Grab a cuppa, and settle down, blogging a whole weekend of racing is going to take some reading
For those who are new to the club, Les Croupiers’ prestigious Welsh Castles Relay is a 20 stage event, that races Castle-to-Castle, starting at Caernarfon on Saturday morning and finishing, 211 miles later, in Cardiff on Sunday afternoon. Castles features the UK’s best running teams, with club runners (including a few national and commonwealth athletes) striving to be a stage winner and receive the coveted yellow ‘Stage Winner’ shirt. As a club, Castles is the highlight of our racing calendar, and one that has been sorely missed during the Covid-enforced hiatus. So much so, that we organised our own virtual event with Winchester to contest the Dragon Trophy in 2020.
For the club captains, Castles weekend organisationally starts in January, with the fortnight beforehand becoming a non-stop juggling act of replacing and shuffling runners around stages, ensuring race numbers are distributed and spending hours staring at the logistics spreadsheet! We only have 2 teams to organise, so hats off to Les Croups for their phenomenal organisation of 55 TEAMS, we genuinely don’t know how you pull it off.
Friday 10th June dawned sunny and bright in Newport, as our Saturday stage runners boarded the ‘Fun Bus’ and embarked on a six-hour journey to Bangor Services Travelodge. I arrived 30mins ahead of the Newport contingent, to find all rooms allocated, everyone had a bed for the night and our restaurant of choice looked unlikely to give the whole team food poisoning (every team manager’s worst nightmare)! Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the race report, I should probably explain the ‘Dragon Trophy’. Whilst we compete in both the Open and the Ladies category at Castles, we also have an inter-club competition with Winchester & District. What started off as a bit of friendly rivalry between the Davies brothers (Chris Davies, Lliswerry’s chairman & Martin ‘Turtle’ Davies, Winchesters previous coach) is now a fiercely contested competition to win the ’Dragon Trophy’. First Lliswerry/Winchester home scores 4 points, second 3 points etc. So over Friday night’s dinner, the teams were briefed; run strong and make sure you finish ahead of the black and gold of Winchester!
On leaving Bangor on Saturday morning, we were greeted with, what was described by the local weather forecaster as ‘blustery conditions’, by the time we got to Caernarfon it felt less blustery and more hurricane like, still no rain, and most importantly no blazing sunshine. As the team parked up, ready to soak up the atmosphere and watch the stage one procession of runners encircling the Castle, team captain Laud arrived in a panic, ‘The Bridge has gone!’. With less than an hour to the start it became apparent that the swing bridge that links Caernarfon Castle to the coastal road that takes the runners to Penygroes had been removed for maintenance. Stage 1 would now start from south bank of Afon Seiont, kudos to Les Croups for making this change at incredibly short-notice and ensuring every runner on the first stage got underway at 10am as planned. Stage 1; A very windy coastal road from Caernarfon to Penygroes, saw Tom Henry finishing the 9.1 mile stage in just over the hour mark to finish 12th place and well ahead of the first Winchester runner. After a few years of mountain stages, team captain Laud opted for an ‘easier stage’ in 2022 (although maybe she should have checked the stage profile before making that call!) finishing 5th Ladies Team and bagging 2 points. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 6, Winchester 4.
Onto Stage 2, Penygroes to Criccieth, Men’s Captain Gilly finished strong in 25th pace, with pocket rocket Emma Maloney hot on his heels. The finish at Criccieth is a fast descent on grass, Emma found herself in a sprint finish for the line with her nearest Ladies’ rival, when Chorlton stumbled, Emma sadly also got wiped out, both tumbled down the slope, before Emma bounced back onto her feet and sprinted in, to finish 3rd Ladies Team. If you’ve not seen Rob Gales photos capturing this, google it. They’re worth viewing for the crowd’s reaction if nothing else! I should also add that Both ladies were absolutely fine after the incident. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 7, Winchester 3 (Lliswerry 13, Winchester 7)
Stage 3 and the first Mountain Stage; Criccieth to Maentwrog. Featuring Commonwealth athlete & Swansea Harrier, Dewi Griffiths (taking a new stage record), this stage was always going to be fast at the front end. Phil Lee making his Castles debut and Emma Wookey, a stage 3 veteran, took on the mammoth climb to Llyn Mair. Our first marshalling stint of Castles weekend, involved keeping the bus terminal clear. Now, I always thought this was just a local bus stop, but I was reliably informed that it is actually the major bus interchange for North Wales (which would explain why I see more buses in the hour that we are marshalling, than I do in a week in Cardiff!). Anyhow, this marshal point offered an excellent vantage point to see Phil, literally fly into 32nd place, closely followed by Emma finishing 2nd Ladies Team. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 3, Winchester 7 (Lliswerry 16, Winchester 14).
Stage 4, Maentwrog to Harlech, and the wind was still gusting as Lliswerry Castles stalwart (and never to be trusted with minibus keys!) Chris Jones finished strong in 33rd place with Leanne Westacott, recently returning to racing after a broken arm at the start of the year, finishing 6th Ladies Team. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 3, Winchester 7 (Lliswerry 19, Winchester 21).
Stage 5, Harlech to Barmouth, and two Castles debutants taking on one of the flatter stages with a fast downhill finish. James Brown had a storming run to finish 21st overall, with Lorraine Fergus finishing 6th Ladies Team, both holding off their nearest Winchester runner. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 6, Winchester 4 (Lliswerry 25, Winchester 25).
Stage 6, Barmouth to Dolgellau and the stage everyone always wants to run, maybe it’s the bridge or maybe they want to make sure I don’t give them the following stage?! Travelling with the team for Saturday stages this year, Mike Pobjoy had a cracking race to finish 36th overall, whilst Louise Muteham continues to improve with every race finishing, 4th Ladies Team (and bagging a 10 mile PB en route). Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 5, Winchester 5 (Lliswerry 30, Winchester 30).
Stage 7, and the brutal Dolgellau to Dinas Mawddwy. Two runners who are always willing to step up for the team are Nettie and Nick. Nettie even requested this stage, Nick definitely requested anything but stage 7 next year! With the team captains marshalling at the 3 mile point, we got to witness first hand just how strong their running was as they started the climb up the A470. After the mammoth climb, Antoinette Dumayne literally flew down into Dinas Mawddwy to finish 3rd Ladies Team, with super vet Nick Rees finishing 34th overall. Dragon Contest Lliswerry 5, Winchester 5 (Lliswerry 35, Winchester 35).
Stage 8, and our newly signed superstar, Emma King, took the baton for the ladies’ team, with Chris Matthews fresh from finishing his minibus stage drop-offs racing for our open team. Both smashed the 10.8 mile stage from Dinas Mawddwy to Foel, with Chris finishing 37th overall and Emma shortly after in 5th Ladies Team position. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 3, Winchester 7 (Lliswerry 38, Winchester 42)
Stage 9, and our first ‘incident’ of the day! 10 minutes before the off, team captain Laud received a call from Leanne, Richard wasn’t at the start, after calling half the team, Richard’s mum and his girlfriend, it transpired that both had been at the start for over an hour, but hadn’t seen each other despite the stage starting in (possibly) Wales’ smallest layby on the A458! Panic over, and making his debut Richard Jones (or Chris Jones Junior as he’s affectionately now known by the fun bus crew) finished in a fantastic 38th place overall, with Leanne Phillips finishing 6th Ladies Team. After many years of begging me for stage 9, Leanne came clean and said she hated it! Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 3, Winchester 7 (Lliswerry 41, Winchester 49)
So the final stage of day one, starts with a mammoth climb out of Llanfair Caereinion before rolling the half marathon distance into Newtown. Two of our strongest distance runners, Craig & Rachel took on this stage, with Craig briefed to double check the route map, after his detour at Rack Raid at couple of weeks earlier! With all the team vehicles out supporting this stage there were multiple watering spots for our dynamic duo, despite this Craig decided to opt for sponge hydration from Neath (the same sponges that had been recycled for every leg since the morning and had wiped god knows what by the time they reached Newtown). Finishing into the wall of Lliswerry noise alongside the river, Craig Collins finished a tremendous 21st place with Rachel Bowen finishing a fantastic 7th Ladies Team. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 4, Winchester 6 (Lliswerry 45, Winchester 55).
With day one done and dusted it was time to sample Newtown’s infamous takeaway delicacies, before the fun bus headed to Llandrindod Wells for the day one after-party. The saying ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour’ isn’t a rule we stick to in Lliswerry, at 1am the Castles WhatsApp group was still being updated with their antics! Who knew Llandrindod had such epic night-life?!
Day Two and two bleary-eyed team captains arrived at Newtown Leisure Centre for the managers briefing and ready to support our stage 11 mountain heroes by 6.30am. Paul Bruton, gets the Captain’s Open Team award for being such a great sport. Having been moved on and off Stage 11, as many times as he probably changed his socks in the week beforehand, he finally lined up alongside previous stage winner Nicky Collin. With the sun starting to peek through the clouds, both set off at blistering pace on the long climb up to Llanbadarn Fynydd. Paul finished a strong 21st overall, with Nicky taking our first stage win of the day, to finish first lady. Stage 11, is our lucky stage with 3 stage wins and a stage record for Lliswerry Ladies in the last 3 years. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 5, Winchester 5 (Lliswerry 50, Winchester 60).
