- 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
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|
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|
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.
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|
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|
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.
|A Welsh Car Park|
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.|
|A Welsh Car Park with a Welsh Castle in the background|
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.|
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|
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|
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.
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|
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...
** 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: