You might have heard the White Star Running story before. Here it is, told by the man who started it up. Andy shares his story about what led to the creation of WSR and its key ethos. This was originally written for The Guardian, and they published an abridged version.
Who the heck is Andy Palmer?
Good place to start. So, my name is Andy Palmer. I’m a runner and previously a postman. I didn’t like being a postman. I worked nights driving lorries; it was grim going to bed when the sun was coming up.
A few years ago, I read the autobiography of Richard Branson – not deliberately. I was in Cuba and had run out of things to read. Sir Richard’s book was the only book in the hotel library that wasn’t 50 Shades of Grey in German. It was a revelation (Branson’s book, not 50 Shades). I agreed with almost everything he said. Or rather, he agreed with me.
White Star Running is the company I created. We are a trail running events company; we organise running races in beautiful parts of Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, from distances of 10K up to marathon distance and beyond.
Many years ago now, I had an idea to organise an event in a lovely part of Dorset called Sydling St.Nicholas. Sydling is the archetypal Dorset village: it’s in a deep valley, it’s a farming village and not on the Dorset tourist trail. You could say its unspoilt; it doesn’t even have a shop. The area is hilly, very hilly.
My history is in organising road races. I had been Race Director of the Poole Festival of Running for a number of years. This is a big event with 10K, 5K and kids’ races with over 2,000 runners. When I looked at the area of Sydling, I thought ‘let’s do a trail marathon and a shorter hill race here!’
Creating that first race
We approached the Parish Council and the village of Sydling with the idea and, although cautious about our intentions, we convinced them to let us rent the village hall and use the village green as a finish area. We had an idea and a start/finish area, an HQ… now what?
Now we needed a route. This is where the fun started! Marathons are normally 26.2 miles, but with a trail race, this is exceptionally hard to achieve. We started off declaring, ‘this is marathon distance-ish’. Even the 10K turned out to be 11K.
We started working on the maps and I sat down with a bottle of rum and wrote down all the things I
- loved about races
- hated about races
- thought would make the perfect race
We basically created the sort of race we thought we would look at ourselves and go, ‘I need to do this’. I realised early on that one runner’s perfect race is another runner’s nightmare, so we tried to create the most ‘Dorsety’ race we could. On the list were great scenery, sense of humour, great medals, camaraderie, camping and pre- and post-race food.
The Giants Head marathon was born. An exceptionally hilly trail race in and around the Cerne Giant area of Dorset. A fact celebrated on the X-rated medals and t-shirts!
Building up with more races
I appealed to friends in the UK-wide running community for ideas and input, and was knocked sideways with offers of support, mainly from people I had met through forums, Facebook and Twitter.
Say what you like about ‘modern Britain’ – there is a whole country full of people out there who want to help people achieve great things. People rallied to the idea of ‘runner first’. We use social media to create an air of light-hearted, self-deprecating humour that we hope will share our love of what we do without becoming ‘all corporate’.
The Virgin Atlantic business model is ‘customer first’ – what does the customer want? What does the customer need, even if they don’t realise they need it? How can we improve? How can we breathe new life into something tired and samey?
The first Giants Head marathon in 2013 was a great success, despite problems with people falling over, pregnant cows and naked farmers. In its first year, the Giants Head Marathon was voted the third best marathon in the UK by Runner’s World magazine. We also shortlisted for the Running Awards for Best Marathon, beaten only by the massive city events of London and Manchester and the like.
We then created another event called the Ox, over the border in Wiltshire. A half-marathon and marathon races, plus a 38-mile ultra-distance event. In May 2014, we had a band of hardy runners turn up to the glorious Rushmore Estate on the Wiltshire/Dorset border. It rained and rained in the months prior to the race and we had to reroute all the races because of flooding. Puddles 100 feet long and 4 feet deep are not fun. The Ox races are epic – the most glorious scenery and hills, we love hills. This, too, was a great success, despite the horrific weather.
I left work in late 2015 and became a business owner. I took on two full-time staff members, one part-timer and a dozen or so casual staff. We have watched the running world explode into a massive multi-billion-pound business. We were lucky we started when we did.
The WSR USP
As time has gone on, we’ve really embraced our USP. We know what we want the races to feel like and how we want them to run. For us, these are the key elements:
- Safety. Our events are built around safe working, camping, social and running environments
- Runner first. Always understand what a runner needs.
- We believe our runners, when they come to our events, are part of something. Something they can take home with them
- All our races are scenic. All of them. No exception. There is no point doing laps around an industrial estate and boring roads just to call it a marathon. Not when you can run in the Dorset hills and along the Jurassic Coast
- Family friendly. Large social gatherings where people can enjoy their sporting pastime in a safe, welcoming way suitable for all the family. We offer children-only races
- Dorset first. We only work within Dorset (with the occasional step on the border into Wiltshire or Hampshire). Like a fine Italian wine, we don’t travel well
- MDGA… pinched from Trump. Make Dorset Great Again. [JOKE BTW; don’t flame me] Using our running environments, fantastic Dorset scenery to promote what we do to visitors. Making our races a running tourist destination
- Quality merchandise focused at our audience
- Partnerships. Working as best we can with our local Dorset brands to cross promote the best in Dorset produce
- Working with landowners to open up the countryside in a respectful and environmentally friendly way
- Emphasising the Countryside Code to our runners and promoting conservation
- Helping charities when we can. Asking our runners to run for a charity and using our social media reach to help promote their fundraising
So, if you’re joining us for the first time at a race in 2021, hopefully this gives you an idea of what to expect. And if you’re coming back for more, we can’t wait to see you!