The question arose many moons ago, sometime after completing The Druid’s Challenge in November 2011. “Would you like to be part of the barefoot relay team for the Classic Quarter?”
The answer was instant – and the usual – because I have a positive philosophy … say ‘yes’ whenever possible, and figure out the ‘how’ later.
So, “Yes” it was.
After careful organizing (read quick text – “Are you still up for it? How are you getting there? We’re staying at Tim’s parents place”), the team was cemented.
Almost as soon as it formed, it nearly fell apart when, 3 days before the race, 2 of the relay team spent several hours with physios/sports therapists with race-threatening symptoms. Tim’s foot was given the “well, you’ll live, but it’ll do it no good” (plenty of time before Kona!). Helen’s hamstring was given “the hamstring’s fine, the prolapsed disc is the problem. Stick your bum out, pull your pelvic floor up and take short strides”. Brilliant – we were back on! The next day, we were off. “Where are we going?” I texted. “M4/M5 all the way to the end!” was the answer.
It started, as it was conducted, as it finished … a delightful shambles.
Team ‘Leader’ (the term is applied here in its loosest sense) and Leg 1 of Relay: the uber-relaxed Matt Wallden, osteopath and corrective exercise specialist, who had the wisdom to bring Vibram Fivefingers into the UK.
Leg 2 of Relay: the chiselled form of Tim Bishop, superstar triathlete, Kona regular and Kona podium hopeful.
Leg 3 of Relay: the nothing-if-not-enthusiastic Helen Hall, barefoot runner and efficient running coach (Kona hopeful/dreamer).
Leg 4 of Relay: the Barefoot Ted, infamous character of Born To Run, ultra distance runner, accomplished raconteur, and ‘fresh’ from the Western States of America. Yep – jet-lagged.
On arrival in the deepest depths of Cornwall (a postcode was finally given to RV in a car park),
we found communications somewhat intermittent (not enough mobile phone masts at the far ‘toe’ end of our country it appears), and the race ‘brief’ undownloadable. Not to worry. We’d figure it out. There would be instructions at registration …
Reveille at 5am … poor BFT had just got to sleep (jet-lag sucks) … and round the wiggly, windy lanes to Lizard Point – the southern most tip of the UK. We were issued a map. Well, I say a map. By that I mean a black line joining some dots, which represented the water stations, the 4 checkpoints and The End. The instructions on the map stated:
1. Follow the National Trust Coastal Path acorn signs.
2. Keep the sea on your left.
At the race brief, the organiser mentioned that sometimes the acorn signs were quite hard to find, but that because most of the teams/runners had obviously performed their ‘due diligence’ in committing to this extreme ultra distance race, and had recce’d the route and had already completed its various sections individually, then all should be ‘ok’. We looked at each other … then all eyes turned to the ‘team leader’. Matt looked relaxed. The race organiser calmed the rest of us by confirming that no-one could go ‘that far wrong’ if you just remembered to ‘keep the sea on your left’.
Snagless. All that was missing now, was coffee.
We were standing amongst 400 others, also freezing and in need of caffeine, on the windswept cliffs of Lizard Point with a coffee shop … right there … closed. Don’t you just love the Brits? Moan moan moan – give them an opportunity to scoop a month’s takings in an hour, and they’ll be teeth-sucking. “Out Of Hours”.
Too late – the starter hooter sounded and Matt disappeared into the throng. They were up the hill and round the corner almost before we’d already forgotten about them, so pressing was the need to locate coffee.
Hot-footing it back to the car, it was now 0723 hrs … Costa would definitely be open. All eyes on the local boy Tim, who pondered for the briefest moment before confirming that ‘No’, Costa might have reached Antarctica, but it hadn’t made it to south-western Cornwall. I had a brain-wave … extraordinary, and made even more startling given it was without the impetus of dark liquid stuff. Hotels. They would be serving breakfast. They would have coffee, and they would see the desperate need of it in our eyes.
More wiggly, single-track lanes … Barefoot Ted closed his eyes whilst we tried to keep ours open, on lookout for likely looking accommodative buildings. We found one. The staff were lovely, but despite repeatedly telling them we needed strong coffee (no, allowing us to put our chosen amount of milk in did not constitute strong coffee; lots of ground coffee in the pot constituted strong coffee!), what we poured you could see through. Wet and warm. I’ll give them that.
It was cosy in the hotel’s lounge, overlooking the bleak, windswept craggy cliffs of the course. We relaxed and enjoyed the contrast.
Suddenly, we remembered we were in a race. We were going to have to shift ourselves like greased lightening, round those wiggly, windy, s-l-o-w, country lanes if we were going to make the check point before Matt arrived. He won, and by a good few minutes too. Matt looked relaxed, chatting to a fellow competitor, and handed over the ‘baton’ to a rather frazzled Kona-competitor, who simply didn’t understand this kind of race preparation … or rather, lack of it. Tim was hopping from one foot to the next trying to get his layers off and his running kit on, with his relay leg clock already ticking …
Tim ran off like an excited puppy. If we’d have paid any attention, we’d have seen him coyly chucking a U turn having launched in the wrong direction … we didn’t because we were already off on our next mission – breakfast! Matt needed recovery fuel; I needed starter fuel; Big Brian and Barefoot Ted needed proper coffee with fuel being a handy close second!
