Milestone for a unique race’

The 20th running of the Round Norfolk Relay is fast approaching. PADDY DAVITT reflects on the history of the event and looks ahead to what lies in store at the weekend

Fisticuffs, birthday cakes and even sabotage - Round Norfolk Relay race director Ian Vaughan-Arbuckle has seen it all on the eve of this year's 20th running of the event.

A record 799 runners representing 47 teams will depart from King's Lynn's Lynnsport complex tomorrow. Ahead of them 193 miles over 17 continuous stages weaving around the north Norfolk coastline and on to Yarmouth before returning to King's Lynn on Sunday morning.

At its hub, Vaughan-Arbuckle and his organising team will yet again direct operations.

The experienced race director insists the pioneering spirit that saw Ryston Runners launch the inaugural 1987 event remains stronger than ever.


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“Little did I realise I would still be at the helm,” he said. “We have a totally unique event in the British athletics calendar. Other clubs in the country have modified our model, but nowhere else will you find a team-orientated race that goes through from start to finish.

“Ryston originally saw it as a way to really get the club going and that sort of esprit de corp is alive and well. Reepham Runners fielded a team last year even though the club had less than 20 active members.

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“They are back again along with every single club in the county with the exception of Coltishall Jaguars - that is a first.

“It's a pleasure and privilege to direct this great event - a true challenge which tests a club's athletic prowess and organisational skills. My greatest thrill is seeing it grow along with the competitors at the finish line.”

Vaughan-Arbuckle concedes the race has seen good and bad times - citing the 2000 fuel blockade, which triggered a postponement, and vandals who damaged sign markers in 2004 as particular low points.

“The 'ups' have greatly exceeded the 'downs',” he said. “There's a great camaraderie and rivalry. Teams want to win, but they support each other as well, although I remember one year we had a confrontation during the night. This young guy cut up an older competitor at the changeover and he took great exception.

“There's so many memories - too many really - but I'll never forget the runner who started his stage as a 49-year-old and finished it a year older. As he handed over the baton he was greeted with a birthday cake.”

A glance down this year's record start list suggests plenty of scope for fresh anecdotes.

“We've got six new clubs and some great stories,” said Vaughan-Arbuckle. “We have 'fetcheveryone.com' which has been put together from runners all over the UK visiting an athletics web site and starting a chat room dialogue. The 'pinks and blacks' are former Leeds University students. The organiser was watching last year's race, stopped somebody to find out what it was all about, and decided to get a team together. We've also got 'yes, we ate all the pies' squad, but don't ask me what that is all about.

“It's a tremendous commitment on behalf of these clubs. We introduced a casual class last year, which is about getting 17 competitors together and having fun. It's opened up a different avenue for us.”

The race supremo admits the event's enduring appeal is proving a double-edged sword.

“I don't think we could exceed 50 teams,” he said. “It's not the runners but the caravan that goes with it and the public safety aspect of causing road blockages. Once it starts it just rolls on - if something happens then we make adjustments, but it's largely self-regulation.

“Our success is due entirely to a small, dedicated group, the likes of John Barrow, Diane Marsh, Harry Collins, Richard Handoll, Rod Baron, Rob Saines and Tony Hunt.

“My sincere thanks goes to them in particular and others who have been involved in the past along with all the sponsors over the last 20 years, the borough, town and parish councils and many individuals and organisations too numerous to mention. Obviously, we must also thank the teams. There wouldn't be a race without the support of the 54 clubs who have participated so far. I hope everyone has a great weekend.”

Russell Clarke will be breaking new ground this year by running for two clubs. He will be competing for Wymondham AC in the first leg and will then be switching his allegiance to second claim club Tri-Anglia, for whom he will be running the final leg of the event.

FACTS AND FIGURES

1: 346 teams and 5,882 runners have completed a total of 66,937 miles.

2: Duke Street RC beat Vauxhall Motors AC by ten seconds in 1992 - the smallest winning margin.

3: Ryston Runners won the 1990 race by one hour 42 minutes 12 seconds - the largest winning margin.

4: The official website roundnorfolkrelay.com has received more than 31,000 hits since December 2001.

5: Richard Sales (Norwich Road Runners/ CoNAC) has won 12 stages.

6: James Kelly (Woodbridge Shufflers) and Malcolm Ball (North Norfolk Beach Runners) are the oldest ever competitors at 72.

7: Ryston Runners AC is the only team to compete in all 19 races.

8: Vauxhall Motors AC set the fastest average pace in 1993 - 5:58.4 per mile.

9: International athletes Dame Kelly Holmes, Paul Evans, Tony Simmonds, Richard Nerurkar, Tom Don and Ruth Senior have all competed or made guest appearances.

10: Roll of honour includes the 'Kelly Holmes Trophy' - best individual performance, 'Richard Nerurkar Trophy' - best junior performance and 'Paul Evans Trophy' - best master performance.

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