2021 COTSWOLD WAY RELAY

Cotswold Way Full Race Report – Paul Harrod

The star performers in Thornbury Running Club’s Cotswold Way Relay teams did not even get to run. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Judy Mills and Rob Watkins for assembling the teams, and dealing with a voluminous amount of admin and pre-race information. In Rob’s case, he had the mighty challenge of finding ten men over the age of 40 who were fit and available at the same time. He then had to pull out himself due to a garden football injury, (no sniggering at the back, most of us have been there!), and keep finding other substitutes right up until the eve of the race. To add insult to injury, Ian Evans, who kindly stepped in at the last minute to cover leg 4, then got pinged by NHS track and trace and had to isolate at home. Nothing he, or anyone else, could do about it. Judy put together TRC’s two other teams; was the main contact with the race organisers, and even found time on the day of a family wedding to come along and cheer her team mates!

Race day began at 5am, when Laura Orna (Quickthorn), Mike Bennewitz (Hawthorn) and Paul Harrod (Thorn in the side) headed up the M5 for the 7am start of leg one from Chipping Camden. Laura was the standout runner on this leg, completing the gruelling stage well inside her 2-hour target, and a fantastic top 4 finish in the women’s race. Paul Harrod ran along in a small group at the back of the first wave of leading runners, and was feeling comfortable up to Broadway Tower. He then watched in dismay as his companions hurtled down the trails like frisky mountain goats, while his way of getting down the hill was more akin to Bambi with a niggly Achilles. Still, he dragged himself to the finish in 14th place, and with quads resembling smashed avocados. Mike Bennewitz put his encyclopaedic knowledge of the route to good use, and paced himself to a strong finish just outside 2hrs 30 mins and the second place finish in his age category.

Leg 2 started in the drizzle, and made the periods of sharp descent even trickier to navigate. That didn’t seem to affect TRC runners, on what was arguably the best collective effort of the race. Ben Bohane, making his debut in the event, must have flown up those hills, as he mixed it with some highly experienced club runners and recorded an outstanding sixth place finish. Jo Plumbley continued her recent rich vein of form, and was the fifth female runner, and a clear winner in her age category. If the weather had been better she might have challenged her own, all-time, TRC record for that leg set five years ago. Jim Godden hasn’t been able to train as much as he would wish, but still proved the old adage that form is temporary, but class is permanent. He managed to finish in 16th place, as well as third in his age category: a highly creditable performance.

Leg 3 is one of the shorter ones, but that just means the runners race faster. Collete Jackson recorded one of Team Hawthorn’s best results of the day, finishing in an amazing top 10 position in the overall women’s race, and a fine 2nd place in her age category. Jay Mosley (Thorn in the Side) and Jeremy Clothier (Quickthorn) ran strong races, and the gap between TRC’s two top teams was just 25 minutes.

That all changed dramatically on leg 4. Thorn in the Side had no runner, due to Ian’s last minute ‘track and trace’ exclusion, and so the team had to accept a penalty time of 2hrs 45 minutes. We will never know, but had Ian run to form, then it is likely that TRC’s male veterans team would have finished in fourth place overall in the MV40+ competition. As it was they had to settle for 7th. So an opportunity for team Quickthorn to make up some time. And there is literally no one better than Nick Williams. He’d be likely to win any club race on the flat, but throw in vertiginous climbs and drops, and he is different gravy! Nick finished in 1hr 28 mins and 23 secs; third place in a highly competitive senior men’s race; beat Rob Cowland’s 2016 all-time club record for the stage, and ran at an average pace of just over 7 mins per mile. Performance of the day, without doubt. This huge swing in the battle between Quickthorn and Thorn in the Side racketed up the pressure on the remaining runners. (Not that any of them were aware of this at the time, but it hopefully adds a little bit of post-hoc excitement to this report).

