The start at Caernarfon Castle. Pic: Paul Stillman.

The Secret ‘Best Athletics Race In World’ . . . The Welsh Castles Relay

Former BBC News journalist Andrew McFarlane has written an alternative and personal view of a wonderful Welsh athletics event – the Welsh Castles Relay. He writes for the ‘RUNNING RUBBISH’ website which celebrates athletic mediocrity in all its mis-shapen forms.

“A place for solidarity, to share the woe of middling club runners,” says McFarlane.

“We’re here for those who train for months, with little hope of beating that PB they set back when the novelty hadn’t worn off, only to miss the bus, or break down, en route to the start line.

“The site is about celebrating mediocrity and the sheer enjoyment of being absolutely rubbish at running, yet doing it anyway. Not to keep fit or to be sociable, or even because it’s fun. Just because we’re rubbish runners and that’s what we do.”

Off they go in the Welsh Castles Relay. The start from Caernarfon Castle.

Which is the best race in the world?

The Olympic Games 100-metre final? The Boston Marathon? Berlin… Tokyo… London… New York? 

Nah, not for me. Running London is a fantastic experience – and I’m sure the others are great, too.

How about the utterly barmy Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3,100-Mile race?

No, for me, one race stands head and shoulders above the rest –  The Welsh Castles Relay anybody?

Running… it’s brilliant. Even when you’re rubbish at it, there’s no beating the endorphin high that comes with finishing a race.

When you’ve trotted home two-thirds of the way back, you can still be buoyed by the fact it was only your fourth-worst over the distance in the last four years… not too shabby.

But if there’s one area where running is lacking, it’s a team element.

I took it up in my late-20s, trying to regain some shape after being barred from the rough and tumble of football by an arthritic left toe.

Being in better shape is also great for the mind and I’ll be eternally grateful to running. But, even after experiencing the supportive parkrun and club communities, every time I passed a scrappy football match on a muddy pitch, I’d feel a pang for the comradeship that goes with team sports.

I missed the feeling that others were depending on you, and vice-versa. The fear of letting down the team.

Then, however, I discovered the Castles.

Run across two days, it covers the length of Wales – 211 miles from Caernarfon to Cardiff – with teams of 20 runners taking on stages of around 10 miles each.

Along the way, it passes within two miles of 23 castles and 14 forts. It winds through some glorious terrain that you have absolutely no chance of admiring if you’re unfortunate enough to have been picked to run a mountain stage.

The mind-boggling logistics are handled with astonishing efficiency by Cardiff’s splendid Les Croupiers Running Club, which set up the race in 1982.

And, with more than 60 teams competing, it takes a lot of minibuses to transport competitors through the country.

Race traffic breezes through towns like a Tour de France caravan, bringing a carnival of cheers, cowbells and car horns. And it’s this atmosphere that makes the race really special.

All teams cheer all runners – rivals or otherwise – reserving the loudest for their teammates. And it gives the whole experience a festival feel.

Once a year, every June, rural villagers briefly find themselves in the eye of a honking, hollering hurricane. Half an hour later they emerge, blinking, with only the faint whiff of sweat and embrocation to hint at what just happened.

Running Rubbish: ‘What goes on tour stays on tour… until some idiot writes a blog post about it’

But in the mini-bus, the party goes on all day. And it’s in this cramped space, where a dozen people cram themselves in among kit bags, bottled water and high-energy snacks that the team spirit missing from other races comes into play.

Teammates egg each other on. Who’s going to take whose club stage record, who’ll meet their target time and who can make sure they keep in front of the runner from the nearest rival club?

If you’re not running, you’re cheering

It’s the banter of the dressing room on wheels. But as each runner’s drop-off time approaches, the atmosphere changes. Jocularity subsides… tension builds. 

My club’s unofficial war cry – ‘Don’t Let the Club Down’ – echoes around the mind. And, for once, it’s not taken in jest.

It’s the type of pressure I’ve only previously experienced on a marathon start line, when months of training are riding on the next few thousand steps.

And I love it.

Sadly for me, such is the depth of quality in the Ealing Eagles ranks these days, I have no chance of qualifying for the open team. So I never thought I’d get the chance to run in this fantastic competition again.

But then the club was granted an additional place for a veterans’ squad. Could I scrape in? I made it one of my new year running resolutions to try my damnedest.

My training improved, my times – though still sluggish – started to approach where they ought to be and I lost weight (well, a bit). I started to feel like a runner again.

In truth, I knew I still wasn’t quick enough. When I didn’t make the team, I said I’d keep the weekend open in case they needed a reserve and knuckled down to some hilly miles at warm weather training camp (okay, on holiday in Spain).

Then, four days before the start of the race, I got a call from the captain. Unfortunately, several of our top-drawer vets had been forced to pull out and – to his horror – he’d exhausted his list of half-decent reserves. There was no other option…I was going to Wales.

Okay, so… called up to my running club’s squad for the best race in the World at four days’ notice,.What do I need to think about?

• Negotiate three days away with the missus – check

• Scale back marathon training ahead of Sunday’s relay leg – check

• Brush up on stage profile from race bible – check

• Ensure go-faster pants laundered – check

• Sort the moustache – che… hey, what?!

It turned out that Ealing Eagles open and veterans teams at this year’s Welsh Castles Relay were decorating their upper lips to raise funds for the Campaign Against Living Miserably, in memory of two young men the club lost in recent years.

Thankfully I usually wear a beard, so it was mostly a question of style. 

I was ready for what is the Greatest Race in the Universe.

I discovered that in 2013, when I sulked my way through one of this 211-mile event’s six mountain stages.

I wasn’t supposed to run it that year, but one of the club’s decent runners pulled out with ‘tired legs’ or some such nonsense.

Within seconds of setting off from the pretty town of Llanfair Caereinion – as I watched the pack disappear ahead of me – I knew I was in trouble. It wasn’t long before I was among a handful cut adrift.

The road went up, and up… and up. Then, just as we thought it was levelling off, it rose again. I was so utterly disconsolate, I’m not sure I noticed when it eventually flattened out. I barely registered the hollered support of my team-mates until the riverside run-in.

There, just behind a pub, I finished to the cheers of the massed competitors and strains of a brass band, and was handed a pint. Suddenly, I felt like a hero for slogging through a 1-50 half marathon. And so my love affair with the race began.

The Castles’ legend spread through the Ealing Eagles Running Club to the extent that qualifying criteria had to be drawn up for the squad. I scraped in for 2015, then left the country to avoid the ignominy of losing my place.

But this year, the addition of a vets team gave me the chance to qualify – albeit as last choice reserve.

So, as the bus rolled into Caernarfon just in time to see the stage one runners disappear into the distance, my nerves were jangling.

I’d seen the sort of times my team-mates could churn out and knew I was a minute-a-mile shy of that slowest. I simply didn’t belong in this company.

To make matters worse, given I’d lived 200 miles away for the last two years, I didn’t know most of the quick young runners? How would those fast guys react to my paunchy presence?

I needn’t have worried. The Eagles have long styled themselves as West London’s friendliest club and the ethos has held.

A few old running buddies welcomed me onto the bus, offered some gentle flak about my appalling form and that was it. I was part of the team.

Any worries I had about this event not living up to my ridiculously high expectations quickly evaporated as cheer squad responsibilities got under way:

• Navigate country lanes along the route

• Cheer from bus windows at any runners you pass along the way

• Pile out at suitable spot to cheer runners coming through

• Shake those cowbells

• Quick! Back on the bus

• Repeat

Cath Barker flies the Blue and Yellow flag for Penarth and Dinas runners as she finishes the final leg ion the Welsh Castles Relay to massive cheers from her clubmates gathered in Bute Park, Cardiff.

In plain text, it doesn’t read like a particularly rewarding way to spend a weekend, but when you’re there amid the clamour, colour and confusion of the race cavalcade it really is something special.

