Thursday, 20 September 2018

London to Cardiff Relay 24 - No sleep 'til Cardiff - Part 2

Teams of 8-12 | 24 Stages | 160 miles | 24 Hours

London Cardiff 24 is a 33 hours team relay challenge. You and your team run 24 stages (3-13 miles), through towns, over fields, and along footpaths from Twickenham to Cardiff. You have 33 hours but can you work together to beat the clock.

Can you make it to Cardiff in under 24 hours?

Don’t Stop | Don’t Get Lost | Don’t Run Alone: Run Relay

You tried to break me, watched me fall
But now I'm stronger than ever before
You left me with nothing, broke the man
Now I'm back, a Warrior's born

Preparing for the Race
I have captained a team 3 times on LC24 and never felt a buzz quite like it.  After a few major admin issues in the run-up to the 2015 race, it became apparent that delegation was required to organise and get the team ready and organised for the race weekend, 24 hours of running takes a lot of support.

As early as 6 months prior to the race we had booked the minibus and ensured it met the requirements of the team, overhead and under-seat storage with the ability to take a bike rack on the back door.  We had decided to have two dedicated drivers and a cyclist in support of the 12 people running team, so finding two drivers with Cat D1 licence was the next step.  Delegating the quartermaster role was also useful, this person was responsible for all food and equipment used by the team, including stoves, pans, kettles, water and of course tea and coffee.

As the months counted down and the initial team changed, due to injury and new commitments, I took the time to assign users to race stages, using the individual's strengths to guide the selection.  Not every runner is happy to run 12 miles on the Ridgeway in the dark or running through a city centre.  Months became weeks and the finalised stage routes were released and quickly passed to team to memorise and learn and if possible run the route.  In the final days, I posted suggested kits lists, meeting times, travel arrangements and reminded the team to travel light as 15 runners in a minibus with bags soon fills up.

Admin at the race start (2015)

Race Weekend
The day arrived, the team met at the Devizes Rugby Club and loaded the minibus before heading to the A303 and M3 towards Twickenham.  On arrival, the nerves start to kick in and the banter becomes more surreal. I booked the team in and we waited to be called forward for the race brief.  At this point we changed, ate and tried to relax, once started there would be little time stretch out or have some peace.  Once called forward for the race brief the team are issued wristbands, the legendary hoodies, water, first aid kit and snacks and then time to prepare for the first stage.   Minutes before the start the team line up under start arch and then Ross releases the team, the clock starts counting down, a lap around the field at Kneller Hall before the first stage runner leaves the confines of the starting area and heads off towards the Thames Path.

While the runner (and often cyclists) are out on the stage, the team head back to the minibus.  In the early stages of the race, the noise in the bus is often deafening.  Meanwhile, in the front of the minibus with the two drivers, I would plan out the route to the next checkpoint, watched the live tracker, remind the team who was up next, work out coffee, food and loo stops as well as check runners in at the checkpoints to ensure the organisers knew we had passed through.  Driving to the first few checkpoints around West London can be fraught, as the traffic on a Friday afternoon/evening is not forgiving and the runner could possibly turn up before the minibus and team.

Striking camp near Maidenhead (2015)
The hours start to fly, you quickly lose the concept of time as you become focus on stage times and meeting points.  On longer stages, we set up a stove and boiled water for brews and food in lay-bys, disappearing into the bushes for relief and then cheer and wave on runners (from all teams) as they pass the location.  We hit Henley in the fading light, parking up next to the expensive motors of the local inhabitants and joined the other teams waiting for their runners to appear, a mob of hoddie wearing yobs shouting and cheering as the cravats and puffer jackets strolled past to the wine bar.  "How very council house".

The next big milestone is reaching Streatley and Goring where the route crosses the Thames and heads up onto the Ridgeway.  Following this ancient path should be easy, but there are always those that manage to stray onto the many byways and footpaths that cross the main path.  During the night at the checkpoints, the team members not running wait in the minibus drifting in and out of sleep, headphones in their ears and eyes covered to protect from the lights of other minibuses arriving at the site.

Running during the night along the Ridgeway requires a little nerve and experience, the path is dark and there is little light pollution to illuminate the way.  The track is rutted in places and can be baked hard or sandy and lacking grip in other places.  Sections are long and straight, you can see the runners ahead by their torch lights, or the head torch of the chasing runner behind you.

Toastie and coffee at Goring while waiting for the runner (2017) 

Some nearly 30 miles from Goring the race arrives in Swindon, the halfway point, where the next team section is a lap of the Coate Water Park.  Regardless of how many times you run it, in the early morning light with 12 very tired runners at their lowest ebb, it is easy to miss the turns around the lake.  We arrived back at the minibus as the sun started to rise, the next stage runner already leaving the park to follow roads and footpaths across the south of Swindon.

