New women’s Rivington Pike course record after 35 years

A description of the early Rivington Pike races (in the late 1880s) suggested that: “tricks of all descriptions were played on the runners in the old days, and that it was impossible to win unless ‘well in’ with the Horwich people.” I have no idea whether Sarah McCormack is ‘well in’ with said Horwich people, but she certainly had no such problems when winning the Rivington Pike fell race this Easter.

Photo: Victoria Wilkinson

She floated over the 5.5km in a new course record of 19-11, beating a record that has stood since 1987, when Carol Greenwood ran the race in 19-38. Glynne Lever, chairman of Horwich commented: “Course records are special and to break one that has stood for so long takes a special performance. What Sarah achieved on Easter Saturday was incredible and will take some beating”.

Fellow race competitor David Barnes enjoyed seeing Sarah set the record, as he explained in a message to me: “What an experience to be in a race with a world-class athlete, thrilling to see Sarah McCormack descend as I toiled my way to the tower, only reaching it after Sarah had crossed the finish line, smashing the record.”

I have not had a chance to speak to Sarah about the race, but she did say on an Instagram post: “Really quite excited to have set a new CR for Rivington Pike fell race! Nice to have two cooperating hamstrings for a very short sharp run.”

Sarah McCormack has competed for Ireland in many international competitions including winning the Mountain Running World Cup series in 2019, and has had a rich vein of form recently, with that record just topping it off. You can read more about Sarah at her profile page here.

HISTORY

Rivington Pike is reckoned to be the second oldest amateur fell race, with its 1893 inauguration being only preceded by the Hallam Chase in 1863. Despite the race’s long history, women have only been racing the Pike since the late 1970s, as I found out when researching my latest book, on the pioneering women fell runners.

After a lot of pressure, including running officially in various races to make their point, women were starting to be given official race status from 1977. In 1978 women’s race numbers were high at several of the established fell races. There were, for example: 21 women running at Fairfield, 17 at Kentmere, and the Burnmoor Chase, 16 at Pendle, and 14 at Rivington Pike. However, they had a separate race at Rivington, an hour earlier than the men, and shorter, despite going to the Pike summit.

That women’s race was witnessed by Bill Smith, who reported it, with helpful comments on who was whose wife:

There were fourteen competitors and Colin Robinson’s wife, Brenda, assumed the lead on the final steep climb to the summit tower, with Sue Styan (Andy’s wife) in second place and Gillian Pile lying third. Brenda increased her lead on the descent to finally beat Sue by 17 seconds, though Gillian was beaten into third place by Anne Pendlebury.

In 1979 the women at least ran the full race, with the men, as many more races, sometimes grudgingly, accepted their presence.

Photo: Dave Hughes

The Rivington Pike race record holder prior to Sarah McCormack was Carol Greenwood/Haigh. Carol was in top form in 1987. She started off the season as she had finished the last, by setting new records at Criffel and Rossendale. Carol then went on to set the Rivington Pike record, which as noted she held for over 30 years. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find much detail of that outstanding record. Even the book that P L Watson wrote to record the history of the fell race* doesn’t give it any space, despite being published 14 years later. It just records: “In the ladies race Carol Haigh was back once more strolling away from a field of 28 women to establish her third record time in a time of 19min 38secs.” This was one of many Course records that Carol Greenwood set, and due to its longevity has iconic status to my mind, and has been acknowledged as such in many comments on FB. Let’s not forget that Carol also won the World Mountain Running Trophy (in 1986). I am sure Sarah’s astonishing Rivington record will also be revered in years to come, especially if remaining unbeaten for a significant spell.

RIVINGTON PIKE MEN’S RECORD

Switching to the men’s Rivington Pike race, it is intriguing to see that it has lasted even longer than Carol’s had. There is a quite a story to that men’s record, which I recorded in my book Running Hard: the story of a rivalry. The following is a slightly edited down extract from the book that tells that story, which unfolded in 1981.

Photo: John Wild

At Easter, John took on the short Rivington Pike fell race, the only occasion he competed in it. John comments on the challenge, ‘I met one of my fell rivals, Brent Brindle, at the 2015 Snowdon race gathering and he reminded me of some background I’d forgotten. Apparently Brindle, Mike Short and lots of the Horwich lads were fed up with Ron McAndrew constantly bragging about his Rivington Pike record from 10 years earlier and how invincible it was.’ An advert was placed in Athletics Weekly citing the record, but John didn’t see it, he went purely on the say so of the others. ‘Both Brent and Mike persuaded me to come up and have a crack at it – so I came up from a holiday and had a go at the record.’

He adds, ‘I had done some very good long distance training, and I was quite relaxed.’ John was certainly building his mileage in training at the time. The four days before Rivington had been 12, 10, 9 mile days and then a 7 mile taper, with his diary noting that the day after he did, ‘a steady 20-mile run on Cannock Chase. New record for time on feet 2 hours 7 minutes.’

Referring to the Rivington Pike race, John added that, ‘it just went so well. You don’t realise what you are doing when you do it, you just run to your capacity, and I took 37 seconds off the record. Later they invited us up for a reunion for the 100th anniversary. The organiser invited all the previous winners back. My daughter was quite young at the time, and she was getting quite agitated as she didn’t want anyone to beat my time.’

Wild was obviously in sparkling form, although he says, ‘when I did my first season in 1981 I kept breaking records. I wasn’t trying to, but it just happened.’ The Rivington Pike race report notes that conditions were good, fine and sunny with a cool breeze and good underfoot conditions. Bill Smith notes in Stud marks on the summits that, ‘Wild was first to the tower in 9-48, 22 seconds ahead of Alan Buckley, and swooped down to victory. Long-serving RMI Harrier Cyril Hodgson, who was officiating at the summit tower, afterwards remarked that he’d never seen a fell runner complete an ascent looking so fresh and as unstressed as Wild did.’ Andy Taylor overtook Alan Buckley on the descent for 2nd, with Jeff Norman coming in 4th.

Studmarks records the pre-race setup thus: ‘An advertisement for the 1981 race in Athletics Weekly cited McAndrew’s record of 16-30, adding: “Ten years is a long time – can it not be beaten?” A further challenge was extended on the race entry form: “Ron says it can’t.” Cross country ace John Wild (RAF Cosford) accepted the challenge.’ Ron McAndrew came 31st in the race and congratulated Wild at the prizegiving afterwards. Ten years may have been a long time, but over four decades later Wild still holds that record.

ALL-TIME GREATS: Time has shown Carol Greenwood and John Wild to be two of the finest exponents of fell and mountain running. I am sure Sarah McCormack will be up in that pantheon too if she carries on running the way she is, both locally and globally.

* ‘Rivington Pike: history and fell race’ by P L Watson, Sunnydale Publishing, 2001

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