Welsh Castles Road Relays

Welsh heroes and heroines

by Steve McCarron

June 10th and 11th 2023 saw the return of the Welsh Castles Relays – arguably the biggest event in the Endurance Section calendar where running meets a Grand Tour style cycling event. It’s a 2 day, 20 stage, 209 mile staggered relay stage race, held mostly on road but with many hills and mountains en route from Caernarfon to Cardiff. Each stage is a race in itself with the opportunity to win a yellow jersey, or more importantly to run your fastest time for the overall position of your team

This year Sale had 2 teams - a Women’s team and an Open team, masterminded by team captains Edwards and Donners, and the invisible string pulling of Helen Carter.

Despite recent past glories, the Open team had been decimated by injury this year, and the surviving squad knew they had limited chance at the overall team prize. For the Open team, this would be a year of going for the odd stage upset and having a bit of fun along the way.

The women on the hand had one of their strongest teams to date. Despite the absence of a couple of hotshots, the strength in depth was impressive. For them it was game on.

To make things more interesting -this was set to be a blazing hot weekend, with temperatures in the high 20s, and humidity levels strong. With Stages averaging 10 miles and many of those in the peak of the afternoon heat, could our runners manage their pre-race adrenaline by not going out too hard and exploding in the sun?

Day 1

By the end of leg 1, the pattern was set – Emma Finney threw a marker down for Sale’s ladies by putting the team in the lead, whilst an injury laden Gough managed a respectable 13th.

Leg 2 - saw Ken Hunt run a blistering leg by finishing 2nd overall shunting the Open team back up the leader board. Wendy Terry also ran well in the heat, keeping the Ladies in the top 2.

In the first mountain leg Bea Cordingley built on her brilliant breakthrough year, by finishing in an extraordinary 3rd – keeping the ladies in 2nd overall, and pushing Chorlton back into 3rd.

The mighty Phil Robertson finished 2nd for the Open team putting them into 5th.

Then came leg 4. Clare McCarron off the back of antibiotics and a chest infection, and Tom Stephenson looking to capitalise on his Boston Marathon fitness. McCarron defied the odds in an epic tussle in the lead group. On another day she might have won it but perhaps inevitably faded in the final mile for a respectable 3rd place. Stephenson showed his marathon pedigree and excelled in the heat claiming what was to be SHMs only stage win of the weekend.

Leg 5 saw the Grand Dame of the Cordingley dynasty show the field how you do it with an expertly paced run. Pete Shipley following a long layoff showed us that he is almost back, by maintaining position for the Open team and finishing 5th.

Suzanne Smith and Paul Barrett ran at the hottest time of the day. Suzanne had a fantastic run pushing the ladies back into 2nd ahead of Chorlton again. With Les Croupiers starting to open a gap as the leading team, the tussle between Chorlton and Sale for that prestigious second place was on. Paul Barrett did a heroic turn having been drafted in the team with only a couple of days notice, enabling us to hold on to 5th place overall.

Next came arguably the most brutal stage of the weekend – leg 7 - a 5 mile uphill climb followed by a quad trashing descent. Rachel took on the punishing leg for the Ladies finishing in a respectable 4th, while Rob Dunn was 1st vet by a narrow 16 seconds, bagging him a prestigious mountain dragon for his efforts.

Then came leg 8, the mountainous leg that isn’t a mountain leg.   Jenny Southworth climbed the hills for the ladies, having to overcome foot pains most of the way around, whilst Mike Ashby capitalised on his BGR training by finishing a respectable 9th.

Leg 9 saw Ladies Team manager Eddie Edwards and Sinead Ferguson take the stage. Sinead had one of her best runs of recent times despite the heat and claimed 3rd place. Eddie after a long layoff was no where near in race shape, but had heroically agreed to help the injury struck Open team. He paced it conservatively in the first half, but grew with confidence as the race progressed, moving through the field and finishing in a satisfying 12th place.

Then came the final leg of the day – the iconic leg 10 mountain stage into Newtown.

Heather Hughes in her debut was running for Ladies – and what a debut – finishing 4th and smashing 4 mins out of Chorlton.

In the Open team race, the stage was set, with the great and good of the Manchester men’s endurance scene coming together in a Welsh Battle Royale. Salford’s Callum Rowlinson, and Chorlton’s Gavin Tomlinson, up against our own superstar Nick Barry. Nick paced his race brilliantly in the heat, overcoming mountains, hay fever, and his Salford rival to finish 4th.

By the end of Day 1, Sales Ladies were 3rd and the men in 5th. All to play for…

Day 2

Leg 11 - With a brutally early start time of 7 a.m. this is a Stage you only get to see by actually getting up and running it, leaving your teammates chewing on rubbery croissants back at the campsite. Even, Donners, the clubs’ most committed hill-slayer, was surprised by the amount of climb, reflecting on his performance afterwards: ‘there was more hill then expected, blew up and died.’ There were no such explosions for the Ladies team, however, where some impressively even pacing saw us bag 5th place, and hold 3rd position overall.

Leg 12

In form WCR debutante Andrew Curvis romped home in 6th, taking a Chorlton scalp along the way. Sarah Goulden was also strong making up a vital 22s on Chorlton in the chase for 2nd place.

Leg 13

Another WCR debutante, Max Kidd-Rossiter, had a great introduction to the event claiming 5th place on this leg, with his Ladies counterpart Harriet Hamilton also running well and holding 3rd position for the team

Leg 14 – Steve McCarron had the privilege of running the iconic Drovers leg for the Open team following a couple of high profile dropouts. Having succumbed to the dreaded lurgy a couple of days before he ran the first half respectfully, before opening up the pipes during the climb. It was a case of job done, but not the max effort that such a leg deserves. Drovers veteran Hayley Ashby had no such respect, and ran it hard from the off – snapping at Chorlton’s heels and keeping that chase for 2nd very much on.

Leg 15 – a long and brutal leg with just enough quad trashing downhill to make the final uphill a truly miserable affair. Jenny Fox battled with ex-SHM favourite Janneke, now of Les Croupiers, for 2nd place, but the downhills took their toll and the Les Croupier athlete pulled away in the last mile last mile (more downhill specific training next year Jenny?). Spraggy was typically brave finishing 9th, whilst emitting some characteristic grunts and impressive grimaces in his sprint finish, to the appreciative applause of the SHM posse.

Leg 16 – superstar SHM couple, Wright (Ladies) and Godwood (Open), took on the newest and final Mountain stage of the day. This leg would be a turning point for the Ladies team, with Alice Wright smashing the course record by 2mins and 25s, and more significantly, taking a whopping 14 mins out of the Chorlton athlete. Silver medals had looked like a lost cause, but now the race was back on! For Joe this was about restoring pride for an understrength Open team, and he did just that, finishing in 8th position, in one of the toughest stages of the weekend       

Leg 17 – Being a difficult leg to drive through and support, it can be lonely slog for the runner. Our Sale pair did their job for the team eschewing the glory of adoring fans, for the internal reward of hard graft. Smalley got himself a top 10 finish, whilst the Ladies finished 3rd. Two more fine runs!

Leg 18 – Call-ups for the injury re-habbing Anne Chinoy, and unconditioned Chris Tait – saw these 2 Sale Harriers putting club duty ahead of personal interest. Neither were in race condition, but both gave everything to keep their teams in the race.

Leg 19 – Sale Harriers lucky charm Tracy Taylor does it again. After her heroics at Calderdale where she stepped up with 10 mins notice to help the team to victory, she makes another significant contribution to club glory, by finishing second, and smashing 9 mins out of Chorlton. After 11 stages of nipping at the heels of Chorlton’s second place, Tracey’s effort is enough to push us ahead of them for the first time since Leg 6.

Not to be outdone, in leg 19, Dr. Fox ignored all sage advice in a pre-race pep talk, by exploding off the start line in the lead group. He then defied expectations by not ‘blowing up’, and pacing himself to an impressive 8th – and outsprinting Chorlton by 8 seconds. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

And so to the grande finale - leg 20. For the Open team this would be a parade. With nothing at stake and the pressure off, Ollie Bartlett enjoyed his procession. Ollie secured 9th place for the Open teem overall, however, if there was a prize for best photo of the weekend, surely he would’ve won it be a welsh country mile.

Oliver Bartlett

But for the Ladies, everything was at stake on this leg. Sale would now need to defend a 7 min lead to hold second place against local rivals Chorlton. With club superstar Big Nige laid up at home, licking his hamstring, it was time for the other Martin – Laura to take centre stage. Handling the pressure with aplomb she put herself in front of Chorlton and stayed there, securing those silver medals for the team.

It was another fabulous weekend, replete with special memories, sub plots, and twists and turns. But perhaps it will be best remembered for the blistering heat, Brian Goulden’s uncanny ability to show up in several places at once, and of course those lovely silver medals. A big thank you to all who took part, all partners and families who gave up a sunny weekend to watch their person of interest and to all the helpers and drivers who know who they are. Cheers.

So, let’s look to next year. We need more. More memories and more medals. Can the women get gold? Can the Open team get back on the podium? Or may be it is time for the Vets…..? Bring it on!

Full results