About mid-afternoon, our minibus switched from cheer squad to drop-off duties. Those preparing to run fretted over fuelling strategies and last-minute loo stops. The tension was infectious, the atmosphere subdued. Quiet descended, as runners silently repeated the mantra Don’t Let the Club Down.

So it was for me early the next day when, after a fitful sleep, I sat fretting over my race strategy.

I reckoned I was fit to manage 8min/mile pace. But I wasn’t even sure I was up to that. Then again, Stage 12 – 11.2 miles from Llanbadarn Fynydd to Crossgates – was mostly downhill. 

Could I not go a bit quicker? My ladies teammate was similarly unsure what she could manage, though I was pretty sure she’d go off quicker than me. 

Should I stick with her then try to hold on? Or should I go out conservatively to last the distance?

As is often the way, music had a calming effect. As Public Service Broadcasting’s Go! came over the bus stereo, it served as a reminder of the simple aim: just go, as fast as you can.

And that’s how it went as we raced off, trainers on tarmac sounding that bit more businesslike than your average road race. I pushed as hard as I could without blowing up. For most of the stage I was running faster than I had for a long time.

Roughly 7.50min/miles might have put me towards the back of the field, but I didn’t let up, even around one sweeping right turn offering a crushing view of the full field strung out ahead.

Unlike most road races, there’s no pack to gauge your pace from and so this has the feeling of a solitary time trial.

For three-quarters of the stage, the tap-tap footfall of a runner from the Right to Movement Palestine team on my heel provided the soundtrack to my run.

Then he left me for dead in the closing stages and the only sound was the tune on loop in my head. The reggae beat of Protoge’s Who Knows? was an odd fit for mid-Wales, but it worked for me.

Palestinian message. Diala Isid, who travelled from Ramallah, ran for Right to Movement Palestine sports organisation in the Welsh Castles Relay. The photograph shows Diala completing the final stage into Cardiff Castle.

A few lumps later in the stage slowed the pace, but my effort slackened only momentarily, when some roadside rubbish inexplicably set my mind wandering to the problems of plastic pollution.

Ticking myself off, I redoubled my focus for the long downhill finish.

As I swept down towards a roundabout that I knew led to the finish straight, I spotted our club’s Irish motivator-in-chief – looking twice as terrifying as usual with a Merv Hughes moustache.

I began to wind it up, and asked how near was the finish. I’ve no idea what he shouted back, but his words acted like a starting pistol.

I sprinted (or at least as near as I could manage after 11 miles) around the final bend and into the finish straight.

Cue the customary ridiculous photograph of what one clubmate rather inappropriately described as my ‘finish face.’

Euphoria followed – once I’d recovered my breathing – as did an ice cream.

I’d run a minute-per-mile slower than run in my previous appearance – and lost up to 20 minutes on the injured man whose place I’d taken. But I’d done everything I could.

The rest of the day went by in a blur, as runners – relieved to have finished – climbed back on the bus to cheer their team-mates.

Athletes from Cardiff’s White Rock Runners before competing in the Welsh Castles Relay.

After a morning that felt like an eternity, the afternoon became a race through the latter stages to cheer in the runners arriving in the beautiful grounds of Cardiff Castle.

And we’d done pretty well. Our open team finished sixth of 41, Ealing Eagles’ ladies came fourth out of nine. And we vets placed third of 10 on our debut, thanks in no small part to those crowned ‘Mountain Monarchs’ for the fastest collective time over the six toughest stages.

There was just about time for a quick beer before I had to dash for a rail-replacement bus service to Newport. It proved a long journey home to Liverpool but it didn’t take much of it for me to come to two conclusions:

The Welsh Castles Relay is still the best race there is. And, next year, the Eagles’ last-choice reserve for the vets team is going to be much quicker.

Sale Of The Year – More Than 60 Teams Run 207 Miles From Caernarfon To Cardiff In Welsh Castles Relay

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