Jersey: around the rock in a day

Tobias Mews
01 October 2016

The rise of adventure races has led people across the globe to push themselves, and their bank balances, to the limit. But how about taking it back to basics and inventing your own marathon? Tobias Mews took a day trip to Jersey to run 26.2 miles in a day and still make it back to Gatwick by dinnertime

I don’t mean to alarm you,’ Digby shouts from the edge of the five-mile long sandy beach, ‘but if you want to make your flight, you’re going to have to run faster. A lot faster. The rest of the route ain’t so flat.’

Feeling a touch of panic, I look above me to see flight BA2777 making its approach into Jersey Airport. I glance between my GPS watch and Ordnance Survey map, trying to calculate how long it should take me to make my way around the headland to St Brelade’s Bay, where I had expected to finish my DIY marathon.

‘I think I’ve still got time,’ I shout back. ‘Check-in closes in an hour.’ On the surface I might sound confident but, after six and a half hours of running, my legs are beginning to think otherwise.

Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of people announcing their latest marathon, triathlon or obstacle course nowadays, and it seems the world has become fitness obsessed. Now, with the UK boasting almost 150 marathons, more than 200 ultra marathons and more obstacle courses than you can shake a muddy trainer at, the discerning weekend warrior has never had it so good. But with some major events charging £135 for the pleasure of travelling to the Midlands and submitting yourself to the sort of torture normally reserved for the Special Forces, you’ll need deep pockets and the ability to endure discomfort. And you’ll need a degree of luck to be selected for a big city marathon – only 20 per cent of the more than 250,000 people who apply to run the London Marathon get in.

Over the past ten years I’ve tackled more than 200 races of almost every conceivable type, distance and discipline. I’ve even written a book on the subject. However a growing part of me yearns for something less commercial – a race with no entry fee, no big-name sponsors, no bibs, no medals, no goody bags.

I was looking for something with all the ingredients of a cracking adventure – a stunning destination worth travelling to in its own right, along with dramatic scenery. It also needed to be equivalent to a marathon in length, but with no entry fee or organised route. Above all, I wanted a sense of jeopardy – a chance that I might fail to make it back in time.

My wife, Zayne, suggested Jersey. I discovered that alongside an annual four-day springtime Around Island Walk, they hold an annual race called the Round the Rock Ultra. My idea was even simpler – I would catch the first flight at 7.15am from Gatwick, land at 8.30am and drive to the less inhabited north side of the island. From there, I would run 26 miles around the island and get back to the airport in time for the last flight home at 7.25pm.

I loved the idea. Nestled in the Gulf of Saint-Malo, five miles long and nine miles wide, Jersey is the biggest of the Channel Islands. With up to 48 miles of spectacular coastline to tackle and more than 3,280 feet of knee-crunching ascent, it would be a challenge.

From the moment I land, I am on the clock. Getting from the runway to standing in the arrivals hall takes ten minutes – having no luggage makes it very simple. ‘Could you take me to the Hungry Man?’ I ask the taxi driver. Situated along the northeastern coastline in the harbour of the tiny fishing village of Rozel, the 70-year-old alfresco café is an institution. Besides being a good place for a bacon bap, it is a fitting location to meet my running companions for the day – Digby Ellis-Brecknell, a native Jerseyman and founder of the Round the Rock Ultra Marathon, 
and Harry McAlinden, who is using our adventure as a training run in preparation for running from Land’s End to John o’Groats.

After introducing ourselves, we fall into step as we head up the steep hill out of Rozel Bay, chatting about our love of running, upcoming challenges and what makes Jersey so special. ‘I had no idea it was this beautiful,’ I say as we pause for breath on the beach of another sleepy fishing harbour, aptly named Bonne Nuit. By the look of their grins, they clearly agree. Harry, although originally Scottish, moved here 30 years ago and says he hasn’t once regretted it. ‘The two of us meet up every Sunday for a long run and a natter. Sometimes we don’t see a soul on the paths. And better yet, we can run for five hours and barely touch tarmac,’ he tells me.

The coastline we are on is pure unadulterated trail-running bliss. And as long as the sea remains on my right I don’t have to worry too much about getting lost.

