Lapped races hold a certain appeal, bonding runners together like family. Our roving, racing reviewer Amy Robson shares her experience of joining the Phoenix Running team at their lapped trail events.
Welcome to Harlow
It was a rainy, dim day in Harlow. Sat in a car with my family (supportive bunch that they are) we watched as a BMW struggled in the muddy ditch it had got stuck in. Immovable. At least without some help.
Thankfully the people parked next to them had a 4×4 and a tow job was under way. An individual in high-vis was dutifully doing their part. Crouching down, finding the tow bar, retrieving tools to attach it and, eventually, freeing the BMW from its muddy prison. Crisis averted, we could all run unconcerned that day. Only there’s something else I should mention…
That high-vis saviour was Rik Vercoe, race director of Phoenix Running.
London Marathon and other big road races definitely have their charm, but I doubt you’d ever see the RD for such events help tow one of their struggling runners out of a muddy parking patch.
Phoenix Running events are personable. They have a certain structure about them and every runner who ventures to their events knows it.
That structure being laps. Lots of laps.
The lap effect
On a towpath somewhere across the Thames, runners venture out with a chosen distance in mind. They count away each lap with affordable, fabric hair bands, which are worn like a badge of honour, recycled and reused after every race.
The most common location for Phoenix Running’s events is Walton-on-Thames; meet inside the Excel Leisure Centre to collect your race bib and then enjoy mingling with the other runners before going out for race briefing and the small trek to the start point.
At the race briefing there is an endearing familiarity for frequent Phoenix Runners. ‘Who’s running with us for the first time today?’ Delivering a 99 Flake for those doing their 99th marathon or a commemorative 100 bib signed by those who registered for those tackling their 100th.
Yes, it’s fair to say that Phoenix Running is full of hardcore running enthusiasts. Some of the runners there have done 200 marathons, 300 halves, ten running events in ten days. It boggles the mind. But whatever the distance, whatever the amount of runs you’ve done, it doesn’t matter when you get to the start point. You’re all equals, and you all smile at each other, cheer each other on, and admire each runner’s spirit.
This is another benefit of Phoenix Running’s races. The laps are often an out-and-back, meaning you will always be with company and always see other runners from either direction. You could be a nervous runner venturing fourth on your first 10K but, chances are, you’ll still share running time with a battle-hardened ultra-runner, trucking through their laps.
You can also go with a friend or family member who is a completely different pace and still be there for each other, supporting each other and knowing that you’re both in safe hands because you’re among the Phoenix Running family.
Friends are made on runs – that’s always been the case – but there’s a certain bond that forms between people who choose to spend 2-7 hours looping around the same 5(ish)K over and over again until you’ve reached your intended goal.
Phoenix Running often does time-based events, with generous leeway for those who are chasing their last lap. During the race you get to know every single face, and bond in ways you never imagined. You can also choose to go easy for some laps, stop for parts to natter with people, or try to push and catch up with a friend who you know is slightly ahead of you. The run is yours and each lap comes with its own unique feel and goal, set by the spirit of the people out on the route.
At the end of each short lap you are met with an aid station known as the ‘tuck shop’. Sweets, treats and goodies galore await for you at the tuck shop, along with some of the best marshals in the biz, including the every-cheery presence of Rik himself. When you’re done with your laps, you ring out an old-fashioned school bell; PBs warrant the banging of a gong.
It’s all very quirky and more than a tad eccentric, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Some people hate lapped courses with a passion (even more so if it’s also an out and back), but I love them. You can segment the run so easily in your mind and suddenly you’re not tackling a marathon/ultra, as I often do. Instead, you’re just going out for a 5K/10K, seeing friends and mingling along the way, before returning back to the tuck shop – a mental reprieve – and then venturing out for another one. It makes the immense seem achievable and, although it’s a challenge, it always seems doable.
I have grown to love the two Walton-on-Thames routes that I have ventured out on so regularly. I have become intimate with them. I know every single root, the placement of every stone, and have my familiar markers: ‘the dog sign’, ‘the green bird house’ and ‘swan lake’ that I can clock off mentally during my laps and pace myself generously with.
But these runs are as much about runner familiarity as they are route familiarity. The bond that exists between Phoenix Runners is ever-lasting. Rik knows the names and faces of all his runners, and can usually speak in detail about their character without a second thought. Even for myself – a relatively newcomer to the Phoenix field – Rik is familiar with some of my quirks, and we have our own small forms of banter that also help to break the laps up.
I understand why Rik is able to do this too. Every single Phoenix Runner is extraordinary. The stories I have heard on course and the displays of human fortitude and endurance are almost overwhelming. Even when people are broken on course they come in to the tuck shop areas and, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, they go out renewed.
I am humbled to share a space with these people and recommend Phoenix Running for anyone who wants to get to know runners from all walks of life (gaining some solid advice and expertise along the way).
After a recent immense achievement, a Phoenix runner (and friend of mine) uttered the phrase, ‘Until our towpaths meet again’ and that fully embodies the Phoenix Running spirit. We may all be a bunch of nutter looping around for hours, but we do so with a smile and a song because we’re doing it together and there’s nothing better than that.
Find out more about Phoenix Running and all its upcoming events here: www.phoenixrunning.co.uk/