World Coal Carrying Champs

This Easter Monday saw the holding of the 52nd World Coal Carrying Champs (http://www.gawthorpemaypole.org.uk/). Each year men and women race the streets of Gawthorpe carrying huge sacks of coal. The event consists of Men’s, Women’s and Children’s races. Men carry 50kg (8 stone) of coal and women 20kg. Races start from the Royal Oak public house, Owl Lane, Ossett and continue for a distance of 1012 metres to the finish line at the Maypole Green in Gawthorpe village (your time is recorded when your sack of coal hits the village green).

The fastest time this year was 4 minutes and 31 seconds by Andrew Corrigan, and the record for the event is 4 min 6 secs by David Jones from 1991. Now think about that for a moment. If you ever train on a track for speedwork you will probably do 1000m reps at some point. The athletes (and they are of a very good standard) that I coach will routinely do a session of 5 x 1000m (just short of the length of the coal race) and complete them in anything from 2-50 to 3-40. The record holder would not be far off the back of my group. They might look a bit out of place at the track, and certainly wouldn’t be able to complete the set of 5 reps at that pace.

This all came to mind because I mentioned the event in ‘It’s a hill, get over it’, suggesting that way back the event used to be held in conjunction with the Kendal Gathering Gala Sports. I mentioned it as I noted that it was won on one occasion by a fell runner – professional ‘guides’ racer Steve Parsons. Just recently I had a polite email about the book, commenting on this statement, that went:

“Just one minor mistake I noticed. In one of the early chapters (on guides races), the athlete who also won the coal carrying championship was not Steve Parsons, but Reuben Parsons. How do I know? It’s my dad. He was the World Coal Carrying Champion in 1972/3. After milking 100 cows in the morning, he rode over the Pennines from Cumbria on his motorbike, to Gawthorpe. Won the 1 mile uphill course, carrying a hundredweight of coal and then got back in time to milk the cows in the evening. He did hold the course record, until the course/route was changed. As a guides racer, he never won Grasmere, but did win Ambleside. He used to tell me that he could run all the way to the top of the Ambleside course, but he used to get full of nerves at Grasmere and never ran well there, (his best was a 4th).”

This message was from Johnny Parsons, who used to run for Pudsey and Bramley and now lives in Lima (Peru). He sent a follow-up email that corrected his earlier one, saying: “Spoke to my dad today, it was 1970 & 1971. I got it wrong with the course change, it was actually a weight change; dropping from a hundredweight to 50kg (~2lbs difference). Dad practised by running up & down the farm lane with a hundredweight of animal feed in a sack. He is a lot shorter, stockier & stronger than me. I’m a lanky 6’4″ with a glass back, so I never tried the coal race, but a lot of fellrunners have.”

The Gawthorpe event website carries the following history of the event: ‘At the century-old Beehive Inn situated in Gawthorpe the following incident took place one day in 1963. Reggie Sedgewick and one Amos Clapham, a local coal merchant and current president of the Maypole Committee, were enjoying some well-earned liquid refreshment whilst stood at the bar lost in their own thoughts. When in bursts one Lewis Hartley in a somewhat exuberant mood. On seeing the other two he said to Reggie, ”Ba gum lad tha’ looks buggered!” slapping Reggie heartily on the back. Whether because of the force of the blow or because of the words that accompanied it, Reggie was just a little put out. ‘’Ah’m as fit as thee’’ he told Lewis, ‘’an’ if tha’ dun’t believe me gerra a bagga coil on thi back an ‘ah’ll get one on mine an ‘ah’ll race thee to t’ top o’ t’ wood !’’ (Coil, let me explain is Yorkshire speak for coal). While Lewis digested the implications of this challenge a Mr. Fred Hirst, Secretary of the Gawthorpe Maypole Committee (and not a man to let a good idea go to waste) raised a cautioning hand.” ‘Owd on a minute,’’ said Fred and there was something in his voice that made them all listen. ‘Aven’t we been looking fer some’at to do on Easter Monday? If we’re gonna ‘ave a race let’s ‘ave it then. Let’s ‘ave a coil race from Barracks t’ Maypole.’’(The Barracks being the more common name given by the locals to The Royal Oak Public House)’

This raised some doubts in my mine as to whether I had got it wrong. In a search for more info I contacted Kenny Stuart, as he had been running on the pro scene in this era. He replied that he, “has a newspaper article  from 1978 which states Steve Parsons won the coal carrying race [at Kendal]. He was a guides racer from Halifax who came to work in Cumbria in hotels. and was coached by Harry Harper.” At the same time I contacted another former pro racer, Mark Mclincy, as he knows his history of this aspect of the sport. He confirmed some details of the Kendal Gathering Gala Sports, including the fact that it included a fell race from Kendal to Benson Knott and back. He also gave me the contact details for Johnny Morgan, who organised the Kendal Gala Sports back in the day.

