Thursday, 18 April 2013



Grantham Cup Ale
On the morning of race day, a series of events transpired against the race organisers which at their height seemed to threaten our ability to start the race. Thankfully divine intervention from the Lords meant that runners were released promptly as advertised at 11:30am and initial feedback from the hardy runners that took part suggests that this year’s Grantham Cup was another success.

The previous day, three members of the organising team set out on foot to initially mark the course.  The rest of the course would be set up early on race day to avoid any possible conflict between race tape and animal welfare. It soon became apparent that laying an off road course, much of which passes over open parkland was a challenge in itself and one that perhaps the organising team had underestimated.  We had to make sure that no matter what, the runners would find their way around the course without getting lost.  

By 7am on race day we were within the grounds of the historic Belton Park. I planned to drive around the course in an off road vehicle, finishing the job from the previous day. I hoped to be back well before 10am so that I could assume duties at registration and ultimately start the race. It had become clear on the Saturday that the course required more tape and further directional arrows. In addition, we needed to position the kilometre signs and properly mark the junction where the “out” route merged with the route on the way back.  We collected the hallowed park gate keys and set off in a Land Rover Discovery complete with, according to my brother in law, “a state of the art lower differential gear box and all manner of traction capability” to ensure a smooth, if bumpy passage through the grounds of Belton Park. We left shortly after 7:15am which was about the time when things started to go wrong.

Stuck at 7.30am
I was positioned about fifty metres behind the Land Rover which was been driven by my brother in law. The boot had been left open and my niece was perched precariously on the edge, passing me directional arrows which I was driving into the ground. After rounding the first bend by the horse trials cross country course I watched the Land Rover drive duly into its first swamp where it came to rest. I watched in horror as the ‘off side’ wheel spun viciously. As I walked closer, the extent of the issue dawned on me in a way that was clearer than the recently risen sun, the vehicle was embedded in the mud and it was not coming out. As my brother in law floored the gas, the vehicle shifted further towards the deepest part of the swamp. It was more like a pond at the deepest parts and I suggested the vehicle’s very existence was threatened if it shifted any further. 

I wish I could say I felt philosophical or something but I didn’t. I had a race to set up, the entire contents of the race were in the back of the Discovery and the Discovery was edging further towards the pond.  I was tempted to carry on staring in disbelief with my mouth wide open, it felt comfortable but then reaction kicked in and I sprinted back towards the event arena to build relationships with owners of similar 4x4’s. To my surprise I found a potential friend quite quickly. “Excuse me I got involved in race directing by accident, I need to lay a course but our vehicles stuck in a swamp over there”, I said to the man who was laying the horse cross country course. The man looked back with a face that suggested “pal, this is my busiest part of the day too and I haven’t got time to help a city dweller that can’t handle his country wheels” and coincided with a mouth that said “yes pal, give me a minute I’ll come round and help you”. Ten minutes or so later we were out of the mud. Any feint relationship that I had built with our hero dissipated as the helper carved his way through the tow rope on the back of his vehicle. My brother-in-law had tied the rope to his tow bar and the consequent tow had left a knot that wasn’t going to be unpicked.

I have no idea what time it was by now but I knew that time was of the essence.  We drove on through Belton Park to the gate by the golf course dropping signs and tying tape to trees on the way. It was at the gate by the golf course that I used the hallowed keys for the first time:

“Up on the course there are locked gates for which you need a master key. Stuart gets this the day before and it is as precious as the crown jewels. The shepherd will hang draw and quarter anyone who leaves his gates open”

(Feena Machin Race Director of the Grantham Cup 2012 in instructions that she kindly supplied to me in January 2013 after I volunteered to direct the race.)


The importance of the keys had been impressed on me not only by last year’s race director but also by the organiser of the horse trials. I was entrusted with the keys on the condition that I understood that there was only one set. They were important. I had to look after them. There were two keys, one for the interior park gates and one for the exterior gates that lead to the road crossing. The interior key worked easily as I unlocked the first interior gate by the golf course. We locked it behind us and the Land Rover drove cautiously across the open moorland towards Five Gates Lane with me floundering behind laying short posts with tape attached that my niece was passing me from the boot.

