Ant’s Army

MAY 2015: It’s 11am, Monday 18th May. I’m in a 16-seater minibus on the M4. Wales behind us, we’re now en route back home, everyone dreaming of a good sports massage and of a restful night in our own beds.

The seat in front of me is occupied by a bike, others piled high with kit bags, sleeping bags, tea bags, inflatable mattresses, scrunched-up route maps, compasses, head torches and first-aid kit.

The floor is a carpet of brown banana skins, empty water bottles, sweet wrappers, coffee cups, dirty socks and pungent running shoes.

The remaining seats carry the weary, hungover friends with whom I’ve bonded over the last 48 hours.

Yesterday at 3.05pm we all joined hands as we hauled our exhausted, sleep-deprived bodies over the finish line of the Wolfpack 24-hour London-Cardiff Relay. Our official finishing time, 25 hrs 5 mins.

Last night was one of celebration, medals worn with pride, an exchange of stories of getting lost in the darkness, of overtaking & being overtaken, of battered quads, stiff backs, dodgy knees, blisters and sore feet, of fabulous scenery, of how drinking Guinness had improved our performance, of whether it had been worth spending 10 minutes inflating a mattress just to cram in a 5-minute kip at a roadside miles from civilisation. But above all, it was a night of celebration, where beer, mojitos and Kelly’s home-made sloe gin flowed like the Severn Estuary which Shelley had run across some ten hours earlier.

The start on Saturday was staggered, based on anticipated finish times; the venue, Twickenham, SW London; number of teams, 32; the finish line, Cardiff, South Wales; the route, uphill, downhill, cycle paths, country lanes, fields, bridleways, dual carriageways, pub car parks, The Ridgeway, the Severn Bridge…

And with a vague wish to complete the course in a time not too far adrift of 24 hours, Ant’s Army’s principle objective was to have fun.

And indeed we did have lots of fun.

One of my favourite comedy moments was witnessing another team’s support vehicle cruising under the entrance barrier of a supermarket car park, the driver clearly forgetting his bicycle was on the roof. As his bike catapulted off the roof, I couldn’t help but think that this could only aid our chances of sneaking ahead of one of the teams against whom we had been racing for the preceding 18 hours.

It was RunBrighton runner Anthony Jarman who, 6 months earlier, had the crazy idea to form a team to participate in the 160-mile relay. “Why ever not?!” I thought. “Why ever not?!” 10 other people thought!

In addition to Ant himself, 7 other of my RunBrighton mates (Joe Parris, Sally Newman, Catherine Parsons, Geoff Iske, Zoe Hillier, Andy Kemp & Sue Cross) and I signed up.

So, Ant, how did the idea come about, late last year?

I received an email with the link to the website from my friend Amanda who was living in Abu Dhabi at the time. All she said was “We have to do this when I’m home!” As soon as I read about it, I knew I had to do it… and I knew just the people to ask to be on my team!

I know you were making plans, recruiting a team, allocating legs, etc, over a period of several months. What did you find was the biggest challenge?

It’s not easy trying to find legs that everybody wants to run. As you know, there are a variety of distances between 3 and 12.5 miles, and you can’t be sure whether you’ll be running in daylight for much of the run. Luckily the team were great and, apart from a few swapped legs, everyone was happy (or at least that’s what you all told me)! Other than that, Amanda was pregnant while we were planning this and only gave birth in January – so getting to the start line was a great achievement for her.

So would you say everything went to plan? Did the event play out just as you’d anticipated?

You know what, I had high expectations for the event and I think it actually surpassed them! I felt very responsible as the team captain, so when so many runners told me not only that they’d loved it, but that I’d done a good job, it was a great relief. We knew people would get lost, or at least take a bit of a detour here and there, but we made it together to the finish line and it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

What was your personal highlight?

From a personal perspective, I loved my solo legs – I had a 12.5 mile run on The Ridgeway at midnight and was so nervous that I’d get lost. Managing to finish that ahead of my target time (despite the hills) was great. Then running across farmland towards the Severn Bridge in my second leg was completely different – and it was light! I had a great reception from the team as I ran down to the checkpoint there.

There were so many highlights though. Spending 24 hours in close confinement with 11 other runners and our 3 wonderful support crew could have been a nightmare, but it was awesome. We had great team camaraderie!

Of course, the finish (and the beer afterwards) will live long in my memory too!

Would you do it again?

Funny you should ask – I’m recruiting again and you’re on my list Mike! We have already signed up at least one team for next year. We have unfinished business and would love to get a bit closer to 24 hours. There were quite a few RunBrighton folk who I spoke to who couldn’t do this year for one reason or another, so maybe a second team could be on the cards. I would recommend this event to everyone!

I know that the team’s chosen charity was the Huntington’s Disease Association. What had prompted that?

My other half and one of our support crew on the team have been diagnosed with the gene for HD which means they’ll develop the disease at some point, and another of our runners has the disease in their family. Any money we can raise goes directly into researching a ‘cure’ for this awful condition. Whilst not entirely curable, it’s hoped that in the next few years a treatment can be found which will delay onset of symptoms until old age.

Huntington’s Disease is an hereditary disorder of the central nervous system. It’s similar to Alzheimers and Parkinsons, but if one of your parents has the gene, you have a 50% chance of inheriting it. There’s a wide range of symptoms including depression, anxiety and mood swings early on, followed by involuntary movements, difficulty in speech and swallowing and weight loss as the disease progresses.

Is it too late now if anyone would still like to donate?

Not at all, and thanks for asking. If anyone would like to donate, please visit http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserPage.action?userUrl=AntsArmy&pageUrl=3&isTeam=true

Ant, well done for instigating what turned out to be a great weekend, and congratulations on doing such a fantastic job of organising Ant’s Army. Here’s to returning next year to have a crack at sub-24 hours!

By Mike Bannister

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