History of the Round the Island Race


For those who think Mersea’s fame is restricted to its oyster connection – you’re in for a big surprise! Check out the many athletic clubs’ websites and you will soon discover Mersea’s “Round the Island” running race holds equal status with the oysters! The history of the Round the Island race (or “Great Island Walking Race” as it was originally called) dates back almost 100 years to just after the 1st world war when it first was held. The original prizes of sizzling sausages and gallons of beer have been replaced in recent times by trophies and medals, and the refreshment stations which were once manned by coastguards handing out glasses of ale have been superseded by volunteer race marshals proffering beakers of water.

Competitors who were known by names such as “Bungo”, “Becky eel-catcher”, “Skin o’Worms” etc. have long since gone, and we are now more used to seeing names such as “Robert”, “Richard” or “Amanda” on entry forms. In the early days celebrations at the end of the race were long and raucous. Today the winners of the various classes are traditionally presented with their trophies by the Mayor of West Mersea, and then disperse quietly with their families and supporters – usually to the beach or the town – before returning home.

Competitors first assemble in Willoughby Avenue car park, and then proceed to the beach by Two Sugars Café on Victoria Esplanade where the race starts at 10.30 a.m. The race is run clockwise, literally around the perimeter of the island, a distance of around 12.2 miles. It’s described as an all-terrain race, and is certainly challenging, as runners have to cope with loose sand, mud, long grass, hidden uneven ground – and at times an outrageous headwind. In fact the word “challenging” may be a bit of an understatement, as the race has been described by some who have taken part as “brutal”, and more than one competitor has said they felt as if they had taken part in an iron man contest rather than a X-country running race. Eavesdropping on competitors at the end of a race as they discuss their experiences, probably the most repetitive phrase you will hear is “It’s the sand that got me in the end”. Despite these comments, and there are many who say “never, ever again”, the number of entries seem to grow year on year, and this year around 230 competitors are expected to take part.

But it’s not all about winning. To complete the course in under two hours is the target for many competitors. Those that take part are certainly not all elite club runners. Many compete because they are lured by the challenge of just doing something different. For the majority, though, it’s a case of achieving a personal goal. Perhaps beating a previous time, or even for the sheer exhilaration of running around the perimeter of Britain’s most easterly inhabited island. For those people times are irrelevant. The uniting factor is the sense of achievement when it’s all over. That’s what really matters.

Having said all that, the race isn’t organized just for the challenge it poses to runners, nor for its historical association. It is also a major source of income for a small group of ordinary people known as Mersea Island Lions. Their fund raising efforts throughout the year provide financial and practical help to local charities and individuals.