Saturday, 25 June 2016

Chasing dragons - the Welsh Castles Relay 2016

A few weeks ago I went to Wales to run one of my favorite races - Welsh Castles Relay. I think I've mentioned this event already. It's quite similar in format to Green Belt Relay, with some differences:
- it takes place in Wales - starts in the North, in Caernarfon, and runs all the way down to Cardiff
- consists of 20 stages, and everyone runs just once - so 20 people per team
- it's more competitive than Green Belt Relay.

There are also similarities:
- it's bloody awesome
- you get to spend a plenty of time on the bus
- they have yellow "Stage Winner" t-shirts

Caernarfon Castle
Our club was dominating this event in the last years: since 2007 we won 5 times, came 2nd once, 3rd - twice, and 4th - once. Last year we won, also our ladies team won their category, and on top of that we took both Queens and Kings of the Mountains awards. When one of our mini-buses broke down on our way back to London, Ealing Eagles (who were passing by) asked if that was under the load of all the trophies...

There was a bit of pressure on our teams this year then. Unfortunately, we knew we were not that strong, as our teams were slightly decimated due to a wedding of a couple of our runners (seriously guys, the date of WCR is known almost a year in advance! Ok, jokes aside - of course all the best to you, but please, don't get married again any time soon, we need you in our teams!)

Anyway, we were determined and in good moods - after all we were going for a weekend to the beautiful Wales, the Land of Dragons!
Welsh field awaiting a dragon
The whole adventure starts on Friday afternoon. Most of us gathers by the Marylebone station around 4-5pm, we're boarding the buses and heading off to Wales. It's quite long ride, we're arriving at Caernorfon around 11-11:30pm.  I was lucky this time - I took a half day off from work, so I managed to get on the first bus that was leaving just after 4pm. Which means we were able to avoid the heaviest out-of-London traffic. The journey to Wales was nice, with everyone's quality time spent on their phones only occasionally interrupted by a friendly conversations or stops to get more beers.
Well, not really, actually we were talking bullshit all the way.
When we arrived to Caernarfon, we were welcomed by a surprisingly good weather. The whole week in London it was quite miserable, with rain and temperatures of 12 degrees, but in Wales - even at 11pm -it was still pretty warm. We checked in to our hotel, and went for a quick pint in Menai Bank hotel bar, where we met more of fellow Serpies, who just arrived. Everyone was really excited for the upcoming race. A couple of pints (for those running on Sunday - Saturday runners were allowed a pint each. At most!) and off to bed, as the race starts early on Saturday.
The Caernarfon Castle
In the morning I went for a short run around the town and along the course of the first stage. My stage was on Sunday afternoon, so I could go for an easy 6-7km jog. Obviously I wasn't the only one who had this idea, so I met a few other guys from the club.

Menai Strait
When I was running along Menai Strait towards Caernarfon Castle, on a beautiful, quiet morning, I got struck by a sudden thought.*
It was my fourth time to Wales, and I've never seen any dragons yet. Which was strange. There are so many sheep, and - as we know - dragons consider them a delicacy. Welsh people are proudly waving a red dragon on their banner, one would think there should be hundreds of those beautiful creatures, flying under Welsh skies, mutilating sheep and kidnapping virgins. But I haven't seen a single one.
Maybe then Welsh people, who are very good at heart, felt sorry for all those sheep? Maybe they decided they loved sheep more? And they got rid of dragons?

It wouldn’t be the first time a dragon lost to a sheep - exactly the same has happened in one of Polish legends**.
It all made me more suspicious. I got back to the hotel, had a shower and went for a Full Welsh Breakfast (as I was told on some other occasion, it's almost the same as the Full English, with the difference that sausage is made of dragon's meet. Back then I thought they were just boasting, didn't think dragon meet was that easy to get. Now I'm more inclined to think that it can be a kind of smokescreen - we're pretending we have so many dragons, we even make sausage out of them, while in reality they're all gone!).
After the breakfast we went to the traditional team briefing at Morrison's car park***. Standard stuff: drink plenty of water, as you can get dehydrated easily on the bus, safety first, and so on. But we knew why were we there - to run hard and to try to win again.

