Back in August, Havering Tri entered 4 teams at the Spitfire Scramble - a 24 hour relay race through Hornchurch Country Park. One of our members, Mike Hewitt, has written his account of what turned out to be a very moving weekend for him, and for the rest of the HT gang who learned of Mike's story during the event... enjoy...
I arrived at around 3pm on Friday afternoon and in my mind, I had always imagined setting up the tent in the car park and making that my home for the weekend, but as I got there, I was directed to a massive field and already I could see there were approximately 50 people already pitching their tents with music providing a sense of festival atmosphere.
On Saturday, I aimed to wake up at 9am and start to focus myself on not only running further than I ever had, but also to prepare for the possibility of minimal sleep and the task of refuelling properly between runs. However, a cruel twist of fate would throw another obstacle in my way.
At 7am, the phone rang. I knew that there would be only one reason that this would be happening, and it was THAT call. If death had a voice that day, it was definitely the sound of that phone ringing. As I took the call, I realised that God, fate, destiny or whatever had decided that I was to face another challenge over the weekend…
Growing up, my granddad would visit from Cambridge and would ask to visit RAF Hornchurch. As we went there, he would tell us stories of how he landed in his Lancaster Bomber and would rebuild the air base in his mind as he wandered through the now unkempt fields and thought back to his former days, until these faded from his memory as the dementia took hold.
As I arrived at Hornchurch Country Park, or RAF Hornchurch as it was known in a previous life, there was a muted excitement, the entire campsite was buzzing with around 200 pitched tents and well in excess of 1500 people milling around, making last minute preparations.
Midday neared and everyone made their way to the start. They cheered on the first wave of runners crossing the line, signalling that the 24 hour run was now underway. I wasn’t due to run until around 4.30, but the excitement and slight apprehension had already set in and I would have given anything to run sooner.
As 4.30 came around, I stood at the start line waiting for Amy to sprint down then final straight and hand over our fancy dress costume. This was an uncomfortable rubber ring and two armbands so sweaty that they slid up my arms with perfect ease. In the 31 degree heat, the wristband was slapped on me, and my first lap had begun.
I set off and the excitement had taken over. Running faster than my normal pace, I ran out of sight of the camp and disappeared towards to the back end of the park towards Rainham. Forcing myself to slow down, the rubber ring was jiggling around my stomach, and my arms were forced into an unnatural position, causing me to run in some kind of perverse Riverdance position, keeping my upper body almost still and just using my legs.
Eventually, I could see Travis Perkins near the Dover’s Corner roundabout, and knew I was a stone’s throw from a pub. I used all the willpower I had and decided to stay on the track and continue running. Who would trade a hot sweaty run for an ice cold whiskey anyway? My dedication to the cause would surely be rewarded? Yes it was…by a hill that wound from right to left, then back again, up to the summit! At this point, the sun was beating down, but I kept on going and got to the water station.
The track took me through fields, past ponds and the unique remnants of the old airbase, up and down hills and over bridges. I could eventually start to hear the music from the camp in the distance, which gave me a new lease of life, before realising that this had then started to fade, and the route was taking me past the finish line. But to my mind, into the best part of the course.
As I continued, I was greeted with a woodland area. The route became shaded and cool, and it was as if I was fulfilling a childhood dream to run through the forest like Robin Hood. This part was mainly all downhill, which on the second and third lap became quite a challenge, but for the moment, all the tiredness left me and I was invigorated to carry on until the end.
I carried on through the path and could eventually see the car park with people cheering and applauding as I neared them. I knew I was almost home and checked my watch. With only 700 metres to go, not even twice round the running track, I ran up the slope towards the camp like a giddy schoolboy and wanted to make sure that I finished and strong as I started.
I rounded the final corner onto the home straight. The screams from the spectators and those waiting to run were guiding me through, as I looked for the next runner amid a sea of colour and anticipation, I crossed the finish line, dumped the ring and armbands and gratefully slapped the wristband onto Lucy.
I took a couple of moments to digest the run and get my breathing back on track before wandering back to camp to take a well-earned rest.
During the later stages of the day, the camp atmosphere became more relaxed and at times it was easy to forget the reason you were there, and you could easily mistake the event for a camping holiday with friends or the evening of a festival after all the music had stopped.
My next run was 11.45pm and given the circumstances of the phone call earlier in the day, I had already put in place, my own tribute. I had decided to run the second loop in a WWII RAF jacket in honour of my Grandad who served a total of 44 (usually stood down after 30) missions in 2nd, 419 and of course the famous 617 (Dambusters) squadron. Albeit stood down from the Dambusters mission after a personal tragedy to the crew only hours before hand.
Due to the time of night, it was time to equip myself with my trusty head torch and make my way in to the darkness and start the second run. After about 600 metres in, I instantly regretted the jacket as it held on to the heat and sweat started to pour down the inside sleeves, but no matter what, it was staying on.
Eventually, the streetlight faded and the path was lit by a mixture of my lamp, other runners and some sporadic lighting every now and again. The route was peaceful, save the occasional fox or badger running around the bushes, which although sometimes startling, was a comfort to know I wasn’t the only one out there.
The views into London from the top of the hills were amazing and the route was lined with glow sticks to mark out stray tree roots popping out from the ground, or to keep you on track in between the marshals.
As I completed this lap, I went back to camp and got ready to grab a few hours’ sleep before getting up again at 5.30. Although people were walking backwards and forwards between runs, it didn’t disturb me much and I got more sleep than I thought I would.
As I awoke, I wandered to the start line with Amy so I knew what time to be back for my final loop, marking the furthest distance I had ever run. At 7.30 I returned to the start line and started it all over again. I had never really trained myself to run when I was tired and this started to show. The final lap was done as a mixture of intervals, not so much due to the limitations of my body, but mainly by my mind telling me I was going to walk.
The morning air was crisp and even cooler than the midnight run, the sun was rising and the sense of achievement had already started to wash over me. The once glowing sticks were now just resting on the ground and there was a sense of calm before the world was awoken and the hustle and bustle would start again.
As I neared the finish line, mentally and physically I had no more to give. I had to dig deep one more time to finish and make sure I didn’t stop or walk over the finish line. As I neared the home straight for the last time, my pace picked up again. As if re-enacting my school days, I got faster and faster, and saw the last 40 metres as a 100m sprint. As I crossed the finish line, knowing that I couldn’t have given anymore, for the final time, I relinquished the wristband.
As the last runner came in at approx. 12.40pm, after starting their run 1 minute before the cut-off point, the entire team of 8 runners waited at the home straight to run the last 40 metres together. The sense of not leaving anyone behind and all ‘coming home’ together fitted the occasion and demonstrated the spirit of many that had gone before.
In the end, the camp was packed down as if it was the last day of term. The past 24 hours had been turbulent at times, the sense of not knowing, the excitement and the upset, had all been worth coming through the other side. The comradery between the teams and their members, looking out for each other and encouraging each other to excel certainly would not have looked out of place within the history of RAF Hornchurch.