If you want the short version, it’s here. The rest below is just me making an effort to dramatise the day!
1 – What on earth – and, err, sea, is Sealand?
“It is not that life ashore is distasteful to me. But life at sea is better” – Sir Francis Drake
Sealand, as it describes itself, was founded as a sovereign Principality in 1967 just twelve kilometres off the eastern shores of England. “Errr, how? I want one!” you ask. Well, it’s not so easy sadly!
During World War II, the UK build a number of military bases as a defence against German air raids. These sea forts housed enough troops to man and maintain artillery to shoot down Luftwaffe planes. The majority of the forts were built (illegally?) in international waters and, after the war, most were abandoned and pulled down in the 50s apart from one: the royal fort Roughs Tower, which would soon become the home of Sealand, the smallest country in international waters. About the size of a tennis court, it housed 120 troops during the war! (although, to be fair, there are 7 floors within each tower).
As pointed out on their website, by being at high sea, deserted and abandoned, the concrete and steel fortress was, from a (tenuous or not, depending on your standpoint) legal point of view, an extra-national territory.
In 1966, Roy Bates was an early leader in the pirate radio movement which was gathering strength in England. A regular seafarer, he spotted the unique diplomatic loophole of Roughs Tower and took it over, shortly thereafter naming it Sealand, creating a flag, a national anthem, a motto “E Mare Libertas” and bestowing upon his wife the title of Princess Joan (and who said romance was dead?!).
Anyway, years of legal wrangling, an expansion of British territorial waters to swallow up Sealand (which was quite amusingly pre-empted by Sealand who increased their own territorial waters to swallow up the English coastal towns of Felixstowe and Harwich the day before the Territorial Sea Act was passed – ha!) and various other invasions and counter-invasions mean Sealand’s international recognition is, mm, still in debate. However, despite all the difficulties it’s faced, it’s still here, 49 years on. With luck, its ethos and legacy might live on for a while (even if the rusty pillars give in…).
There are endless articles online about Sealand but this one provides a particularly good (and readable) overview of its history: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/notes-from-a-small-island-is-sealand-an-independent-micronation-or-an-illegal-fortress-8617991.html
2 – So… where does running come into all this?
I can’t remember the exact time I first heard about Sealand. It was probably a good 10 years or so ago and, for some reason (most likely because I thought “wtf” when I read it), it captured my imagination and stuck in my teenage mind as a quirky place I’d always remember, even if I’d never get to go to it. Maybe it was the mystery surrounding it or the dare-devilness of it.
Going to Sealand was all about doing something different and travelling towards the unknown. There was something mystical about this fortress, an insignificant significance. So close to England, yet so far. It just feels like it shouldn’t exist where it does and, depending on your point of view, Sealand is more or less one of the following: a private fiefdom, a WWII relic, a realpolitik ‘up yours’ to the UK or, well, a rusty old dump in the North Sea.
Then, a few years ago, when the idea of running around the world was budding in my head, it crept back to the surface. I specifically remember day-dreaming myself away from an excel spreadsheet one day, picturing myself sailing over on a fishing boat, treadmill and alcoholic gifts in tow, to complete a race there.
Fast forward to April this year and the Guardian kindly published an article about my adventure. With this added ‘credibility’, I thought there’d be no harm in dropping Sealand a polite email, signed off with kind regards and all the blabla. If you don’t try, you’ll never know. Within a few days, Prince Michael’s response couldn’t have been more positive, and he even promised to put his son James forward for the half (James, however, wasn’t quite so keen!)”.
When I received the go-ahead from their government to go there, the real challenge started: how the hell do I get there and, more to the point, how do I run a half marathon, bearing in mind the slightly fatal drops if I ran in circles and missed a corner. A treadmill, it would be.
From here on, the project really snowballed out of control (in a good way!). With Michael’s go-ahead, I got in touch with Rick, the Men’s Running deputy editor, to see if they’d like to cover the run. They did and, on top of this, a group of Rick’s friends who were filmmakers were keen to make a short film about 80 runs and Sealand! With this in place, Rick used contacts of his to find some sponsors, without whom the adventure could never have happened: Nordic Track provided us with a state-of-the-art treadmill and Nathan Sports supported the cost of the crossing and provided us with some kit too. This, somehow, was becoming quite a bit bigger than I’d initially anticipated!
Because of the difficulties in getting out there and getting on (and particularly off!) the fortress, we tentatively picked a few dates in July for going out when, weather permitting, we’d head out to sea.
3 – Sealand – take one…
Summer arrived and, on a blisteringly hot Thursday in early July, Pippa, Rick, the three filmmakers (Ross, Ryan, George), about 2 kilos of vegan brownies (thanks Pippa!) and I headed up to Harwich the night before the run. On the way, we experienced the delights of central Essex which were, err, limited.
On the plus side, which’ll be useful when we head back to hang out with our street gangs, we did discover some new drug slang and now know that the charming young man who asked us if we wanted “lamb” at the petrol station was actually selling crack cocaine (they’re both “white and fluffy” apparently!).
