Runners either turn by the Jamboree Stone or carry on along the out-and-break stretch – depending on who’s been tasked with carrying the team’s hopes on one of six long legs.
They know they’re following in the well-worn footsteps of club and Olympic legends that have gone before. It’s in their hands to do the tradition of the event justice.
For the team managers, it’s the chance to be Mourinho, Wenger, Conte and Klopp for the day, to pit tactical wits against fierce rivals and friends.
It’s the chance to etch the club’s name on the famous trophy that still carries such allure for today’s team managers, none more so than the leader of last year’s triumphant twelve, Ben Pochee.
‘I’ve been going to Sutton Park either racing or team managing since I was 16, when Tipton were the Manchester United of the relays,’ recalls Ben, who’s been a member of Highgate Harriers since the mid-1980s.
‘I remember Eddie Wedderburn always crossing the line first and thinking that this was normal. I looked up to these heroes on the long legs that seemed to be cut from a different cloth. It was just so different to anything else I’d done.’
That Tipton heyday came during the eighties, when the Midlands club demolished all before them to win seven titles in 9 years between 1984 and 1992.
Reputations are built on such dynasties. The green and white giants are by far and away the most successful club in the history of the competition. Back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012 added to the club’s fearsome record of 15 wins and 31 podium finishes over the last 50 years.
Tom Holden, son of the legendary Tipton runner and Olympian, Andy Holden, has fond memories from as young as four years old of his dad leading the Tipton charge at Sutton Park.
And while not quite the same force at the present time, history doesn’t weigh heavy on the shoulders of today’s crop.
Success and silverware is all well and good – but it’s more the atmosphere and mad dash on the sidelines supporting teammates from the lake to the finish where the real excitement lies.
‘The thing I love the most is how 4+ hours of racing can boil down to a sprint finish,’ says Tom, now in his second year as the men’s team manager.
‘It requires so many people from the squad to turn out and perform – and they’re all very aware of the tradition we have.
‘I also always enjoy catching up with all the familiar faces of the past. All the Tipton greats like Ron Bentley, Bud Baldaro, Tony Phillips and Geno Griffiths still love to come along to watch and cheer us on.’
Club colours matter more than ever at the road relays. Extra ounces are squeezed out by runners that mightn’t otherwise get the chance to compete in a national relay event. The vest takes on extra meaning as teammates’ hopes ride high on an optimum showing from all.
For former Newham and Essex Beagles team manager, Bob Smith, it’s the greatest test of club strength out of all the events on the domestic calendar. Bob, who had to stand down from team management duties in October 2015 due to illness, is currently writing his memoirs from his time managing a side featuring more Olympians than you can shake a stick at.
The relays represent one of the only occasions where the team manager can plot the tactics and pick the best formation to success – and not just leave it to chance and individual brilliance or disaster.
‘Athletics is an individual sport at heart,’ says Bob, who was the Beagles’ team manager when they took the title in 2006 and 2010.
‘And yet, there is a great appeal to being part of a team that takes up a challenge. As individuals, athletes sometimes shy away from competing if less than 100% fit. But as part of a team, the effort and commitment to run is respected and valued by teammates.’
There are questions only a team manager can decide. Where can our star man do the most damage? Who do we put out as the sacrificial lamb on leg one? Where do we sneak in our weakest link? And who has the legs and experience to carry it home?
This decisive team element is what makes the event a jewel in the domestic road running crown – there’s a certain buzz to the road relays that isn’t there at your standard road races.
‘I love it because it’s about people,’ enthuses Ben. ‘People become pivotal to the team result. For other races, we [Highgate] knew who our top-6 were most of the time. To create a team of 12, you suddenly have scope to inspire 18-20 club men with the whiff of Sutton Park glory. It’s like a tapestry made up of so many colours and open to everybody in the club.
‘This opportunity to create wider club momentum, that for me is the true beauty.’
Without a hint of sarcasm or hyperbole, Ben claims last year’s win ‘wasn’t just a highlight of my running career – but the highlight of my life!’ Tom suggests the 12 Stage ‘is the most important club event of the year’ while, for Bob, the relays are ‘a way of life’.
Undervalued and unexploited as it is, the National 12 Stage Road Relays still maintain a special place in the heart of grassroots club runners and aficionados up and down the country. History doesn’t get forgotten overnight.
Words by Chris Rainsford
Image from Ben Pochee
This article originally appeared in the eighth edition of Left Spike from March 2017