Thunder Run: All day, all night…

It was around 1.30am on Sunday morning when I was running through the woods with only my head torch to light the way, jumping over tree routes and skidding in the mud, that I wasn’t sure if I understood myself anymore.  Trying not to think about what was lurking in the bushes, or if I was going to knock myself out by running into a tree, I realised this was a new level of crazy.  This weekend I both loved and hated running in equal measures.

On Friday night I met 15 Chasers in Clapham Junction to jump on a minibus to Derbyshire.  This weekend we were taking 4 teams to Thunder Run, a 24 hour off-road relay on a 10k loop.  The first challenge was to get everyone and everything on the minibus…with 16 seats, 16 people and 16 people’s camping stuff, it was a bit of a jigsaw.

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It had been absolutely chucking it down all day, with no signs of it stopping, so we were in for a soggy and muddy night.  However, no amount of rain can ever dampen the Chaser spirit so we cracked open the M&S G&Ts and turned up the music.  As our driver took us on the most convoluted way out of London, and refused to go above 55 on the motorway (Gemma & Martin had to swap seats so Martin didn’t kill him…), we realised we wouldn’t be arriving until quite late.  But it was OK, because I was sat next to a drunk Frankie and we were singing along to Oasis at top volume.  There would be no sleeping on the party bus!

We arrived at  the campsite in Catton Park at around 11pm.  It was dark, raining, and we (OK, some of us) were a little drunk.  Ross took charge and found us a place to pitch up, we didn’t really know where we were but it would have to do.  Thanks to help from Barry and Paul, I eventually got my tent up and it was time to bed down for a cold and uncomfortable night just after midnight.

The next morning brought sunshine, friendly people and tired, but excited Chasers.  We put our flags up, got Ingrid ready for support duties, and checked out the campsite.  Somehow we had managed to secure an ideal camping spot, we were a short walk from everything we needed and were directly on the race route just after the 2k marker, perfect!

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We had 2 teams of 5, Frankie & the Clap Claps (going for the win) and the Clapham Beasts, a team of 6, Frenchie’s Midnight Runners, and a team of 8, Thunder Honks (nobody was up for the solo option…).  I was in a team with Gemma, Barry, Ross, and the 2 Pauls which actually turned out to be an ideal number of people.

Having a schedule was absolutely key – with 6 runners, running day and night, we needed to know when to be ready so we didn’t miss the changeover or have to hang around unnecessarily.  After forecasting everyone’s run time and allowing for the nature of the course, night runs and increasing tiredness, we had a target of 26 laps over 24 hours.  This would mean that the 2 runners who were most up for it at the end would need to run 50k with the others 40k.

The race kicked off at 12 so we all headed down to cheer on the first runners, Paul W was up first for us, before heading back to camp to see them fly past at 2k from our camping spot!

imageBryn was first back off leg 1 and we knew immediately that the course was a lot tougher than any of us had anticipated, made worse by the heavy rain which had left some sections a complete mud bath.  I was on the 3rd leg after Paul G so, as soon as we cheered him past us I started to get ready.  Being located at 2k turned out to be invaluable for forward planning!

The transition area was busy and there was only a short section of 200m where you could see the runners come in so you had to be ready to move quickly.  Paul saw me straight away, he slapped the baton on my wrist and I was off.

The course starts by taking you through the campsite and I ran straight past the Thunder Honks, it was great to get a huge cheer to send me on my way!  The grass path continued out of the camp and turned up a sharp hill into the woods.  It was muddy, narrow, and hilly and my pace dropped as we twisted round the trees.  As the course opened out it became even muddier, really squelchy mud that was impossible to get any grip on, if the whole course was like this I was going to be way off my expected finish time.

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Eventually it became a bit drier and I saw the 2k sign as we turned back into the campsite, I was going to see the Chasers! They spotted me coming before I got there and I could hear the cheers, it was just what I needed!  The first 5k was pretty hideous, tough hills, severe muddy sections and blazing sun, at 5k my watch said 31 minutes, I was on for a huge personal worst in a team event. Brilliant.