The first stage starts by the gates to Caernarfon castle at 10am. The first 500m is a round of honour, where Les Croupiers - the awesome organizers of the race, with their home in Cardiff - run in the first row, alongside this years guest club runners. All the runners slowly jog around the castle, cheered by other runners and spectators. Then they cross a small bridge - and the race starts. I run this stage 2 years ago, during my first WCR, and it was a great experience.

I didn't get to see the start this year however, as I was on the bus that had stage 2 runners, so we had to leave earlier to get them to their start line. The weather was already getting quite extreme (for British standards), with beautiful sunshine and temperature over 20 degrees. Many people were to pay a high price for the pleasure of running in such difficult conditions.

Start of Stage 2
We got our runners to the start line, offered them last words of support and advice ("do not f**k it up!") and left to organize a water station around mile 3.

Our people were going strong, J. was working hard in 2nd place, T. was doing her job as well ("I'm not fucking it up!" she yelled at us when we were trying to hand her a cup of water).

After the last runner passed us, we moved several miles towards the finish, to prepare another support station. J. was still in the second, going strong. T. was still not f**king it up.

At this station we helped the first victim of the weather - a girl from Winchester. She was in a quite bad condition when she approached us. We gave her some water, then some more water, and then we convinced her that it's going to be better for her if she stops now and goes with us. She wasn't resisting, and that was a good decision. Paramedics checked if she was ok, and we took her to the finish line, where her club mates took care of her.

The next few hours are busy with more running, driving, cheering. Our next runners are running stage 5. When we're passing them 15 minutes after start, they're doing well - M. is in 3rd, and I. is second lady.
Somewhere on the Stage 5
Unfortunately, about a mile before the finish line she collapses. Good people from Ealing Eagles are helping here before we (and an ambulance) arrive. Fortunately she's getting better and apart from a few scratches she's fine. But she's really devastated that she didn't finish and the team will get a cut off time for this stage (race rules say that if a runner doesn't finish the stage, or doesn't show up at the start, the club is getting a cut-off time, which is 10 minutes/mile pace times the length of the stage).

Everyone was telling her that it's fine, and that the most important thing was that she was ok, but she was inconsolable. That was a lesson for all of us though, as if such a good and experienced runner collapsed, we all had to be really careful with this weather.

The last pair of runners from our bus was to run stage 10 - the hardest stage of day 1. A hilly halfmarathon, starting with a 10% climb over a mile long. A true killer. All the clubs are putting their strongest runners on this stage.
Stage 10
A Welsh Car Park
X, who run this stage for us, wasn't our strongest, but still one of the strongest (top 5 within the team). And he run beautifully! Strong and very smart, he finished in a close 4th place, fighting against really awesome runners.

We did a few water stops on that stage to support the runners, and it was a true pleasure to watch X's racing.

S. did very well too, finishing as the 2nd lady.

Something in Welsh with dragons next to it.
Traditionally we finish 1st day at WCR with a pub dinner. All our runners reunite to tell stories of the day, and trying to predict how are we doing in the general classification. Usually there's a bit of Stage Winner t-shirt flashing and well deserved bragging. But this time we had only one Veteran Stage Winner (as it turned out later, there was a second one as well, but he had to drive back to London after his stage).
A Welsh Car Park with a Welsh Castle in the background
No overall winners, no ladies winners. Yet, we had pretty decent and consistent performances throughout the day (especially the men's team), so we were hoping that it's not that bad. We knew that our main rivals - Salford Harriers, Les Croupiers, and Sale Harriers were very strong this year and had some very strong performances. But we also knew that we didn't fire our biggest guns yet. Our fastest runners were running on Sunday.

So when the results finally appeared on the website, we were surprised to find out that we were in third place, only 7:33 behind the leaders (Sale Harriers), about 5 minutes behind Salford and just 27 seconds ahead of Les Croupiers. Such small difference, after 100 miles of running! We knew we can still turn it around on Sunday.

