Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Wimbledon Common meets Whacky Races - The WUP Cup 2011!

If there was one scenario that I’d hoped to avoid at 1:30pm on Sunday 4th of September it was of sheltering with a group of volunteers and mascots under the AFC Wimbledon gazebo as rain sheeted across the common. Which of course was exactly the position we found ourselves in an hour and a half before the first ever running of the annual AFC Wimbledon Community Mascot Obstacle Race on Wimbledon Common. ..

Up until then it had seemed a great idea. The club had been attending the Wimbledon Common Stables Open Day for several years and there had been good crowds for what is always a friendly, laid back and very enjoyable day. The event is organised by the Commons Rangers who are responsible for patrolling and maintaining both Putney and Wimbledon Commons and are often be seen out and about on horseback. The Open Day was conceived as a chance for them to open up their stable-blocks and offices and to allow everyone the opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes. It’s now in its fifteenth year and has developed over that time into an arena show with numerous rides and charity stalls adding to the occasion.

AFC Wimbledon had been invited along to the Open Day for a couple of years previously and in the past we had taken the iDons stall, the Community Football Scheme and a range of merchandise, but a chance discussion regarding the Mascot Grand National led to another thought. Could we stage our own mascot race on the middle of Wimbledon Common? After all home advantage should be enough to put our own Haydon the Womble in with a chance and a mascot race would fit right in with the other arena events, such as the tug’o’war, the birds of prey, equestrian and pipe bands. It would also provide the opportunity for the club to be featured centre stage right at the heart of the Wimbledon community at the spiritual home of Wimbledon football. A quick chat with an enthusiastic Haydon cemented the idea and I followed that up with an email to the Commons Rangers suggesting the idea to them.

We had a chance to explain what we wanted to do when we had a meeting at the Rangers offices and were able to walk the potential course with Bill, the Head Ranger.  They were willing to give it a try and with that sorted we were able to start the task of identifying and inviting mascots!

Surprisingly this was to prove the most difficult part of the whole process. Haydon contacted a few close mascot friends on Facebook and sent out an invitation to lots of others. However the problem we had was that we often did not know exactly who to contact and I suspect many invitations were missed or glossed over which in turn led to a lower than hoped for response from the sporting mascot fraternity.  With only a few weeks to go our attention shifted away from football clubs and by liberal use of Google image searches we started to identify commercial and local organisations that we were able to call to explain what the day was all about. This direct approach proved much more fruitful and soon I was building up a list of mascots who, even if they weren’t available this year, would be very interested in future races.

One unexpected side effect of this approach was that we were kindly offered mascot costumes, but without people to wear them and which required collecting and returning as well which proved challenging, not only because the mascots were coming from as far apart as Kensal Green to Cobham, but as our front room and kitchen rapidly disappeared behind a mountain of fur and vinyl! Pudsey Bear, Jude the Cat, Toby the Cyclist  and Bertie the Bulb fell into this category. For Bumper the Tolworth Bowling Mouse, I took the costume for the employee who ‘volunteered’ to wear it, so that was slightly different. Other mascots were able to come along under their own steam such as Dazzle the Medway Dragons RFLC Dragon and Roary the Surrey Heath Recycling Tiger (who also bought along his friend Heath the Hare as a bonus). Mr Chilli, mascot of one of our new sponsors Jimmy Spices, even came along with his own minder, which was a bit of a luxury on the day.

So, come the day, come the rain! The forecast hadn’t been too bad, predicting a few showers in the morning but all clear for the afternoon. Sadly rain clouds can’t read and the heavens opened at about midday. The crowds disappeared and the car-park emptied, just as mascots started to arrive, all looking very apprehensive.  Which is how we came to be wondering if it was such a good idea after all,

But then the rain stopped, and if the rain didn’t exactly shine it at least suggested that it might be somewhere in the vicinity. The mascots dashed into the changing rooms of the London Scottish Golf Club and I started laying out the track and the hay bales with the help of some cadets. Eventually the mascots appeared, snaking their way toward the arena in single file. By now there was a small but growing crowd, a large number of who were young children who couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing.  The mascots were introduced, they formed a line and, at the wave of a flag, they were off!

There were spills and bumps, some dirty deeds when out of sight on the cross country section and a dramatic sprint for the line. There was even an exciting dash for the line and a last gasp sprint for the winner. A local hero won the race as well – sadly not Haydon but Debra the Zebra, well-know to Merton school children as the local road safety mascot!

It could be that two laps of the course was too ambitious for some of the mascots but eventually they were all in place to receive their handsome finishers medal and for Debra the Zebra to be presented with the WUP Cup – and the honour of being the first mascot to have their name inscribed upon it.  Haydon is determined to be the second though!

By now the children had invaded the course to mob the mascots and it was only after some time had passed that we could clear it enough to have the mascots vs. children tug’o’war which proved to be a straightforward win for the children over the exhausted, near blind and disoriented mascots. Finally they were led away to recover in the changing rooms, all except for Roary the Surrey Heath Tiger who was somehow left behind. A search party went out ten minutes later and found him pinned against a hedge by an enthusiastic group of children. He was gently disentangled and eventually made it back to the safety of the changing rooms. Mascots never leave a buddy behind…

So what at one point looked as though it was going to be a washout turned out to be great fun and one of the highlights of the whole day. The mascots were splendid and the volunteers who manned them were heroic and had an experience they will never forget. The Commons Rangers had a great time as well and are keen for the event to take place again next year, bigger, better and with the benefit of experience. And hopefully the next time it will be without the rain!

Pictures of the event can be seen on Bertie the Bulb's Flickr stream and on Mr Spice's Facebook page, for those of you that can access it. Many thanks to them both for letting us use their pictures!

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