The next morning, we rose early at 6am, full of excitement at the thought of going to Sealand! (or not, as we’d soon find out) The sun was gloriously shining, there was little wind and it was looking like the perfect day to go out to sea and, despite the early rise, we were all buzzing.
The first order of the day was to be briefly interviewed for the film. The Premier Inn room made the “studio” look a bit like a cheap porno set but, soon enough, I was plonked down in front of two cameras answering various questions about 80 runs, why I picked Sealand etc. Having a tendency to speak at the speed of knots without articulating, I was given very clear instructions: speak slowly and articulate! It did me no favours. I sounded like such a posh git. I think even the Queen would have been embarrassed to be near me – the killer moment was when I said “there are so many places at one’s doorstep…”. Ugh. One learnt one’s lesson that one does not say “one” without sounding like an aristocrat. Ugh.
Anyway. During the interviews, I got two missed calls from James, from Sealand which, at 6.30am, is never a great sign. It turned out that, although it was glorious weather on shore, the wind was up out at sea and it was looking like the high waves would make getting on/off Sealand too dangerous. Ugh. Again. As this was caught on camera, Ross was very excited that we had filmed “drama” but, other than the good footage, this was a right ‘act of god’ pain in the arse.
With blind hope, we still packed our bags and headed out to Harwich to meet Michael but, despite our best efforts, they wouldn’t budge (which was fair enough!). After a somewhat disappointing coffee on the delightful (…) Harwich pier, all that was left for the rest of the day was a heavy-hearted, pretty miserable drive home…
4 – Sealand, take two…
3.30am – It’s two weeks since our first attempt failed and, whatever people say about it not feeling that bad if you’ve got something to look forward to, it feels bloody horrible when your alarm goes off at this time!
With a huge storm on its way from the west, time was precious. We knew we had an 8 hour window to get to Sealand and back before we’d be stuck out there for a week. If the thought of spending a week on an old fortress without spare clothes in the middle of the sea doesn’t make you rush your shower in the morning, I’m not sure much ever will.
4am – We’d just received a text from James saying it was still on and Ross’s, Rick’s, Ryan’s and my bleary eyes were all set to stare ahead at the short drive up the coast. This time, we’d be travelling with a mini-crew as, unfortunately, Pippa broke her ankle the previous week (whilst running – oops!) and George had other commitments. We also reduced our budget this time: less film kit, no overnight hotel and a car which was old enough to have a cassette player!
7am – The sun was certainly not shining and the wind definitely seemed to be picking up but here we were in Harwich, to meet James and his brother Liam. Extremely easy-going and nice, they both put us at ease for the day ahead, even though we had to sign our lives away in disclaimers which none of us actually read through (they’d be lost at sea with us too anyway). Soon enough (though half an hour late which was starting to stress me out a little!), Mike – one of the regular guards, joined us. I think he was mainly there to keep an eye on us and make sure we didn’t root through his things but, as a living history book for Sealand, he was a great companion for the morning, telling us all about endless tales about Sealand during World War II, during its early days as its own nation and about staying stuck out at sea when the weather gets bad. Talking of which, we needed to hurry the hell up and get out there and back…
8am – Surely but slowly, the spec in distance became clearer and clearer until the unmistakable silhouette of Sealand came into focus. And, well, wow. It really does look like it does in the photos! Old, yet brand new; mysterious; rusty, mysterious; huge but also so tiny amongst the endless sea.
Over the next half hour, the worryingly named “Plummet Winch” (what kind of PR company named it that? Maybe the “Death Winch” was their backup brand) picked each of us up, hard hats safely screwed on, out of the sea, one by one, and dropped us on, well, land (?) in full safety.
Once in the air, you switch off and just enjoy the total randomness of what you were up to. It’s probably safe to say this will be the most unusual mode of transport I’ll ever use to get to a race! As the first ‘tourists’ in 2 years to come onboard, we felt quite honoured and chuffed to have been let in!
After a visit via passport control for the visas (I might have taken my expired passport… I didn’t particularly fancy the deep cavity search at US customs if I’d taken my real passport), we were pretty much all set to go, other than the fact we needed to put this treadmill together.
Nordic Track had generously provided us with a state-of-the-art treadmill: fine-looking, full of gimmicks and seemingly straight forward to put together, it was also bloody huge! I’ve no idea how James managed to lift it up onto the platform but here it was anyway. It took a fair effort from a few of us to carry it through the narrow corridors of the top deck to the original emplacement of one of the anti-aircraft guns. Screw the half marathon, let’s just make this a strength & conditioning session!
Worryingly for the project, no one was particularly taking control of putting the treadmill together meaning that the building manual ended up in the hands of one of the worst people at DIY in England: me. To be fair, it was pretty straight forward with only about 6 steps to it and, glory behold the brave, I succeeded!
We initially positioned it by the winch, to allow for good views for photos filming and, well, it’d also just look cool out there. However, just as we were putting the final touches to it, a light drizzle started. Disaster!
I had previously called Nordic Track’s customer service team pretending I’d just bought a treadmill for my garage (they needn’t know) and asking how waterproof they were. I’d been told in no uncertain terms that they were not and that I should treat it like at 42inch TV: get it wet and it will die. Plus we’d invalidate our warranty, not that that last point was too much of a concern right now…
So, frustrated with Mother Nature, we quickly dismantled the beast ( not for the last time of the day), contracted our lower back muscles and carried it through to the main corridor, which had an industrial, atmospheric feel to it with its thickly painted metallic walls and giant rivets and would look good for the film. We quickly stumbled upon a small issue: the corridor was 6ft6in high and I was 6ft5in. The treadmill’s mat was at least 5 inches high. No chance I could run bent over double for 90 minutes. Bugger. So, back to square one, we take the treadmill apart again and move it through to the living room. Complete with comfy beige sofas, a suite of encyclopaedias and graduation photos, it was a bit like being in a time-warp, circa 1980 (unlike their kitchen, which was actually more modern that ours!). Time-warp it might have been, it had an extra 5 inches of headroom and, at last, it looked like we’d be good to go!
9.30am – Cameras: check. Treadmill: check. Running gear: check. Everything was together, thumbs up were being given and we were all set to go except that … nothing happens when we press ON. NOTHING HAPPENS. We press the RESET button: nothing. And again: nothing. Ugh, could we have come this far only to fall at the last hurdle? Nope, thank f*ck. Some bright spark realised that the sidetable light was off too so maybe the whole fortress’ power was off. It was. The heart palpitations could stop.
As pointed out by James, this is probably one of the most sustainable ‘principalities’ in the world: every kWh of energy really is precious and saved! Low energy lightbulbs, windpower, 100% recycling…good effort. The less said about the fumes coming from the slightly leaky generator, the better!
Anyway, with the power on and the nervous laughing over, we were finally set.
10.30am – Well, let’s be honest, running on a treadmill isn’t very exciting. I’d love to write many tales and adventures about it but, well, the previous hour was pretty boring. Other than bashing my head against the ceiling a few times, nothing really happened, other than the heat and humidity levels in the room rapidly escalating. With every arm movement, I sprayed the dashboard with lovely sweat. We cracked the window open but it stayed pretty damn toasty in there.
It was partly with this in mind that I was becoming increasingly aware of the elephant in the room (other than the treadmill): the rain hadn’t materialised outdoors. I was 16km down and, if I could just get another km or so completed, I could take a gamble with the weather and finish the race outside. There was just the small “getting the treadmill dismantled, carried outdoors and ‘remantled’” issue but we were becoming pretty good at it by now and did it in under 10 minutes. Pedants might, at this point, point out that a half marathon shouldn’t have a 10 minute break in the middle but, well, tough: this break was still pretty intensive!
Outside, the breeze was a godsend and the rain held off so we could go ahead without destroying the machine! The cameramen were having a field day and I cracked on, still maintaining a 4min/km pace. I was actually going a little too fast for them and, as I reached the 21.1km mark in 1h27, I heard Ross should back to me “Just keep going, we’re not quite ready”. Err… sure, thanks guys!
After another kilometre or so, I got the thumbs up from the guys, pressed the Stop button, leapt off the machine and sprinted up to the helipad, where I’d cross the official “finish line” and be met by Prince James and a medal we’d designed.
Just as I was expecting the final “Cut” of the day, Ryan, who was filming the finish from the bottom deck, sheepishly confessed that he’d knocked the camera when filming the finish so could we redo the finish scene. Sure, why not. It won’t be faking the scene so long as I don’t tell anyone about it in, say, my blog. Oops.
12 noon – So there I was, the first person to complete a half marathon on Sealand. The logistics were more of a mission than the actual run but what an adventure!
We still had time for a quick tour of the rest of Sealand and make it all the way down the 7 floors of the towers to the seabed floor.
Having previously hosted up to 120 army men (!), pirate radio equipment or an internet data heaven, they now hold a storage room, a few homely bedrooms, a gym, a prison (!) and a chapel (!!).
And, with all this in mind and having dismantled the treadmill one final time, we winched ourselves down to the boat, put the full throttle on, watched Sealand become smaller and smaller until it was just a spec in this distance. Just as the rain and bad weather properly was settling in, we landed back on the mainland by 1pm, wetter, sweatier but much richer for the experience.
5 – But, why?
Well, why not? 🙂
It’s a bit of fun, a bit of adventure, a chance to visit somewhere on our doorstep hardly anyone’s heard of, let alone been to: a place full of history, of idealism, of romance, and of pure barking madness.
Back next year for the marathon? Well, let us check the weather forecast first this time…
This wouldn’t have been possible without James’ and Liam’s hospitality and kindness, Nordic Track and Nathan Sports’ support and Mike’s safekeeping – thanks everyone!