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21st Jun, 2023, George Bennett

The Welsh Castles Relays is an iconic 209mile, 20 stage relay race from Caernarfon to Cardiff. This year the race contained a record 66 teams of 20 from across the UK to see who could be crowned the Kings or Queens of the Welsh Castles. This was Highgate’s debut at the event and it for sure started with a bang. A special mention to Rob Wilson and Lewis Greaves for organising the logistics of the event, without you both the event wouldn’t have gone as smoothly as it did.

On Friday evening in the baking heat the Highgate crew left the city in search of pastures a plenty in the Welsh countryside. The Saturday team were equipped with a Nissan Juke aka the Japanese Supercar (more on that later) and a Ford Mini Van. The drive down to Oswestry (the hotel location for the night) was plain sailing, apart from a 45-minute wait for a Burger King order, sorry Ross you’ll never live that down. By the evening the crew had checked into the Travelodge and discussed the logistics for race day morning, the Juke was to head to the start early doors with the mini van in tow a few hours later.

Day 1

Arriving at the start in Caernarfon it was clear the Saturday runners were in for a shock as it was predicted that the temperatures would reach to a whopping 28°c. By 10am at the start in Caernarfon it was already 24°c. Jack McVann kicked things off with an astonishing run, considering the heat. Front running the race can be hard but Jack pulled away from the field with ease. Securing a 1min 27s lead on second place which stunned most of the spectators on the course.

Yes, that’s right, Highgate had arrived.

Keen to prove his worth, after his Burger King mishap, Ross Dunmore was next to race. The temperature at this point of the day was already ramping up, and after a short warm-up, Ross toed the line against some top level runners. With a top 10 finish Ross had set us up for some great success for the rest of the day and he had definitely proved the Burger King the night before was worth the wait.

The King of the Mountain. Yes that’s right, there are mountain stages in the Welsh Castles relay. To put it simply mountain stages, even though they are on roads, are bloody brutal. Over the final 2k in his leg Jacob Allen climbed a shocking 155m which was a grade 4.5% climb. In true Jacob fashion he crushed his stage, finishing in first place and was crowned King of the Mountain. Jacob came home 2mins 30s before second place, securing Highgate’s position at the top of the table.

Highgate debut race for George Bennett with a decent run considering the conditions. Front running the whole race for 9.5 miles was a tough challenge but he guts it out until the final 800m where he battled it out with a Sale Harrier. He retained his lead right up until the last 50m where unfortunately the Sale Harrier managed to dip him at the line. However, if you ask him he’d agree that making a W shape with his hands, 8 miles into the race, to the camera man was probably the reason he didn’t win. Let’s just say he’s learned his lesson.

The race is not about position per leg but the time in comparison to other runners in each leg, after George’s leg Highgate had gained a 6min lead over Kent AC in second place. With some pretty brutal climbs and with the heat of the day reaching its peak at 28°c Jonny truly had a challenge to take on, not only this he was still battling a bit of a chesty cough. As the climbs went on, Jonny really put all his effort in and truly hurt for the gate. After his leg, we were 2nd on the leaderboard as Kent AC took the lead.

Following Jonny’s epic performance Ben Harries out did himself as he raced a gruelling leg where there was no water available. Absolutely gasping for water he managed to convince a cyclist to lend him his bottle. Luckily he managed to get hydrated which rewarded him with a solid performance for the gate and a top 10 finish.

Early on, it really looked like it would be a Highgate vs. Kent race for the title. However, in the background Chorlton were putting in the work and by stage 7 they were at the top of the leaderboard. It was now stacking up to be a close race between Chorlton, Highgate, Kent AC, and the local favourites Pontypridd Roadents. Chorlton’s rise to the top didn’t last long though as after team captain Rob Wilson’s decisive victory over Chorlton (2mins 16s) moved us into striking distance with our competitors.

Lewis Greaves ran a spectacular leg holding our overall position of 3rd place as he raced some top notch athletes. He kept us ahead of Chorlton keeping them close enough to beat. Justin Bean then ran a great race for stage 9 finishing in 5th place, keeping us in podium contention.

To close day 1, it was Roger Poolman’s turn to take on some tough competition over a gruelling 13.1 mile mountain stage. Roger ran most of the race with Leon Chevalier, who is ranked top 20 in the world for the Ironman distance. This stage was probably one of the hardest stages of the race, in terms of competition and elevation. Not only was Roger racing a top class Ironman he was also lining up against the course record holder as well as some very strong runners from Chorlton and Sale Harriers.

Roger pushed on and we finished day 1 in 4th place, setting us up well for the final 10 stages of the race. To celebrate the boys headed to Newtown spoons for leg 10.5 which consisted of a couple of celebratory drinks and lots of food. Returning to the camp, the boys suffered a rough nights sleep with some fellow competitors partying the night away. After asking them to keep it down a bit, the infamous “UP THE GATE” flag went missing, one can only assume the party goers had something to do with it.