We came to another hill which had been sectioned off with chip mats for a sprint competition (probs wouldn’t win that), then headed back into the woods for a windy section round the trees that involved a lot of ankle busting tree roots (ideal).  At 8k we headed downhill onto a firm path that would lead to a lake and back into the campsite for the last kilometre, my favourite bit!  The ground was firm, the support was good and I was relieved the end was near.  Turning the corner I could see the finish and Gemma yelling at me with a big smile, I gave her the baton and wished her luck!

It had taken me 59 sodding minutes to run 10k and there wasn’t a single bit of it I had found easy.  The course was muddy, hilly, technical and uncomfortable, even the flat bits were lumpy underfoot.  I think it’s the toughest 10k course I’ve ever run and all I could think about was how the hell I was going to get round in the pitch black at 1am??? I needed a cuppa tea…

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Back at camp I had to quietly admit my time, there was no hiding it, it needed to go on the spreadsheet of declaration!  It was only 4 minutes off target so it could have been worse, but I couldn’t see myself getting any faster.  I had some food and hung out with a cheerful Ingrid watching everyone run past.

After Gemma and Barry had ran their first legs we were around 10 minutes behind schedule before Ross set off.  Ross is supposed to be taking it easy so, despite being a fast runner, we set him an easy target.  However, Ross being Ross he smashed it 12 minutes quicker than planned and put us straight back on track!  If Ross was going to be quicker than planned, which looked likely, it gave us some flex so we could still hit our target 26 laps even if some of us were struggling to hit the right times.  Phew!

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My 2nd leg was scheduled for 19:10 and we were on target, the changeover was smooth and I was off again.  As I reached the 1k mark I was pleased to find the mud had dried out and I was finding it a lot easier.  The run was much more comfortable, the Chaser cheers were louder and the air was slightly cooler – those hills hadn’t changed though!  I only ran about 30 seconds quicker than the first lap but I wasn’t too worried anymore.

At the end, I took advantage of the hot showers, but the food queues were huge so I just had some snacks before trying to get a couple of hours sleep in my freezing tent.  My night run would start at about 00:45 so Paul W made sure I was awake when he came back of his 3rd leg so I had enough time to get ready.

Heading down to transition I bumped into Diana from the Thunder Honks, they’d had a few drop outs so she was on a night-double, I didn’t envy her but was grateful for the company.  It was evident that other teams were starting to miss their changovers (someone called Ruth was in BIG trouble!), clearly they didn’t have a spreadsheet and a flawless buddy-waking-system!  Through all the head torch’s it’s difficult to see people’s faces but I heard Paul yelling my name and I was off on lap 3.  The night one…

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This was the lap I was really worried about, I couldn’t see a thing other than what the beam from my torch would allow and the cold air had made the grass a little slippy.  I decided to take it steady and just get round.

Running through the woods in the dark was a surreal experience, although there were other runners around, it felt a lot quieter than during the day.  I ran the whole way, quietly cheering the solo runners as I passed, it was actually quite exciting!  There were some sections where I felt completely alone and I wondered if there were any mentalists in the bushes waiting to kill me.  There weren’t.

Somewhere in the windy tree section I heard someone yell ‘Frenchieeeee’ and Martin flew past, it was hugely reassuring to see a friendly face.  Not long after, I heard some music and another call of ‘Frenchieeee’ before Matt flew past me.  I don’t know how either of them recognised me but I was grateful they did, I may have been running through the woods in the dark but I had friends and I was nearly finished!

Running into the finish area I could only see headlights so I yelled GEMMAAAA and was delighted she was there. Job bloody done!  My next run was at 6:40 so I really needed to get some sleep but I was absolutely buzzing, I think I sort of enjoyed it!  I took a cuppa back to my tent, checked that Barry was awake, ‘yeahhh, but I wish I wasn’t’ came the reply, and tried to sleep.

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It was just gone 2am so, if I fell asleep straight away (unlikely), I would have 3 odd hours sleep before the alarm.  I hate running as soon as I wake up, so I wanted to allow some snoozes to wake up gradually.  I’m not sure if my system worked, or I was running off adrenaline, but I somehow managed to to be wide awake and ready for lap 4.

I was tired and my legs were heavy but I knew this would be my last lap so I just wanted to get it done.  As I ran (ran, not walked…) past the Thunder Honks Kevin yelled ‘come on Frenchie, it’s called Thunder Run not Thunder Walk!’, so I swore at the cheeky git.  The kilometres rolled by but the hills were killing me so I walked a couple of them and hoped I didn’t get spotted by another Chaser (especially Kev!)

