Review by Alan Moore.
Gawthorpe – A small village in the heart of Yorkshire where every year, on Easter bank holiday, men and women from all four corners of the UK (and some from overseas) come to push their mind, body and soul to the limit. Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the home of the World Coal Carrying Championships!
This event started like all great events, over an argument in a pub and of course a small wager. In this case it was between a farmer and a coal miner about who was the fittest. They decided by seeing who could carry a sack of coal from the pub on the outskirts of Gawthorpe to the village square and the rest is history as they say.
This was my fifth year doing the event and its like Deja Vu. The organisers have everything down to a fine art and thats the way it stays – tradition and doing it right go hand in hand here in Yorkshire and if you have a better idea well just keep it to yourself, after all ‘You can always tell a Yorkshire man, but you can’t tell him much’.
Registration takes place in the Boot and Shoe pub and opens from 10am. Making your way passed the hardened northerners who are just having their breakfast of John smith’s (and thats just the women) the registration desk consists of a pub table, a lady and a big book. I handed her my registration form and she said “ta” (Translated: Thank you). She goes on to say “Tha in oldies race 2, an tha numba fiftee” (Translated: You are running in veterans race 2 and your number is 50). I then moved on the the pool table where piles of yellow T-shirts were laid out. I was handed my top with race number attached. I also receive a copy of the rules:
1 – If you drop your sack – pick it up
2 – No cheating like cutting corners or running on the pavement
3 – No outside help from anyone
Back outside with the festivities starting at 10:30 with the children’s races – Yes the kids are tough up north too running the entire 1km course the course however health and safety has caught up with them and they are sadly no longer allowed to carry sacks of coal.
The crowds are out in force, the population for the day has quadrupled and the streets are full of proud parents clapping the boys and girls as they sprint down the course to the village square.
Kids races over and its time for the adults. I watch the first race go by then I take a steady jog down to the start line ready for my race.
Each wave has between 20 to 30 runners and its just luck of the draw to who you get in your race. I looked around me to see some familiar faces including a couple of previous winners but i’m not here to win. Its only four weeks since I had a major operation and although recovery is going well this will be a big step so I keep saying to myself “I’m here to take part, don’t push yourself, just try your best.”
For me it’s always here at the start line where my mind begins to take over. We stood awaiting the arrival of the coal truck with the sacks. The experienced runners are going through their routines trying to visualise carrying there sack, they do short warm up runs crouched over. The newbies are eagerly talking about tactics and trying to get some last minute advise.
The truck appears trundling down the road and the buzz starts. It’s too late for the nervous pee now, it’s time to race!
The faster, more experienced runners usually cross the road so they can get their sack first and get a good position on the start line. I just waited and got mine mid position, “Im not racing” I keep telling myself
I bend down next to the truck and a big burly bloke plonks this great big 50kg sack on my back, I grab my corners holding it in place and lift it up till its balancing on my lower neck/ upper back. Crouched over I make my way to the start line.
My new running philosophy is to start from the back so I stand 5 or 6ft behind the front line of runners as they line up all the way across the road.
The starter begins the count down:
3 – Runners start shuffling their sacks of coal.
2 – Time to check the grip on the Sack
1- Final thoughts are banished, Bang goes the gun and everyone is off!
I set off bending forward to keep the bag high and all I see is around 4ft in front of me and almost instantly this causes me problems as I almost run into someone who has started to walk already. I dodge right further into the middle of the road. The first 150m are a slow ascent only rising around 4m but it takes it out of those legs and just as you crest the hill the mind games start to kicks in. I had banished them for the first 150m as all I was concentrating on was moving the legs but know it starts:
‘This bag is heavy’, ‘Is it high enough?’, ‘Is it slipping?’, ‘You can walk if you want too’, ‘Why the hell are we doing this?’.
Pushing the thoughts away I get back to just putting one foot in front of the other as the road flattens. I see every bit of tarmac close up as I concentrate so hard on just moving forwards and not running into anyone.
Having done the race several times I have my own little checkpoints and the crest of the hill means check point one ticked off. Next is the left turn so I start to move to the left of the road and I almost go over another fellow runner who has dropped his sack. I dodge left and almost end up on the pavement – careful as thats an instant DQ!
The left turn is checkpoint 2 and a little bit of knowledge helps here as I take the fastest route, I don’t go left straight away but keep going straight and cut across half way across the road. This is because next up is an almost instant right turn. I hug the apex like Lewis Hamilton driving his Mercedes (just a lot slower!)
The mind games starts to kick in again at this point: ‘You know what’s coming next – The Hill!’, ‘Shall we Start walking now?’, ‘The bag has slipped for sure’, ‘You can’t hold this grip for much longer’, ‘Is that cramp I can start to feel coming on?’, ‘Why are we doing this?’.
I keep my legs moving, I start to think positively. I know I’m in a good way, the sack is still riding high, I haven’t walked and I still have a good grip so I try to push the negative thoughts aside and continue running.
Again moving to the left of the road ready for the next sharp corner and the start of the hill I feel my legs getting heavy and as soon as I turn that’s it, the mind wins, I’m walking the hill.
The incline is only 100m long but it rises over 20m and it can make even the strongest walk (or so I am telling myself) but the start of this hill also marks checkpoint 3 for me and the half way spot so I try to walk as fast as I can. As I reach the top the crowds are out in force. Thousands of spectators line the street cheering and the euphoria is contagious. My legs start to run again without me even thinking about it, the coal sack starts to feel lighter, I get a good grip and start to push forwards. Forget about it not being a race – who was I kidding?- I start to pass the crowd and other runners as they start to slow, dropping their bags and struggling to get them back up.
With 300m to go the noice is deafening! 250m to go I’m on a high, 200m I’m sweating like crazy, 150m I’m asking myself why did I started running again, 100m left – where is the bloody finish line? 50m to go I feel like I can’t go any further but upon finally reaching the finish line I drop my sack on the village green and collapse next in a heap next to it. I move away fast though as others will be finishing and I don’t want a sack of coal dropped on me.
A nice lady hands me a bottle of water and I stand there with 25 other blokes all with hands on knees trying to get our breath back.
I made my way back through the crowd wearing my coal stained race shirt with pride getting pats on the shoulder from strangers and congratulations ringing in my ears to find the wife who has a pint ready for me – yes this is up north and you have to do what Northerners do – carry coal and drink bitter!
If you’d like to give this race a try (if you think you are can be Northern enough) then head over to http://www.gawthorpemaypole.org.uk/ for details and who knows I might see you there next year.
Check out Alan’s video here: https://www.facebook.com/100007742052371/posts/2252976018303778?sfns=mo
You can see more from Alan on the following platforms: