Monday, 17 March 2014

Event Review : Leith Hill Half Marathon - A Marshal's View

Despite having been a part of dozens of races and events over the years, it’s usually as a participant and without much thought given to how much organisation it takes. A lot of people have a hand in organising and running races and many of those are volunteers. As demonstrated by parkrun very week, volunteers are the back bone of most of the races and events in the UK. They help to mark the course, direct you at tricky points, man your water stations, hand out jelly babies, offer encouragement and make sure you get a medal at the end. Without volunteers, or marshals, races would not be as we know them today.
Gorgeous dogs who accompanied our briefing with "singing"
I have started to realise what a difference a cheery, helpful marshal can make to my own race experience and that’s why I decided to volunteer my services on Sunday to help out at a race the OH was taking part in, rather than just standing on the sidelines. Leith Hill Half Marathon is arguably the hardest half marathon in England, from Dorking to the highest point in south eastern England with 1836 feet of ascent. It’s one of around half a dozen fairly mental races organised by Rob McCaffrey of Trionium. These events have a reputation of being well organised, fun, friendly and a little bit special. Some 300 runners were registered for the event which was preceded by a wife-carrying race that unfortunately I missed. Last year the event took place in snow. This year we had 20 degree heat!
Marking tape on the route. That track is much steeper than it looks!
I was surprised to discover that there were only around 15 marshals for the event. If there had been less willing volunteers, could the race have taken place at all? Rob briefed us all, assigned jobs and made sure we all had a way of getting to and from our marshal points. It’s an out and back course so walking to your spot wasn’t really an option. I was assigned a spot just passed the second water station at the 5.5/7.5 mile point to direct people around a corner. I had the St John Ambulance team to keep me company and a handful of spectators to help cheer everyone on. I made it my mission to be as loud, enthusiastic and encouraging as I could be.
Being briefed by organiser Rob

Everyone had their names on their bibs which, once I’d realised this, made it even more fun. One chap actually doubled back to ask how I knew him as he hadn’t realised his name was below his number. At least I made him smile. It’s a hot, steep and exhausting course so I hope I succeeded, I certainly enjoyed myself! Most people looked utterly spent but it was lovely to see some smiles, and a thrill seeing the front runner come through with a 2 minute lead.
St John's taking it easy before the runners got to us
My station happened to be across the road from a pub whose landlord had not been informed of the race and who took great offence at me standing there in my hi-viz vest. According to him I was stopping people from getting into his car park (I turned no one away) and I was told in no uncertain terms that I should think about where I stood. Apparently the safety of 300 people was not a concern of his. Runners already had to contend with horse riders, hikers and cyclists! Thankfully, aside from that and two injuries that St John’s dealt with, it was fairly uneventful and I even had time to get back to the finish once the sweep had been past my station to see the OH. 
Big up to the fantastic water station crew!

In position. Thought the t-shirt was appropriate
Every finisher got a fantastic medal, a pint glass and a t-shirt with all the entrants’ names on the back. In addition the race HQ was a school and they were able to offer changing facilities, use of a swimming pool and a cooked breakfast for everyone including the marshals. We also got a t-shirt and pint glass for our help as well as a free entry into one of the events in the future. I’d honestly have done it for the joy alone, as I suspect many others would have done. It was fantastic just to be involved and I got just a big a buzz from being on the other side of proceedings but it did make us feel valued. I’ve seen other events give out special volunteer medals or t-shirts (Fleet Half, London Marathon, Crowthorne Triathlon) which is also a lovely token of appreciation.
Race spoils

Fantastic medal
I have a huge amount of respect for everyone who took part in the event and I really hope it was enjoyable. I’d encourage everyone to marshal, just once, even if you’re not injured or know anyone in the race, to get a little insight into what it’s like. It’s brilliant fun and just reinforces my view that runners are a really special and wonderful group of people.


  1. I'm local to the area and I cannot think of anything worse than doing a half mara around Leith Hill!!! I've considered entering the Bacchus one in the Autumn and all those hills put me off!

    1. I've actually entered the Bacchus one because despite the hills it sounds like such great fun, and it's certainly not one I'll be doing for a time! But yeah, half marathon up Leith Hill... not high on my list of things to do :)