After the dinner we’re heading off to sleep. We’re sleeping in two different places. Mine hotel for that night is a magical place. Lost in the middle of Welsh country side, surrounded by fields and hills, it's a solitary human made structure, probably in a few miles radius. When we're approaching it, we have to slow down almost to a stop, as the road is occupied by a herd of sheep. They prefer to rest on the road, as it's warmer than surrounding grass. The animals are so calm and peaceful, it's impossible they would be that serene if there were any dragons in the area. I bet they've never seen a dragon in their lives. They probably never even heard of one! I'm not an expert on sheep legends, but clearly there are no dragons amongst black characters in Welsh Sheep Bedtime Stories.
Peaceful sheep in the night. No sheep was harmed during taking this photo.
The race commences at 7am on Sunday morning. I'm on the bus with runners for stage 12 (2nd on Sunday, if I’ve done the math right), so it's an early start for us too.

When we set off our runners, we went back to see the finish of the stage 11 (finish of the stage is usually very close to the start of the next one. It's a relay after all). We had a good runner on this stage (J.), and we were curious to see how he was doing. He came 4th, pushing hard all the way, but over 4 minutes behind the Sale guy.

Our runners on stage 12 were going strong. S. was in the third place when he passed us on the water point. But the leader - a Salford runner - was far ahead. And he was flying! They had really strong guys on those teams! Our strongest runners didn't run yet, but clearly they wouldn't have an easy task.

S. finally finished 2nd, winning sprint finish by less than a meter! Salford runner won the stage by more than 6 minutes.

Red kettles. Nothing in common with Salford Harriers
Our next main stop was stage 17 - and I was to run, at last! We arrived to the start quite early so I could do a long warmup. About 15 minutes of jogging, then some mobility exercises, some strides, a bit of dynamic stretching, some more strides.

The stage was supposed to be a downhill one. 9.1 miles long, with a couple of uphills, but mainly downhill. I was hoping that it would be more about the speed in that case. So I felt fairly confident - I definitely suck at uphills, but the downhills are fun!

We lined up at the start line, last instructions from the marshals, gun - and off we go!

3 guys (Les Croupiers, Neath Harriers and Swansea Harriers) start strong, opening a small gap straight away. I'm joining them after several hundred meters, and we run together for the next couple of miles. The pace is quite fast (about 3:20/km), as we're going mainly downhill. But it's manageable, we're not racing each other, rather trying to leave the others behind.

Then, about 3 km in the race, we're approaching a steeper downhill. I'm deciding to test my luck. Making my move, increasing the pace, and taking the lead. I'm hoping to open a gap big enough to discourage them from chasing me. But they're catching up when the course flattens, and we run together again, this time with me in the lead.

We go like that for the next 2-3km, when I hear that they're breathing really hard behind me. So I'm deciding to push harder and break them.

But I miscalculated badly. They're catching up and overtaking me on a small uphill bit. I'm watching them (and my yellow Stage Winner's t-shirt!) disappearing in the distance.

I’m starting to struggle. My legs are already battered after this crazy downhill running, and there is no water! It’s hot, sunny, I’ve already sweated out a couple of litres, and no drinks in sight.

Only at around 8 km some boy hands me a bottle - thank you, thank you, thank you! And a couple of minutes later - a water station organised by my team mates! I’m saved!

But running is not getting any easier. On the contrary. I’m trying to chase the leaders, but they’re going strong, and the gap is growing slowly. In addition to that, one more runner overtakes me. I’m working hard, there are only 2 miles to go. Then we’re approaching a hill. Shorten the stride, work hard with the arms - and it’s done, I’ve climbed it. Now it’s only about a mile long downhill to the finish. Normally I’d fly here, but I’m so tired that the most I can do is to let the gravity do the job. Leaning forward, lengthening the stride, I’m slowly closing the gap to the 4th runner. Coming to the junction, marshals point me to the right, sharp bend, another road to cross, one more bend - and I’m there, only 400 meters to go! Trying to sprint, but the guy in front is too far. I’m finishing in the 5th place, 5 seconds behind the 4th runner, 1:50 behind the winner. At least Sale and Salford are behind me.