Last night I spoke to Johnny Morgan (who is in his 80s) and he confirmed that the Gawthorpe event was the original event, which started in 1964. Morgan finished second in the event one year, and fancied setting up something similar. So, he instigated another event at the Kendal Gala in 1972, which didn’t last so long. It was over 880 yards, on grass, again with a hundredweight of coal. Morgan remembers Steve Parsons also winning the Benson Knott fell race at the Gala, and also that there used to be big bank holiday Galas at Penrith and Keswick. He also told a story of one event not being able to obtain coal sacks. so they used grain sacks instead, which was all very well until one sack sprung a leak and the athlete left a train of grain as they progressed – his sack getting lighter as he went.

The discourse concluded with a further comment from Johnny Parsons in Peru: ‘My Dad isn’t aware of the other race, nor of Steve Parsons. He’d heard of the Gawthorpe race and so started training for it (as it didn’t clash with any guides races). The Gawthorpe (to Ossett, deepest, darkest West Yorkshire) race was an uphill mile, carrying a hundredweight of coal. Shortly after he won it, the course was changed. I saw a report of the race from this year and it is considerably shorter.’ Then surprisingly, he commented that: ‘Obviously the Cumbria race would have been much closer as my Dad lived and worked in Levens, near Kendal (South Lakes), but as he’d never heard of it, he went across the Pennines instead.’

A little further research brought out the fact that Johnny Morgan was a pretty good runner himself, and he also instigated the Kendal Winter League, which started in 1972 with the Benson Knott fell race, a cross country event in Kendal, and a road race at Burneside; and which is now much expanded and a major series of local races. There is a profile of Johnny Morgan on the Grasmere Lakeland Sports and Show website.

So, there we have it, two (and more) competing events. The Gawthorpe event was the original and now boasts the ‘World title’. Anyone reading this with memories, or stories, of these events is welcome to share them as a comment. Meanwhile, have a look at the video from this year’s Gawthorpe event.

 

On tour – Running Hard in Sheffield and the Lakes

The talk at Ecclesall Library in Sheffield Libraries’ Multi Story Festival on April 6th seemed to go well, plenty of interaction and interesting questions (and a good few books sold). The photos show the audience, and myself answering questions and signing books. [For other book talks/events see here] I also called in at the excellent Outside shop in Hathersage and signed copies of my books there.

We went on to the Lakes for a spot of relaxing, and Wainwright bagging (below on Holme Fell), before going to Fred Holdsworth (Ambleside), Sam Read (Grasmere, left) and Bookends (Keswick) to sign their stock of books. It was gratifying to see that all three shops were stocking all three of my books, and say that Running Hard is selling well.

Running Hard in Sheffield

Really looking forward to the first ‘Running Hard’ book talk, at Ecclesall Library, Sheffield – tomorrow (Thu 6 April) at 7pm, as part of the Multi-Story Library Festival, with support from Rhyme and Reason bookshop.

I am now setting up further talks/events as follows: at the Snowdon International Race on Jul 12th; with The Little Bookshop in Ripon (TBC); in conjunction with Pete Bland Sports (TBC); and possibly with Abingdon AC. [Let me know if your running club, bookshop or organisation would like to host an event.]

Downhill from here

I have now been asked on two occasions to read an author’s manuscript, with a view to providing a cover or publicity quote. I don’t mind doing so, but also insist on my right to not do so if I don’t think the manuscript merits it. Recently I read Gavin Boyter’s Downhill from here: running from John O’Groat’s to Land’s End.

In the book Gavin admits to having had spells of deep depression, and also to suffering with hypermobility (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). He tells the story of seeking a major challenge and using his film-making skills to record it, and then write about it. Having made one (not especially successful) short film, he used an unlicenced quadcopter and a GoPro to make the film version of his JOGLE [see ‘The Long Run’ film trailer].  There are tales of some entertaining navigation errors, which are interspersed with good childhood memories. He also makes some personal points about running being ‘me time’ to him, and using it as a ‘brain reboot’, and his ‘life work’, as he approached his middle forties.

