It seems like a mad idea: an adventure where people willing sign up to break out of a prisoner of war camp and then go on a gruelling obstacle course run behind enemy lines.
Yet, former paratrooper, Joel Whittaker, was convinced a lot of people would love it. He decided to create the Great Escape, an event that runs each summer in Oxfordshire.
“It’s a friendly event but tough enough to make it a worthwhile physical challenge,” he says, “the emphasis is on team work, from the initial escape through to making it around the 10 kilometres and 20 plus obstacles you have to rely on each other to get around the course. We don’t take times, we do however chase you down and recapture you if you’re not making some progress.
There is scope for chosen individuals or teams to undergo a little interrogation if requested,” he adds with a sly smile.
Whittaker says the idea came to him while he was running a Surviving Hostile Regions course for journalists – a notoriously hardbitten lot. But despite their scepticism, everyone loved the practical day where they put the learning to the test in a simulated war zone.
On top of working as a security consultant, Whittaker is also the founder of Intrepid Events; a team building company whose flagship adventurous challenge; the Great Escape, is a new kid on the block in the events world.
“We ran the first Great Escape event in July 2016 on the beautiful Culden Faw estate in Oxfordshire and people loved it. We got great reviews from seasoned obstacle course racers, teams of friends and corporate teams,” says Whittaker.
“It is all done in great humour though and I was so pleased that so many participants immersed themselves into the actual theme of the event. There were some great outfits and bags of moustaches and pipes.”
Based on the real Great Escape conducted by allied Prisoners Of War during WW2 the race celebrates the monumental team effort that saw 76 men escape from a heavily guarded P.O.W camp on one dark and cold night in 1944.
“It really highlights the ingenuity and tenacity of those airmen captured and detained deep behind enemy lines. The effort required to dig those long deep tunnels was immense and the fact that they did so whilst under such scrutiny by the German guards is absolutely amazing,” says Whittaker.
It is also an act of remembrance. All but three were recaptured soon after the escape and of those 73 recaptured, 50 were executed. In fact, one of this year’s participants has a deep connection with the Great Escape. Tarryn Jupp’s great uncle was one to the 76 men who escaped.
She wrote to Whittaker thanking him for the event, “My Great Uncle – Neville McGarr (24 November 1917 to 6 April 1944) was a fighter pilot from South Africa who was taken prisoner during the Second World War. He participated in the ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III in March 1944 but was one of the men recaptured and subsequently murdered by the Gestapo.”
Whittaker says many participants said they had family members who had served in the military and saw this events as a way get a small insight the hardship they may have endured.
The military clearly matters to Whittaker who served with 1 Para for 8 years and Intrepid Events made a point of hiring ex-military personnel to help with the event.
“As the event organiser, I need self motivated individuals who can think on their feet and work together as a cohesive unit. The British Military encourage soldiers to think outside of the box, ‘make it work’ is a mantra in most units,” he explains.
“Things rarely run to plan and with ex-military personnel I know I have field ready troops who can handle difficult situations, roll with the punches and ultimately make it work.”
The Great Escape threw up its own challenges at the founder. The initial financial outlay was high for equipment, land, manpower and labour requirements.
“Complex events take an insane amount of organisation and time to be successful and I rely on a strong team to ensure we achieve what we set out to do,” says Whittaker.
This kind of can-do attitude not only ensures smooth sailing in rough seas, it also gets noticed by the people who count to Whittaker – the participants.
“The British public have a deep love of the Armed forces in this country. Our military have always stepped up to the challenge of national defence, working for long periods of time and in arduous often hazardous environments whilst showing great professionalism, dedication and a steadfast ability to get the task done. They are the perfect ambassadors for the Great Escape event and enthuse participants shouting words of support as teams scramble to get around this challenging course,” he says.
Whittaker says the event attracts people across a wide spectrum, “we had groups of runners, boxers, tailors, accountants and lawyers. It was a real cross section of the UK encompassing varying ages, abilities and cultures.”
It is also refreshingly different in approach from the ‘how tough are you?’ attitude of other races.
“The Great Escape doesn’t care if you are the toughest of the tough and we don’t give medals either, you do get dog tags of course!”
Different groups were obtaining wide ranging benefits from this event he says.
“Running clubs were really going for it on the obstacles, corporates were enjoying a bonding away-day and groups of friends were just having an amazing laugh. We cater to individuals too, teaming lone entrants up well before the event starts to ensure everyone is happy.
In 2017. I would love to see serving or former military personnel taking part in the event, there is a discount just for that group,” says Whittaker.
On this year’s event Intrepid Events are bringing on board the World War 2 in Colour re-enactment group to add more flavour around the edges as well as upping numbers of the hunter force to give them more options in recapturing participants.
“It’ll be great fun! We also have a camping spot, right next to event area nestled against the river Thames and a ‘cooler’ bar, of course.” But Whittaker says, “for me the most rewarding part of the Great Escape is seeing the sense of achievement on peoples faces when they complete challenges they had initially thought would be impossible to do. We have tunnels, high climbs and some water obstacles that push you just enough to get an amazing sense of achievement without actually breaking you.”
This year’s Great Escape adventure is being held on Saturday July 22nd at the Culden Faw Estate about 1 mile South of Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Camping is available to all on the Saturday night and by prior arrangement to those requiring somewhere to sleep on the Friday night before the event.
The Great Escape
By: Joel Whittaker