Desert Island Races


James Edgar puts a running twist on the Radio 4 classic.

The long-running BBC Radio 4 programme “Desert Island Discs” asks guests to choose the eight pieces of music they would take if they were stranded on a desert island. What if it were races instead? Which races would you want on your desert island?

I’ve chosen my personal favourites. In keeping with the radio programme, I’ve also selected a running-related book and luxury.

English National Cross-Country at Parliament Hill

First up is the queen of cross-country races. The “Braveheart” start from the bottom of the main hill, the relentless undulations, the mix of grassland and wood, and the exceptional knee-deep mud make for an event that I keep coming back to. I had to choose one cross-country race, and this was the obvious one. I did pause, because the Brighton course for the Southern championships is exceptional, but Parliament Hill has the history. With races from kids through to seniors, it uses one of the best pieces of open ground that I know of in any major city.

The start of the English National Cross-Country at Parliament Hill

Hatfield Broad Oak 10k

This one is a particularly personal favourite. Hatfield Broad Oak is a small village in North Essex, mostly famous for sausages. However, once a year, the carnival comes to town with the annual village fete and 10k on the late May bank holiday. The race is on quiet country roads with a few hills and a figure-of-eight course taking you through the village at the 5k mark. My family has a history with the race. My dad used to do it with his workmates, and it was my first 10k when I was only twelve. There is something very special about a quiet village being transformed for the day by the life and soul of a race. Hatfield Broad Oak always reminds me why I love the running family.

London Marathon – mile 13 in particular

Many Serpies would choose the London Marathon. Our club was set up to train for it after all. Think of the huge carnival, the crowds and finally reaching Big Ben. However, for me it is mile 13 in particular that makes my spine tingle. All the training is behind you, the difficult race morning navigated and the first half of the race successfully done, and the late marathon-exhaustion not yet set in. As you approach the world-famous sight of Tower Bridge there are cheering crowds five-deep and you feel like you are running on air. You let the adrenalin course through your body as you speed up across the bridge and into the second half. No matter that the toughest running miles of your life await you, for a few moments running a marathon feels like the easiest, most joyful thing you’ve ever done.

Crossing Tower Bridge during the London Marathon

Box Hill Fell Race in the snow

Fell-running in the South of England is pretty sparse, but the annual Box Hill Fell Race in January offers 7.5 miles of lung-busting hills. It is usually a mud-fest and the organiser spent two decades hoping for a winter wonderland. In 2013, his hopes were answered with deep snow the day before. Every other event was cancelled, partly because of transport, but the Box Hill Fell Race organisers declared, “If you can make it here, the race will be on!”.

On race day, we were confronted by deep snow, with sledgers and snowboarders out in force. What would steep hills be like in these conditions? That question was quickly answered as we reached the Salomons memorial at the top of the hill and turned for the first steep descent: it was going to be tough but a lot of fun. Many of us scooted down the hill on our bums, laughing at the ridiculousness of racing in the snow. The race used a different finish than it does today, with a wide-open descent down the north side of Box Hill. This normally meant an amazing sprint finish, only in 2013 the snow made it pretty hard to sprint and I felt my legs going out from under me. Luckily the snow made for a soft landing and after a quick roll back to my feet, I could finish a run I will never forget.

The Box Hill Fell Race

Green Belt Relay – Stage 4 Little Marlow to Great Kingshill

The Green Belt Relay is a favourite race for many Serpies. Its mix of fun racing, camaraderie, volunteering and competition has made me go back again and again. However, I felt that, for “Desert Island Races”, I needed to pick one particular stage. Stage 4 from Little Marlow to Great Kingshill in the Chiltern Hills is rated as 10 out of 10 for difficulty due to relentless hills and challenging navigation. This stage was my introduction to the Green Belt. The week before the race, I headed out to recce. I remember it particularly well because I got lost three times in the same wood.

