Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Memoirs of a Southern 12 Stager

This weekend saw the South of England 12 stage Road Relays taking place at Milton Keynes. It was sad to see that only 31 teams completed the course. 31 from all the potential teams available in the South of England comes across as pretty poor. I don’t know why so few clubs turn out for this event but if there isn’t a change of attitude it could become a non event in years to come. Even those clubs competing for the medals seem to have trouble getting their best 12 out for this event. It is a major championship, to be crowned a Champion of the South of England is something to aspire to and yet so many athletes appear to be indifferent to this, preferring to run a fast time in a 10k or half marathon instead.

I was at the first race when it moved to Milton Keynes and I think the course is fantastic, the short leg is just short enough to give it a real blast but still sorts the men out from the boys and the long stage, whilst a little lonely, is a great test of the mind and body. It’s invariably windy on the long leg, which means you have to be in good form to produce your best. For some reason a number of people have gone off course on the long leg, including some of my team mates, I never understood why as it’s always been well marked. 

I’ve always enjoyed the event and so this week my blog is a little bit self indulgent, as I remember my past encounters in this classic road relay. Making the team, has always been something to aim for, being given the 12th place in a team of your peers, irrespective of the position your team is likely to come, gives a real sense of achievement to runners who might normally not make the scoring 6, 8, 9 or 10.

Before I took up running, in 1989, I didn’t even know road relays existed, my enjoyment of running was from watching the TV coverage of the Olympics and my only experience of road running was watching the finish of the Sandbach marathon one year and helping out at the Holmes Chapel 5 mile race when I was working at the local leisure centre. However road and cross country relays are one of the most exciting events to participate in and, unusually to road running, you get to compete against and watch the best athletes in the same race.

1989: My first experience of these relays occurred a couple of months after I’d started running. In those days the relays were hosted by Belgrave Harriers, with the handover at the foot of Wimbledon Common. Runners would run around a part of the common and then disappear into the roads of West Wimbledon for their allotted stint. I’d heard it was a big event, but knew little of what it was about, so I turned up to watch. My good friend, John Mather, was marshalling on the busy corner where long leg runners went around a big loop and short leg runners went straight onto the common, outgoing short legs coming back out again, it was a bit chaotic. Marshalling this corner was made more difficult by cars coming from three directions, so my hat goes off to those who marshalled. This was also the best place to watch as the two pubs on the corner, The Hand in Hand and the Crooked Billet, catered for those runners who had already run. John spent a good deal of time pointing out famous runners, but unfortunately I was oblivious to the bulk of them. On this occasion the relay was won by Blackheath Harriers.

1990: I was watching again. This was the 25th anniversary of Belgrave hosting the relay and they managed to put out a strong team. Right in the middle section there was Gary Staines handing over to John Gladwin hading over to Paul Evans, but still there were good club runners in the team, Marcello Bizio, Frank Ward and the Patons to name a few. By now I was a little more familiar with the athletes but could only dream that one day I’d be part of a Belgrave team in this relay. I spoke to Ollie Foote after his 11th stage for Belgrave, he was downcast as he thought he’d given up too much time to the following Highgate athlete, but once Justin Chaston took off on the last stage, wearing his American flag shorts, it was pretty much a done deal. Belgrave won the day, and the 12 bottles of whisky traditionally presented to the winners.

1991: Again a watcher but now I knew most of the team so I was proud of their achievement in making the team. Still a mere novice runner but I could sense I was moving closer to that 12th place. This year the race was won by Aldershot Farnham and District.

1992: So close but no cigar, I was asked to be the on the day reserve but, with friends visiting, I couldn’t very well leave them for four hours as I awaited my non call up. So my good friend Mark Anderson took on the role. I’d really wanted to make the team, to get a chance to run on the course, as, due to increasing traffic, this was to be the last year the race would be held in Wimbledon. For the fourth year running a different team won the championship, how refreshing, this time it was Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers.