‘Can you see that rock over there, the one with a big gap down the edge?’ Digby asks pointing to L’île Agois, which looks like a giant cupcake cleaved in half by a two-metre gap. ‘Can you believe that a community of monks used to live on that?’ he asks with disbelief.

We carry on past otherworldly woods, peculiar-looking multi-horned sheep and enticing narrow lanes. I realise there are a lot of things about Jersey that baffle me. With its French street names, WWII bunkers, Normandy-style farmhouses and a questionable number of bankers, one could argue the entire island is an enduring entente cordiale between the French and English.

‘It’s a shame it’s not clearer – on a sunny day you can glimpse France – it’s only 19 miles from here,’ Digby says, as if answering my thoughts while we run along a stretch of single track with a slightly alarming drop down towards the sea on our right.

Although the earliest traces of humanity here date back more than 250,000 years, this bit of land became an island 8,000 years ago after separating from France – more than enough time for the odd pirate, king and dictator to make their mark. Nowadays, its offshore status attracts financiers, footballers and the occasional British Formula One driver.

As we run, I become more and more alarmed at how long it is taking us. I’m slowed down by my Jack Russell-like impulse to dart into every ancient fort, take photos and stop to talk to friendly islanders on the way – and this is making my chances of making it round the island less and less likely. And because I had intentionally not brought any energy gels, preferring to rely on local food, we make a few too many stops to sample the local delicacies. I try a Jersey Wonder (a doughnut-like sweet cake) and a crab sandwich outside the Priory Inn by the Devil’s Hole natural crater. Washed down with a cider, it’s not your traditional marathon refreshment.

Sadly, Digby has to drop out with a twisted ankle, but not before warning me and Harry that we need to pick up the tempo if we want to make our flight. ‘If I miss that plane, my wife will kill me,’ I say to Harry as we make the final descent into St Brelade’s Bay, where we’ve arranged a taxi to take me to the airport. In total I’ve run exactly 26.2 miles in seven hours and 15 minutes, including lunch stops. It’s not one for the record books, but the sense of satisfaction is palpable.

‘The airport, please,’ I say to the driver as he pulls away agonisingly slowly. I’d forgotten about the island-wide 40mph speed limit. Then, less than ten minutes later and exactly ten hours after setting off that morning, I’m running through Departures. Arriving half an hour before your flight takes off is never ideal, but as I sprint through the doors I hear: ‘Flight BA2777 to London Gatwick is now boarding, please make your way to Gate 2.’

‘Are you OK, sir? You look as though you’ve just run a marathon,’ the stewardess asks me with concern as I board. ‘Actually, I have,’ I reply, making my way to my seat and hoping I don’t smell too much. As we take off, I consider where else I can fly to and from in a day. A whole new world has just opened up to me.

Other running routes you can do in a day

Isle of Man
First flight out: leave London City at 8.45am, arrive 9.55am
Last flight back: 6pm, arrive back at London City at 7.25pm
Take a bus or taxi from the airport to Ramsey (on the north side of island). Run the 28-mile long, thousand-year-old Millennium Trail via the island’s highest point. Be back at the airport in Castletown for the evening flight back to London.

2. Bergen
First flight out: leave Heathrow at 7.55am, arrive 10.55am
Last flight back: 8.30pm, arrive back at Heathrow at 9.35pm
Run the Seven Mountains of Bergen – a 35km (18.6 miles) route with more than 7,215ft of climbing, starting and finishing in Bergen. Every year at the end of May it attracts more than 8,000 hikers and runners. The fastest known time is three hours and 21 minutes. The average walking time is eight hours.

3. Zurich

First flight out: leave Heathrow at 7.05am, arrive 9.45am
First flight out the next day: 7.05am, arrive back at London Heathrow at 8am
This is a 24-hour trip, but I like it because it has a purpose. There is a car ferry that crosses the lake, therefore cutting the journey time in half and making it easier to do in one day. Run around Lake Zurich – 115km (71 miles), with 9,500ft of climbing along an official marked route (No. 84). Get back in time to catch the first flight out the next morning.

Follow Tobias on Twitter @TobiasMews