Welsh Castles Relay 2023
Well, it was momentous! It was awe inspiring, I would even say breath taking! For this year’s SWRR Welsh Castles weekend we are not talking about the jaw dropping view when you reach the top of Drovers in Powys and we are not talking about the surge felt by Stage 20 runners as they get cheered on by the crowd in Bute Park, Cardiff to reach the finish line.
No, what we are talking about here is an event that is less frequent than a lunar eclipse, but no less remarkable – it was the inflating of the Suzie Tosh giant bed in the Caernarfon sports hall the night before this great relay event!!
Runners from all clubs looked on in envy as they tried to inflate their wafer thin beds or some just resigned to bedding down on thinner roll mats. There before us all was a giant inflatable bed, possibly four poster, with inflatable curtains around it. This will indeed be a very high bar set for next year if anyone can match this level of luxury.
Inflatables aside though, this was another great Welsh Castles weekend for SWRR. We chalked up some very fine results across the weekend with, to name a few, a fourth place finish, two third places, three second places and…….drum roll……two Stage winners, one of which breaking the course record! Absolutely brilliant given the stiff competition from other clubs, some of whom have a much wider catchment area to pick up runners at the more elite end of the scale.
We had quite a few SWRR members who attended their first ever WCR weekend and hopefully will have loved it enough to do it all again next year. We also had a good proportion of seasoned members who are into double figures with Castles weekends and are crucial for giving out advice on what to expect from Stages and navigation.
Massive thanks have to be extended to Sam Hopton for offering to organise our teams again this year and supported by the most experienced Welsh Castles participant from SWRR – Paul Thomas. I know that various other SWRR supported Sam and Paul over the weekend too.
If you are familiar with the intricacies of the weekend from selecting teams, ensuring there are reserves to cover the inevitable last moment drop outs e.g. due to injury, getting drivers, sorting accommodation, sorting out meals on the Friday and Saturday nights, distributing numbers, t-shirts, producing the manuals with directions to the start and end of stages, and organising marshals for at least one of the stages. That certainly doesn’t cover everything for sure, but as you can appreciate, it requires military organisation at times. Credit due that this pretty much all went smoothly with all SWRR getting to their respective stages and finishing them without injury and we all got back to Exeter safely.
Also, as referred to last year, Les Croupiers deserve plaudits for putting on a fantastic, well organised event.
So, a few observations about the relay stages and weekend generally:-
Please note – if comments about some of the Stages seem somewhat scant, apologies as this is purely due to having not witnessed the start, the race as it happened, or finish and not having had any reports from anyone who took part or saw SWRR runners involved. Basically, what I’m saying here is this is by no means definitive, but hopefully gives some flavour of the weekend.
Friday’s accommodation in Caernarfon
Welsh Castles weekend’s are highly memorable, but what is accepted is that they can be generally knackering. The Friday accommodation as usual in the basement of the Caernarfon Sports Hall was probably twice as full as last year which was the return of the event after COVID, yet remarkably quieter. If you’ve read the 2022 report, only the best ear plugs would’ve blocked out the chorus of flatulence that night! It was warm in there and toasty everywhere all weekend apart from in the buses with aircon on. So, reckon I got about three hours kip, but know several SWRR who got much more. I’ve given up on PBs apart from PBs for sleep!!
I mentioned that ‘Tosh luxury inflatable’, but there was another enviable sleeping quarter away from the hall, but in the car park – the Chairman’s separate quarters in his minibus. I understand, however, that Lee had hired a couple of bouncers to stand outside all night and say “sorry mate, can’t come in even wearing a tie!”
Stage 1 – Caernarfon to Penygroes (9.1 miles)
As we rounded up everyone in the sports hall car park at about 8:00am it was already baking hot. We hadn’t donned the pink head bands this year in tribute and memory of the late great Mike Feighan, but I did crack open a tin of mackerel for my pre breakfast as a personal tribute! Thankfully, not inside a bus though. For anyone reading this and new to WCR or SWRR and haven’t the foggiest what this all means, please ask any seasoned club member and they will explain the legendary status of Mike.
