2012 Piece of String Fun Run – The World’s Most Pointless Race

Piece of String Fun RunAfter several months of writing about iconic world ultras, for November there’s a new race that’s a little different, the Piece of String Fun Run in the UK. It doesn’t have the history or fame of a major event, but it has a unique concept that’s of interest to those with an ultra mentality – the length is a mystery, posing the age-old question of ‘how long is a piece of string?’

Discussing the comfort of knowing where the finish line is, the event website states:

Just thinking about that definite end point in the long and hard personal battle is what motivates us to get there in the first place and brings comfort to us during the race.

Now imagine that this comfort was taken away. Imagine that you are tired, cold, aching, hungry, lonely and depressed and on top of all that you have NO IDEA how much further it is to go. The end of the battle may be just around the next corner. It may be two hours away. It might not be till tomorrow. It might not be until… How could you motivate yourself to finish a race where you don’t know where the finish is? How can you justify your own suffering based on how much of it is left if you don’t know how much is left? How will you endure the tough times when the whole thing just seems so pointless? Will you have the mental fortitude to keep going?

The 16 entrants have plenty of experience of extremely long endurance races, like running the length of Britain, triple Ironman races and a whole host of other events. To apply they had to send in ‘misery pictures’ of themselves going through hell in various races and many people were turned down for lack of experience.

About the Race
I heard about this race because I jointly offer coaching in the UK with the race director, James Elson, but it’s such a different take on ultrarunning that I had to include it in this column. Usually the distance, time or terrain of a race is known in advance. That offers enough scope for a physical and mental challenge for even the toughest of the tough. So taking that certainty away brings up new difficulties to deal with. What’s the appropriate pace? How much to eat and drink?

The race is on November 24th and could end that same day or not. The organizers won’t be drawn on committing to any time boundaries that may help the runners mentally prepare, but it’s safe to say the runners would be very disappointed if it was only 10k.

All that’s known about the course is that it’ll involve loops of varying distances near to Streatley in Berkshire, so there won’t be mountains. Aid stations are every six miles or so and drop bags are allowed. Cut-offs are also part of it, but these are mainly to stop entrants “ambling around at 2mph” as the website explains. Plus pacers aren’t allowed since the whole idea is to make it mentally harder so that would defeat the point.

The best clue about the race is the nod given to the Barkley Marathons, a race of over 100 miles that is made harder every time someone finishes (which isn’t all that often). The entry fee is ridiculously low at £1.37 ($2.20), compared to $1.60 for the Barkley. Also, completing three laps (over 60 miles) of the Barkley is called the ‘Fun Run’, the same tag as for this event. This is a labor of love, created to provide a new challenge to those who are looking for new ways to test their endurance.

There are 13 comments

  1. Fernando N. Baeza

    Sounds like an awesome race Ian! Hope theres a post race write up to see what all the hype is about!!! Thanks for the article!

    Fernando Baeza

    San Antonio, TX

  2. richard felton

    Follow hashtag #pieceofstring from saturday for updates. The winter100 is at the same time and similar location so may be a bit of crossover. @centurionrunning will do their own tweets and @ukrunrambles will be doing some too. Its a mental concept but so intriguing. The 16 entrants are seriously solid and include mimi anderson but the 'not knowing' will surely break some. Plus imagine if someone drops out and they only had a mile to finish but didn't know! Brutal!

  3. Tom

    Add to that the fact we have been told to bring ordance survey maps – yes MAPS – and compass to find the route and you have an additional mental pressure that will come into play at some point.

          1. Tom

            Oh my holy cool box they make cheese string! I have no idea why that is significant or exited me.

            A wheel might be an idea as I have no idea what foot wear to start in because I have no idea of the terrain: road – trail – mud lake – Rain forest?

  4. Tim Lambert

    As Richard says, its on the same day and same course as the Winter 100. I'm volunteering at the 87.5 mile aid station and if the piece of string is still going on by then, I will be fascinated to see the difference between those guys and the standard 100 milers who know they are near the end.

    A fantastic race, but not one for a novice like me…yet.

  5. Ian Sharman

    Posted by James Adams on Facebook after the race (he came up with the concept):

    What a weekend. Brutal weather for what was already going to be a massively tough race. We had to change things around due to the weather and some of the "easy" loops we planned near the river were replaced with boggy, mist, dark death loops. It actually wasn't the intention to make it that hard.

    Awesome respect for all 10 runners who had the balls to take on such a challenge and what delighted me most was the attitude of all 10. We had 10 of the toughest runners in the land and beyond and despite the suffering and the conditions they stayed smiling, didn't moan or complain and went about it with the fantastic dignity and bloody mindedness that I'd come to expect from such characters.

    Huge thank you to everyone who came along to help too, making food, manning checkpoints, driving to and fro. There are too many names to mention right now but I will be doing this very soon. You know who you are and it could not have happened without you.

    Thank you James Elson for taking on this pipe dream of mine. Your level of commitment, organisation and professionalism is unrivaled in the ultra world and doing this along with the Winter 100 race as well was amazing.

    I think we have proved that the Piece of String race works as a concept. There are many things we would do differently the next time, we learned a huge amount. This was always going to be an experimental race and I again thank the 10 brave souls who gave themselves over for this bizarre experiment.

    Lengthy blog to follow of course but I would just like to call out the amazing acheivement of the first two ever finishers of the Piece of String race.

    Wouter Hemelinck – You truly are a running animal. Running fast through that bog while reading a map was phenomenal. It was a pleasure to have you as part of the race and even more so to see you finish.

    Sam Robson – Battled through the bog and sleep deprivation to get there in the end. Your suprised and relieve response when I turned up at Bury Downs to say that you had finished is what I've been dreaming of for a year that I've had this idea in my head. That was a wonderful moment.

    In fitting with the ideals of the race we are not going to publish official finishing times, rankings or distances. All that we are going to say is that in the inaugural Piece of String race 2012 there were 10 starters and 2 finishers.

    Until next time…..

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