Cotswold Way Relay 2022 – race report

The Cotswold Way Relay gets harder each year. I can’t imagine the depths of endurance required, the relentless mental focus, and the sheer, bloody-minded determination it takes. Some say it is an impossible job.

Yet somehow Judy Mills manages to get three teams out, and ensures the correct race results are fed back.

As for running the race? That’s the easy bit!

A huge thank you once again to Judy, and fellow team captains Rob Watkins and Kev Cundy for coaxing and cajoling 27 TRC members to make up our three relay teams. Rob led the Firethorn team, which had to be reshuffled more times than Boris’ Cabinet – a motley crew of over-40s male veterans, who somehow managed to tape themselves up and make it to the start-line.

Kevin helmed the Quickthorn team – a mixture of some of the club’s fastest and youngest prospects, alongside some wily older hands. There really is no substitute for experience at this level. Well, apart from running speed, but let’s not be picky. Firethorn and Quickthorn looked evenly matched on paper. Last year the male vets team only secured victory by a handful of minutes with the race still up for grabs going into the final leg. Judy captained the Hawthorn team, another mixed team, although sadly not a full roster on this occasion.

There was never a chance of a repeat of 2018 and 2019’s furnace-like conditions. However the wind (and later the rain) played a significant part. Usually the prevailing south-westerly deals a glancing blow to the runners on the more exposed early stages. This year the Minchinhampton Mistral smacked into our faces with all the force of a Tyson Fury straight right, and the only time the wind eased was when the rain had settled in. It was soon apparent this was unlikely to be a year for course records.

Stage 1 often attracts some of the best runners, as the leading teams stack their line-ups. This year the stage was won by a multiple winner of the South West cross country title, and a 15 min 5k runner. That puts Ben Bohane’s eighth place overall into perspective. This was yet another remarkable run from the club’s Stokes-like all-rounder who covered this 12 mile stage, featuring savagely steep ascents and descents, in a fraction over 90 mins, despite getting lost at one point. However any thought that Quickthorn would establish a commanding early lead in the intra-club race was short-lived, as emerging out of the early-morning mist, like a modern day Owain Glyndwr (with an advanced accounting qualification) came Nathan Darkin in a fabulous run of 1hr 46 mins. Collette Jackson got Hawthorn on the board with a fine run of 1hr 56.

Paul Thomas clawed that time back for Firethorn on leg 2. His recent ultra runs on trails clearly helped him on this very demanding stage. Paul descended like a wheel of the finest Double Gloucester to take a splendid second place in the vets race, and despite an excellent CWR debut for women’s club 10k champion Ali Vaz, who ran 2hr 7mins, Paul took Firethorn into the lead. Not far behind Ali was Julia Jolley in 2hrs 15.

Chris Foley and Mike Bennewitz would be quietly confident in any race that was scored on an age-adjusted basis. However the CWR is done solely on time, yet they still did their teams proud. On the journey up, Chris suggested he was aiming for 1hr 45, but instead obliterated that mark with a fabulous time of just over 1hr 28 mins. Mike was not far behind, finishing as the rain began to fall, with an excellent 1hr 39. Paul Harrod took Firethorn into the lead in the overall vets competition with a solid run of 1hr 6 mins, that earned him a top-10 place, and second male veteran. That would have been two minutes quicker if not for getting lost on one section, and quicker still if he could find a way of negotiating the sharpest descents in a style that doesn’t resemble a broken fridge-freezer being lowered into a municipal skip.

Sadly there was no runner for Hawthorn on leg 4, but there was excitement in seeing whether Danny Bonnett could extend Firethorn’s lead over Quickthorn, especially when up against club legend Jo Plumbley, who has run the Cotswold Way so frequently I’m surprised they haven’t named a section after her. Danny did a brilliant job in what I think may be his club racing debut (??) finishing 4th veteran in 1hr 38. Jo ran brilliantly, as always, and her 2hr 7 mins was very competitive in her personal age category, but the remorseless logic of the stopwatch meant that team Firethorn was now pulling ahead. Would the club competition be over before we even got to Stroud?

Not so fast! Leg 5 saw one of the day’s highlights, and an extremely rare, and therefore all the more celebrated, stage win for TRC. The brilliant Sean Leadbetter managed to outsprint his Bristol and West rival to complete the 11.7 mile stage in a staggering (literally, at the end, I imagine) 1hr and 20 mins. A quite brilliant achievement – chapeau! Sean’s win grabbed back some time for Quickthorn, but not perhaps as much as might be expected, because Firethorn had the ever-reliable George Evans – the Lycra Woman’s Nigel Havers – on the same leg. George was inside the top 15 – second veteran – and only conceded 16 minutes to the outstanding stage winner. Judy Mills took a break from the incessant race admin by running 2hrs and 28 mins for Hawthorn.

Kev Cundy and Jim Williams finished stage 6 almost at the same time, both recording 1hr 47 mins over one of the legs with more elevation than descent: Ebley Mill to Dursley. Chris Worrall buttressed Firethorn’s lead with a wonderful run of 1hr and 15 minutes, which started to pull the team safely into the top 3 of the overall veterans’ competition. Chris was also second vet in the race, and 9th overall. I hope he is going to be a regular racer for TRC over the roads and trails for many years to come.

There was eager anticipation to see the outcome of the race on stage 7 between father and son-in-law Kevin Wood and Chris Pritchard. In the end the gaps between all three TRC runners was the closest of any stage. Ellen Perrett had an excellent race for Hawthorn, and finished in 1hr 27 minutes. Kevin kept Firethorn in the hunt for overall veteran competition honours by running 1h 16. Chris played it safe, and rather like surreptitiously missing a putt on the 18th when playing golf against your boss, he finished a discrete couple of minutes behind Kevin! In all seriousness, Kevin deserves our congratulations, and thanks, for overcoming some significant back pain to not only race, but to do so with distinction.

Stage 8 is one of the longest and toughest in the race, and so Firethorn needed a dependable runner to maintain their lead over Quickthorn, and aim for a strong position in the overall team competition. Thankfully they had that in Garry Slater, who finished in a magnificent third place in the vets race in 1hr 38. Sadly Quickthorn didn’t have a runner for this stage, which essentially ended the intra-TRC competition, but Hawthorn had Rob Hopkins, who must have wondered what the fuss was all about – (only 12 miles of 1 in 3 gradient – too easy!) – who ran 2hrs and 8 minutes.

If a TRC stage win is a rarity, two in a day is possibly a first! The club librarians are still consulting the archives, but I think Taryn Roberts has once again made history. She was the clear winner in the tough stage 9 – and recorded the 6th fastest time by a female athlete in the history of that stage, in 1hr 9 mins and 52 seconds. More importantly she beat Rob Watkins by seven seconds, and I wish I’d been there to witness that sprint finish into Cold Ashton! To be so close to Taryn meant that Rob obviously had a wonderful race himself, and he was yet another Firethorn runner to come home as second male veteran overall. In my opinion Clare Watt is arguably the best runner in the club on an age-graded basis, and while this race is done purely on time, her effort of 1hr 24 minutes was still an incredibly good performance. I think Clare, Rob and stage-winner Taryn win the award for best collective stage by TRC runners this year.

And so, as the afternoon sun dappled across the honey-coloured stones of Bath Abbey (or maybe the rain lashed against the buttresses and battlements – it was a day of changeable weather) Hannah Hamilton and Jim Godden completed another successful day of racing. The final stage, like the opening stage, tends to have some of the best overall runners, so their positions as eighth woman and seventh male veteran would probably have been higher had they raced on other legs. Jim finished in 1hr 16 and Hannah in 1hr 20.

The remarkable consistency of the Firethorn vets team won us a third place overall in the team competition – in a cumulative time of 14hrs and 29 minutes, just 8 minutes behind Team Bath. We just should have run 1% quicker and we’d have been second! That is still a fantastic team performance, and (lente, lente, currite noctis equi) the inexorable march of time means that some of the club’s promising young mid-30 year olds should soon become available for selection. Team Quickthorn need to regroup and lick their (presumably bramble?) wounds. They were missing a few of the club’s very fastest runners this year, but should be more than consoled with two heroic stage wins for Sean and Taryn. Hawthorn sadly didn’t get a full team out this year, but still have some excellent individuals performances, especially if age-graded results were taken into account.

Next year the Cotswold Way Relay wends it way through Clarkson Country on Saturday 1st July. Please put the date in your diary, and let’s give the team captains some selection headaches to go alongside the admin ones!