First stop – WHOLESOME breakfast in Caernarfon. Great for everyone apart from early stage runners. Apologies to Nick E. for eating mine in his presence whilst he was having a monk like meal prior to running Stage 2. I’ve been there before when runners have packed out the café at Crossgates (start of Stage 13) tucking into dustbin lid size plates of breakfasts whilst I’m dining on my sad half banana pre run.
Great atmosphere always leading up to the first stage with loads of clubs seeing their first runners off. As usual, there are a few clubs who support in fancy dress. This year we had a bunch of cowboys and Indians and also a few Ali G’s.
Our Chair, Lee Cusick, and Rosie Mew running their first Welsh Castles. Rosie set a very high bar for this first stage with not only finishing as 1st female but also smashing the course record in 58:52 which was by 35 seconds. Absolutely brilliant!!
Stage 2 – Penygroes to Criccieth (10.7 miles)
By this time, it was about 11:00am when this stage started and I think it was even hotter. I was sweating bricks just walking around Criccieth waiting for Nicky Savill and Nick Einchcomb to finish. By all accounts, this was a tough leg due to the heat and lack of shade. Nicky who has been a stage winner on two previous occasions (one of the very few SWRR runners to achieve this) on different legs achieved a very notable 2nd place female finish this year.
Stage 3 – Criccieth to Maentwrog (12.3 miles)
At this Stage, it wasn’t getting any cooler as Tom Humphrey and Charlie Withers (both doing WCR for the first time. I ran this stage several years ago during a torrential thunder storm with water gushing down the roads. One thing is for certain is that June in Wales will not always equal sunshine. This stage is relatively flat/undulating until about 13km in and a testing hill awaits before a downhill finish, so not easy.
Stage 4 – Maentwrog to Harlech (9.5 miles)
Stage run by Emma Cockcroft and Rob Scovell. On bus 2 (the big bus) we passed both Emma and Rob and were able to stop later to give out drinks to them along with other club’s runners. Our bus then tried to reach the finish at Harlech before the first runners came in. This was definitely a case of being in the right place at the right time. We passed Emma again about a third of a mile from the finish and she was in a pack of three female runners vying for that yellow stage winner shirt. We shouted encouragement from the bus and parked up to witness a tactical genius of a finish for Emma who had broken free from the pack and clinched 1st place. Outstanding and Emma finished twelve seconds ahead of the “2nd place lady. With the stiff competition in this event, for SWRR to get one stage win is a great achievement. Two is fantastic and like last year, we had two wins from the first two Stages. Emma later said the encouragement from the bus helped her go up a gear at the end. Maybe we were ‘the twelfth man’ so to speak.
Stage 5 – Harlech to Barmouth (9.6 miles)
The Jamie and James Stage. Messrs Pullinger and Benham respectively did us proud on this leg with a 3rd place finish for Jamie and 13th for James.
Stage 6 – Barmouth to Dolgellau (9.1 miles)
Kate Taylor (also first time doing WCR) and Dave Wilson ran this Stage. Ends on a very dusty track and good support at the finish.
Stage 7 – Dolgellau to Dinas Mawddwy (10.1 miles)
This leg looks very challenging and credit to Jason Hockridge taking this one on in his first WCR. Starts flat, then climbs and climbs and climbs before a fairly steep downhill. Ollie Thorogood ran this too and commented that a quote for this event should be “it’s just a hill – get over it!” Ollie has excelled in the Castles with a previous Stage year’s win and a 2nd place before this. Ollie clinched 2nd place in this tough Stage this year in 57:53.
Stage 8 – Dinas Mawddwy to Foel (10.8 miles)
Not as steep as Stage 7, but nonetheless the gradient on a similar theme with a flat start, gradual climb and then downhill finish. Don’t forget, all these Saturday stages were in Mediterranean conditions at times. Chris Powell and Alicia Regan ran this one.
Note – Chris had the added competition on Sunday, playing chess with Jamie Howard!
Stage 9 – Foel to Llanfair Caereinion (8.5 miles)
Highly impressive 2nd place from Gareth Davies in this penultimate Saturday Stage finishing in 45:17. Paul Thomas, who is a seasoned WCR runner, also ran in this Stage and finished 15th.
Stage 10 – Llanfair Caereinion to Newtown (13.1 miles)
Never mind “it’s just a hill – get over it”, probably with this final Stage on the Saturday, it’s more of a case of ‘it’s a 2km hill, where can I get some climbing ropes!’ Our bus got to the start of this Stage where Miko Cadeddu and Don Rufus were preparing for the ascent. For some reason this one was delayed by about fifteen minutes. Did this mean they had to sprint up that hill to finish this half marathon in time to get to the Italian for our meal in time? Our bus parked at the top of the hill to dispense drinks. I couldn’t believe how chilled both Miko and Don looked as they reached the top! Maybe it was actually grimacing not smiling?
Saturday’s accommodation in Newtown
This consisted of either camping with sometimes complex tent construction outside Newtown sports hall or two out of town B&Bs. I say B&Bs, in essence it’s invariably just B as there’s scant time to have brekkie when needing to leave at about 6:00am to drive to Newtown prior to the first Sunday Stage at 7:00am. The B&B I was at laid on a great spread, but all I had time for was downing an orange juice and taking a banana. Bah! Nick will be saying “schadenfreude!” Ha ha.
On another note, the Italian we ate in Saturday night – ‘La Terrazza’ did an amazing job serving up forty orders pretty quickly.
Stage 11 – Newtown to Llanbadarn Fynydd (10.8 miles)
This was a close battle between Nick Bruce-White and Hamish Cooney who both finished in the top fifteen in the mountain Stage. The first half of this and a bit extra gradually snakes around bends uphill. Early start, but thankfully cooler to run at this time (7:00am).
Stage 12 – Llanbadarn Fynydd to Crossgates (11.2 miles)
Rosie Glazier and I ran this Stage. Fairly flat with a gradual downhill. Was actually quite nice to have the contrast of an uphill near the end. Finishes a stone’s throw from the Crossgates transport café, not that I could stomach a breakfast on finishing. Think I had swallowed about ten flies en route, so plenty of protein!!
Stage 13 – Crossgates to Builth Wells (10.6 miles)
Stage run by James O’Brien (first WCR) and Donna Smith. Relatively flat and a nice downhill, yet this is still over ten miles and although I would say not as hot as Saturday, but hardly hat and gloves weather!
Stage 14 – Builth Wells to Drovers Arms (10.8 miles)
As you know this Stage is flat as a pancake………….NOT! Anyone who has run this stage before will know that it could be easy to be lulled into a false sense of security as the first 10k is undulating. Then, bang! You are climbing, plodding, puffing up a very notable hill for 4k and that isn’t even the last hill. Best not look at the gradient before running this. Best just pretend it isn’t there! Great support from clubs on this Stage though which is needed. Jamie Howard and Joe Osborne were the lucky guys given this Stage. Both tackled it well and in some very fetching multi-coloured shorts.
On a side note – for some Stages, it requires some creativity with locating suitable latrines pre or post race. There is a toilet at the top of Drovers, but rumours are that it has not been modernised (or maybe even cleaned) since the Iron Age! You have been warned!
Stage 15 – Epynt Visitor Centre to Brecon (12.8 miles)
Certainly, there are some challenging Stages in the WCR, but equally there are some stunning views and the end of Stage 14 and Start of 15 are no exception. Great photo opportunity. This Stage is a net downhill which couldn’t really be anything else after the ascent of Stage 14. Nonetheless, it’s nearly a half marathon and how many would choose to run one of those in the summer in the middle of the day. So, credit to Suzie Tosh and Debra Stevens (first WCR) running this one.
Stage 16 – Brecon Canal Basin to Torpantau (12.5 miles)
This is an interesting Stage on many counts. It is the only Stage that has an off road section albeit fairly firm surface. Reasonably flay until it climbs all the way to the finish for the final 8km. Scenic too running past Talybont Reservoir and then through a wooded area. Seeing as the finish is at the top of a hill, clubs awaiting their runners can actually see them emerge from the woods from what seems like a mile away as they attack the final part of the hill. Francis Colledge (first experience of WCR) and Richard Stone braved this one.
