chasing team.
The final handover is a great feeling, and all that is left is to support Gareth and Malcolm as they tackle the final two legs of the day. They take them in their stride and we cross the finish line with an estimated 12 hours and 40 minutes on the clock.
Sat in the van, preparing to depart, Anthony appears at the window. He’s clutching a stack of blue boxes – we’ve been awarded medals for second place B team. Result! We’d managed to maintain the B team’s prize winning record for another year.
If you want to try a proper team event, and get to experience a full day of racing across some of the most beautiful countryside in the UK then get your name down for next year. You’ll have a brilliant day out and you might just win something.