The Cotswold Way Relay.
This year’s Cotswold Way Relay will never be forgotten – although some would certainly like to forget it!
Tewkesbury Running Club fielded their two teams with the competitive Kylie Kangaroos aiming to clinch a podium place again after falling to 6th in 2018 and their second team with a more pleasurable ethos and every intention of enjoying every step, snapping a selfie and generally celebrating the beautiful Cotswolds.
Tewkesbury had a fine squad of 25 runners geared-up weeks before but as always, injuries happen and the first runner to withdraw, and probably the most significant, was Paul Mason; Paul was due to run Stage No3 thus giving him the sought-after award of ‘King of the Cotwolds’ which is an award presented at the end in Bath for runners having completed all ten stages. Alas for Paul as a knee injury ended his dream. Alec Vincent then broke down half way through his Stage 10 recce as his plantar fasciitis flared-up and reduced his participation the week later to a supportive role. Chris Duckworth withdrew after failing to shake-off a niggle. Even then, five of the final selections on the day could not say they were 100% fit. With that in mind, we had an official reserve who kindly followed the race down to Bath in case there was a last minute withdrawal. As it transpired, all those who confirmed the night before made the start line… and as described below completed their respective stages.
But as the day unfolded, the physical shape of the runners became irrelevant and the bright orange shape in the sky set the stage. It was quite a bizarre weather event as the forecast the week before highlighted just Saturday with 27 degrees with the days either side much cooler and as the day of the race grew nearer, 27 became 31 and by midday there were reports of 35 degrees along the Cotswolds western escarpment. It was crazy heat at its height and then it just disappeared after the event had finished. The organizers were so concerned about the heat that they increased every cut-off time by 10 minutes. They also insisted that you had in your possession at the start 500 ml of fluid and on finishing their stage, check in with the team captains.
Stage No1: The early alarm call to travel to Chipping Campden isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. However, the reward for starting the trail at 7am is some stunning and peaceful North Cotswold scenery. Once the warm mist had lifted, the runners could perform at the coolest part of the day. Gary Duxbury and Jude Rodrigues stood at the very start/end of the Cotswold Way for the two Tewkesbury teams. Once the runners left Chipping Campden, their first famous Cotswold landmark was passed in the shape of Dover’s Hill – made famous by the Olimpick Games which have taken place there since 1612. The pair both put their fitness to the test as they ran towards Broadway Tower, the 18th century folly. Superb views are offered from the peak and on a clear day, an incredible 13 counties can be seen (really?). But there was no sight-seeing for the determined Tewkesbury pair as they worked their way towards two quaint Cotswold villages, Stanton and Stanway. Stanway house, the impressive Jacobean manor house, once owned by Tewkesbury Abbey marked the end of the stage. True to form, Gary finished before Jude but having ran the same stage in 2018, Gary was down a few minutes on his target and a touch disappointed. Still a strong time for the off-run addict and after reviewing Stage 1 with other teams afterwards, the heat was already starting to play havoc. For Jude, this was to be a tough 12 miles – having trained over Bourton’s Hilly Half Marathon, he later aggravated his groin and needed to test it over the previous Wednesday’s 5 mile handicap. As it happens, his groin held up well over this magnificent stage and Jude was the first to admit the heat was a ‘game-changer’.
Stage No2: Taking on the first of the 3 categorised ‘hard’ stages, were hilly terrain fan Shona Crombie-Hicks and CWR journey man Roy Northcott. Both were in fair shape with Shona still respectful of her hamstring and Roy, well Roy was last seen wading through Bushley flood waters. Once ascending Stanway hill then down past the remains of Hailes Abbey, a trek along Winchcombe High Street before the chance to hydrate passing Sudeley Castle. Resisting the opportunity to pay their respects to the former Queen, Katherine Parr, the brave runners were soon into one of the most demanding longer climbs of the day to Belas Knap. As the stage panned-out, Shona became the new Queen as she graced her way along. She had strong competition in the ladies field but that was over after the first climb and she was soon directing strong male runners ahead of her. Quite surprisingly, the course record was broken by an elite Bristol & West athlete and both he and Shona excelled in hurtful conditions. Shona was so masterful on her new favourite dog walking route, she had the energy to start a conversation with one of the guys she ran up to – he managed to muster-up 3 words and he was broken… he was never seen again!