Stage 17 – Torpantau to Merthyr (8.7 miles)
Callum Lamont (first WCR) and Alex Crump ran this Stage. Downhill start and narrow winding roads so potentially a bit of a ‘torf’ (Welsh) at this point. Cracking 3rd place finish for Alex. Also, good news that we managed to source you a WCR t-shirt at Cardiff Callum as we were one missing. We sometimes have to offload technical t-shirts as we probably all have too many of these, but you have the keep the WCR ones as they are the best aren’t they?
Stage 18 – Merthyr to Quaker’s Yard (9.1 miles)
Our captain, Sam Hopton, setting a fine example in this Stage with a 4th place in an excellent time of 51:38. That kind of fast is an alien concept to me! Ross Stevens also ran this Stage in his first WCR. I think despite the competition from Jamie and Joe (see Stage 14), you win the most fashionable shorts. Flamingos!
Stage 19 – Abercynon to Nantgarw (7.7 miles)
As our big bus proceeded to Bute Park, Cardiff for the end of the final stage, I spotted a familiar runner crossing a footbridge across a dual carriageway. Yes, indeed – it was the evergreen Lewis Jones. Lewis is, like Paul T., is a veteran of WCR and was adorning a vintage Castles sweatshirt in the Three Pigeons pub on Friday. Legend! Plaudits also to Ash Voralia who impressed with a 6th place finish in 47:56.
Stage 20 – Caerphilly to Cardiff (10.1 miles)
So, here we are finally waiting in Bute Park for our last two SWRR runners to cross the line. Nick Casey and Alice Watson patiently waiting to do Stage 20. You may not get as much support on this stage as other ones, partly due to clubs all converging at the finish in the park and partly because a good deal of the route is on foot/cycle paths. However, the support and noise at the end is fantastic. As runners have to do a half loop of Bute Park before finishing, they can be sighted in advance and the tannoy announcer names runners as they approach the finish line. Nick and Alice had the ‘glory stage’ for the their first WCR experience.
How did SWRR do?
Fair to say we did pretty well. The Open Team finished 13th overall out of 66 teams whilst the Vets were 35th (5th out 9 Vet teams). We also had many runners who excelled in their respective stages in some challenging temperatures.
Some feedback about the weekend
At the end of Stage 2 at Criccieth I noticed Hamish dishing out ice lollies. What I wasn’t aware of was that this was not just a one off. Nick B-W commented “credit to Hamish, who on several stages went to shops to buy packets of ice and cool soft drinks, handing them out to runners of all clubs at the end of the stages. The ice in particular was highly welcome on some of those tough, hot midday stages. You could see just how grateful runners were, exhausted and dehydrated as they were. I think it was a tremendously thoughtful and kind series of acts, especially so given how indiscriminately Hamish helped runners, regardless of their club or finishing position.”
And finally, this feedback from Don encapsulates the event really well:-
“Having done my 3rd WCR and mountain stage, I am struck by how organised everything is, right from meals to accommodation. The preparation begins long before the event and for the drivers, carries on late into Sunday evening.
Veterans of the event are always around to advise newbies and driving skills and commitment never cease to inspire. The general lack of sleep and bag chaos at the end of the day are all part of the experience and I came prepared this year to embrace them!
Of course, the running is fantastic. My advice is to ignore the watch and enjoy some old school racing amongst the cheers from the passing traffic and the ridiculous gradients.”
For Stage results see link below:-
Welsh Castles Relay 2022
I thought I might start this personal review of SWRR’s return to the Welsh Castles Relay earlier this month by trying to sound all erudite with some quotes about ‘expectations’ and ‘performance’ by famous figures such as Michelle Obama, Bruce Lee or Bill Gates. Or maybe, research some inspirational runner’s quote e.g. from Haile Gebrselassie, but I ended up seeking out a quote that was so niche that it almost certainly does not exist, namely:-
‘How do you win a WCR stage after lack of sleep in a Caernarfon sports hall due to the sound of multiple runners farting!!’
Clearly, I got all my training wrong. Never mind doing ten mile hilly training runs in April and May. What I should have been doing is researching better quality ear plugs or acclimatising myself by listening to recordings of flatulence for hours on end in the nights leading up the WCR weekend!
Nonetheless, we can all probably recount examples of when we have put in weeks or months of training for a race and then had a rubbish night’s sleep on the day before (maybe fretting about all our pre-marathon rituals), yet despite that, we have still performed reasonably well.