We arrived at the tall steel gate which separates the Park from Five Gates Lane. This would be the road crossing for runners later in the day. The road crossing also separates the first half of the course within the park grounds with the second half of the course near Belmont Tower.  I reached into my pocket to retrieve the keys. The two keys had been attached by an elastic band. I pulled the band out but it only had one key attached to it. With an element of panic I reached back into the map pocket at the front of my waterproof jacket. My hand jerked around in the wide open space as I felt hopelessly for the second key. It wasn’t there.  A systematic check of all other pockets and a thorough check of the vehicle confirmed I’d stuffed it up. I had lost the second hallowed key in direct contravention of the most important task that I had been entrusted with.

It was around this time that I felt like crying for the first time. I thought about walking off over the open moorland in an easterly direction. Skegness seemed like an attractive place to be at that low point on Sunday morning.  I felt slightly sick with fright. The race was threatened if I couldn’t find the key. I would cast shame on the club and I would instantly be installed as the most wanted man for the 168 or so runners that were by now, no doubt arriving to race back at the start. In complete desperation I suggested to my brother in law that we would have to drive the kilometre or so back to the first interior gate. Perhaps I had dropped the key there? We shuttled, bumpily back across the moorland tussocks. I leapt out of the land rover and before I had chance to jump the gate my brother in law said “it’s there”. It was only two words but my brain struggled to process them. Slow motion kicked in as I cast my wide open eyes in the direction that he was looking. I saw gold. Actually I saw a metal yale key but in my eyes I saw gold. It might have been nectar or something similarly as good. I jumped in the air as If I’d won the lottery and did a little dance after I landed. My niece looked on with a look of worried concern for my welfare.  We were back in business the second major trauma of the day was through.

We shuttled back to Five Gates Lane and tested the exterior gate key for the first time – success.  By now I was conscious that we were pushing time. We drove through the gate on to the road, locking the gate again after we had passed through. We couldn’t remove the fence panel to get the vehicle into the adjacent field. It was necessary to get the Land Rover into the fields so that I could continue to lay out the course. There was at least seven kilometres left to mark out, we would have to work fast time was running out. No doubt the other members of the organising team would by now be helping to construct the start/finish area but I needed to get back and help.  I suggested to my brother in law that he drive to down the road to the car park. There was a gate at the end of the car park. He could open the gate with the exterior key and then drive back across the fields to meet me. Meanwhile, my niece and I took as much tape and arrows as we could carry and we climbed the stile to carry on by foot.

Belton Tower

We walked into the first field and set up some barrier tape. We met Ben Mason who was returning from walking the course with his GPS. Ben had left earlier in the morning and he had sprayed the ground with paint at each kilometre, he had then texted me the approximate position so that we could find it and drive the relevant kilometre sign into the ground.  I passed Ben two radios which he took back to be used at the start. Shortly after Ben had left, my radio crackled. I hadn’t really used the radio until now but it was brother in law, Kev who had arrived at the car park. He had news that rocked my increasingly pitiful world. “Paul, I’m really sorry mate but the exterior gate key has snapped off in the lock”. Naturally, I repeatedly asked if he was joking before realising that he wasn’t.

 I was stood in a field somewhere in South Lincolnshire hopelessly clutching directional arrows. 168 runners were amassing about three kilometres away. Time was running out. There was at least seven kilometres left to set up. The set up equipment was in the back of the Discovery but the Discovery wasn’t able to gain access to the second half of the route. I thought that matters couldn’t get any worse then I remembered the gate that we had recently driven through, the seven foot steel gate that we locked behind us. The seven foot steel gate that needed to be opened to allow runners through. The seven foot steel gate that was flanked by a heavy duty eight foot, steel fence as long as the eye could see. The seven foot, steel gate whose key was now snapped half in another lock down the road and half in my brother in law’s hand.  I thought about Skegness again. I’d already been on a serious rollercoaster of emotion twice that morning and I didn’t want to ride again. I looked to my niece in desperation but her innocent face offered only sorrow. I was aware that my mouth was again wide open and that slow motion had once again consumed me.  I switched the radio to channel 4 which was the main channel used by the horse event staff. “runner to base” I quietly murmured pathetically. Nothing came back. I located my mobile phone and called co-orgainser McArdle who was now at race star. Robert agreed to do what he could. 

I plundered on in the realisation that what my niece and I had stuffed under our arms would have to suffice to navigate runners round the rest of the route. The gate however was a serious issue. There simply was no other way around or over. If the gate couldn’t be opened the race couldn’t be run.

It was about twenty minutes later when my radio crackled again. By this point I had received confirmation from head man at Bede Events, there were no spare keys thus his reason for impressing upon me the need to keep them safe.  The crackle was followed by a message to me from Bill Lord, lead marshal who had now arrived at Five Gates Lane. I remember my first sentence in response, “Bill, we have a critical issue”. The Lord took over, “leave it with me, I’ll get back to you, if we can’t open the gate do you want to break the lock?” I radioed back to race HQ and we made a collective decision that if we couldn’t open the lock we would either break the padlock or tie the gate to the Discovery and rip it down.
The pressure isn't showing at results HQ

I had no choice but to carry on laying the course. A second niece had now arrived to assist, carrying with her a few more directional arrows with her. I took a moment. I knew there were critical points on the rest of the course that needed arrows. We would have to leave the rest and hope that the marshals that were about to take their positions would be sufficient to cover any gaps. I counted the few remaining arrows and mentally allocated them into the places where they were mostly needed.  The three of us jogged into the woods fighting through the strong gusts of wind that had been increasingly picking up all morning.  When I glanced at my watch I realised time was running out we weren’t going to make it round the rest of the course. It was approaching 11am, the race was set to leave in thirty minutes, the race wasn’t properly marked and the critical gate on Five Gates Lane wasn’t open. It was bare minimum time. I took the decision to split from my nieces. I took the eldest niece to the point just after 5 kilometres on the ridge parallel with the folly. From there we could see down the hill and I could point and explain where the course needing marking in the distance. I asked Harriet to take Tilly to the car park on Five Gates Lane. I would radio brother in law Kev to meet them and re supply them with arrows which they could then lay out along the described area. I trusted them to get it right and then we departed.

As I sprinted back towards the folly in an effort to get to critical gate I met marshals Trudy and Gerry and I was able to take them to the junction where the out and back routes merged. It was inadequately arrowed for obvious reasons and confusing. I was able to describe which way runners would need directing and then I was off like billyo to get back to the critical gate. As I sprinted through the woods my phone rang. Should I stop or keep going? Perhaps it was news that would be critical for the gate? I stopped “Hi it’s the lead horse rider where do you want me?” I calmly asked her to go to race the race start and I continued.

Somewhere after that the radio crackled again it was Bill. “Paul, the gate is open”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I haven’t had chance to speak to Bill but I understand, that Bill’s wife Dina had heroically located some bolt cutters by phoning friends back in Grantham. Dina had then driven back to Grantham to collect the cutters and return them to the gate. By the time I arrived at about 11:20am, ten minutes before race start, the seven foot steel gate was open.  

I was taken by the Land Rover back across the parkland in an effort to get to the start. It became evident that I wasn’t going to make it so I bailed out on a hill in the park where I had a good vista of the runners that were about to arrive.  A couple of minutes later the I saw the lead horse whispering through the trees followed by a snaking path of tiny runners far in the distance below.  It had been an emotional morning but the race was now running, fantastic.      

The aftermath
I returned to the race start 90 minutes behind schedule. I chatted to relatives of runners that were out on the course. They confirmed to my surprise that race registration and start had gone very swimmingly. My sole reaming concern was that runners would find their way.  Forty one minutes later I was elated to see Mike Chapman of Nene Valley Harriers cross the line and he confirmed the course had been well marked and the marshals had been brilliant in directing the way. 
What could have gone wrong seemed to go wrong but we pulled it off. So far there has only been positive feedback mostly relating to the enthusiasm of the marshals. 

A massive thank you  to everyone who helped to make the event a success, there were lots of people that made it happen, most of whom worked harder than me! Thank you Thankyou, Thankyou 

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