My preparation stood me in good stead though. On race day, I trotted happily along the route I’d memorised, by country roads, fields, trails and woodlands, circumnavigating High Wycombe. When I entered that difficult wood, I was seventh on the stage. When I emerged, there was no-one else around. I carried on and finished the 12 miles in second place, behind our leading Serpie, Hugh Torry: one of the first to discover the wonders of navigation by Garmin. Stage 4 of the Green Belt reminds me of the rewards of planning ahead and careful navigation, as well as the gorgeous countryside that surrounds London.

Green Belt Relay

Two Tunnels – Bath

A bit of a left-field choice, but the Two Tunnels races run by Relish Running in Bath are a special experience. The “two tunnels” of the title were opened by Sustrans in 2013 and are part of the cycle path that leads around the south of Bath towards Bristol. The longest tunnel, Combe Down, is an impressive 1,672 metres, more than a mile. I love the event for two reasons. Firstly, GPS is no use whatsoever, and secondly, the range of distances, from 10k to marathon, gives a real festival feeling. When I did the half marathon, I had the odd experience of following a lead race bike for the first time as the competition was diluted by the range of events. Accustomed to keeping pace with whoever is in front of me, I started trying to do the same with the bike and, sans Garmin, didn’t realise how much I was speeding up. I soon realised I would need a new strategy and ended up having a very good run and coming second. It was a great day out and any reason to visit Bath gets my vote.

Two Tunnels - Bath

Bob Graham Round

So, our desert island is getting rather big and now it needs to find space for 66 miles of the highest mountains in England. The Bob Graham Round is not strictly a race, but I had to include my best ever running experience. An adventure like the Round calls on a whole new range of skills: navigation, nutrition, team-building, reliance on others and mental strength. It stretched my concept of what I was capable of and gave me unforgettable experiences: climbing above the clouds at night, scree-running down Scafell Pike, a snow-bound recce with not a single other soul on the hills, and a full moon lighting our way on the first stage of the Round itself. However, none of these are as vivid or important as the memories of playing on the mountains with new and old friends. Running can be a solitary pursuit, but an experience like the Round can bring people closer and create wonderful shared memories.

Bob Graham Round

Serpentine Handicap

And last but not least, the Serpentine Handicap. I love the feeling of gathering early Saturday morning before most of the rest of the world has got going, and that every runner in the race could win it. Everyone will have a different experience of the Handicap. For me as one of the faster runners there is the growing sense of challenge as I watch more and more runners start while I am still warming up. The Handicap is the reverse of every other race. You start almost on your own and in your own thoughts. Then, after the first mile or two it becomes busier and busier. If the race is going well, there is the excitement of coming out on to the bank of the Serpentine on the second lap with only a few hundred metres left and a stream of Serpie vests ahead of and behind you. If you want to win, you have to find a way past all those still in front and hold off those behind. It’s exciting and challenging but, of course, most of all, it is friendly. The gathering around breakfast in the Serpentine Bar and Kitchen is the true heart of the club for me.

And finally

At the end of “Desert Island Discs”, guests (or “castaways”) are also asked to choose just one of their eight discs, as well as one luxury and one book. For “Desert Island Races” we replace the luxury with one piece of kit.

My overall favourite race: people who know me might expect me to choose the Bob Graham Round, but you need to remember I am going to be stuck with this race on the desert island and I don’t think I want to have to run the round every day. Instead I am choosing Hatfield Broad Oak 10k as it is where I really fell in love with races. It has a special place in my family history and I am hoping to continue to go back with the next branch of my extended running family as my godsons live in a village down the road.

My luxury: my Osprey Talon 11 rucksack. It is very robust and has played a crucial part in many adventures across the Lake District, the Jurassic Coast, the South Downs and many other great experiences. Now every time I strap it on, it brings back happy memories.

My running book: castaways on “Desert Island Discs” always get the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I think that runners in “Desert Island Races” should get “Feet in the Clouds” and “Born to Run”. My additional pick would have to be “Once a Runner” by John L. Parker Junior. I have never read a better exploration of how it feels to train to be your very best and then to execute a race that you have poured your heart and soul into.

James Edgar has been a Serpie for over a decade and is currently learning how to fit running around a new baby