1993: The championship moved to Thurruck and at last I made the team. I’d run a couple of good road relays at the Chingford and Thames Valley and had been asked to do a long leg. I asked for first leg and was given it, and when we set off I was glad I’d gotten it. It was a horrible course down back alleys and out into the countryside, over a couple of road bridges. For anyone coming later it must’ve been a very lonely leg. I was happy with my run, against some good runners, bringing the team in 24th in a time of 25 min exactly for the 5 mile leg. Boxhill racers won the inaugural event.

1994: Remembering the bleak long stage from last year, this year I asked for a short stage and managed to get my favoured 2nd leg. The short stage was about 2.75 miles and I had a good run bringing us home in 2nd place. I’d run a time of 13:10, which stood up as the 12th fastest short stage of the day. Boxhill Racers won again, those ending the run of different champions.

1995: I missed this year’s race as it was my cousin’s wedding in Derby, probably just as well as we sank to a low position in the 30s. A bad day at the office but Belgrave were to rise again. Blackheath Harriers won on the day.

1996: I was coming into some good form at the right time and was back on long leg duty at Thurrock. By now they’d shortened the leg to 4.75 miles and I ran well to come home in 23:50. Blackheath Harriers won again.

1997: Still trying to get back my fitness, after straining my heart in December, I was on long leg duty again but this time could only manage 24:19. Borough of  Hounslow won.

1998: After last year’s event I’d fractured my metatarsal in a 1500m race. Another long break meant I spent all winter trying to regain the form I’d had in 1996. I was given the short stage option and took it, producing a reasonable run with a 13:34 clocking. Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers won again.

1999: A new venue, thank goodness, Milton Keynes. Having spent over 5 months out towards the end of 1998 I knew I wasn’t in great shape. I managed to make the team on a short leg, about 5.3k. I was happy with my 17:29, it wasn’t the slowest in the team. For the first time B teams were allowed and we had Justin Chaston, running 3rd fastest long stage in our B team, he’d come over from the states but we hadn’t expected him so couldn’t run him in the A team. Belgrave, despite being well back at one stage, finished the day in silver medal position, the first time we’d medalled since the win in 1990. I was so chuffed to get my medal. Blackheath Harriers won the event.

2000: I was working in Germany and it was having a good effect on my training. Away from home for two weeks at a time I was able to focus solely on work and training, often running twice a day. The forest was a fantastic place to train and I did some really good sessions. Leading up to the 12 stage I’d won a 10 mile race in Sidcup and, despite blowing up in the 2nd mile had set a road 10k pb of 31:04 at Brockwell Park. At Milton Keynes I’d plumped for the long stage and managed a 24:51 clocking for the 5 mile circuit. Belgrave finished in the medals again, but this time bronze as Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers won.

2001: For some reason there was an atmosphere coming from the Windor Slough Eton and Hounslow team and they spent the day trying to antagonise Belgrave. I was on first leg and didn’t much appreciate the WSEH B team runner clipping at my heels for the first mile. I managed to drop him and got on with my run, coming in a respectable 11th with a time of 25:03. We got bronze, again, WSEH put in a strong team effort to win the event, but took a warning about their offensive t-shirts. 

2002: I was given responsibility to run last leg. I was there for the start so it was a long wait until my leg. When it came, we were a long way ahead, but I didn’t know by how much. I ran far too cautiously, not wanting to blow the chance of our first victory in 12 years, it was this cautiousness that cost me a place in the National 12 stage team as I ran a comfortable 17:24 to bring us home as victors.

2003: Possibly one of my finest runs in this competition, I’d been away working again, this time in Slovakia. I’d also been marathon training and it was the strength that saw me pull through the field as we hit the wind around the lake. I was on first leg and I came home in 7th position in a time of 24:50 for the 5 miles. The time astounded me as I’d done no specific speed work for the event but proof that marathon training can make you faster by the very fact that I was able to maintain my pace and form in the tougher parts of the race. Once again Belgrave won the title, we were becoming familiar figures at the ceremony.