There’s no doubting Roy’s capability on any course but as the clock ticked on there was no news on Roy. In fact, our runners on Stage 3 had finished. Fearing the worse, there was delight when live feed video was aired with the club captain finishing strongly on Cleeve Hill. Roy’s performance was actually quite noteworthy given the little training he had done for the course. Going back to Shona though, she had such a great run that she beat her former club’s team A, B and C runners and then had a shower, changed and eaten breakfast before going back to film Roy.
Stage No3: The popular shorter stage from Cleeve hill tracing the escarpment above Cheltenham’s Prestbury Park featured two enthralling runners; Suzie Tharme and Lucy Jones were trusted with the rocky terrain past the old Cotswold quarry and the lung-busting climb up from Dowdeswell reservoir. Lucy was Paul’s replacement and after the pair debated their capabilities, Suzie switched Lucy into the Kylie Kangaroos. That was simple but both girls were carrying niggles with Suzanne’s back causing her to stop running for a couple of weeks and only declared herself fit a few days prior and Lucy carrying a concern that she did well to hide.
With current form, it was going to be close as to who would reach Seven Springs first? Suzanne has the experience that Lucy has yet to gain however, both girls sharpened their teeth on the Cotswold Way with a good recce which included quite an extended extra leg in the easterly direction – if you are going to get lost, then on a practice run is the time to do it. Needless to say the Tewkers two left Cleeve Hill right on target and Lucy excelled in the 23 degree heat. Her finish time was a bonus and shines some light on what a talented young runner she is. Suzanne had a tough time and has to be applauded for her brave running with her ailment. Like many, she was impressed by the Almost Athletes’ refreshment station near the foot of the stage’s one big climb.
Stage No4: The longest stage on paper, No4 measures 20.4 km, just shy of 13 miles. No4 is also the second of the three ‘harder’ stages. As in previous years, the long and tough stages tend to be tackled by our stronger athletes. With this in mind, James Head was picked with Vlad Venglar.
By the 10am start time, the mercury had reached what it peaked at in last year’s event and many will recall that day being warm! Vlad got off to a good start and tackled the early climbs with ease. James took a more cautious approach. With the 10 or so climbs from Seven Springs to Cranham, consequentially there will be descents and the more confident runners made the most of them. As the team captain was enjoying his Eggs Benedict, his emergency phone started to ring and the name Vlad was flashing… knowing that Vlad was out on the course, the call was answered in trepidation. With slight relief, only Vlad’s heavy breathing could be heard as it would appear he didn’t lock his handset before the start. Both the lads had a trial run over the course so knew what to expect and had already absorbed some of the stunning views from the Devil’s Chimney and Birdlip. James’ steady start started to pay dividends in the second half of the race and he climbed his way up the running order. With the Cotswold Way signage now at its most complete, all James had to do was find the finish to secure an excellent top 10 finish… alas it was not to be as James had the misfortune to miss a left turn and find himself at the bottom of another climb – Coopers Hill by all accounts and that meant an extra climb at a time when he really didn’t fancy it. Vlad, on the other hand, had no navigational slips and really dug deep over the last 3 miles to finish in a great time. Once he found his feet again, he was puzzled to not find James waiting for him!
Stage No5: Having just three or four climbs of note, this is another pleasant tour over parts of the Cotswold escarpment. Historically, this is known as the downhill stage as there is considerably more descending before a special canal path finish in Stroud. Simon Meadows opted to take this on for the Kylie Kangaroos while Kim Boskett was a late replacement for Chris Duckworth – Kim was one of several runners who raced to fill the vacancy after the route was described as “It’s an absolute dream stage... No5 starting at 11am for 11 miles. From Cranham, Painswick village centre, Haresfield Beacon and the most wonderful canal path finish to Ebley Mill. A great day out - Italian coffee & biscuits at the start followed by champagne & strawberries afterwards - gorgeous route”. The team captain had her hooked and in no time Kim was raring to go. Simon had a closer look at the course and he too was also raring to go.
But with midday approaching, all of the runners were beginning to roast. Running down through Painswick High Street, taking in the panoramic views from Haresfield Beacon and tracing through ancient woodland dating back to 1297, Simon and Kim felt the heat and it started to slow their engines down. On reflection Simon described it as “hot hilly hell” and although very tired towards the end, he did muster the strength to overtake 3 wavering runners.
Kim described it as “beautiful” (although she did feel very sick over the last 3 miles). In fairness to Kim, it is nearer 12 miles and in 2017, both Tewkesbury runners got desperately lost so the 2019 pair were a success.
