Round Norfolk Relay
Saturday 14th September 2013
It's rather odd, the Round Norfolk Relay. A whole day and night transporting an ever-slimier, snottier glow-stick around the fringes of lovely old Norfolk, staying awake well past the car-smash-death danger limit, chasing someone whose team probably started four hours before your own, or maybe three hours later, and followed by a van which whines and crunches from second gear to first, back and forth, all day and night. It's madness, and can't possibly work for one team, never mind fifty-four. But, like the convoy of support crews which slowly converge on King's Lynn at the appointed hour, everything usually - more-or-less - comes together.
It takes a hell of a lot of work, of course, and a flock of support crew step into and out of the circus to drive, to cycle and, merciful release, to run their stages. You will have had your own cast of heroes on your section; my heroes were the irrepressible Kris (the full stint for him, and twenty miles with the baton), Chris, taking on the full night shift to Lynn, Becky, another non-sleeper, Charlie who, on the injury bench, didn't even get his run yet seemingly biked about a thousand miles, and Rhubarb, heavy-set and not nimble, but comfy and possessing of beverages on tap and a steadily-draining tank of unleaded. Not forgetting Fergie of course, flitting by in the night like a magical clip-boarded owl on his semi-conscious way between fantasy places like Horsey and Scole with the fast boys.
Carmel and I had fallen out of bed before four in the morning, and from experience I can assure you that half a night's sleep beats the full sleep-deprivation monty into a cocked hat. I was down for the third-from last stage, Wissington to Downham Market, with an interlude before Carmel took the glory leg into King's Lynn. We had heard on Kris's texting grapevine that we were about half an hour behind at bedtime, but a leisurely drive was actually rather appreciated. In fact, another thirty had leaked in the small hours, so the plan became an arrival at Wissington around five-thirty for an expected seven o'clock start. It was, as ever, completely surreal to drive against the flow of the race in the earliest light of dawn, low fenland mist under a clear, starry sky, as the prehistoric beasts with rotary yellow lamps pursued their tiny, vulnerable human prey across the farmlands at eight miles per hour. We knew we'd found Wissington from the flock of high-vis safety jackets; in past relays, Wissington has been a T-junction in the fens, just outside the high perimeter fence of a towering prisonesque sugar factory. This year it was down the way, at a different T-junction in the fens, with a small lay-by outside the fence of an agricultural depot with (thank you, organisers) a couple of portaloos. But blimey, was it busy. Headlights moving slowly in as bingo numbers were yelled out and clustered teams scrambled to relieve their outgoing runner of five layers of thermal-wear. Rather chilly in those pre-dawn hours for standing around, but wonderful for a run, with a dead calm and a clear sky slowly lit by a glorious sunrise. Out of that glow, bang on schedule, came Becky after a fine seven-plus from Feltwell. Which, by the way, is no more urban than Wissington - having all this flapping and general chaos in the dead of night doesn't suit a residential area - so there's not a lot in the way of the home comforts on the graveyard shift.
I swapped the baton for a brief congratulation and, with Charlie latching on to me on the bike (daylight now, so the support motors were standing down), padded my way out into the endless levels at a pace which felt far too fast. That'll bite me later. Chatted for a while with Charlie until, with immense tact, he left me mostly to it, with just the odd word of encouragement. More geeing-up from the C&C convoy as they passed - thanks Becky for car-transporting. Went through Southery at about three miles, noticing the slight bump which led the medieval fensmen put their muck-and-sedge hovels exactly there, and on to the junction with the A10. Not exactly jammed at that time of a Sunday morning, but still comforting that it would be Charlie rather than me who would take the brunt of an HGV rear-ender. On round Hilgay bypass, across the glittering, serpentine Wissey and the rather more linear and less romantic Ouse Cutoff Ditch, and it was the climb to the roundabout at Downham Market, its summit towering twenty metres above the flat lands, via a two-mile drag. Legs starting to scream, gait getting low-slung, must be the thin air rather than the total absence of long runs. Merciful downhill to the next roundabout, and a short lurch to the changeover. Hadn't seen another baton-carrier the whole way. Maria's in charge now, until the next interchange. An improbable half-minute per mile inside my most optimistic schedule, which makes the pace judgement early on particularly embarrassing.
Suddenly all's right with the world, and it's time to enjoy the mobile carnival. Carmel and I took off after Maria, who had covered a huge distance by the time we caught her, and on through the broad morning sunshine along pretty country lanes which twisted in ninety-degree quanta towards the final changeover. This time it's Stowbridge - a car park across from an isolated pub, just across the Great Ouse and its mighty sister canal. A chance for a coffee and a natter, but not a lot of time for Carmel to chill before the off - never mind the Blake/Bolt handover at London, or Adeoye-to-Ohuruogu in Moscow, a spa appointment in Bury relied on a timely Brightwell-to-McEniery meet, and Maria burned minutes off the schedule to pass on the baton. Outstanding.
Carmel was off, but the glory leg is out in the sticks, along the embankments of the mighty drainage megaliths which tip into the Wash at King's Lynn, and it's tough enough to get a support bike along there (well done, intrepid Charlie), and all we could do was form a convoy and head for LynnSport for the finale. With Chris, Yogi, Kris and Rhubarb in tow, and Becky co-driving and snoozing, picking our way through the multiple Wiggenhalls was too much even for the SatNav, so sympathy to King John's retinue, who, by legend, were lost forever in these parts along with a golden fortune. Our glittering prize was the finish line, and we parked up in Lynn to wait at the running track. Knowing Carmel to be rather damaged left-lower-limb-wise and fretting over her time prediction, I had a quiet panic that she'd need to be helicoptered from the bank of the main drain, so I speed-hobbled my way to the track access road. A marshal who had pulled an all-nighter and was keen to get home (or perhaps hadn't and just needed the lavvy really badly) queried me about whether our chap had done it before and knew the way, which, honestly, didn't help. But bang-on time, here she was, and looking in fine nick. Up the bank outside the track perimeter, through the gate and along the familiar old hundred-metre victory parade. Done and dusted. It had really, really hurt, and it was time to lay off for a bit to heal, but you can't let the team down, can you? Bless.
And finally, the highlight; the reason why we do these things. The reason why we head out in the cold and dark, or under the beating sun, mile after mile, time after time. The reward for digging deep to be the very best elf you can be in a mad, amazing circum-Norfolkian folly. The glorious denouement of a job well done; the awesome cooked brekkie at LynnSport. Apparently the first team did very well too, which was nice.