As the team minibus arrives at Malmesbury leisure centre to wait for the runner breakfast is cooked and the coffee is brewed. I showered and brushed my teeth, nearly human again.  By now lack of sleep is taking its toll, legs are cramping and every stop is a chance stretch, but the excitement starts to mount in the team as race slowly works it's way across to Thornbury and then the River Severn crossing.  In 2016, the horizontal rain soaked the runners within seconds of setting off across the bridge, arriving completely drenched on Welsh soil.

Preparing to cross the Severn (2016)

Having crossed the bridge the weather instantly changed and within 20 minutes we had sunshine breaking the clouds.  By now Matt, the mathematician of the team, was working out each stage time and possible arrival times in Cardiff.  Time suddenly appears to speed up and each minute lost or gained is greeted with cheers or sighs, the team willing and urging each runner on, as well as runners from other teams.  We did see teams, stressed and fatigued, screaming and shouting at each other at the side of the road over lost minutes and missing runners.

The final solo stage leads the runner through the centre of Cardiff on a Saturday afternoon and once the runner has set off the minibus needs to work its way through the traffic to the parking and final group stage, often the runner arrives minutes before the minibus arrives.  The team bundles out, this time including the drivers, and meets the solo runner to run as a group along the final stretch to finish arch.

Crossing the finish, under or over the legendary 24 hours, is an emotional time.  The first year I was shell-shocked into silence, 6 months of planning and worry accumulated into one of the greatest team events I've ever taken part in.  Other team members were in tears through exhaustion and the euphoria of completing the 160 miles.  Not one cross word muttered between during the whole race by the team members, only support and encouragement throughout the journey.

Finish celebrations (2016)

I captained The Warriors 3 times and wanted to carry on, but for personal reasons retired from the team and joined the directing staff for the 2018 race.  For a team captain looking to race this brilliant event I would suggest the following:

  • Keep it fun.
  • Hand pick the team, personal invites work best.  Explain the race and ensure the runner knows what they are letting themselves in for.
  • Involve the team in the planning where possible, even the best organisers forget things.
  • Think about the stages and choose runners from different disciplines (road runners may not like long sections of cross-country.
  • Get to know your team before the race.
  • Create a private Facebook page and keep the team informed of planning and developments.
  • Use the runner's strengths when choosing runners for stages.
  • Keep it fun.  

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

London to Cardiff Relay 24 - Not all those who wander are lost - Part 1

Teams of 8-12 | 24 Stages | 160 miles | 24 Hours
London Cardiff 24 is a 33 hours team relay challenge. You and your team run 24 stages (3-13 miles), through towns, over fields, and along footpaths from Twickenham to Cardiff. You have 33 hours but can you work together to beat the clock.

All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost
JRR Tolkien

There are now many team races, most of them are laps around a given course over a 24 hour period.  They can be fun, you can rest and socialise between stages, even listen to the bands providing music.  Some relay races break the mould, forcing the runners to think and work as a real team, encouraging every team member to give their best not only on their own stages but supporting the runner out on the course.  The team needs to do their homework, the captain's need to make decisions that could affect the whole team - rather than just a group of runners gathering meeting in a field to see the same scenery loop after loop after loop.

The Race

Unlike most relay races, this race is a point to point race and the rules very simple.  There are 24 solo stages of various length and 3 group stages, at the start, in the middle and at the end.  Teams are comprised of up to 12 runners, with the possibility of 2 drivers and 2 support crew, set off from Kneller Hall in Twickenham and head across the country, over multiple terrains, with the aim to arrive in Cardiff within 24 hours.  The race stages are released a few weeks before the race weekend and although many routes are green, you can take any route to get from start to finish, others are red and the runner must follow it for his own safety.


During May 2014 a team of runners from my running club at the time, Devizes Running Club, took part in the London to Cardiff 24 hour relay race - the aim is to complete the 160 miles in 24 hours. The race is gruelling, the route crosses all types of terrain and requires a little more than a good sense of direction, it certainly requires head torches, maps, possibly a compass, a sense of humour, a good captain and friends - real friends.  Watching the race on live tracking made the event even more interesting, allowing you to see teams progress, those way off track and being able to spot what looks like easy ways to correct them, an armchair managers heaven.

So I thought, I want to do that.  The Devizes team had all been the top club runners and I certainly was way off their mark.  But, I paid my money and created an empty team on the race's website. Within no time I had two other Devizes club members, my Lieutenant's Ali & Crazy Sam.  As the months rolled on I managed to recruit a few more to the team but as Christmas approached and dates were released for the 2015 race I was running out of time to either recruit a full team or give up on the idea and claim my race fee back within the 30 days allowed.