Stage No6: Starting from the Stroud valley, the runners on No6 have 3 significant climbs to tackle; the first to Selsley Common is in full view from the starting point and is a daunting sight! With the gun sounding at 12pm, the ambient temperature was worryingly hot! This stage takes the runners through some glorious miles of wooded shade. In contrast, the final few meters involve trekking the streets of Dursley. Unfortunately the streets received 3 collapsing runners. Tewkesbury had Mark Gardiner returning after his visit in 2017. Liz Spires took the Madame Gazelle place.
Liz ran surprisingly well as she hadn’t done as much training as she would have liked to had done – there was pain for Liz and blistering heat, however she’s excitingly looking forward to the 2020 event. Mark was very blunt with his post-race thoughts “Hell on Earth”. Though looking at Mark’s time below, he very much performed better than expected and really brought the Kylie’s up the standings
Stage No7: The shortest stage along to Wotton-under-Edge starts like Stage No5 with a ‘hand-brake start’ but No7’s climb up to Stinchcombe hill is relentless. Once the hill is conquered, it’s a fast dash along the escarpment with breath-taking views across the Severn Valley towards the Forest of Dean, a few technical twists and turns and then a final climb before a swift descent down to Wotton. Now the mercury was in the low 30’s and the heat was a concern for everyone – runners, organisers, spectators – even the team manning the water station were sweltering hot. People were describing the heat as a different kind of heat that can be felt abroad. In South Gloucestershire it was taking people by surprise just by the speed it was rising. Tewkesbury had a fine pair of runners for this 7.3 miler with Carly Merriman being switched to the Kylie Kangaroos after some confident form and CWR regular Mike Younger. Mike has always favoured the late afternoon stages but with the new organisers bringing the stage starts forward, these runners needed to be ready for 1pm.
As James before her, Carly started relatively well and under the sun along Stinchcombe Golf Course looked set to beat the heat. But around mile No5 she dropped off course and covered an extra 0.7 mile. Like James, it was the last thing she wanted and was reeled back on course by some other ‘lost soles’. Mike had an eventful run too by also getting lost and then getting involved with a FTA when a poor runner crashed down the hillside and into brambles! Given the pair’s exploits, they finished back in Wotton in respectable times.
Stage No8: Regarded as the toughest stage and with the hot weather, by far the hardest stage – it is a stage that will destroy runners of any ability – it’s happened before and was certainly going to happen in 2019! No8 starts with a one km jog alongside a stream before ascending hands and knees style up onto the Cotswolds hills. The 2pm start time was daunting and for Tewkesbury, it was Nigel Tillott’s turn to see what all the fuss was about;
Nigel was very nearly pulled from the team after a back complaint however, after consultation, he felt with a thorough warm-up he would be good to go. As expected, he fought his way to the finish and was in a bad state both physically and mentally. All around him were collapsed runners – not just collapsed under a tree but proper physically collapsed. Micheal Jackson was set to push Nigel and give him a race. Not just because Jacko has performed well on Stage 8 twice before but he was in good form. Unfortunately, the stage had no sympathy for old friends and knocked the stuffing out of Mike too. Arguably the toughest race he’s ever done and he finished in one piece.
Stage No9: Setting off from Old Sodbury, as the crow flies, Bath isn’t that far away but the Cotswold Way is never about the shortest A-B route – it is in fact a purposely designed path along the Cotswold escarpment put in place in the 1950’s by keen ramblers. Designed in a way to incorporate the splendid views and points of interest. Team captain Jon Mansfield filled the stage for Tewkesbury with Becky Thomas for company;
Becky didn’t get the chance to recce the far away route however, Jon did try it out in both directions and was happy to report that it was a fairly easy route with just one small climb where walking may occur – as it happens, Jon found himself walking up 6 hills! Things started to melt on the journey down south and despite the energy from the exciting start, Jon and Becky were to perform ‘400m hurdles’ over a hay field about to be baled. That was an unexpected start and so was the hundreds of ‘Cotswold Challenge’ walkers meeting the runners head on with their Nordic poles, loveless sharing of the kissing-gates and lack of consideration for other footpath users – make no mistake, there were some very kind and polite walkers heading north but it only takes one to crush a runner in a kissing-gate! With the mercury still rising, Becky had drank all her water stock before the first aid station and she knew she was in for her own Cotswold Challenge. Jon had started to run out of steam before the 3 mile mark as the route crossed the M4. The heat was stifling, it was had to run, hard to walk and hard to stand – the only relief was finding cool air in the shade. The pair both finished outside of their target times though as other runners foun