Reading another account of a JOGLE may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it very entertaining. Gavin was not the first nor fastest (as he readily admits), but he did at least go down the Pennine Way and chose a pretty interesting route in many places. It is also very good on the problems faced by ultra running efforts such as this.

passport scans051Originally I provided two possible quote which were something like: “Good on the realities of running (and filming on the go) a JOGLE, and also the great de-stressing benefits of it”, and ” Entertaining navigation mishaps are interspersed with good childhood stories”.  They were combined in the one shown above (which is on the back cover), and also cut down to a single word quote on the book’s font cover. Happy to accept that the publicist knew best!

‘Downhill from here’ is published on 20 April. Info on the book launch at Waterstones.

The dark art of coaching

Racing to the finish line and just being beaten into second place, the young athlete immediately burst into floods of tears.
As her coach, I went over to console her. “Don’t be disappointed,” I said. “There is no disgrace in coming second.”
“I am not disappointed,” she gasped through the sobs. “I am crying with delight. It is the first time EVER that I have beaten the girl who was in 3rd place!”.

I have been coaching for thirty years now (way more time than I was an athlete), and it has given me some great times, particularly since I ‘retired’ from running. My introduction to the possibility of being a coach was wrangled by a senior club member, playing on my guilt by suggesting I go on a course to see what it was all about. Strangely though, looking back now I don’t think I actually had any guilt. As an athlete I managed quite well, thank you, without a coach.

Let’s leave the ‘you weren’t good enough to NEED a coach’ argument there.

True as an assessment of my ability it was, I don’t actually subscribe to the view that you have to be at a particular performance level to benefit from advice on your training. What follows has been anonymised. Some of the people I have coached over the years may recognise themselves, but I have not named athletes as it is about the abstract rather than the particular on which I wish to comment.

A cold night at the track

I did the coach education courses, and was then thrown into the coaching mixer. So, let’s start with how athletes and coaches get together. In my case the first athletes I remember working with were the older young athletes who trained with my club down at the local cinder track. I organised group training for them and took one particular female athlete on in a more direct coaching arrangement. She became a good friend and although she has moved away we are still in touch. She also delights in quoting my aphorisms back at me, which can be amusing and can also be slightly embarrassing. You may think they aren’t listening, but some take it all in and treat it as gospel!  You are the guru to them, at that age, so it is important to be mindful and not ‘banter’ too much with young athletes. There is certainly an art to coaching young athletes, and I honestly think that not all coaches are able to encompass that art.
I can honestly say I have never ‘asked’ to coach anyone, but equally can say that I have never directly turned anyone down. Having said that, some coach-athlete relationships have not worked – you should always be big enough to recognise that, and talk about it, and act appropriately if and when it happens. This also applies to an athlete outgrowing a coach. If you can see it happening (or anticipate it) then start a conversation with the athlete, and jointly work towards brokering a new arrangement that will be of benefit to the athlete.
As a coach I think it is important that you learn your trade and also develop your own style. You need a certain confidence in yourself to do that, particularly if you end up leaning towards a style that doesn’t match those you have seen before as an athlete.

There are many styles, including, for instance, coach as friend, advisor, or svengali.

My experience took a serious turn when the second group I worked with – Seniors this time – attracted a very experienced, but ageing, athlete to it. He, being married to an Olympic athlete, had been there and done that. Prior to those first sessions he was all mouth in the warm-up, and was forever asking me why he was being asked to do this and that, and what was the point of the session. All perfectly valid questions, but not ones I necessarily had the experience to answer at that time in my coaching life. It turned out that this was just nervous energy oozing out of him. After a couple of tough 400m reps, and being burnt up by his younger/fitter training mates, the Mouth was squeaking like a mouse.
I was very much finding my way, coaching-wise, with the previously mentioned first group of young athletes, but was beginning to ‘get it’ by the time the Mouth turned up. But it does remind me of the quote that is attributed to that great athletics coach Wilf Paish:

Every athlete you coach is an experiment of one.

I certainly know I was ‘experimenting’ in those early days, and have apologised to several of those very athletes when talking with them much later about it. Even much later in my coaching career there have been experiments that have been consigned to the bin marked failure.
I can remember working well with a young middle distance athlete, who also competed at high jump and wanted to move to 300/400 metre hurdles. We had successfully worked towards some very good middle distance performances, and I somehow felt I was the right coach to take on hurdles and then also high jump with her. In both cases I was not. My powers of observation, and my ability to break the two events down into their components were both limited. I found I could not then work on those components in isolation either. On one occasion the very presence of the high jump bar in a training session brought on an ‘I can’t do it’ impasse, which I couldn’t resolve.  It made me realise we should quietly dissolve the hurdles/high jump relationship. Several years on, we still have a fruitful middle/long distance coaching relationship, although maturity is bringing more self-reliance to the athlete.  In many cases (but certainly not all) that move to self-reliance has been the aim of my closest coach-athlete relationships – usually unstated, it should be noted.
As a coach you may have your own style, and way of doing things, but let’s not forget that you have to make allowances for differences in athletes and their way of doing things. A quote I can still remember (but not by whom) from a very early coaching course in the late 1980s was “know your athlete”, and that is SO true. Over the years I have got to know many athletes, and they have shown a huge range of positive, and some negative, personality quirks.
Let’s just look for a moment at some of the negatives. There have been those that won’t listen, or more likely appear to listen and then won’t act. This can be particularly frustrating when an athlete gets injured, pays to have physio or some other treatment, and then doesn’t take on board the advice they have just paid to be given.
How many athletes do we all know that regularly over train, despite being told that, despite breaking down, and despite being tired when it comes to competition? Then there are those that lie about what they do.

