These highly competitive and very enjoyable races have been an annual feature of the Sussex athletics scene in their present format since 1990. There had been a history of fairly regular road relays prior to this, however, initially as “challenge matches” (for men only!). These were between the likes of Horsham Blue Star and Brighton & Hove AC, and involved running the rather arbitrary distance between Horsham and Brighton along the main road.
This was extended to several other clubs from time to time and became recognised as a County Championship. However by the end of the 1970s it was clear that the increasing volume and speed of traffic made this rather too dangerous a venture and it was, sadly, discontinued.
It was in 1990 that the concept became a formally designated County Championship around a specified course and the event, as we now know it, was inaugurated. In both 1990 and 1991 the lap was around the Goodwood Motor Racing circuit, an approximate 2.4 mile lap, that was the same for all ages, although the juniors ran a straight race rather than a relay. The lap was fairly flat and fast and was totally traffic free. It also had ample room for socialising before and after races as well as providing the diversion of light aircraft coming and going to and from the airstrip. Here it stayed for just two years but it became difficult to hire the venue again on the same weekend each year so for the sake of continuity in the county calendar it was moved to Alexander Park, Hastings, and then to its current home at Christ’s Hospital in 1993, where it has stayed ever since.
This venue offers a lap of just over a mile for the juniors, entirely traffic free, within the school campus and a longer lap, a little over two miles, for the seniors including a section along a minor country lane. The huge school grounds allow the competing clubs to pitch their tents and banners, which quickly generate something of a colourful carnival atmosphere.
The current format has four races: Under 13 girls and boys, Under 15 girls and boys, Senior and Veteran ladies plus the older veteran men, and finally senior and over 40 men. Teams for senior men comprise six runners, there are four runners in the over 40 men’s teams and all other age groups have teams of three. Competition is always fierce in all age groups and the team and individual records show that Sussex has had a lot of very tasty athletes over the years!
Relays, of course, test not just the ability of individual runners but the strength in depth of a club’s resources. It is not unusual for a team leading after one lap to move rapidly back down the field as others forge ahead with stronger later runners. Awards each year go to the first three teams as well as the three fastest individual runners in each age group and, although it is not surprising that the larger Sussex clubs have featured prominently, the awards have been well spread over most of the county clubs over the years.