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8th Jun, 2024, Alex Richardson

Multi-stage races are well within Highgate’s wheelhouse, but it’s not often that they take us across a country. The Welsh Castles Relay is a 20 stage, 2 day, 208 mile relay from Caernarfon Castle to Cardiff Castle, where 60 teams battle it out on the roads of Wales, chasing the quickest cumulative time.

Last year, Highgate made its debut at the race, returning to North London with silver medals. This year, the team was determined to go one better. However, our competitors at Pontypridd Roadents, Kent AC, and Leeds City AC (debut), had brought stellar line ups, so it wasn’t going to be an easy task.

Despite this, The Gate held a commanding lead throughout the weekend, with every member of the team putting in superb performances, not just on the running front, but on the logistical front too. Whilst many clubs employ extra team drivers and supporters, alongside flotillas of minibuses, we all made the journey up from North London in a few hired vehicles, and were wholly self-sufficient in our campaign across Wales.
After 18 hours, 44 minutes, and 22 seconds of racing, Highgate emerged victorious, beating rivals Pontypridd by just under 8 minutes after 208 miles. Our team of 20 crossed the country at an average pace of 5:24/mile, which we believe is the fastest ever for the event in its current format, i.e. since 1995.

A special thanks to the organisers at Les Croupiers Running Club for hosting such a brilliant weekend, our team captain Rob Wilson for leading The Gate into battle, and, of course, the rest of the team for operating like a well-oiled multi-stage racing machine.
Here’s a full breakdown of the 20 stages:

1 - Caernarfon Castle to Penygroes (9.1mi) - Opening The Gate was Charles Cooper, who, after a neutralised start, commanded an early lead over the opening stage. Charles brought home both a stage win and a course record, beating 2010’s mark by more than 100 seconds!

2 - Penygroes to Criccieth Castle (10.7mi) - Charlie Haywood was back again after winning his stage last year. After battling with Sale Harriers’ Nick Barry and Kent AC’s Owen Hind, he scored an impressive 2nd place, inside the old course record. This kept Highgate in the overall lead over 2023 rivals Kent AC (1st) and Pontypridd Roadents (3rd).

3 - Criccieth Castle to Maentwrog (12.3mi) - Lining up for the first mountain stage of the weekend was Roger Poolman. Stage 3 features a 2km long climb of 144m, and was won by Pontypridd’s Dan Hamilton (2:17 marathoner), followed by Kent’s Max Nicholls. Roger followed in 3rd place, giving Highgate a 2 minute 14 second lead overall.

4 - Maentwrog to Harlech Castle (9.5mi) - Matt Geiger was next up, running much of his leg solo after an early breakaway by athletes from Salford Harriers and law firm Burgess Salmon. Despite this, he rallied home in 3rd place, adding 90 seconds to our lead over Pontypridd, which now stood at nearly 4 minutes.

5 - Harlech Castle to Barmouth (9.6mi) - Once the site of a seven year siege during the Wars of the Roses, Lewis Greaves lined up at the foot of Harlech Castle for a battle of similar historical significance - the 2024 WCR. Lewis finished in 2nd place, carving a further 80 seconds into our lead over the Roadents.

6 - Barmouth to Dolgellau (10.7mi) - One of the most picturesque stages of the race, stage 6 crosses the longest timber viaduct in Wales and follows the river Mawddach along a disused railway line. WCR debutant Harry Allan stepped up, winning the stage by nearly a minute over athletes from rival clubs Pontypridd and Kent, and taking home a coveted yellow ‘Stage Winner’ top.

7 - Dolgellau to Dinas Mawddwy (10.1mi) - The second mountain stage of the weekend, and one of the cruellest routes, owing to its punishing descents in the second half, had Peter Chambers on its start line. Featuring nearly 400m of climbing exclusively in the first 10km, the stage then takes runners down gradients of up to 14% towards the finish. Ponty’s James Heneghan took the win and course record, and Peter came away with 6th place.

8 - Dinas Mawddwy to Foel (10.8mi) - Team captain Rob Wilson led by example with a dominant performance on stage 8. Chased down by GBR triathlete Pete Dyson of Team Bath, Rob extended his lead halfway into the stage, smashing the old course record by over 70 seconds. Highgate’s lead was now nearly 8 minutes, despite some stiff competition.

9 - Foel to Llanfair Caereinion (8.5mi) - Stage 8 came next, where Jonny Laybourn produced an excellent run for 2nd place in stage 9, just 15 seconds behind the leader from Winchester. This meant Highgate remained on top by our largest margin of the day - 8 and a half minutes!

