Heading in the Right Direction

Race-Director-1
Photo Credits: http://www.sportsmediaimages.co.uk/

John Stoneman talks to Serpie, ultra runner and race director of the Stour Valley Path 100 Matt Hearne.

Think running an ultra-marathon sounds hard? Try persuading someone who’s running it that they really ought to quit, when they refuse to, and you can’t force them to stop.

“The hardest thing about being a race director is you can’t make exhausted people quit. You can have cut-offs at check points, even confiscate their race numbers, but you can’t physically make them stop. We’ve sat up until the early hours of the morning alongside worried-sick parents waiting for runners to finish,” says Matt Hearne; Serpie, ultra runner and race director of the Stour Valley Path 100. “You feel a real sense of responsibility and each year when the last person crosses the finish line it’s a huge relief”.

A well-known member of Serpentine’s ultra-running cohort, Matt’s running ultra-distance CV includes Marathon Des Sables, multiple Iron Man events and a host of other long distance events. That and every year in August the 42-year-old Research Product Specialist’s world is consumed by organising and directing a 100-kilometre race through the Suffolk ‘Constable Country’ fields where he grew up.

To Matt, it just seemed obvious that the area was crying out for an ultra-running event.

“I’d been doing several local ultra-marathons and they all seemed to be to the south of London, but I knew there was all this fantastic countryside on the Essex and Suffolk borders which is just as easy to get to as the South Downs. I was brought up along the Stour Valley Path and knew the area well and when I looked it up on a map I realised that there was a marked footpath almost 100km in length that no one had thought of organising a race along.”

“It has varied terrain with some very smooth footpaths, some rutted farm tracks and some muddy field crossings – the one thing it doesn’t have is sand dunes. Elevation gain is always a big consideration in ultras, and if you look at our profile it seems fairly flat, but it’s deceptive as the first half of the race is very flat while the second half has some climbs which will challenge tired legs. But it’s worth it as you get to run through Dedham Vale and see the landscapes painted by the legendary John Constable.”

Of course making an ultra-race happen is not an easy thing to achieve but, as anyone who meets Matt will realise, he brings boundless energy and goodwill to everything he does. Putting together an ultra-distance run through the Stour Valley would be no exception, even for someone who’d never organised a race before in his life.

“I’ve done a lot of project management work so I thought how hard can it be? I knew from all the races that I had done what worked for me as a runner and so I tried to emulate what I had enjoyed from others. There is more to it than you might think. There are lots of hoops to jump through, councils and people to inform. The race passes several villages so you must find places to have aid stations, town halls and pubs to set up checkpoint gazebos.”

There was one reliable resource that Matt could call on for help, his fellow Serpies, without whose help he says it would have been impossible to get the venture off the ground.

“The hardest thing is finding enough volunteers to staff the course, as you work on the assumption of one volunteer to every four runners. Serpentine has been a fantastic resource for me here as club members and friends have always supported the race, plus there are a good proportion of local running clubs along the route who provide helpers.”

“We also get some unconventional help from local clubs. Part of the run passes through Sudbury and the local running club the Sudbury Joggers have taken it upon themselves to set up an unofficial aid station outside a local pub and look after everyone that comes through. A fair amount of booze gets handed out and we always get complimented on the amount of stuff we have at our aid stations!”

But all the Serpies and Sudburys in the world can’t help you get through the mountain of paperwork you need to do to not only get permission to organise an ultra, or jump you through all hoops needed to get your race recognised by its much more famous and established peers.

“The race is licensed by the Trail Runners Association and we follow their best practices; plus to attract ultra runners we offer UTMB points and there is a fair bit of paperwork involved in getting that. I start the initial planning as soon as the race finishes as you need to book up the start/finish locations and hire cars a year in advance.”

“Four months out we start ordering medals, technical T-Shirts, and hunting for volunteers. Our finishers’ medal and T-shirt both feature the legendary Black Shuck – a ghostly black dog which forms part of the folklore of the area. Shuck is a malevolent ‘Devil Dog’ with flaming eyes who prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, although in certain tales the animal is regarded as relatively benign and said to accompany people on their way in the role of protector. We prefer the latter!”

“With a month to go everyone needs to know what they are going to be doing, the week before the race is manic, the week of the race is non-stop and then there’s a week of wrap-up afterwards.”

And then of course there’s the runners, in all their myriad, shapes, sizes and varieties to deal with:

“We get a mix of people competing from charity runners, who are taking it on as a challenge, to some incredibly experienced runners from the Hundred Marathon Club, all the way down to first timers who have never even run a marathon. We had one guy who had only ever run 20 miles before, he did a good job of convincing us beforehand that he could complete it, and he did.”

“One of the best things about it is the atmosphere, as most people will say it is a very friendly race. I know we all run for different clubs and have some competitive banter, but we are all participating in the sport of running and everyone is very supportive.”

The next edition of the SVP100 is on August 12th 2017 – if you’d like to see Matthew at the Start Line, you can enter at svp100.co.uk/

John Stoneman is a 40-something middle of the pack runner who joined Serpentine because he liked the colour of the kit.