So what can I say about SWRR’s trip to Wales for this great event, so sorely missed over the last three years due to the pandemic? We have missed it for sure. I think this was my eighth Castles weekend and despite it being the first trip I had been on in which we only had half the runners i.e. only one instead of two teams, it really was a special one this year and one to be savoured.
For starters, the long journey up Caernarfon on the Friday was probably the smoothest journey I can remember. This is probably more down to luck than judgment as in the past the time taken has invariably been dictated by what chaos there is on the M5, whether traffic incidents and/or roadworks (usually near Bristol). This time, we actually got to the excellent Three Pigeons pub in Shropshire not too late, got our grub served almost immediately and got to the sports hall in daylight, before it was actually due to open, to let runners in to set up beds in their ‘luxury’ digs. Result!!
Onto Saturday and Day 1. Les Croupiers Running Club who organise the Welsh Castles are a hard act to follow in terms of race/event organisation. Just thinking how complicated it can be to organise a single race, this event is off the scale. Twenty stages, so twenty separate races, nearly sixty teams, the various timing, briefings, water stations, traffic guidance, updated results system……more on that shortly…. and problem solving around any last moment hitches.
For the latter, look no further than the actual start of the event at Stage 1 which traditionally starts just outside Caernarfon Castle with quite a bit of razzamatazz. No sooner than the team captains had left the briefing room in the sports hall, they all got called back in to the room to be told that race marshalls had discovered that the footbridge across the River Seiont had been closed meaning that the race start had to be switched at the last moment. The fact Les Croupiers solved this by switching the start to the other side of the river from the castle and redirecting team minibuses accordingly at the eleventh hour exemplifies just how polished they are at dealing with race organisation/problem solving.
This rescheduled start to Stage 1 evidently did not unsettle Nicky Savill who not only crossed the finish line as first female stage winner, but bagged her second yellow shirt in consecutive WCRs! Wow! What an unbelievable start and I was lucky along with a few SWRRs to witness her finishing. I think I am right in thinking that Nicky is the first SWRR to win a stage more than once.
Bearing in mind that despite our best efforts, there are some years at the WCRs in which we get mighty close to winning a stage, but return to Devon with no yellow shirts (for those unfamiliar to the WCR, you get this colour shirt for a stage win….bit like the Tour de France) and sometimes we come up trumps with one stage winner. So, based on history, you would think ok, thanks Nicky, you’ve got us our stage winner early at Stage 1, job done. But, no…….we didn’t have to wait a year for another stage winner, but merely a matter of hours at Stage 4 ending in Harlech.
Near a fairly inconspicuous car park which was the Stage 4 finish, being overlooked on high by Harlech Castle, I was lucky once again to be waiting in anticipation and hopeful that we could see Sam Hopton get a decent finish on his 9.5 mile stage. All going well, maybe a top five or six finish was doable. For this stage there is a long straight road leading to the finish, so the first runner or runners can be seen on the horizon, but barely visible and hard to make out club colours unless anyone had packed a telescope in their rucksacks! Nicky and I were debating whether a vague shape of the first runner approaching was male, female, was it a white shirt or was it yellow? Seconds ticked by and it was fairly certain whoever it was, he was wearing a yellow vest. Could it possibly be Sam? Abergele Harriers adorn a very similar vest to SWRR so it wasn’t an absolute certainty. More seconds ticked by and it was Sam. Yessss!!! From what I had heard, this was a tough competitive stage and Sam had timed his finish to perfection.
We were four stages done and had had stage winners in two of them!! Back of the net!!!!(….or insert any other Alan Partridge sporting quote).
I don’t recall a WCR in which the club has had two stage winners and you may need to check with veterans who are far more seasoned at attending (Lewis, Paul T?) to see if I am factually correct. What is certain is it is unprecedented SWRR achieving three. Step forward Ollie Thorogood.