2004: My last appearance at these championships, as a Belgrave Harrier. I’d been given my favoured 2nd leg, following super vet Mike Trees on 1st leg. Mike put me right amongst the forward action, which I love so much, and I had a great run with my fastest time over the short leg, 17:16. Belgrave won again.
2005: At 40 I’d made the decision to leave Belgrave, I’d wanted to make an impression in the BMAF relays with my new club, in May, but clearly I’d pushed myself too hard and tore my hamstring. It was a sorry time for me as this was the first time I’d missed the 12 stage since 1995 and the first time I’d not been able to run at Milton Keynes. Belgrave won again.

2006: By now I was living and working in Edinburgh, at 41 I had been doing well against the Scottish Masters but wasn’t in my best form. I agreed to fly down, as I wanted to represent Herne Hill in this event, and I was keen to run again at Milton Keynes. Once again I was given 2nd leg and managed to bring the team through to 3rd place with my slowest short stage time of 17:52. Belgrave won for the 5th year running, with Herne Hill in 11th.

2007-2009: Working shifts and flying down to the south was not conducive to running well so I’d restricted my running mainly to Scotland and some of the Masters national events. So during this time I didn’t return to Milton Keynes.
Winners were; Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers, Belgrave Harriers and Belgrave Harriers respectively.

2010: Back in England and running into some good form, I asked Geoff if I could run in the team. Now 45, I considered myself too slow to run a long stage and thankfully Geoff gave me my favoured 2nd leg. Rising red head, Chris Busaileh was on first leg and he ran a great race to bring to hand over to me in 6th place. I set off with confidence and didn’t need the shout from Geoff to tell me that the Belgrave runner was just up the road. Like a claret and gold flag to a Herne Hiller it gave me added incentive and put in a strong effort to catch him within the first mile. He, James Fairbourn, put up a good fight as we swapped positions, continuously, over the next mile, but in the final mile I was able to put in the strong finish I’d rehearsed in so many 12 stages before, and I pulled away to bring the team home in 3rd place with a time of 17:31. Newham and Essex Beagles won with Herne Hill in 6th  

2011: The torn calf muscles I’d suffered, in January, meant that I didn’t consider myself fit enough to put myself forward for the team. Newham and Essex Beagles won again with Herne Hill in 7th place. This was also the first time Belgrave finished out of the medals since the event arrived at Milton Keynes in 1999.

So those are some memories from me, if you’ve competed in this event yourself, they may have inspired your own memories. Just to finish, lets look at what’s happened to the previous winners of this event:

Blackheath Harriers: Always prominent at Wimbledon and Thurrock, they seem to have lost their way a little since their inaugural win at Milton Keynes and didn’t even have a team this year. It would be good to see the, now Blackheath and Bromley Harriers back in the medal hunt.

AFD: Have been up their in this event but don’t ever seem to have their best team out on the day. They have the potential to win this race, as shown by their 2004 National 12 stage victory.

Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers: Always have that potential to turn in a winning performance, perhaps it will be their turn again next year.

Boxhill Racers: Such a strong team of the late 20th Century, winning many titles over road and cross country. Strongly supported by the track athletes of Haringey, the demise of both clubs came swiftly. Boxhill continued to run a team, when all the top guys retired but I’ve failed to find any recent history.
Borough of Hounslow: Amalgamated with Windsor Slough and Eton.

Windsor Slough Eton and Hounslow: For a while they were one of the top clubs in the country but seemed to go downhill rapidly. When Mo Farah left to join Newham and Essex Beagles that seemed to mark the end of any challenge on this title.
Belgrave Harriers: A momentary blip this year, perhaps this championship wasn’t taken seriously, a brief scan of the Belgrave website shows a number of their top athletes racing other events on the same weekend. Will they be back to winning form next year, will it matter enough to them. Watch out for another attempt on the National title this year.

Newham and Essex Beagles: Seem to have made this race their own over the last two years, and not even their strongest team this year. Could they continue in their winning ways?

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