Surely the relationship is all about trust.

Equally, however much you want them to have done better in training, don’t ever lie to them when feeding times back to them.
Have you had an athlete who asked you for coaching/advice, and then went off, either overtly or covertly, to ask everyone else under the sun for their advice? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind someone seeking advice from a number athletes and coaches, but be honest about it and let everyone know that you want to use them as a sounding board, and are in fact setting your own training plan.
Finally, I have memories of athletes who just wouldn’t take their running seriously enough, and seemed to be wasting their obvious talent. Equally, I have known ones that were TOO serious, and had seemed to have forgotten the pure pleasure of training. Now I like a spot of analysis, but as an athlete it can get too serious and everything can be analysed to death. I came across an athlete recently who freely admitted that they needed a coach who would be hard on them, and swear and shout at them if necessary. It was admitted that this could produce shouting and swearing back from the stressed athlete. I knew straight away that I could not work with that (kind of) athlete, if asked to. A quote from coach Dan Pfaff gives a good feel for my take on all of this:

Know your athlete, know your coaching style, and find unique ways to get the best out of them.

A coach working at getting to know a group of athletes. Note the varying levels of concentration!

When all the training is done, eventually a challenge has to be met – a race. What can you as a coach achieve at this stage? How can you help the athlete? I well remember a coach standing face to face with, and only inches away from, an athlete as she stood on the start line for a race (in front of all the other athletes) and saying to her “if you don’t get a PB then you needn’t come back to training with me again”. Was that helping or hindering the athlete? Was it some kind of personal psychology that the coach knew would produce the desired effect? You decide. I also recall being a team manager once and talking to an athlete new to track running about how she planned to run the 3000m she was going to do shortly (her first ever). She replied that her coach had said “just run like fook until you can’t run any more”. Again, probably not a technique out of my personal playbook.
I actually think there is not much that the coach can do to affect the outcome, come race time. All this shouting, suggesting that the athlete should be further up the field, should be picking it up now, making the big effort, or whatever, is rarely witnessed by athletes I work with. Being there, and making some mental notes on how things went, ready to feedback later is usually the extent of it.

Getting that feedback right is also a tricky art.

I believe that a few positive words afterwards, regardless of the relative level of perceived success is usually sufficient. Having said that it makes sense to find the time to have a frank, and two-way, discussion with the athlete at a more relaxed time and place at a reasonably short time after the event. Whatever the result, I always look for some positives for the athlete to take forward – which of course is not an easy task if things have gone particularly badly. But it IS always possible. Again, if you know your athlete you will know when they will respond to some constructive criticism (on tactics say), and also know how to motivate them to achieve the desired improvement.
So, the race is run, do you expect thanks? You shouldn’t. But sometimes at the time of a particularly fruitful spell athletes will want to thank their coach. I have had presents of wine, a meal and beer. One of the best ever was a framed photo of athlete and coach, jointly holding a coveted county trophy. But what topped it off for me was that it included one of my quotes quoted back at me.
Fantastic though all those gestures were, I think that there is a way of acknowledging what is after all a team effort that is simpler than that. For me, I am happy with a high five or a hug, with the athlete saying something on the lines of “we did it”.

Maybe even a few tears of happiness.

Sharing a ‘moment’ with friend Neil Walker, after helping him prepare for his successful Bob Graham Round quest, and helping support him on the day.

 

Steve Chilton is a UKA qualified coach (with a marathon PB of 2-34-53) and author of It’s a hill, get over it’, ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ and ‘Running Hard: the story of a rivalry’. 

This material is reproduced from the Barnet & District AC club magazine, and first appeared (in a slightly different form) in Like the Wind magazine.