Day 2

First up was Flurry Grierson who took a command of the mountain stage ahead of Team Bath’s Alex Carter. These boys battled it out over the 10.8 miles from Newtown to Llanbadarn Fynydd. Flurry was putting in surges on the uphills to break Carter but on the down hills he kept coming back. It went down to a dramatic sprint finish where both Flurry and Alex broke the course record. Unfortunately, Alex just beat Flurry to the line with 3 seconds to spare. Highgate was back up into 3rd place setting us up to push on throughout Day 2.

James Porcas had a great run retaining our place in 3rd and setting Alex Richardson up for a great debut. Alex debuted for the gate and at only 20 years old made a considerable contribution to the team. He not only by produced a stunning performance but also the day before ferried pretty much all team mates to their start lines in a timely manner with no fuss. His leg was a hot one but the gate supported him all the way providing him with water throughout as he chased down Chorlton and Kent AC who finished about 30seconds before him.

Next up was Andres Chau who ran a great performance over the Mountain stage from Builth Wells to Drovers arms. This boy was cooking in the midday heat but that didn’t stop him from battling the hills of Wales. With only 6 stages left, it was crunch time if we were to win.

Charlie Haywood had a cracking run over 12.8 miles where he finished a whole minute before second place and way ahead of our competition Kent AC and Pontypridd Roadents. Highgate were on a mission and we weren’t going to stop there.

Alex Leprêtre (ALP) stormed to victory on stage 16, he knocked 2 minutes off the current course record and was crowned King of the Mountain. Everything seemed to be going like clockwork, some say it was almost too good to be true.

As ALP crossed the finish line, the boys in the Japanese Supercar (Jack McVann, Mark Watson, and George) were watching our last-minute substitute Barny Foot tear up the roads of Wales before dropping Mark at Stage 19. They had plenty of time before 2:15pm but wanted to make sure they got Mark to his stage in plenty of time.

In the middle of Wales there isn’t much phone signal, this can be a problem when a team mate has finished their stage and their arranged driver needs someone else to pick them up. Once the Japanese supercar rolled into Merthyr Tydfil, there were copious missed calls and messages on their phones. It was Jacob Allen ringing. It turns out, in the nature reserve where ALP finished and Barny started only one team vehicle was allowed to reduce traffic. This meant that the ALP was stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no phone, no water, no food, and no ride.

The boys in Japanese Supercar had no choice but to turn back and look for ALP. As they re-entered the nature reserve, it was clear that time was ticking on and Mark needed to be dropped at his stage. Arriving at ALP’s finish line there wasn’t a soul in sight, let alone any signal to contact the team. With a stroke of luck one of the phones finally got signal and they made contact with Captain Rob. I believe the words were “NAHH LEAVE ALP, YOU WONT MAKE IT, WHAT’S YOUR ETA? ETA? ETA!”

Whilst the team was panicking Alex Crossland was having a successful performance for the team. The Welsh Castles veteran (having raced it a few times before) was ready for what his stage had to offer and tackled it perfectly. We were holding onto 3rd place very well at this point.

The Japanese Supercar lurched into action, Mark was lacing up his super shoes and making sure he was ready to race whilst George was navigating and Jack was at the wheel. Speeding through the Welsh countryside felt like a rally race. George shouting “Hard left, brake, slow down police behind us, police clear, first right, second left”. It was definitely a white-knuckle ride as the car weaved in and out of traffic, careering to the race start. Their ETA was 2:15pm on the dot…

Swerving into the industrial estate in the middle of nowhere, Rob Wilson jumped out of a moving van and sprinted to the start line to stall the race officials from starting the race any earlier. The supercar pulled up to the start line and Mark, with seconds to spare joined the pack as the race started. A close shave to say the least. The Nissan had definitely lived up to its nickname.

Mark’s leg was just as successful as Jack’s driving. Mark, using the adrenaline from the car journey worked his way up through the field coming away with a commendable performance, considering he didn’t have time to warm up or even have a stress-free start to his race. His sprint from the car to the start line will go down in history as one of the fastest splits on the Welsh castles course for sure.

The final stage was a miracle. Not only did ALP magically reappear, after hitching a ride with some blokes from the Wirral but Taha who placed second at the Swansea Half that morning was racing. He finished in an astonishing 51:21, to dip under the previous course record, and only missed out from first place by a minute to James Heneghan of Pontypridd Roadents, who definitely didn’t run a half marathon that morning.

Whilst waiting for the results to roll in, the boys were hanging on tenterhooks. In a previous leg there were rumours that a member of Pontypridd Roadents was penalised with a DNF for being carried over the line by teammates. Our thoughts go out to the members of Pontypridd who, no matter what the circumstances, showed that sportsmanship and the team come first over the result.

Kent AC took the crown with a cumulative time of 19:46:43, we clocked a time of 20:17:24 to take silver, followed by Pontypridd who took third place with a final time of 20:20:39.

Our mountain stage runners were crowned overall Kings of the Mountains with a grand total of 6:30:44, a whole 5 minutes in front of Pontypridd Roadents who came away with second in a time of 6:35:49. On the mountain stages we also beat Kent AC by 13mins 28s a huge gap that we know we can capitalise on next year.

We may have came away with silver but next year we’ll be back for gold!!!


Overall Relays Results

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