10 - Llanfair Caereinion to Newtown (13.1mi) - The final stage of the first day is the longest of the race, and is the third mountain stage. It steeply climbs 166m within the first 2km of the stage, and attracts some of the strongest runners in the competition. This year’s top 4 finishers had an average HM personal best of just over 64 minutes. Lining up for The Gate was Alex Leprêtre, who battled with Jake Smith (Pontypridd), Linton Taylor (Leeds), and Leon Chevalier (Team Bath), for an impressive 3rd place, only 3 seconds behind 2nd. The top 5 athletes all beat the old course record, with Jake Smith winning in over 4 and a half minutes under the previous mark.

11 - Newtown to Llanbadarn Fynydd (10.5mi) - Day 2 starts bright and early, with Sam Jinks donning his hooped vest ahead of a 7am departure from Newtown. Stage 11 is yet another mountain stage, with an unrelenting climb for the first 10km. Gavyn Chalmers of Leeds took the win and course record, followed by athletes from Meirionnydd and Pontypridd, then Sam came home in 4th. Our lead over Pontypridd was now just shy of 4 minutes.

12 - Llanbadarn Fynydd to Crossgates (11.2mi) - James Ross added a further stage win to Highgate’s collection, battling with Salford’s Karl Darcy throughout most of stage 12. In the last few miles, James built up a minute lead, earning him his yellow top.

13 - Crossgates to Builth Wells (10.6mi) - Next up was Ben Harries, executing a strong run over stage 13, and finishing in 4th place, just 17 seconds behind Pontypridd’s contender. Our lead now stood at nearly 6 minutes.

14 - Builth Wells to Drover’s Arms (10.8mi) - Possibly the WCR’s most revered stage, featuring over 500m of climbing, and finishing at a disused pub owned by the MOD. Flurry Grierson was up for the challenge. Flurry produced an excellent run, finishing only 1 second outside of the old course record, which was broken by Richard Allen of Leeds City AC. Flurry’s 2nd place pushed us even further into the lead, ahead of rivals Pontypridd and Kent by over 9 minutes after 14 stages.

15 - Epynt Visitor Centre to Brecon (12.8mi) - The second longest stage of the weekend was tackled by Highgate’s Jack McVann. Working with athletes from Kent, Pontypridd, and Leeds, Jack finished in 2nd place behind Kent AC’s Dame Dibaba.

16 - Brecon Canal Basin to Torpantau (12.5mi) - The final mountain stage of the relays was hotly contested. Jacob Allen stepped up, breaking Alex Leprêtre’s stage record from 2023, and pushing our lead to its highest point of the weekend - 11 minutes and 35 seconds. Jacob’s run brought him home ahead of Ciaran Lewis (Les Croupiers), Dan Nash (Pontypridd), Graham Rush (Leeds), and Phil Matthews (Parc Bryn Bach), the top five with an average 10k PB of 29:25.

17 - Torpantau to Merthyr (8.7mi) - Tom Rowley was the next to be dropped off on the side of a hill for his stage, which took him through forest paths alongside the banks of large reservoirs, down into the town of Merthyr Tydfil. Despite heroically long stints of driving throughout the weekend, Tom produced a brilliant run, finishing in 4th place.

18 - Merthyr to Abercynon (9.1mi) - Next to face his stage was Alex Richardson, following the river Taff south out of Merthyr Tydfil. Leeds City AC’s Josh Lunn broke the stage record by 2 and a half minutes, whilst Alex came home in 8th. Highgate’s lead on Ponty was now 8 minutes and 48 seconds, with just 2 stages left to run.

19 - Abercynon to Nantgarw (7.7mi) - The penultimate stage of the race was run by Highgate’s George Bennett, who, after detailing his plan to the team a few hours before, executed it with style, finishing in 3rd place, just 1 second behind Ponty’s Ben Hughes. This was a welcome result for the Highgate side, as with 1 stage left to run, we led by just under 9 minutes.

20 - Caerphilly Castle to Cardiff Castle (9.9mi) - Donning his signature hairband, Alex Jackson set off on stage 20 with one goal only: bring it home. Pontypridd had 3:34 1500m man Piers Copeland on the line, hoping to put a dent into Highgate’s lead. As spectators flooded into Bute Park, they saw Mo Abshir (Leeds) take the win, followed by Piers Copeland (Pontypridd), Oliver Thorogood (South West), and our very own Alex Jackson, losing only 64 seconds to Ponty, and securing Highgate victory.

Open race results:

  1. Highgate Harriers, 18:44:22
  2. Pontypridd Roadents, 18:52:05
  3. Kent AC, 19:24:44

Photos by Lewis Greaves