It took me a good couple of minutes to get up from the grass I crashed to after crossing the finish line. It’s been a long time since I was that tired after the race. Which is probably a good thing, at least I can’t blame myself for not trying. I can blame myself for not thinking, though. But I really wanted that Stage Winner t-shirt!
Me on Saturday, dreaming of a Stage Winner t-shirt
Our next stop is the finish of the stage 18. In the meantime we’re learning that we have some stage winners finally! And a bad news, that G. - one of our top guns - got injured on his stage, with about 15 km still to go. Yet, he managed to finish 4th, even though his foot was hurting really bad! That’s a warrior’s spirit!

Another one of our top guys - H. - wins stage 18. But we’re told that we’re about 15 minutes behind Salford anyway…

Stage 20 and the whole race finishes in Cardiff, in the park by the castle.  All the clubs are always asked by the organisers to put good runners on this stage, so they can commence with presentations as early as possible. Last year I’ve seen Welsh running legend, Les Croupiers' own Martin Reel, finishing 3rd on this stage. If you’re not familiar with this name - he’s the man who, a couple of years ago, at the age of 62, has run 10k in 32 minutes, setting a new World Record in his age group. As the race director has put it during the presentation: if you’re looking for an inspiration - look no further.

When we arrived at Cardiff, the first runner has already finished, and our man was just finishing in a strong 4th place. Most of our mates were already here (apart from one bus’ crew, who were helping some runner in trouble on the stage 20 - apparently he was in a pretty bad shape, fainting, shaking, vomiting, and so on…).

More cheering, exchanging stories, congratulating each other (especially our stage winners, who also set the new stage records. Well done guys!), and waiting for the results and presentations. We didn’t know the final result, but it seemed we didn’t win this time. But is it going to be 2nd, 3rd or 4th? Probably not 4th, as Sale Harriers, after very strong start to the day, began to fade later on, and were probably behind us. But it was going to be very close between us and Les Croupiers.
At Stage 10 finish
The last runner arrives at the finish line, and the organizers are starting the presentations. First, there are many people to thank for their support and hard work during the race and in the preparation period. All the marshals, time keepers, paramedics, guys inspecting the course, photographers, people dealing with the results, and so on. All the sponsors, councils and organizations whose help and support is essential for this event to happen. It takes a while, but we’re all more than happy to participate - organizing such an amazing event is an extremely complicated and difficult task, and all those people do it voluntarily. Thank you!

Then we’re moving to the results. First - individual prizes. Few of our runners won mountain stages, so they’re receiving Queen, King or Monarch (for veterans) of the Mountains awards. It’s a nice figurine of the Welsh Red Dragon.

Then mountain team prizes, business house winners, veterans winners. Ladies category - our ladies team comes 4th this year, a bit of a disappointment after winning it 3 times in a row.

Finally, the overall winners.

3rd place goes to… Les Croupiers! So we’re in the second!

Yes, the race director announces the second place - only 4 minutes ahead of Les Croupiers - reigning champions, 5 time winners - Serpentine!

He says they hope we will return next year stronger, trying to regain our title. Sure as hell we will!

And the first place - Salford Harriers, by about 15 minutes. Well done guys, congratulations! Well deserved victory.

And that’s it. I just want to say a huge thank you to all the people who made this event such an amazing experience. So all of the organizers, other clubs, and all the Serpies - especially our captains and drivers! And hats off to our ladies team captain - L. - who - due to a last minute drop out - had to race, and came 3rd lady on her stage. And she’s 6 months pregnant!

It was an amazing weekend. Thank you all guys, and see you next year. We’ve got an unfinished business here.

I’m only sad for the dragons...

* I was going to make some kind of self deprecating joke here, but screw it - it has really happened!
** ok, that was more of a draw, as the dragon died, and the sheep was already dead before the match.
*** some people call this event Welsh Car Parks Relay. There is certainly some truth in it

And more photos: