What a roller-coaster of a weekend.
On Saturday it was the Otter Rail and River Run – a 10km race, for which I’ve been race organiser since it began in 2007.
It often keeps me up at night in the days leading up to the event, dealing with last minute issues, trying to find enough hours in the day to squeeze in all the jobs that are required.
Normally, I can relax and sleep more soundly once the run is over, but not this year. Something happened that made me doubt my ability and wonder if all the effort is worth it.
One phrase used to me was: “You have demonstrated that you don’t care in the slightest.”
Ouch. Harsh words.
So here I am at 3.30am sitting at the computer, to write a potted history of something in my life that I’ve been so passionate about for the last seven years, that I can’t sleep whilst it’s whirring around in my head. And to hopefully demonstrate, even if only to convince myself, that I DO care.
The run was born out a need to raise money to fund the annual £6,000 plus maintenance costs of our village playing field. It’s a picturesque 8-acre riverside field, with cricket and football pitches, tennis courts, children’s play area, a shady wood, and picnic tables. It’s widely used, but with access being essentially free to all, it relies on donations and volunteers.
I hadn’t been a runner long then, but the local events that I’d taken part in I really enjoyed – loving the atmosphere and the chance to explore new places.
I so much enjoyed running through the beautiful scenery we’re blessed with in this valley, that I wanted to share it with others – give them the experience of seeing the sun on the cornfield and poppies, catch sight of a kingfisher in the river perhaps, puff their way up the shady path through the woods and under the viaduct to the old railway line.
Pound down the stony track where steam trains used to run, duck along the narrow windy path to the old feed mill, and back down the valley track with views for miles around, through the meadows of cattle and horses grazing quietly, and over the red brick Five Arches Bridge, to finish on my favourite field.
I know that route so well. I love it. I could visualise other people running it and loving it too.
As a first time run organiser, I had many sleepless nights. God, how naïve I was! Wet behind the ears about the amount of work involved.
On the eve of the race I gave up marking out the course around 8pm, when tiredness and three hours of pouring rain just left me with no option but to stop. I think I went to bed about midnight, and was up at 5am to sort paperwork and then complete the last 3 miles, running frantically like a headless chicken along the woodland path scattering tape and arrows in the misty dawn.
I got back to the registration venue as people were arriving to check in. On a wing and a prayer that first year was amazing and most things fell into place like clockwork.
Well, there were some notable exceptions, not least that someone tipped one of the full portaloos over in the night. I started the next day at 6am literally shovelling sh*t in order to get it cleaned for another event continuing on the Sunday.
That first year we had more than 100 runners. The atmosphere and camaraderie was incredible. It raised much needed hundreds of pounds for our village playing field. We were so buoyed up, we decided we’d do it again.
Every year since there’s been something that hasn’t gone according to plan – some glitch, usually down to my mistake, like giving the prizes to the wrong people. Oops! Something I’m still trying to get completely right, sorry folks.
Or things beyond our control. Three years ago there was severe flooding exactly a week before the event. Our pavilion HQ where runners would be registering was two foot deep in muddy water, the field and course entirely deluged, our peaceful river having turned into a raging torrent.
The rain hardly let up for the next seven days. It was touch and go whether it would be on or off. And there was cleaning and clearing to sort in time as well. We did it. And it was a terrific year.
Last July was very difficult. There was a tragic death in our village a few days before. She was the daughter of a close friend, a lovely bright gregarious girl. Trying to pull myself together to do the 101 things that needed doing – from last minute shopping for fresh bananas and oranges to give out at the finish, to ensuring everything was set up and in place – was hard.
We chose this year to dedicate our fun run to her memory, and award prizes for the first time, along with pink-ribboned medals, it being Jackie’s favourite colour. The excitement on the faces of those boys and girls as they collected them was a joy. The children who won prizes were delighted with their shiny trophies and sticks of rock. Special jam-jar moments.
The event has evolved over the years. The course is the same as back in 2007, but now in reverse.
We’ve tweaked the start, the finish, the way we take entries, do results, give prizes – we listened to feedback and you name it, we’ve done it.
Much of our feedback has been wholly positive: “10 out of 10”, emailed one runner that first year. There’s been constructive criticism too, always appreciated and acted on.
Of course we’ve had our share of grumbles, complaints – some justified, understood, others baffling, beyond our control, like the father who yelled in my face that his daughter’s asthma attack having sprinted too fast to the finish line, him alongside encouraging, was “my fault”.
Seeing people cross that line safe and sound has been my number one priority every year. Ahead of anything else. We’ve been fortunate that’s always been the case, and lucky to avoid any serious injuries. This year was the first time a marshal had to call 999 when a runner tripped and had a nasty fall. I’m pleased to say he’s recovering well.
Our marshals, like Sheila, who made that vital call, are all volunteers and mostly non-runners. They give up their time freely and in good spirit to enable people like me to get out and enjoy our sport. They stand in all weathers, show the way, give help where needed, shout encouragement and applaud our efforts. They ask for no glory, no prizes, no medal in return. They just do it.
My non-running family and friends get roped in to help too. My mum has been a stalwart handing out medals since day one. My husband John, who’s 70 this year, and no longer in the best of health, puts out the Caution Runner boards every year and does many other jobs besides – not least being a tower of strength for me to lean on.
My dad was hugely involved in the first event, making the finish gantries we’ve used every year, helping to mark out the course, marshalling the section most difficult to reach. It was about four years ago when I realised he wasn’t quite able to be the best person for that important junction. It was a year later that we were told he had dementia. He still came this year with my mum, though sadly he hardly knew where he was or what was happening.
Without volunteers the 200 plus runners who came along would not have had the experience and enjoyment of taking part. My inbox has been full of thanks and comments on a “terrific” time had by so many. On facebook there’ve been pictures of runners with their medals and their memento – this year a pint of Otter Brewery beer, which went down well in the warm sunshine.
I’m really proud of every single one of the 50 plus people who helped make the run happen on Saturday, and others who’ve helped previously.
It’s very much a community event, not professional athletics. Everyone does their best to make it run as smoothly as possible, without losing that village spirit. For example, a lady in her 80s spent five hours in hot sun on Friday weeding, to make the flower bed look at its best too.
I had one piece of extremely negative feedback this year – someone who was very angry, rude and critical. I’m not going to dwell on it. It’s already kept me awake for two nights.
I’m going to remember instead the two couples I met on Sunday morning as I was picking in the final bits of tape and arrows. Two of them were runners and had brought their other halves along to walk the route, having enjoyed it so much the day before. They were full of praise, thanks and pledges to return. Likewise many others have said they will as well.
And I know our marshals, described by many runners as some of the friendliest around, will be there next year too.
I did send an apology to the person who was so condemning, to be told in the final remark, they’re not coming back – ever.
It was the best part of the message.
I got up in the middle of the night to write this. To explain that I do care. To pay tribute to the outstanding effort of everyone involved. To demonstrate just how much effort goes in behind the scenes. The same no doubt can be said for hundreds of events across the country.
And finally to applaud and thank all those runners out there, who’s support, encouragement and clear enjoyment of our Otter Rail and River Run convinces me – yes, all that effort IS worth it.