A Welcome Return to the Round Norfolk Relay

There are some running events that you fall head over heels in love with. That you vow you will do again and again so long as the opportunity – and your body – allows. For me, the Round Norfolk Relay is one of those events.

I last ran the Round Norfolk Relay in person in 2017, which feels utterly impossible. In 2018 there was an admin error which meant we could only enter one team from my running club (and we decided to put forward the fastest team we possibly could – they won the open category!), and in 2019 I was injured. In 2020 the event unsurprisingly turned virtual so blink and you’ll miss it, here we are in 2021 and finally the event was happening in real life and I wasn’t injured. The stars – thankfully – aligned.

For those who don’t know, the Round Norfolk Relay is pretty much exactly as it sounds. It’s a 17-stage, 197 mile relay race around the outskirts of Norfolk with an actual baton and everything. The legs aren’t divided equally – the shortest is stage 16 which is 5.49 miles (from Downham Market to Stowbridge) and the longest is stage 12 which is 19.67 miles (from Scole to Thetford). In addition to the horrifically long legs, you also have the ones with what can only be described as an absurd terrain. Stage 5 is run on shingle, and stage 6 features a cliff with a climb of 75m. Stage 13 had a total climb of 100m over 13.25 miles.

The stage 4 to stage 5 handover – shingle!

So as you can imagine I felt extremely lucky to have been gifted with what I can only describe as “my” stage (not that I’m precious. Please don’t ever take it away from me. I’ll give you cake. Dammit I’ll give you money). It’s stage 14, from Feltwell to Wissington, and is a sociable 7.27 miles with just 25m of climb in total.

The only downside to this very pleasant run? I had to hit the road at around 4:30am.

When I ran it back in 2017, I travelled with one of my best buddies and regular GRL blog post star Pete. On that occasion, he ran the 10.59 mile leg after mine, which meant that based on the predicted pace of our team, we had to leave home around 5am to get me to Feltwell for my predicted start time. So plenty of time to get a good few hours of sleep in. This time however, Pete was running the 13.25 mile leg before mine, which meant a much, much earlier leaving time. Like, 3.5 hours earlier.

Yep, that’s right, after managing about 2 hours of fitful sleep, we were in the car by 1:30am, ready for Pete to hit the road at a predicted start time of 2:55am (20 minutes earlier than when we went to sleep thanks to Hannah absolutely beasting stage 11, but we had learned our lesson from the events of 2017 and given ourselves plenty of time to get there)! It’s fair to say that the two of us were slightly delirious on the drive over, raving to Kisstory (DJ Pied Piper and the Masters of Ceremonies being a real highlight) and marvelling at the extremely rural and really quite sinister route that Google Maps had taken us on. But before we knew it we were where we needed to be, anxiously waiting for our legs to start.

And honestly, that was one of the most stressful pre-race waits that I can remember having. I don’t know whether it was the lack of racing events in the last 18 months, the lack of sleep or the fact that the adrenaline had been building all day as we furiously kept up with our teammates via the WhatsApp group. It was probably all three. But as I nervously chatted to one of the brilliant marshals in an attempt to distract myself I was visibly shaking and my stomach was churning. It was really intense.

Spot the very calm runner.

Predictably, Pete absolutely bossed his stage, coming in at 1:39:00 on the nose, pretty much exactly at the pace he had predicted and before I knew it I was baton in hand, heading out into the darkness with no other runners in sight and just the noise of my support crew rumbling along in the van behind me, lighting my path, making sure I took the right turns and just calming me the eff down. And it worked. Within minutes I had found my groove and everything just felt meditative. There is something so eerily beautiful about running in the pitch black countryside in the wee small hours and the lack of sleep meant that the whole run took on this slightly dreamlike quality. It honestly seemed to pass within minutes, and before I knew it I was handing the baton to Jacob and wandering over to Pete in a bit of a daze. I had even managed to shave 3 seconds(!) off my 2017 time.

Now this is the time to talk about the support crew, because they are the real heroes in all of this. While yes, some of us were running on tough terrains or on little to no sleep, by the time they all got to me they had been up for 24 hours, and all bar one of them had run their own leg in surprisingly warm conditions for the time of year. And yet all they were worried about was me, making sure I was hydrated enough, making sure I wasn’t freaking out, and most importantly making sure I was safe. They had fostered the most incredible team atmosphere throughout the day, sending us all photos of our teammates on WhatsApp and bigging them up when they had beaten their predicted time or overtaken another runner. I felt like I was part of something really, really special, and this was all down to them. And this is just what happens on the day itself. The organisation behind the scenes for an event like this is HUGE, from arranging support cyclists and working out the start times for each runner based on the pace of the one before them (and making quick adjustments when someone drops out or gets injured), to making sure we all understood the rules around high vis and buying and giving every runner a lei to wear when they completed their stage. They were just incredible and I cannot thank them enough for giving me the chance to take part in this event that I LOVE. And a round of applause for their bladder control please.

The best of the best of the best.

As Pete and I drove home, Google Maps again decided to test us (or in our sleep-deprived state we missed a turning, far more likely) and we ended up taking a longer route which took us back on the leg I had just run. And here we witnessed this huge queue of runners which looked really spectacular as the sky slowly turned from black to inky blue. There had been hardly any runners on the road around us as Pete and I ran, but we had certainly found the majority of them as we drove home, all hurtling towards Wissington, the flashing lights from their support vehicles lighting up everything around us. We then continued to Ely and watched a misty sunrise, bleary eyed and looking forward to coffee. Those are the kind of memories that stick with you.

36 hours later I’m still on such a high from this event (but that might just be the lack of sleep really kicking in). There is nothing quite like it in the running calendar that creates such a sense of camaraderie and team spirit. While we might all do races for our club, wearing vests and earning points (in the races that do such a thing,) ultimately we are running for ourselves and perhaps chasing a PB. But in the RNR you are very much running for each other, and it’s an incredible feeling.

Same time next year folks?

Red. Sweaty. Delirious. Happy.

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