It would have been too good to be true to have been able to witness the finish for Stage 6 at Dolgellau, but as I was driving minibus 1 and commitment to the various runner drop offs and collections, it unfortunately did not include this stage. In 2019 at the last Castles I had watched Ollie pull off a cracking finish pipping a runner into second place on the steep short hill finish at Stage 9. For a runner who is on top form and no stranger to race victories in Wales (Ollie has won the Aberystwyth 10k twice), going one step further was not beyond his reach, but there is no doubt that this year there really was some stiff competition in many of the stages e.g. the female Stage winner at 10 finishing at Newton knocked eight minutes off the course record. Ollie excelled in his stage this year, winning and with a margin of about 45 seconds over the second place finisher. Great result and really pleasing that Ollie’s family could see him finish as they are reasonably local.
So, three stage winners out of the first six stages and by the end of Saturday were positioned very nicely in seventh out of 56 teams which was outstanding.
Credit to Sam as our team captain and James Benham for some astute tactics with choosing runners for stages. Yes, granted that it can depend how stiff the competition is on a particular stage, weather conditions etc, but such a big percentage must go down to the training and effort put in.
There were some noteworthy performances from SWRR runners, not just the aforementioned stage winners, a few finishing in top fifteen or twenty places, some getting personal best segments or near to personal bests, runners tackling challenging hilly stages, and runners new to the WCR achieving very decent finishes. Creditable that Paul Thomas, who is excelling in his age category these days, was agonisingly close to a vets stage win on Day 1.
One could argue that our runners who competed on Day 1 was, with a few exceptions from the Day 2 runners, our first string so to speak. Nonetheless, by the end of Day 2, our ‘second string’ did SWRR proud and overall helped the club achieve a tenth place finish. I like to think that our Day 2 runners were buoyed on by the performances from Day 1. On a personal note, I felt my Stage run was boosted by that fact, plus caffeine and adrenaline, but probably not six hours sleep in two days! Any WCR – SWRR historians out there, please feel free to correct me, but I believe that tenth is our best ever finish.
I think that every SWRR runner had a very good stage run and some outstanding.
One of the innovative improvements this year at the WCR was the providing of toilets at the start of Stage 20…….. only kidding, that is still the large hedge in the car park in Caerphilly! No, the improvement is the WCR App that provides Stage results throughout each day and team positions. This makes the competition far more interesting as you can see it unfolding throughout each day.
Some other notable comments:-
- Our team were all provided with pink headbands at the start of the weekend. This was to pay tribute to and remember (not that we will ever forget) our beloved Mike Feighan who we very sadly lost one year ago. Mike was known for wearing colourful running accessories such as that colour headband. For the past few WCR trips, I shared the driving with Mike in the seventeen seater minibus (top speed 50 on a downhill with the wind behind you or so it feels!!), so I was relieved that this year we didn’t take that bus as it has too much connection with the great man. Some SWRRs crossed their finish lines with the headband donning their heads, others around wrists. We miss your banter and comedy gold from the Castles weekends Mike.
- For those of us who stayed in the B&B on Saturday night, as we got nowt in terms of breakfast, should it have been advertised as ‘Bed’ rather than B&B!! Praise be for mini porridge pots then!!
- Best gadget award for supporting our runners and earache for minibus passengers goes to Ash with his megaphone. “Ole ole ole.” Quality!
So, all in all a successful and enjoyable SWRR weekend.
It’s never going to be perfect as we’ve debated in the past about the accommodation issue which ‘it is what it is’ basically. Am sure not everyone will agree with me here, but naturally if we all had separate groups in cosy and probably not cheap B&Bs in Caernarfon on the Friday night, we would get better sleep, but we would all be disparate and not having that feeling of togetherness for the start of the weekend. As basic as the sports hall is, it’s free for us and the staff make us welcome. Just get quality earplugs!!
Big thanks to Sam for all his organisation of the weekend, planning in the months before and ably assisted by James.
Thanks should go also out to the minibus drivers (Dave Wilson, Donna Smith, Hamish Fletcher-Cooney, Nick Bruce-White, Sam and….er, well I can’t thank myself, but I drove too).
Thanks to anyone else who chipped in with assisting whether with navigating so we didn’t end up getting lost or anything else.
Finally the team photo is missing two of our SWRR runners, Hamish plus Don Rufus who had to leave Cardiff early before this picture was taken. Be good to have some separate photos if you consent to this. I have one myself of Don at the start of the Drovers stage.
Roll on 2023! Four stage winners?!