The thing I found most difficult about this run was that I was running on empty, I’d had a few snacks after the 2nd lap and a handful of pretzels after the 3rd, but it wasn’t enough.  Drained and tired, I pushed through the last km, Martin flew past again yelling some encouragement and I crossed the finish line and into the face of a smiley Gemma for the last time.  40k. I was done!

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I had a shower, got some proper food and a cuppa and settled down to enjoy the rest of the race.  We were running about 10 minutes behind schedule by this point but only Paul G was up for a 5th lap so we were happy to call it quits at 25 laps (or so I thought!)

It started to rain.  It was chilly and miserable and the rain got harder and harder, everyone was tired and achey and really not looking forward to their last laps.  I have huge respect to everyone who was knocking out their 5th, 6th and even 7th laps!  Collectively we agreed it had been a great experience but we had done it now and wouldn’t be back next year.

After Paul passed the tents we headed down to the finish to welcome him home and go to the bar!  Paul W and I waited at the finish for Paul G to come home but we didn’t know where the others were.  With around 23:48 on the clock, a very muddy Paul rounded the corner and came into the finish.  25 laps done, we had finished!!!

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We waited for the others to finish their final laps, Katie, Gemma and Frankie were still out on the course.  Frankie & the Clap Claps were on for the mixed team win so it would be a big moment for them, as Frankie came in Martin and Alex jumped over to run the final stretch with her – WINNERS!!!

We all headed to the bar for some much deserved beer/cider…in the rain…and the cold.  People were still coming into the finish and I happened to turn around and saw someone coming into the finish line that I recognised…  It was Barry.  What? Barrry? Barry’s running?  BAARRRRRYYYYY!!!  And there was our final team member coming into the soaking wet finish to bring us up to 26 laps and hit our goal, and we didn’t even know!  I was completely gutted to have nearly missed him, I genuinely had no idea.  Baz was the star of the team!

Exhausted, happy, and a little emotional. 6 people. 24 hours. 26 laps. 260k. Thunder Run done!

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The presentation ceremony wasn’t happening until 2 so we killed some time at the bar as everyone around us disappeared, I think it was only the winners that were actually left by this point.

Frankie & the Clap Claps.  33 laps, 330k.  Team of 5, mixed WINNNNERRRRSSSSSS

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Back on the soggy minibus everyone fell asleep, we were completely shattered, but when I got home it wasn’t long before the group messages started.  Maybe we should do it again…maybe we should be more prepared…maybe Thunder Run 2016 is on!

They say:

Thunder Run will test your tactics, endurance, speed and team work. It’s an exhilarating, rewarding and tiring race with a great atmosphere. You’ll find TR24 physically challenging and mentally tough but an experience not to be missed.

I say, that’s bang on.  I didn’t think it would make much difference who you were in a team with, but that wasn’t the case at all.  You need to be with people who have the same expectations and are willing to work together.  We knew we weren’t going to win, but we had a goal, we took it seriously, planned ahead and looked after each other, it resulted in a goal well and truly achieved and a successful weekend.

Thanks to the most fantastic teammates, especially Paul and Barry who willingly took on an additional lap in torrential rain, and thanks to all the Chasers for another epic weekend!

Pretty much all the photos courtesy of Ross McLeod and Gemma Brierley (thanks!)

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Summer Evenings & Mid-Week Races

I love summer.  Doesn’t everyone?  Long sunny days, warm evenings (OK…warm-er) and everyone just seems just a little bit happier.  Amazing what a bit of vitamin D will do.

For me, there’s nothing better than throwing on my trainers for a post-work run in the sunshine, the sun is out but it’s not too hot, you can wear shorts and you don’t feel like the kind of crazy person you feel like when you’re training through the bitter winter.  It reminds me why I love this hobby of mine.

The summer months also bring a flurry of mid-week races.  They tend to be fairly low key, informal affairs but it’s a great opportunity to get people together for an early evening run and a late evening vodka.  The Chasers love a mid-week race almost as much as they love a mid-week pub session.

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About a month ago we took a record number of Chasers to the annual Thames Hare & Hounds Parkland Relays in Richmond Park.  Parklands was my first ever race for the Chasers in 2013 so I think of it as my anniversary run.  It takes place on a Wednesday evening in May and attracts a lot of local clubs for a lung burning 2.8 mile off-road loop near the south end of the park.