Anatomy of a track session

starting2It is traditional at some athletic clubs to do a track session once a week. This photo-essay describes one such session that I coached at Barnet and District AC earlier this winter, at Allianz Park stadium, Hendon (formerly Copthall stadium). My thanks got to the athletes for agreeing to be photographed, and to my friend Dave Woodfall, whose photos they all are. [Click on any of the photos to view larger versions]

coachIt was a mixed group of Senior athletes, whose events range from 800m, through 10k, to the marathon, taking in triathlon on the way. We started with warm-up and drills. Being Seniors they do their own drills, usually in a group, and here I am checking on any ongoing injury issues, or race results since I last saw the athletes. The session was a mid-winter one, consisting of 2 x 1200m, 2 x 800m, followed by 5 x 400m. A tough one, but one that many ‘enjoy’, partly I suspect because of the variety.startingAfter a briefing on how the session works we got going on the first long rep. There is usually nervous banter as the athletes line up, although some have already gone awfully quite in anticipation of the efforts to come.
As they come through after the first lap I call out the elapsed time on my stopwatch, whilst out of the corner of my eye trying to see who is going well on the night (and perhaps who is not). Alex is going well.

5andiesThe Andies are also going well at this point, with the others chasing hard. A variety of styles, knee lifts, arm carriages and other indiosyncracies will be seen. Someone new to the group may get some style feedback, but most of these are too far gone to change!

6Dani2[Memo to self: have a word with Danielle about that left arm!] Calling lap times, and probably churning out clichéd encouragement – which is unlikely to have any more depth and meaning than ‘well done’.

After each rep they may be some discussion of how it went. And apparently I often share previously heard anecdotes or give a piece of trivia to work out (got to keep minds active). Others may be off somewhere being/feeling sick.7Coaching8Coach2The next rep, and it looks as though Alex doesn’t trust coach as he is stopping his watch too. When the athletes are spread out I try to call the time, and then write it on my sheet (the back of on old race number) before the next athlete comes by.

9Alex+NiallThere is huge benefit in training together. Niall and (another) Alex are working together to get the most out of the reps, possibly sharing leads on each lap or rep. It looks like we are on the 800s.

10AndyCAndy is beginning to show the strain (sorry Andy, but the photo nicely demonstrated your commitment to the session). The rest of the group will be doing some good gurning by now, I am sure.

After the 1200s and 800s there was a longish recovery, which allowed some story telling, jokes and what looks like a motivational speech from Alex here.11Group12Nic+5O to the 400s now, and the gaps are too small to record times, so I yell them and then have to scuttle round asking them to repeat theirs to me (‘I wasn’t listening’ or ‘I forget’ sometimes coming back at me).
Nick brings the group home. We don’t have team training kit – they all have their t-shirt bounty from last week’s Watford half marathon. In this (and previous picture) you can see Karen (l) and Joe (r) testing each other.

14After a repFeel the strain. After each rep the first thought is probably to get some air into the lungs, and then to add one to the number of reps done. Most work on the addition principle rather than subtraction (ie how many done, not how many left). Remember ‘adaption comes in the recovery’.

15NickyNicky is a very dedicated trainer, who dashes off towards the end of the session most weeks to go and coach her hockey club colleagues. Loving the look of concentration on her face. She is in the zone.

16KatKat has joined the group to improve her running for her triathlons. These track sessions, together with the hill work I know she has done with Horwich RMI Harriers will surely reap benefits as her tri season unfolds.

17FeedbackGiving feedback to Alex (left) and to Karen (below) is an important part of the coach’s role. Then it is off on the warm down for them and home for me to email formal feedback to all (incl. their rep times).

18How was it for youIt is just possible that Karen is anticipating the next session and asking what it will be. It is also possible that I won’t remember, and have to ask someone else if they have read my advance notice!
[Next post: The dark art of coaching]n

Running Hard – London launch

The London launch for ‘Running Hard’ was held at Middlesex University on Mon 20 Feb. Highlights of proceedings are available on 4 short videos. Will ‘Critical Friend’ Morris introduces me wittily in the first clip.

There are then two clips of me rambling through two readings from the book.

Finally an interesting Q&A session ensued, wandering off topic sometimes maybe, but seemed to be enjoyed by most (and certainly was by me).

JohnWatlaunchDespite arriving late, John Wild then gave an informal chat to those present, and signing copies of the book for everyone, before some of us headed for The Greyhound to unwind.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening, which nicely complemented the Keswick launch two days beforehand. I am now off to consider what to write next! [Huge thanks to my friend Angus Macdonald for coming along to video the event, and for editing the resulting material]

All my books can be obtained from Amazon, and Running Hard and The Round can be found in all good book shops.