For the club runner in this country, spring and autumn mean one thing: the road relays. While the autumn brings the area and national 6-stage events, the spring is all about the 12-stage. My area is the midlands, and our event takes place in Sutton Park, a huge expanse of green space in the north of Birmingham which is also home of the national event 3 weeks later.
Next Saturday my clubmates and I will be taking the short journey up to Sutton to compete in the Midland 12 Stage. The event alternates between long legs and short legs, the difference being made up by a long out-and-back section where you can see just how far ahead of or behind the nearest runner you are. Our team manager Richard always puts me on a long leg so I am well acquainted with the course, which is approximately 5.4 miles or 8.7km long. It is this unconventional race distance that appeals to me so much. You have no idea what kind of time you should run for that distance other than the time you ran last year (28:14, seeing as you asked), there are no mile or km markers and the course has sharp turns and hills from start to finish.
All of which means that when you wait on the start line for your number to be called, you know you’re not there to run an even-paced time trial, you’re there to race. Unless you wear a GPS watch (I’m still old-school and don’t have one) you have no idea how far you’ve gone or how far you have left to go. All you know is that there is a guy in front of you who needs to be behind you, and that there’s a guy behind you who definitely can’t go in front of you. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course, particularly when you take over from a much faster athlete who gives you an artificially high starting position. But that’s part of the fun. You chase and chase and take on whoever tries to run beside you. It is a race, and it is sport at its purest. If you’re on leg 10 at the national it’s not quite the same story though, and it is common for athletes on this leg not to see anyone for most of their run due to the large gaps that normally form by that point. Either way, it is a true mental and physical challenge.
As I write I haven’t yet seen the email with the team list, but I suspect it will contain the rules, as stated every year by Richard:
1. Go out hard.
2. If someone catches you, hang on to them for as long as you physically can.
3. Run the tangent around every corner.
4. If you’re smiling when I see you, you’re not working hard enough.
So next Saturday afternoon I will be going out hard, hanging on, running the shortest possible line and all with a grimace on my face. Can’t wait.