It’s a tough run and it’s hilly but, hey, it’s Richy P and it’s pretty damn good looking so you just have to suck it up.  We’ve been lucky with the weather for the last 3 years so it’s always been a fabulous evening with friendly people, and we even won both the girls and the boys races this year!

Last night 50 Chasers, in a field of 600, represented at the London Business Houses Bridges Relay.  Organised by Stock Exchange AC, teams of 4 for men or mixed, and 3 women, raced a 2.3 mile loop along the Embankment opposite the Houses of Parliament, over Vauxhall Bridge and back along the river to Lambeth Bridge before coming back on the home stretch.  Short, sharp and over quick right?  Pleasant easy peasy run right?  Errrr, no.

Me, I was in a team with this fabulous bunch.  Diana who is making a sterling return from a lengthy injury, Hannah who slaves away around the track with me and Phil, Phil loves being a Chaser and we absolutely love him for his infectious excitable energy!  Team of little runner dreams.

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Everyone congregated outside St Thomas’s Hospital for the start.  It was very busy and I wasn’t convinced it wouldn’t be complete chaos.  Looking around it looked like the standard would be high, and that was before I clocked the international team.  I decided my race strategy would have to be run-as-fast-as-you-bloody-can-and-hold-on-as-long-as-you-can.  A necessary approach.

The leg A runners set off and it wasn’t as much chaos as I thought, however, I was on the 2nd leg so had to hang around in a big crowd and hope I would spot Phil as he came in.  Luckily the Chasers t-shirt is fairly easy to spot so as soon as I saw him I shoved my way to the front and pegged it.

I was running too fast and it hurt, probably not helped by my track session the night before, but something happened I’m not sure has ever happened before.  I started overtaking lots of other runners!  Spurred on, I just kept running as fast as I could, hugely appreciated the support from 3 Chaser marshals en route, and hoped I wouldn’t start to slow just as I ran past the crowds on the way back.

This is me, errr, pegging it.  Many thanks to Liz Milsom for the photo!

imageI waved at Hannah to make sure she saw me and she headed out on the 3rd leg whilst I tried not to die, I finished in 17:34 so was quite pleased.  Once I was sure I’d survive, I found Phil and the other Chasers and waited for the team to finish.  Hannah put in a strong effort, also off the back of track the night before, and Diana brought us home with a sprint finish so fast the picture was blurry!  I think she’s back from injury 🙂

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I have to say this wasn’t the most friendly bunch, Clare was snubbed for simply asking a question and Phil got told off for cheering too loud, maybe that’s the difference between corporate running clubs and ‘ordinary running clubs’ as we were referred to.  As if there’s anything ordinary about the Chasers!

Everyone home, we headed to the pub where Phil treated his team to a post race drink.  Thanks Phil!

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Green Belt Relay: The one where we ran round the M25

When you’re in the pub on a Friday night, how exactly do you explain to your colleagues you have to go home because you’re getting up at 5am to spend the weekend in a 220 mile running relay round the M25, spending most of the time in a sweaty minibus, before spending the night in a classy Essex hotel called the Miami, then getting up at 6am on Sunday to do it all over again….and you’re just soooooo excited?

My colleagues think I’M WEIRD

Luckily for me I know a fair few other weird people, 46 to be exact, so at 6.45am last Saturday morning we all met in Clapham Junction to head over to Hampton Court to start our 220 mile journey around London’s Green Belt…

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The Green Belt Relay is a fantastic event and is made even more fantastic by the fact it’s the Chasers annual weekend away, we’ve all been embarrassingly excited about this for weeks!  In short, it’s an 11 person relay ran across 22 legs over 2 days around 220 miles of London’s green belt.  There’s lots of river running, greenery, a fair few hills and brambles to negotiate and you need to be familiar with the route to avoid getting lost but the course is pretty and scenic.

Last year we entered 3 teams but word spread about how much fun it was so there was enough demand for 4 teams this year, that’s a lot of Chasers on tour!  Rather than putting all our fast runners in one team and competing for the outright win, we were mixed into teams of weighted ability to create a bit of banter between ourselves (much more fun!).  We had Blue, Simply Red, Deep Purple and Green Day…

The banter started early, which was mostly Alex demonstrating he clearly has too much free time at work during the day…but it succeed in getting everyone even more excited!

