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Forget Le Mans, Land’s End to John O’ Groats is the Ultimate Test of Motorsport Endurance

 

23 Aug 2021

It’s just before seven on a bitter December morning, the pale winter sun has still to make an appearance, if indeed it will, and the chilled ground on the rocky outcrop of Land’s End is like cast iron underfoot. The only illumination is provided by the dim lights of some 90 or so historic rally cars, as engines struggle into life in the freezing temperatures, barely audible above the furious wind that is whipping the Atlantic Ocean at the base of the cliffs into a wild tempest. The heat of the engines begins to thaw the frost that has formed across the contours of the cars, and pilots and navigators chip away at ice covered windscreens. It is somewhat futile of course, the glass will remain frigid throughout the ordeal ahead, but at least there is some heat in the cabins, for some at least. For those whose journey is to be made in open top pre-war machines there are no comforts to keep out the cold. Or the dark. Those brave souls look upon the competitors in more modern machinery with a mix of scorn and envy, the expressions they receive back are a cocktail of admiration and bewilderment. But just what is it that lies ahead? What has given cause for nearly 100 classic and vintage cars to assemble at the most south-eastern point of the UK? The Land’s End to John O’ Groats Reliability Trial, LeJog of course.

LeJog is almost inexplicable. On paper it is a journey of some 1500 miles, from the most southerly and westerly point of the UK, at Land’s End in Cornwall, up to the most north-westerly point, John O’ Groats at the top of bonnie Scotland. Toe to tip, very much the hard way. In reality it is 75 hours of endurance hell, there is no let up in its difficulty, it is a relentless charge from one end of the UK to the other, whilst navigating a path between the start and finish that is very much off of the beaten track. It continues through the night, with very little sleep and the infamous last two legs run almost back-to-back, over 24 hours that the seasoned Joggers both look forward to and fear in equal measure. Not everyone will make it to the finish, cars break, and people break, it isn’t for everyone, and indeed when you’re in the thick of it, in the pouring rain in the middle of a freezing Scottish night, no doubt even the most hardened LeJog enthusiast question the life choices that bought them here.

But, despite it all, people, from all corners of the globe, keep coming back. So why do they do it? What is the explanation for this folly, as each year crews from all over the planet pit themselves against one of the hardest endurance tests out there for owners of any car, let alone adding in the classic element. Are they mad? Sadistic? Masochistic? Well, probably a little bit of all of those things, but it probably has as much to do with the human condition as anything else, in as much as our race is driven to push boundaries and thresholds in the pursuit of survival, and that to sail so close to the line of complete capitulation and defeat is to feel utterly and wholly alive.

25 editions of the rally have come and gone since John Brown organised the first LeJog in 1993, when classic car regularity rallying was still in its infancy. One man who was there at the start was Peter Rushforth, who, despite being involved in 15 of the events didn’t compete until last year and declared that being at the sharp end was a lot more fun, despite being in his 80’s! Another extremely experienced LeJog hand is John Kiff, who has been involved as part of the organisation or as a competitor on each LeJog, and so is well placed to offer an opinion on just why people do it. He planned the route for the 25th anniversary edition of the event, and it is important to remember that this isn’t a direct route, but one stunning rally road after another, but for John the pick is Wales.

“Thrown into the whole mix – and maybe the crowning glory of LeJog – is a half-night navigational road rally in darkest Wales, but that’s after you’ve spent all day doing a rally up through the West Country!”

He isn’t exaggerating about the dark either, and night-time in Wales often brings the rain as well. As anyone who took part in the last LeJog will tell you, it was a particularly sodden run up through Abbergwessyn providing both drama and delight in the small hours. One competitor that knows all about the perils of the Welsh rain is Martin Burhenne, one of the many competitors from Germany that enter LeJog each year. Martin’s Mini ended up half sunk in a ditch on the perilous Abbergwessyn road. “I’ll never forget that night in Wales” he tells me, and, despite coming so close to disaster, he is back for more this time around, but why put yourself through it again? “Of course, LeJog is tough, but my favourite [events] are not ‘silk scarf’ events, LeJog is a real highlight for man and machine, I like that in LeJog the focus is on sport and not on surrounding. In England we can play these funny games, in Germany forget it!”

For many the run up through the west country and the late night into Wales would be more than enough, but when weary crews turn into beds for a few hours of sleep after legs 1 and 2 they are not even halfway. Indeed, for many the magnitude of the task at hand doesn’t sink in until leg 4 commences, with leg five running almost concurrently with it, save for a two-hour break. “It’s when it starts going dark as you are passing Glasgow that the enormity of the all-night endurance ahead of you strikes you hard!” says John Kiff. It mustn’t be underestimated just how tough this final 26 hours are, particularly as most of them are in darkness and on roads that most wouldn’t venture down unless lost. Even the experienced crews get into trouble at this stage of the game, Elliott Dale put his pre-war Bentley off the road in the bowels of Glen Coe and Paul Bloxidge and Ian Canavan, HERO Cup and Golden Roamer winners, also came to blows in the early hours of the morning alongside Loch Ness. All were ok and it is important to remember that this is a speed-controlled event, nobody is racing and there are no prizes for finishing fastest or being first over the line, in fact the opposite is probably true.

Ian and Paul’s experiences that year highlight another key element of LeJog, the companionship between competitors, and Paul remembers those that helped more than the shunt itself “we were offered a tow out by a diminutive MGB Roadster. They couldn’t, of course, but they stopped and they tried – brilliant! The camaraderie that you develop with those you’ve known for years and those you’ve never met. You are all ‘in this together’ and there are many examples of crews going out of their way to help others.” These are thoughts echoed by John Kiff as well, “The camaraderie among Joggers is quite special – it’s you against the elements and the fiendish route designer – and you all help each other, sometimes even at the risk of losing a medal”

It isn’t just brothers in arms amongst the competitive ranks either, good Samaritans often wear civilian clothing, and chance encounters inspire many acts of charity. Horst Pokroppa, another competitor from Germany and an experienced LeJog competitor, recalls a chance encounter in the bleak Scottish night that saved his LeJog, “You don’t know what you can expect from life if you never did LEJOG in a more than 50 year old car. You never get to know British hospitality when a Rolls Royce Driver gives you his golden Credit card – because your continental card wasn’t accepted at midnight somewhere in Scotland – with a grin and the words: ‘Hope to see you safe at the finish, use my card wherever you need it’ “ This kind of generosity, and this sort of anecdote are surely one of the reasons that people, from all across the planet, keep returning, these sorts of things just don’t happen to ‘normal people’.

This solidarity between crews is felt nowhere more keenly than perhaps at the finish, as crowds and competitors gather to welcome everyone across the line. Here more than anywhere the reason that people take part is obvious, with emotions of the task completed clearly on display. There are almost not the words to describe the emotions one feels as the finish is crossed, and it begins miles beforehand, as the seemingly endless black of the Scottish night begins to soften and day breaks. Never has the arrival of the morning been so welcome as it is on the fifth leg of LeJog, it is a resurrection of sorts and offers up the energy required to get through the final few hours of competition. Then, as the finish line finally comes into view the cork is popped and competitors are consumed with elation and euphoria the like of which is unique to events such as this, as well as being utterly devoured by exhaustion. There are hugs and kisses, fist pumps, cheers and there are tears. The task is done, and the beast has been tamed, at least for a year, for many will be back again, many like veteran jogger Bill Cleyndert, who says “LeJog is an opportunity to test you and your car to the limits. A roller coaster of emotion and physically draining yet never failing to thrill – bizarrely leaving one yearning for more!” The question now is, will we see you lining up at the start this coming December?

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