Due to moving to a new house, I had changed running club by Christmas 2014, but still had close links to Devizes Running Club.  I managed to recruit a few more members of the club into the team, a member from my new club, Avon Valley Runners, and an old friend from London (along with his best running buddy).  Suddenly it looked like we had a team.  I stopped panicking as people were excited about the race and I could easily fill the remaining spaces. The last few team members joined up in the spring.  Now, all we needed was a support crew and a vehicle - what could be easier?

We duly hired a minibus and recruited two drivers and two support cyclists.  With only a few days to go, we were informed that the minibus required mechanical work and the replacement bus was too small, we also discovered the two drivers did not have the required cat D1 licence to drive the minibus.  After a few panicked days, Crazy Sam managed to hire another minibus and between us recruited new drivers.  Final arrangements were made, and we were to meet our London contingent at the Kneller Hall, Twickenham, the start location.  Early on 16th of May 2015 the Wiltshire team members met and boarded the minibus for Twickenham.

Race Weekend

We arrived at Kneller Hall with plenty of time to relax, fuel up and change for the race.  Phil & Mark had set out across London and had only met 3 of the team prior to the race day.  On their arrival, we had little time to catch up before we were called forward for the team briefing.  Hours slipped into minutes and we were eventually called forward to the start line where we were handed a GPS tracker that had to be held by the current stage runner.  I had allocated two stages to each runner, according to their ability and the route/terrain/time. The GPS tracker had a set of letters on it that could only be decoded against a template at each waypoint. The decoded letters were then sent by phone to the race coordinators as proof the team had visited the unmanned checkpoints.

The first group run was a single lap of the Kneller Hall sports field to the first waypoint and then Crazy Sam set off on the first individual race leg with a support cyclist in hot pursuit.  The rest of us piled into the minibus to attempt to reach the first waypoint before the runner, not always an easy feat in London.  We arrived at the next checkpoint in Southall and prepared a fast swap routine, a fresh runner would collect the GPS tracker 100/200 meters out and then a sprint finish it to the waypoint - every second does count!

The first few stages led us from Twickenham up to Brentford along the Thames, on to the Grand Union Canal to Southall and then out to Slough.  From Slough on to Maidenhead and then an 11-mile slow climb stage up to Henley-on-Thames.  The hours had sped by and the light had started to fade.  The next two stages went cross country and finished at Goring/Streatley on the Thames, the sun had also set and the runners were now required to use head torches, the support cycle lights also provided much-needed illumination as the next 3 stages were heading out across the Ridgeway.

As runners approached the first checkpoint on the Ridgeway we could see headlamps and torches out on either flank of the route, some of the competitors had been turned around in the dark and were heading a way of course.  Eventually, they brought up a first aid support vehicle with flashing lights to guide runners in.  Luckily or team member had not made the mistake and the handover went like clockwork.  After a few more stages we approached the lights of Swindon in the early hours, nightclubs were still kicking out and take-ways full of curious onlookers.  With a team lap around Coate Water Park, we had reached half-way and our time surprised us, could we actually achieve the 24 hours target on the first attempt?

life in a min-bus for 24 hours
From Swindon, we headed down to Royal Wooton Basset and then back up again to Malmesbury for sunrise.  From there the route cut across to Hawkesbury, on to Yate and then into Thornbury.  The stage between Thornbury and the Old Severn bridge proved a little treacherous to Steve on the support bike, going through a kissing gate he lifted the bike and the handle swung around and clobbered him.  Pete, who was running the stage, had already set off and arrived at the next checkpoint without his escort.  The next stage was short, across the bridge, but we had lost the cyclist and his bike! Mark set off across the bridge with Phil to keep him company while other team members searched for Steve.  Eventually, he was found, bundled into the minibus and we headed to the next checkpoint just in time to meet the runners.  At this point in the race, we were still almost spot on time!

Over the bridge, the route went through Caldicot and down to Magor, then on again to Newport.  The rolling hills between Newport and Cardiff outskirts started to pay the toll on my tired legs and on our time, the GPS was passed at the checkpoint and Sam set off with Helen in a desperate attempt to make up the little lost time.  The route was short but required navigation through a housing and industrial estates that proved to be more confusing than the night runs.  The girls arrived at the checkpoint and we were 14 minutes over the time we needed.  

Ben set off like the Devil was on his tail and a cyclist working hard to stay with him.  The rest of the team boarded the minibus to navigate Cardiff city centre with the hope to arrive ahead of Ben as the stage was only 3 miles.  Shortly after we arrived Ben came into site.  He had taken 4 minutes off the deficient.  The final stage was a group stage (including drivers and cyclists) and led us around an in front of the Millennium Centre to the finish.  The finish was emotional, although we finished in 24 hours 10 mins, we had completed one of the hardest group races in the UK.  Next year, we promised, we will be back!!

We did go back, we completed it another two times both under the 24 hours.