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The race starts at 8.30 from Hampton Court (although not actually within the grounds because they wanted to charge a shameful amount of money) so we all headed over to cheer off the leg 1 runners, there were 30 teams in total.

Everyone runs 1 leg on Saturday and 1 on Sunday of various lengths from 6.6 miles to 13.5 miles.  Each leg is given a difficulty level of 1 to 10 which combines distance, course profile and navigation so a 10 means there’s a fairly high probability of getting lost if you haven’t done your homework!

Organising an event like this is hugely challenging both for the Stragglers, who run the event, and for the clubs that participate (in our case Bryn, who does an outstanding job of ensuring everything runs smoothly which we are all massively grateful for).  We had 4 minibuses, each with a clear schedule for the day and list of people who needed to be on it at different times.  You get dropped off at the start of your leg by one minibus and picked up at the end by another before heading off to the next location.  If that wasn’t enough to plan, the event is also self-marshaled so each team has several marshaling duties to make sure other runners get round safely.  It’s a logistical nightmare, and that’s if everything goes to plan!

Can you spot Ingrid…?

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The course is marked with sawdust and orange stickers but locals find it hilarious to tamper with them so, if you haven’t studied the route, or foolishly follow someone else, you could be in trouble.  Naively, I failed miserably to memorise my route last year, relying on on-the-go navigation so this year I spent some time learning my legs and writing myself step by step instructions!

Although Green Belt is a relay, it wouldn’t be practical to run the event in the traditional sense and wait for your runner to come in (the first day is already quite lengthy) so each leg starts at the time of the previous leg’s course record.  This means, unless someone breaks the course record, you will start before the runners arrive.  Each runner is still timed individually for a cumulative team time.

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I was on the 2nd leg on Saturday, a 9.64 mile stretch from Staines to Boveney through Windsor, I also ran this leg last year so I was already vaguely familiar with it (plus it only had a difficulty level of 3!).  My minibus headed over to Staines to drop Ruth, Natalie, Hannah and myself off for our 9.42am start and pick up the leg 1 runners who would be finishing around the same time.

After injuring my hamstring I hadn’t actually run for 10 days and was really worried I wouldn’t be able to do it, it definitely felt dodgy.  We had quite a few people pull out due to injury and had struggled to fill the places at short notice so I knew I had to run, plus there was no way I was missing this weekend! I just had to hope I wouldn’t be limping my way round.

Green Belt Relay Leg 2

We headed across Staines Bridge and along the river on the towpath but within the first mile my hamstring was getting tighter, I’d only just started!  Trying not to panic, I made a conscious effort to slow down and hoped it would ease off…if I could at least make it to 7 miles it would be fine right?  Luckily, I think a combination of slowing down and warming up worked and I actually started to enjoy the route at my slower pace.

I even sort of knew where I was going…right at the fork…across the bridge…away from the river…so I didn’t need to follow anyone else.  I was a bit confused at the end but, relying on memory from last year, and asking the odd random if they had seen runners, I made it to the finish.  I saw Adam and Alex a few metres from the end and tried to give Alex a high-5 (I missed and it was more of a high-1 but encouraging all the same!)

It feels a bit odd finishing the leg.  Unlike other races, because there’s only 30 of you, you’re likely to be running on your own and finishing on your own with a crowd of people waiting for you. Everyone cheers and claps (and no one makes a noise like the Chasers!) but it’s hard not to feel a bit self-conscious.

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Our bus had a bit of spare time before we needed to drop anyone off for their leg so we headed to Great Kingshill to cheer on the leg 4 runners coming in and leg 5 heading off.  Leg 4 is one of the hardest at 12.2 miles and rated a 10 so it was pretty awesome to see Cat come in on a head-to-head sprint finish against a man, she totally nailed it!  Sorry mate, you’re chicked.

We then headed off to St Albans to send off James, Steve, Dan and Louise and pick up those running leg 6.  We were really lucky with the weather considering how much wind and rain we’d had so we got to enjoy some sunshine while we waited.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, we ended up staying in St Albans a little longer than planned, we’ll call  this ‘nameless blameless incident’ to protect the identity of those involved…but eventually we were on our way to drop some people off for marshaling duties.

