Aug 17 2015

New Club Record set at this year’s VGW marathon

boris-pulls-a-face-to-save-croydon1-e1313570553690The Queen of the Suburbs was how Croydon was known in its halcyon days.

Sheepishly nestling in a transport corridor between central London and the south coast of England, just north of two gaps in the North Downs, the suburb is now home to one of the largest commercial districts outside of Central London, bearing one of the largest shopping districts and a developed night-time economy. Recently – as the club’s secretary will confirm – it has seen the development of the dubstep genre, while the Greyhound has played host to a wide range of musical acts, including the Boomtown Rats, David Bowie and – Ed Miliband’s controversial Desert Island Discs choice – Aha.

Boris Johnson recently announced his willingness to support Croydon’s application to be granted “City Status”, and announced £23m of additional funding to help redevelop the town at the Develop Croydon Conference back in November 2011. The suburb is therefore the unlikely starting point for one of southern England’s most arresting long-distance walks: the Vanguard Way.

The Vanguard Way – as most bearded men in their fifties with tinted spectacles will tell you – is a 66 mile route from East Croydon to Newhaven on the south coast. It passes through the counties of Surrey, Kent and East Sussex, between Croydon and Newhaven, East Sussex. It connects the London suburbs to the south coast, via the North Downs, Ashdown Forest, South Downs National Park and the Cuckmere valley.

It can scarcely be said to rival the Ridgeway, the Saxon Shore Way or other long-distance footpaths in the UK in terms of its age – it was formalised in 1980 to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Vanguards Rambling Club (in what has got to be one of the most disappointing etymologies ever, the Vanguards Rambling Club named themselves in honour of an occasion when they returned from a walk by travelling in the guard’s van of a crowded train). But in terms of aesthetics, arresting views and rural splendour… it is “up there” – only a few pegs below the Appalachian Way or Barnes’ very own Beverley Brook nature walk.

It was only a matter of time before somebody decided to incorporate a long-distance running event into the Vanguard Way. That somebody was Gareth Davies – the wits and wherewithal behind the idea to run around Richmond Park three and a bit times and call it a marathon (as well as the veteran of more than one hundred marathons).

Now in its third year, the fixture is more than just a distance running event: it is 42 km of trails, providing athletes with endless opportunities to showcase their skills at tackling hills (both kinds: the ones that go up, as well as the ones that go down) and their navigational expertise. Once again, club members demonstrated that they have very little of the former and absolutely none of the latter. Once they had finished coughing and wheezing their way up and down the hills of Farleigh, Titsey Park and the amusingly-named Chelsham, a look at their Garmin telemetry showed that their split times had more in common with the intervals that one might expect to enjoy between the early contractions associated with the arduous delivery at the end of a (first) somewhat difficult pregnancy… than with a running event. Indeed, Simon Itkin set a new club record for “Getting the best value for money from a trail race”. Even podium-hopeful Dave Miller confirmed that he gave up all hope of winning the race within the first 10 km and concentrated instead on making new friends in the South London undergrowth (and blackberry-picking). Serial underachiever Liam Whelan proved that prior knowledge of the course is worth precisely nothing, while neophyte Helen Grote confounded expectations by actually sticking to the trail and not getting lost at all.

A couple of weeks later, Paul Cheetham managed to restore balance to the force by coming second in the World Masters’ Championships in Lyon and winning something. His race report follows shortly.

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