London Rat Race

Until late on Thursday it was looking very much like I wouldn’t be competing in any Rat Races this year, and my only taste of the urban phenomenon would be the Edinburgh event that I organised. Our search for a girl to join our team for the final race of the season was more difficult than I could have imagined but we finally found our star in Chez Frost, who was up for competing in only her second ever adventure race.

Meeting up for the first time early on Saturday morning, Paul Currant and myself joined Chez in Penrith and sped South to London, arriving in just enough time to do a quick tv interview and get our race kit on before listening into Nick Gracie’s race briefing. He outlined what was happening on Saturday night, with up to 3 hours to collect as many of 42 checkpoints as we could in an area that took in Central London West of Tower Bridge.

At 5.00pm we shot off and joined the scrum trying to get across Tower Bridge heading on an anti-clockwise loop. Immediately making a mistake and missing the stairs to get down to the riverside checkpoint by the Tower of London, we ended up running around the Tower reaching the checkpoint after everyone that had gone the right way. For the next while we then had to fight our way through crowds at some of the activity checkpoints including a quick circuit session in the Crisis charity offices, another chaotic boxing circuit session in the Real Fight Club Gym, and a Homer Simpson donut eating CP.

Meeting Homer Simpson - Copyright Rob Howard.
Meeting Homer Simpson - Copyright Rob Howard.

After stuffing donuts down our neck we set off for a quick kayaking stage on a canal and it was there our troubles started as PC’s guts began to explode at regular intervals. We headed ever northwards to King’s Cross area taking in the Temple area made famous by the The DaVinci Code novel and Secrets, a pole-dancing nightclub where Chez swung like a natural. I then had the chance to cool off a bit with some star jumps in the Ice Wall Chamber at Ellis Brigham while Paul found the loo.  By this time it was now just after 7pm and we had to deal with manic Saturday night crowds as we ran through Covent Garden to Picadilly Circus towards a checkpoint in the plush Third Space Gym run by Bruce Duncan.  Time was running out now and we were soon accruing penalties for lateness as we sped along the South Bank taking in a spot of Parkour by the National Theatre and chasing the nurses at Guys Hospitall. We finally collapsed into the finish 7 seconds before 8pm and the possibility of accruing massive penalties. We’d had a good run but along the way had to stop about 10 times for Paul’s gut problems, so probably lost about 15-20 minutes which cut into our total putting us back into 4th place. We were happy all things considered, but we soon had bigger things on our mind as Paul became violently sick for the rest of the evening. Time sped by and we had over an hour to drive to get back to our accommodation, maps to mark up, food to eat, more importantly a call to make on whether or not to take Paul to the hospital to get fluids into him and something to stop him being so sick.

Early Sunday morning we rose to find Paul looking still very ill but no longer being sick, however, he was keen to still come along and see if he could at least complete the first run of the day and take it from there. The first section of the race involved some score orienteering around the South Bank where we had to collect 100 points worth of checkpoints before getting on our bikes and heading off over Tower Bridge. Amazingly Paul seemed to have perked up after eating nothing more than two slices of toast and we were the first team back into the transition and onto Tower Bridge. To our incredible misfortune the bridge was in the process of lifting to allow a ship to pass underneath and we missed getting over by barely 3 seconds, so had to stand and wait for 20 minutes until the bridge had lowered again as we were still on a mandatory route! To make things interesting though, they were filming a movie on the bridge with us as the backdrop and a romantic reuniting as the main scene.

Eventually we got underway but immediately ran into a problem as Chez’s leg exploded in agony, by the Tower of London.  She couldn’t put any weight on it and was struggling to turn the pedals over. It sounded really serious and we were ready to call it game over there and then. Chez agreed to a suggestion to try and spin around the block and if necessary we would cross the river at London Bridge and head back to race HQ. Somehow though she managed to keep going and we spun our way down Embankment, round Parliament Square and on past Buckingham Palace.  Heading through Hyde Park we were basking in the morning sunshine and the world began to seem rosy as Paul gradually picked up and Chez seemed to be getting her mind around the pain coming from her knee. Soon we were out of the park and zooming up Portobello Road to the Westway Climbing Centre for a spot of indoor climbing. After our holdup at the bridge it suddenly became apparent that almost every other team in the race had gone around another way and were now ahead of us, when we joined the back of the queue as one of the last 30 teams.

After about an hour’s wait we were soon on the canal towpath and began the tricky task of passing as many teams as possible on the narrow track. Not long though and we were on the orienteering section using Google Earth photograph maps which took us to the highest point in West London. We ran around here pretty swiftly though Chez’s knee was troublesome and the day was beginning to heat up. However, we just had to get back on the bikes and try as best as we could to  slowly work our way through the field to the BMX track activity. For Paul and myself on our cyclocross bikes this was fantastic fun getting air off the doubles and leaning it over on all the berms. Back on the towpath we were heads down and heading for a quick assault course and a run around a hedge maze. This was followed by a river crossing and then some kayaking at Brentford which was a welcome cool off from the hot sun. After we completed the kayaking we left the canal at last and began to really move on the roads towards Twickenham Stadium. Here we had a 35m abseil to do on the outside of the stadium and a brief chance to refill water bottles and sneek a peak inside the massive stadium.

Chez gets air! - Picture copyrisht Rob Howard
Chez gets air! - Picture copyright Rob Howard

Back on the bikes we were on roads alongside the river Thames and headed for the roof of the Fullers Brewery to spend a minute standing as a team standing together on a small drinks crate with excellent views over West London. The next challenge was negotiate Kensington High Street traffic on our way to another foot orienteering section in Hyde Park. The park was busy with posh women jogging, kids playing football and rugby and pensioners enjoying the sunshine. I’ve never seen more boats in one place than all the pedaloes and rowing boats on the Serpentine – it was crazy! Paul and Chez were incredible around here digging really deep through the emptiness and pain filling their senses while I kept my head in the map. We got around pretty efficiently and were soon back on our bikes for the final sprint down past Buckingham Palace, along the embankment, over Tower Bridge and into the event village. Unfortunately, Chez had a little incident when another racer got a bit spooked by the tow line she was holding and they took a tumble on The Mall. Thankfully nobody was hurt and we soon found ourselves back at Race HQ with only a quick climb and abseil over the Indesit Moon  then a quick Parkour run around the event village to complete. It was a welcome sight to see the infamous slippery wall and being old hands at this, we were up and over in a flash with just a quick dash to the finish line to end our day.

As we’d been held up at the bridge and in some long queues at the various time outs we really didn’t expect to be any where near the top of the rankings, especially with all the traffic we’d had to overtake on the towpaths. However, a race jury decided that the teams that had stuck to the mandatory route would be given a 30 minute bonus, so ourselves and Team Cooper were awarded this to compensate for the 20 minutes we’d waited at Tower Bridge and all the time we’d lost with having to fight through crowds. This probably cost us more than 30 minutes but in the end it didn’t matter. It turned out that our time on Sunday had been surprisingly very quick and much to our surprise we were declared the winners!

It was a very satisfying achievement given the troubles we’d had with coming together last minute, illness, injury and lack of sleep. All in all a very successful Rat Race for us and for the squad as a whole wrapping up the season with some events to spare. I just wish now that I had the opportunity to go to Melbourne to race with the guys down there…mmm