Leg 5 saw Henry Orna (‘fresh’ from being woken up at 4.20am by his children who had got up to say goodbye to their mum as she left for leg 1) take back some time for Thorn in the Side, and finish in an excellent top 20 position in the senior men’s race, and 7th in the over 40s race. Race of the day must have been between Kevin Cundy and Clare Watt. For almost 12 arduous miles from Cranham Corner to Ebley Mill they duelled it out, neither giving an inch, until they were eventually separated at the finish by a mere three seconds. Well, either that, or they had a really nice sociable run together. But I prefer the idea of the dramatic head-to-head!

Leg 6 saw the indefatigable Phil Blackburn rip up the trails, on route to recording a fantastic time of 1hr 13mins. In the contest between Thorn in the Side and Quickthorn, it was largely ‘as you were’ as Richard Jackson and Ian Hoffman both ran very impressive sub-90 min times on one of the few legs that has more climbing than descending. It should also be noted that while most of us would have spent Sunday morning hobbling around nursing tight hamstrings, Phil pitched up at the Gloucester 10k and ran it in just over 38 minutes!

Leg 7 saw father and daughter, club captain Kevin Wood, and Emma Pritchard, run together. Emma wasn’t feeling at all well, so it is great testimony to her, and of course to dad Kevin who accompanied her the whole way round, that she completed the run in a more than respectable time. Thank you to Emma for being so determined to ensure team Hawthorn had a full roster of runners. TRC legend Martyn Green (who still holds two club all-time stage records) produced yet another top performance to come 14th overall, and was a run-away winner in his age category (that I won’t stipulate, but suffice to say he looks far too young to be part of).

Leg 8 is arguably the toughest one of the entire Cotswold Way – one of the longest, net uphill, and with seemingly no flat sections at all. So huge credit to Sarah Newnes, Moray Sloan and Ben Foss for taking it on. Sarah was first in her age category, Moray second in his, and Ben snuck into the top 20 overall for the leg to tighten the race between Quickthorn and Thorn in the Side still further.

Lizzie Williams hasn’t had much chance to race over the past couple of years – having the small matter of twin boys to focus on. Yet she must have done a bit of training (and/or she is just naturally gifted) as she and Melanie Wilson paced each other round to finish together in an amazing 1hr 23 mins, both taking third place in their respective, highly competitive, age categories. Jim Williams ran a very strong race himself, and must have done so with a calculator, because his finishing time meant that going into the final leg, after fully 15 hours of racing, Quickthorn and Thorn in the Side were less than 5 minutes apart.

And so to the final leg. With Julia Jolley as Sally Gunnell, chasing Paul Thomas as Kris Akabusi, to see who would get to brandish their metaphorical batons in the shadow of Bath Abbey and bring home the TRC bragging rights for another year. In the end, the final leg saw three first-class performances from TRC – close contenders with leg 2 for the best collective performance of the day. Ros Rowland run with Julia and they both finished this tough leg together, well inside an hour and a half. Ros showing her ultra and trail running pedigree to win her age category. Paul Thomas was obviously completely oblivious to the fact that all of Thorn in the Side’s hope were riding on his shoulders, but they needn’t have worried, as Paul always goes full gas in races, and he stormed to a top 15 position on the leg, and a win in his age category by a country mile.

For the record, Thorn in the Side completed the race in 16 hr 14mins, closely followed by Quickthorn in 16 hrs 30, and Hawthorn in 18hrs 42.

However, despite my feeble attempts to generate some drama over the team event, that is not why we ran it. The Cotswold Way Relay is like no other race. The team spirit is second to none; you get to traverse some of the most stunning scenery in the country; you test your limits in a way no training run in the BS35 postcode could ever replicate. You cross the line and say ‘never again’ but by Sunday evening you’re checking out the stage maps and plotting which leg you’ll try the following year. If you have yet to experience the delights of the Cotswold Way Relay, then please join one of our intrepid teams on the first Saturday of July 2022!

For runners of all standards