18th-19th May, 2019
by Aaron Chai
Long distance relay events involving teams are some of the best ways to spend a weekend. The camaraderie is high, the scenery is fantastic and driving around the M25 when the traffic flows freely can be fun - although not so much when you’re in a rush to get to the next stage whilst the rain is falling and Classic FM is playing on the radio.
I’ve done a few long-distance relay events in the past, such as the Ridgeway Relay and Endure24, but in my opinion the Green Belt Relay stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of pure enjoyment, planning and logistics. This year, and for the 3rd consecutive year in the club’s history, SHAEF Shifters put forward a team of 11 runners.
Captain Ian Fullen, ably assisted by his sidekick Lieutenant Rodney McCulloch, took responsibility for the team entry and planning. Such is the logistical exercise that the most experienced hands took charge of this aspect, while the rest of us simply tried to understand how it was all going to work through the deluge of Whatsapp messages and Google Docs updates coming in thick and fast.
This year, we welcomed two new members to the squad - Ollie Edwards, who had already entered a marathon the week after (a race report is hopefully forthcoming) and so opted for doing only one stage instead of two, and Ben Aird, who managed to negotiate the entire weekend free with BA so that he wasn’t going to fly anywhere far away, like China. The remaining nine have run the GBR before so it wasn’t totally unfamiliar to them. All runners were encouraged to recce their stages in advance to avoid getting lost on the run – actually, this isn’t strictly necessary as there’s always someone close to follow, unless you’re going for a stage win.
The course is approximately 220 miles of footpaths, roads, towpaths and trails around the outside of London, broken down into 22 stages and run over 2 days. All stages vary in length (from as short as 6 miles to over a half marathon) and in difficulty, where the most difficult stages are in the Chiltern Hills and the North Downs Way area.
Day 1 (Saturday 18th May)
Stage 1: Hampton Court Palace – Staines, 12.7 miles. Will Rawling, 9th, 1:20:33
Stage 1 got off to an early start on 8:30am Saturday morning, meaning parkrun was cancelled for those GBR members looking to get their fix.
Will Rawling, one of two SHAEFers with a stage win to his name, was assigned first leg, largely because he couldn’t convince his family to stay in Essex overnight and humbly requested legs closer to home.
After seeing Will off with 51 other runners, the team were split into 2 cars, driving to alternate legs to drop off a runner and pick up a runner from the previous stage.
One of the longer legs of the GBR, but also flat and easy to navigate, Will finished in a respectable 9th place in a stage typically stacked with faster runners and admitted that he wasn't putting in enough miles over the winter to stay with the front-runners.
He also made the rookie mistake of not applying Vaseline to sensitive areas, too. Still, an excellent start for SHAEF with 21 more stages to go.
Overall standing: 9th, 1:20:33, 6 minutes ahead of 10th, 30 seconds adrift of 8th.
Stage 2: Staines – Boveney Church, 9.42 miles. Ben Aird, 7th, 1:04:11
Car 2 headed over to Staines to drop off Ben in good time. Originally Clayton was meant to run this leg, but a last-minute request from Ben (because he couldn’t convince his family to stay in Essex overnight) meant that Clayton had swapped to Stage 10, a leg he had run before (and briefly got lost on). It would’ve been interesting to see how Clayton would’ve performed on this stage as it looked to be a sedate field as noted by Captain Fullen when he remarked that the leaders looked like they were running over 6 minutes/mile.
Unlike his colleague who mistakenly flew to Edinburgh instead of Dusseldorf, and having had no chance to recce his leg beforehand, there were no navigational mistakes from Ben on his stage and he finished in a stellar 7th place, briefly catapulting the team into 5th.
Overall standing: 5th, 2:24:44, 2 minutes ahead of 6th, 3 minutes adrift of 4th
Stage 3: Boveney Church – Little Marlow, 11.2 miles. Charlie Chandler, 42nd, 1:35:33
Unlike last year’s Royal Wedding excitement happening in Windsor, Car 1 did not have any difficulties reaching Boveney Church on time to drop off Charlie for the start of Stage 3. Charlie ran this leg previously so familiarity with this stage wasn’t going to be a problem (plus he requested an earlier leg because he couldn’t convince his band members to stay in Essex overnight).
Despite finishing in a lower position than last year, he ran 9 minutes faster this year. It’s not about finish position but the time relative to other teams that determines overall team standings, so the team were still nicely placed after 3 stages.
Overall standing: 11th, 4:00:17, 2 minutes ahead of 12th, 3 minutes adrift of 10th.
Even though we lost 6 places, this was a marathon relay, not a sprint – there were still 19 more stages to go and anything could happen!
Stage 4: Little Marlow – Great Kingshill, 11.5 miles. Ollie Edwards, 8th, 1:25:00
The GBR reached the Chiltern Hills where the first “category 10” stage of the relay takes place. This leg is typically stacked with the strongest runners of each team, so Ollie Edwards had a daunting task on his hands. For Ollie's to make his GBR debut on Stage 4 was certainly a baptism of fire! It was all too much for one runner as he did some emergency foam rolling on his calves, minutes before the stage was due to start!
Ollie completely smashed Stage 4, exceeding everyone’s expectations for this stage with a competitive 8th place and equaling Will Rawling’s placing on that stage last year. All that hill training for Ollie’s trail marathon and ultra marathon had paid off for the team in spades, and his result meant that SHAEF moves back into the top 10.
Overall standing: 8th, 5:25:17, 6 minutes ahead of 9th, 9 minutes adrift of 7th.
Stage 5: Great Kingshill – Chipperfield, 13.5 miles. Rodney McCulloch, 18th, 1:38:14
Having missed the last 2 editions of the GBR due to untimely injuries, it was looking like Groundhog Day this year for Rodney as he picked up a hamstring niggle during the Easter period. As if that wasn't enough to stop Rodney from taking part, he even assigned himself the two remaining category 10 stages for the weekend! Whether it was an inspired piece of strategic brilliance or sheer lunacy remains to be seen - Rodney assured the team that he would give his two category 10 stages the respect that they deserve and not go off at Hollywood pace with the leading pack.
As with Ollie’s performance in the previous leg, Rodney performed courageously on such a tough leg with several long climbs, predominately on off-road terrain and also being the longest stage of the GBR, finishing in 18th, only one place behind our Team Bushy rivals.
Due to the scale of the event, it should be mentioned that the GBR relies on runners to perform various volunteering duties when not running, whether it is marshalling, water duty or results collecting. Ian, Aaron and Rodney oversaw the water station at the finish for this stage, supplying their own water and cups.
Overall standing: 8th, 7:03:31, 5 minutes ahead of 9th, 5 minutes adrift of 7th.
Stage 6: Chipperfield – St Albans. 8.5 miles. Louise Atkinson, 40th, 1:21:12
One of the great things about the GBR is the amazing spirit of club running, the support and joy that the participants and supporters brought to the event and the warm glow that surrounds this odd caravan of underweight endurance freaks as they circumnavigate London. Here are a few examples of the camaraderie between SHAEF Shifters and their Bushy Park based rivals, Team Bushy.
Back to Stage 6….
Stage 6 takes us back to flatter terrain in Hertfordshire after the savagery of 4 and 5. Louise’s game plan was to stick with Suzan “I don’t care that I’m not wearing a club vest” Baker from Team Bushy, as she had recced her leg previously the week before and showed Louise all her photos of the various points of interest on the course.
The last-minute cramming at The Two Brewers pub didn’t matter in the end as Louise went off at her own pace without any navigational issues, finishing an undulating leg in 40th place. The only comment she had about her leg was that it was too easy and she wanted a harder leg for next year. Request for Stage 4, granted!
Overall standing: 14th, 8:24:43, 14 minutes ahead of 15th, 3 minutes adrift of 13th
Stage 7: St. Albans – Letty Green, 11.6 miles. Rob Jones, 21st, 1:21:07
Another tough leg due to the distance, this one was given to Rob Jones. Rob was in fine form going into this stage with a lot of London Marathon training under his belt.
There might’ve been a hint of replicating Captain Fullen’s Stage 7 win from 3 years ago, as it seemed that Rob went a bit too fast at the start and paid for it in the final quarter of the race. Still, Rob managed a solid 21st place for the team.
Overall standing: 13th, 9:45:50, 50 seconds ahead of 14th, 5 minutes adrift of 12th.
Stage 8: Letty Green – Dobbs Weir, 10.7 miles. Ian Fullen, 7th, 1:08:43
For its easy-to-navigate route, pancake flat terrain and a finish along the footbridge over Dobbs Weir, Stage 8 is my personal favourite out of all stages I've done. With SHAEF now in 13th place, a captain’s run from Ian Fullen was needed to bring the team back into contention.
Ian lead from the front with a sterling 7th place, casually turning on the afterburners in the second half, leaving Iggy trailing in his wake and pulling off the obligatory showboating pose on the approach to the finish. Whether it was a costly move remains to be seen, as Ian was the first runner on Day 2 and had the shortest amount of time to recover in between.
Overall standing: 11th, 10:54:33, 1 minute ahead of 12th, 3 minutes adrift of 10th.
Stage 9: Dobbs Weir – High Beach, 10.2 miles. Dan Domeniconi, 2nd, 1:03:03
The rain that threatened the weekend had finally come out, but for Dan Domeniconi this was when the gloves came off.
Dan put in the best individual performance of the day on a largely flat course, save for a killer uphill only 1 km from the finish line. Dan was clearly in form at the right time and with his 2nd place, this only helped the team improve their overall standing.
Overall standing: 10th, 11:57:36, 9 minutes ahead of 11th, 30 seconds adrift of 9th.
Stage 10: High Beach – Toot Hill, 9 miles. Clayton Bannon, 4th, 59.11
Heavy rain continued to fall in Essex. Clayton Bannon, fresh from his brilliant London Marathon debut only 3 weeks prior (2:55:08!), had swapped with Ben to run stage 10, which he had done 2 years ago and got lost on.
Now with increased fitness and experience of the course, Clayton put in a flawless performance for 4th place (a big improvement from the 9th position and 1:04 from 2017), pushing the team two places back up the table.
Overall standing: 8th, 12:56:47, 4 minutes ahead of 9th, 13 minutes adrift of 7th.
Stage 11: Toot Hill – Blackmore, 7.5 miles. Aaron Chai, 16th, 56:13
Aaron, on driving responsibility, had to get to the start of Stage 11 after picking Dan up at the end of Stage 9. After Google maps had sent him cross country with road closures on route, he managed to get to the start of Stage 11 with 4 minutes to spare.
Stage 11 was a mix of undulating road and cross country, which wasn’t really Aaron’s strong point, especially with a dodgy ankle. After taking a wrong turn on the path with a lady from Dulwich Runners around 500m from the finish, the two of them finished shoulder to shoulder with Aaron displaying some of the characteristic SHAEF Shifters sportsmanship to let Dulwich finish ahead of him, but knowing that position is not as important as the time (both registered the same time).
Overall standing: 8th, 13:53:00, 7 minutes ahead of 9th, 15 minutes adrift of 7th.
That marks the halfway stage of the GBR. After the end of Stage 11, the two cars (with Aaron, Louise, Ian, Rodney, Rob, Ollie and Dan) had hotfooted it to nearby Basildon for the night, swiftly checked in at a clearly understaffed Holiday Inn and refueled at the Toby Carvery for some #entitlement.
Unlike last year where SHAEF managed to steal Team Bushy’s room bookings by accident forcing them to search for accommodation elsewhere, this time there were no such issues as the two teams made sure that they didn’t stay at the same hotel! With an 8am start, there was no time for late night clubbing or watching the Eurovision final, although it was highly suspected that Captain Fullen did pull an all-nighter just before his leg!
Day 2 (Sunday 19th May)
Stage 12: Blackmore – Thorndon Park, 10.75 miles. Ian Fullen, 6th, 1:13:14
Stage 12 picks up where Stage 11 finished. Fresh from his earlier antics on Stage 8 (or perhaps the Eurovision final), Captain Fullen kindly got a lift with Team Bushy to the start of Stage 12, allowing a little extra sleep for Aaron, Louise and Rodney. Despite mostly on road, Stage 12 is a tough start to the morning, especially on tired legs, with some undulations along the 11-mile course.
There appeared to be no ill-effects for Captain Fullen from yesterday's blistering stage 8 run / Eurovision party as he got his stage out of the way very quickly with a nicely performed 6th place for the team. The best thing about Stage 12 is that you can put your feet up early and enjoy the rest of the M25. Some pictures of his entitlement throughout the day are as follows:
Overall standing: 8th, 15:06:14, 10 minutes ahead of 9th, 4 minutes adrift of 7th.
Stage 13: Thorndon Park – Cranham, 6.6 miles. Rob Jones, 10th, 43:48
En route to the end of Stage 12 to pick up Captain Fullen, Ollie and Dan had dropped off Rob at Thorndon Park for the start of Stage 13, a very fast, mostly downhill stage.
Despite Rob not having the best run yesterday on Stage 7, Rob put in a top-10 performance to solidify the team’s 8th place. Rob can also be seen at the finish line (see embedded Twitter link) congratulating the first female finisher from Thames Hare & Hounds - A, finishing shortly after him.
Overall standing: 8th, 15:50:02, 14 minutes ahead of 9th, 8 minutes adrift of 7th.
Stage 14: Cranham – Davy Down, 8.2 miles. Louise Atkinson, 47th, 1:15:30
Aaron and Rodney had dropped off Louise at Cranham for the start of Stage 14 and to await Rob’s arrival. Louise had run this leg before last year so she did not need to study her route beforehand.
A lot of the start is single file along a narrow path but, like Sir Mo Farah in a track race, Louise tucked in behind the rest of the field. Once the field had spread out, she moved up the field and managed to put in a faster time this year, keeping the team firmly in 8th place.
Overall standing: 8th, 17:05:32, 5 minutes ahead of 9th, 24 minutes adrift of 7th.
Stage 15: Stone Lodge - Lullingstone Park, 9.4 miles. Ben Aird, 10th, 1:05:16
Stage 15 is the only stage in the GBR that doesn’t start in the same place as the previous stage, due to being on opposite sides of the river. It meant for some interesting driving as Aaron had to drive over to Lullingstone Park to drop Rodney (to get him there on time), drive back to Davy Down to collect Louise (to take over the driving when Aaron runs later) and drive back to Lullingstone Park again to pick up Ben.
Ben managed to get the early train to Dartford from Kingston as he couldn’t join the team overnight. Despite some initial concerns around how his body would handle 2 races in 2 days, Ben put in a great run on Day 2 with a solid 10th place, and also nabbing our first age grade win (V40 Men).
Overall standing: 8th, 18:10:48, 3 minutes ahead of 9th, 26 minutes adrift of 7th.
Stage 16: Lullingstone Park – Tatsfield, 13.1 miles. Rodney McCulloch, 41st, 2:02:58
With Rodney dropped off in good time, it was time for the final category 10 stage of the GBR as it crossed from Kent into Surrey.
Rodney had Iggy from Team Bushy for company in this leg and it was sensible for Rodney to stay with Iggy for as long as possible, hopefully running it at a solid steady pace.
A sharp climb at 6 miles, arguably the toughest climb of the whole GBR, seemed to have affected Rodney for the remainder of the run. Iggy slowly pulled away from Rodney after mile 8, leaving Rodney slightly disoriented and run-walking the remaining uphill 5 miles to the finish. Meanwhile at the finish, after Iggy finished in 15th place, there was some concern from the team when Rodney was nowhere to be seen. Rodney's final km was his slowest, highlighting how brutal he found his stage.
It wasn’t Rodney’s best run - on any other day he would’ve performed better - but at least he managed to finish safely within the time limit. I wouldn’t count Rodney out for a rematch next year. Unfortunately, the team lost 8th place and fell outside the top 10 for the first time today.
Overall standing: 11th, 20:13:46, 6 minutes ahead of 12th, 3 minutes adrift of 10th.
Stage 17: Tatsfield – Merstham, 10.5 miles. Dan Domeniconi, 3rd, 1:03:33
Following on from Stage 16, it was up to Dan to put the team back on an even keel. Dan's tactics for Stage 17 included: stretching, styling, intimidation and hydration.
Dan had run this leg last year, and this year backed up his fine form with a 3rd place finish, 2 minutes faster than his last year’s 6th place - again putting in the best individual performance of the day.
Dan’s excellent time managed to bring the team back into the 8th place again, although with plenty of other teams in pursuit the position could change quickly. This is around the time when the positions between the top teams starts to materialise and no amount of fast running in the remaining stages would have a huge impact on the overall standings.
Overall standing: 8th, 21:17:19, 1 minute ahead of 9th, 40 minutes adrift of 7th.
Stage 18: Merstham – Burford Bridge, 9.7 miles. Aaron Chai, 41st, 1:30:51
Originally this leg was supposed to finish at the top of the iconic Box Hill, but with increased difficulties getting parking for both GBR runners and members of the public (especially on a warm sunny day), and the costs required to use the top of the hill as part of the GBR, the organisers have extended the course slightly further to finish at the bottom of the hill. It wasn’t going to be a great outing for Aaron as he found the hilly course and technical rough terrain very difficult.
To further rub salt into the wound, Aaron rolled his dodgy ankle 3 miles into the stage. As runner after runner passed by, it was looking very grim as to whether he was going to make it to the finish on time. After a couple of minutes walking it off he managed to get going again, albeit at reduced pace.
The final km was a sharp 150m descent down Box Hill towards the finish. Already wary of rolling the ankle again, it was merely a case of staying upright while fending off a challenge from Ranelagh Harriers - Ladies. She showed no fear, descending the hill much faster than Aaron and turned sharp left for the 200m sprint finish with Aaron only a few seconds behind.
It was a sprint for the finish on pavement wide enough for one person but as soon as the pavement widened, the red mist descended and the elbows came out instead of the characteristic SHAEF Shifters sportsmanship and Aaron just managed to get to the line first, snatching 41st place from Ranelagh Harriers - Ladies. This was followed by the paramedic to check out the ankle. Stage 18 wasn’t an enjoyable outing for Aaron, and unfortunately for the team, SHAEF fell again to 10th.
Elsewhere on Stage 18, Louise, Rob and Ben (with help from club president Gary) were marshalling a busy section of the course with plenty of cars around, and manning a water station on Reigate Hill.
Overall standing: 10th, 22:48:10, 14 minutes ahead of 11th, 11 minutes adrift of 9th.
Stage 19: Burford Bridge – West Hanger, 8.4 miles. Charlie Chandler, 42nd, 1:16:22
With the stages getting closer to home, it was time for the members who didn’t stay overnight in Essex to run their legs. Charlie managed to get the bus over to Burford Bridge for his leg.
The first 2.5 miles was a completely elevating experience with nearly 150m of climbing, whilst the rest of the leg was mostly undulating. Charlie put in a great effort on a very tough leg to finish in 42nd place.
Overall standing: 11th, 1:00:04:32, 11 minutes ahead of 12th, 6 minutes adrift of 10th.
Stage 20: West Hanger – Ripley, 6 miles. Clayton Bannon: 5th, 36:19
The easiest stage of the GBR (in terms of distance, elevation and terrain) is a very fast affair, with several teams putting their fastest runners for the prospect of a stage win. Clayton was tasked with seeking a stage win for SHAEF (no pressure!), replicating what Will Rawling achieved on the same stage last year, and with the form that he was in coming off from London Marathon, it looked a real possibility.
Unfortunately, other teams had more-or-less the same idea and loaded the field with their most destructive weapons. Clayton decided to go stride for stride with the lead group of 5 runners, but soon discovered that they were doing 5-minute miles for "fun". Despite falling off the pace early on, he produced a brilliant time on a very fast course to finish in 5th.
Overall standing: 11th, 1:00:40:51, 12 minutes ahead of 12th, 3 minutes adrift of 10th.
Stage 21: Ripley – Walton Bridge, 8.4 miles. Will Rawling, 4th, 51:31
With only two stages left, SHAEF needed a strong run from Will to break back into the top 10 again and hope that other results go SHAEF’s way. It seemed that Will did not fully recover from his Saturday morning exertions having already gave 100% on Stage 1, that to give another 100% on Stage 21 might be asking too much from him.
Despite protests from his legs and his Garmin recommending 35 hours of recovery after Stage 1, Will, in fact, did give 100% for the team. With all the hills and technical runs over and thankful that the other guys did the heavy (hilly) lifting, it was a very smooth and flat procession to Walton along the River Wey. Will’s 4th place was enough to push SHAEF back to 10th place with a 12-minute buffer from the next chasing team.
Overall standing: 10th, 1:01:32:22, 12 minutes ahead of 11th, 15 minutes adrift of 9th.
Stage 22: Walton Bridge – Hawker Leisure Centre, 9.15 miles. Nick Rowe, 19th, 1:06:27
There was some confusion over who was going to run the glory leg of the GBR. Initially the honour was with Tom Parmiter, who is on the road to recovery after a serious heart-related episode last year, but after not getting the required sign-off from the consultant he reluctantly had to declare himself unavailable. Instead, Nick Rowe was selected to run anchor, hold top 10 position for the team and to enjoy the procession into Kingston.
Nick ran a great final leg for the team, securing 10th place overall (and our second age grade win for V50 Men), and was greeted by a throng of people forming a guard of honour for the final runners of every team. It truly was a party atmosphere at the Hawker Leisure Centre, with a BBQ and drinks flowing while this takes place.
Overall standing: 10th, 1:02:38:49, 20 minutes ahead of 11th, 10 minutes adrift of 9th.
So, overall, another successful GBR outing for SHAEF, with another top-10 position against some very strong teams (the usual suspects of Serpentine - Men and Thames Hare & Hounds - A normally rounding off the top 2 positions on the table). SHAEF were also 4th Men’s team (to field a mixed team, the team must have at least 2 female runners in the team) - if we were classified as a mixed team then SHAEF would’ve been 5th under the mixed category. The competition and results over time seem to be getting stronger year by year as teams get faster, so to put in another solid performance is very pleasing to see.
Above all, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the GBR experience, from the running, the camaraderie within and between teams and especially the big feed at the Toby Carvery at the end of Day 1.
It wouldn’t be possible for SHAEF Shifters to take part in this truly great event without the tireless organisation behind the scenes both on the day and in the leadup to the event. A big thanks must go to our team captains, Ian and Rodney, for organizing the team entry, overnight accommodation, team logistics, notes, printouts, race numbers, t-shirts and communications for the whole weekend. Thanks also to the drivers of Car 1 (Ollie, Dan) and Car 2 (Louise, Aaron) for transporting the team and all their material possessions around the M25, getting from stage to stage safely and on time in doing the pickups and drop-offs. Glad to report that no-one got left behind by mistake (although due to his speed and that Car 2 was busy marshalling Stage 18, Dan did message the Whatsapp group asking if anyone was going to pick him up at the end of Stage 17!). Also, big thanks to Ravi, Gary and Nick for stepping in to help the team out at the last minute in transport, marshalling duties and running respectively. Finally a big thanks to everyone who managed to capture a lot of photos and video, which I spent many hours pouring over, so that this race report could be more exciting to read.
Legendary distance runner Emil Zatopek once said, “if you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon”. I say, if you want to enjoy a really good weekend away, in the form of a well-organised long distance relay event around the M25, run the Green Belt Relay! Look forward to running GBR again next year.