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Finally it was time to drop off Rob, Simon, Ellie & James for the final leg of the day (which didn’t even start until 6.58!) before heading over to the finish to meet everyone else and cheer everyone home.  There were some very drunk Chasers to be met (case in point, see above…)

It had been a looooong day and was time to head to the grand Miami hotel for dinner, drinks and a couple of hours sleep.  Perhaps the best part of the evening was an appearance from a VERY special guest.  Yep, we only had Spiderman (ACTUAL Spiderman) pop along to present some fetching gold spoon awards for various achievements throughout the day such as Drama Queen, Loose Women, LAD!, Least Likely to be a Getaway Driver… around midnight, it was time to sleeeeppp.

Welcome to Miami…

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Not for long though, the alarm went off at 6, we were out the door by 7 and leg 13 was off at 8!  Sunday saw much of the same with each bus heading to various legs to drop people off, pick up those coming in and completing our marshaling duties.

For some reason I thought it would be a great idea to sign up for the very last leg, aka the glory leg, but this would mean I wouldn’t be running until 5pm and I was starting to get nervous about finishing in front of absolutely everybody.  The finish is at the Hawker Centre in Ham and is also where the end of event BBQ is held and everyone meets back up again, there were going to be a lot if people!

My hamstring was tight, and my legs ached in general, so I was glad of the maximum recovery period, but as the day wore on I was getting more and more nervous.  Instead I focused on helping Gemma navigate our way around for most of the day (Gemma was also on the last leg so we tried not to think about it).

Eventually, after travelling round a lot of narrow country lanes, it was time to head to Walton Bridge for the start of leg 22.  Our leg was 9.15 miles and was apparently the easiest route to navigate, but I was worried about my leg giving out, worried about being too slow, and worried about finishing in front of 300 odd people when I knew I was likely to be running alone.  Stupid glory leg.

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I was running with Gemma, Hannah and Nikki and we had a bit of a team huddle pep talk before we started.  Alex had also been trying to tell us calming stories (inbetween singing Oasis and rapping Fresh Prince) about how everything would be just wonderful but all I remembered was something about seaweed.

Then we were off running along the river.  We’d only got up the road before Gemma was chatting away about how she was going to shove me in the river and I started to doubt how genuine her pep talk was… Anyway, my hamstring didn’t feel too bad and after a couple of miles I picked up the pace and caught the girl ahead that I had been chasing.  All I could think as I passed was ‘yes, my seaweed is greener than yours!’, but then she offered me some encouragement and I felt bad about my greener seaweed.

The route was lovely and there was another girl not far in front that I was trying to keep up with so I had a reason to keep pushing.  As the miles ticked by I started to feel nervous again about coming into the finish so I slowed down a bit to conserve some energy for a sprint finish, I had to finish strong!

At 9 miles I could see the big yellow finish line and see everyone up ahead, stomach churning I just ran as fast as I could and didn’t make eye contact with anyone, I don’t even think I smiled (sorry!)

Finishing on the glory leg was amazing, although I was nervous having all those people cheer me home was the most fabulous end to the weekend I could have asked for.

And that was that, my 2nd Green Belt relay done! When everyone was across the line we headed back to Clapham for a well earned drink, everyone was shattered!

So….in summary

  • 46 Chasers (2 of which couldn’t run due to injury but didn’t want to miss out!)
  • 880 miles run
  • 6 leg wins
  • 1 course record smashed by our leader (Bryn, if you weren’t sure)
  • Several sprint finishes
  • 1 furious Alice after Marcus sent her the wrong way then casually ran the right way himself…
  • 1 sweaty Adam insistent that he had no moral responsibility to call back a runner who had taken a wrong turning a couple of metres ahead of him (we all thought Adam was a nice guy)
  • Several surprised guests at the Miami hotel who had smelly Chasers walk in on them after being given the wrong key
  • 1 surprise visit from the best superhero ever
  • 1 ever so slightly dented minibus (nameless blameless)
  • 46 completely exhausted people

Once again, Green Belt weekend was bloody ace!  Thanks to the Stragglers, thanks to Bryn, thanks to all our drivers, and thanks to everyone who made it such a great weekend. See you next year!

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