We’d lost the event course line drawing by now so drove to a village Matt had remembered from last year. Parked up, I at least got myself ready, kit on, back taped, all excess baggage removed from pack; we didn’t find the check-point (wrong village) but did find a pub open for breakfast and expresso coffee (smiles all round). Once satiated, Brian bothered to glance at his watch … all hell broke loose as we scrambled for the bill, the car, the next village on the satnav beginning with ‘P’ (that was all we could collectively remember). Matt looked relaxed but Barefoot Ted decided we should hunker down in the car until we saw what Tim’s face looked like … maybe he wouldn’t be there yet? … anyone remember what time he started?…
[readers might note that there are no photos to support this section of our adventure. We were busy with our various nutritional strategies whilst the photographer was racing]
As we descended the wiggly, windy lane towards the coast, we saw Tim’s face and we all hunkered down. This was a real athlete, a 5 times Kona-qualified triathlete, with sponsors, a coach and a ‘who’s who’ list of top level competitors following his tweets, who’d put 100% into his designated relay leg, on behalf of his team who’d forgotten all about him whilst they stuffed their stomachs and flooded their blood system with caffeine.
He’d beaten us to it … by 29 minutes … even typing that, I’m crying with laughter. Farcical doesn’t even touch it. But it turns out we were lucky in the end by being soooo late – no honestly – after he’d been waiting a few minutes, Tim was cross; after waiting 10 minutes, Tim was jolly cross; after 20 minutes had passed, he’d just given up and was enjoying the support and empathy of the rest of the check-point crowd, who were equally astonished by his crew’s lack of … bother. By 29 minutes, that ‘look’ which we mistook as crossness, was in actual fact (he claims), calm … just like Matt!
But I was, at least, ready. I claimed my ‘baton’, gave him a supportive, caring, ‘well done’ Team Shambolic hug and started my leg … with 29 minutes already on the clock! Off I … walked … well – I practice what I preach, and I know that my blood hasn’t diverted to my working muscles until I’ve been moving for 10 minutes. So there was no point dashing off – nature is nature after all.
Actually, I didn’t make 10 minutes of walking. After 8 minutes my hamstring was in lock-down. Teejay, my sports therapist friend, had drilled into me ‘it’s not your hamstring – it’s your disc’ … Matt had underlined to me not to believe the messages from my hamstring otherwise I’d succumb to them, so, with nothing to do but believe them (I still had 11 miles to cover!), I ran. I ran with as little impact as I could manage, with my backside jutting out and my pelvic floor pulled up 25%. And my hamstring stopped shouting at me. Given 3 days previously I was limping, it was amazing to discover that by experimenting with tiny body alignment adjustments, I could run smoothly and comfortably without pain … at 5.5mph. Not fast I know, but I was overtaking walkers, so I was happy with that. If I ran slower or faster it hurt; 5.5mph was just right. So that’s what I did. It was a master class in biomechanical awareness and I was in awe of how the human body can just sort itself out – if you pay it due attention.
I was so slow that the rest of Team Shambolic caught up with me … not at the checkpoint … at the mid-leg water station! Not so good for my ego but great for morale, especially when Brian decided to run the rest of the way with me. And it was a good job – I took several wrong turns through Penzance – those pesky acorns were hard to find – and it was Brian who put me back on course. The rock climbing that was the last 2 miles of the leg was also a challenge, made much easier by him being there to stop me falling off the edge (the race organiser had neglected to mention that the sea was, on occasion, immediately to the left).
Then it was Barefoot Ted’s turn (following a clearly speedy hand-over [above]). With the baton round his neck, his cut-off jeans and lunar sandals, he cut an even more relaxed figure than our esteemed (near horizontal) leader. He scampered up the hill, between some rocks and he was gone.
We chilled and relaxed amongst the crowd at the checkpoint, until Tim thought we’d better move if we were not to miss him … that really would have been unforgiveable.
Back up treacherous inclines in a rear wheel drive, down the wiggly, windy roads, getting ever more nervous that he might have beaten us to it. The weather was closing in too, and he only had a cotton T-shirt and his cut-offs …
We waited and waited at Land’s End. Was it possessive? Was the apostrophe locally correct or only grammatically correct? The discussion went around and around. Perhaps he was chilled? Perhaps he’d got lost (likely)? Perhaps he’d fallen due to jetlag-induced lack of co-ordination? Brian posed whilst we pondered …
Seeing the Search and Rescue helicopter had Tim leaping into action, redonning his Spyridons and off in the wrong direction to the rest of the field. Satisfied our team was in good hands, we went and found a nice cup of tea and a few more layers.
Finally, they came over the horizon and trotted in towards us, to the very muted finishing line that is ultra distance – no fanfares, no dancing girls in ra-ra skirts, no boombox delivering bass – just a chap grabbing your ‘baton’ and the 12 diehard spectators clapping the finisher in, right on the furthest, most western tip of the British Isles. Brilliant. And no, Barefoot Ted hadn’t got chilled. Indeed, Tim found him playing in the rocks with his cotton T-shirt OFF, bare-chested, bare-footed and feeling all the cobwebs of transatlantic travel being blown away.
A memorable event all round, and one we all want to repeat … but next time, Tim and Barefoot Ted want to do the whole distance … the whole 44 miles … which will probably be quicker than waiting for the rest of us.
Oh, and we’ll be packing a cafetiere, several packets of expresso powder and a thermos.
…. The result? Matt had the piece of paper but he’s so relaxed it doesn’t really seem relevant. If anyone checks it out … please deduct 29 minutes from my leg …!