Taking on stage 12, was our second minibus driver Randal Jones and Lliswerry Ladies all-star Steph Rhodes. Flying out of Llanbadarn and down to Crossgates, Randal finished a fantastic 27th with Steph finishing as 4th Ladies Team. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 5, Winchester 5 (Lliswerry 55, Winchester 65).
Next up were two Lliswerrians, who sensibly declined the drinks and were safely tucked up in bed whist the rest of the team were out partying, Kat and Jeremy. On the 10.6 mile stage from Crossgates to Builth, Jeremy Dickson finished a brilliant 41st, with Kat Collins bringing our ladies team home shortly after in 6th place. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 3, Winchester 7 (Lliswerry 58, Winchester 72).
Stage 14 and Drovers. The stage that every team captain hates to allocate, as there is no disguising just how disgusting that climb is! So, when your Ladies superstar, Sandy offers to take it on for the second year running and Dan fancies a crack at it, this team captain is secretly thanking her lucky stars! Both of these runners are incredibly strong on the hills, and that was evident as they both powered their way up (and up and up) cresting the top with Dan Reilly finishing an immense 21st overall and Sandra Chipper finishing 2nd Ladies Team. Amazingly, and I have witnesses, both want another shot at it next year! Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 5, Winchester 5 (Lliswerry 63, Winchester 77).
Stage 15, Epynt to Brecon, unsurprisingly, as this stage banks the descent from Drovers, is much easier to fill, although I have been told its hillier than I imagine?! Rich Costello despite having some injury niggles in the weeks preceding finished a fabulous 46th overall. Whilst Sarah-Louise Francis, chased the black & gold vest in front hard, only to realise as she passed that it was actually an Aberdare runner and not Winchester. This competitive drive resulted in Sarah-Louise finishing in a great 6th Ladies team position. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 3, Winchester 7 (Lliswerry 66, Winchester 84).
Stage 16 and the final mountain stage of the weekend. Taking on the tough climb to Torpantau were two of our most-in-form runners Lee and Laura. Lee Drew ran a phenomenal stage to finish 13th overall, whilst Laura finished 2nd Ladies Team and won herself a spot prize for her efforts. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 7, Winchester 3 (Lliswerry 73, Winchester 87).
Stage 17 and two very late additions to the team, thanks both for stepping in! Martin Johns, who only joined the club less than a month ago, finished an outstanding 5th overall, whilst Maria Homfray who was drafted in 4 days beforehand finished in 6th Ladies team position. Mega kudos to both of you two. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 5, Winchester 5 (Lliswerry 78, Winchester 92).
Stage 18, and what a stage this was! Recent super-signing Nick Tulp not only claimed our second stage win of the day, he only went and did it in a new stage record for the 9.1 mile leg. Congratulations Nick! Angela Potter, wins the Captains Team Award for the Ladies, for her tenacity. After taking a tumble on the road, she picked herself up, dusted herself down and continued to race on, to finish in 5th Ladies Team Position. Fortunately, Angela was OK, no broken bones, but some nasty cuts and bruises. Well done both for your awesome efforts on this stage. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 6, Winchester 4 (Lliswerry 84, Winchester 96).
Stage 19, penultimate stage Abercynon to Nantgarw. Having arrived early to our marshal point, we made the mistake of commenting on how smoothly everything had gone. These really were famous last words! Within two minutes my mobile had rung, the open team runner who shall remain nameless, realised he didn’t have his race number! No drama, we had spares. Three minutes later, my mobile rang again, our final runner had broken down and was waiting for her car to be towed, forty minutes away from her stage start! A huge thankyou to Nick Rees’ daughter, Laura, for collecting Lizzie from the hard shoulder and getting her to Caerphilly Castle in plenty of time.
Whilst Lizzie and Laura were battling the M4 traffic, we were battling the traffic on Stage 19. Having marshalled this stage a few times in the past, we now have both the junction and the road crossing sussed, if there is a runner coming, you can guarantee there will be an influx of cars at the same time. Despite this we got all the runners safely escorted across the road, and, almost, all the drivers were happy. Advantage of this stage is that we got to see our nameless runner, fly past with his shiny new number, with Victoria hot on his heels. Lloyd Cottrell finished a superb 5th position, whilst Victoria Hobbs secured a fantastic 3rd Ladies team spot on the 7.7 mile stage. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 7, Winchester 3 (Lliswerry 91, Winchester 99).
Stage 20, and like the weather, the hottest stage of the day, with clubs fielding their very best runners on this showcase stage. Flying around Bute Park, two of our finest, both missed out on stage wins by narrow margins, Richard Jones finished a staggering 4th overall, with Lizzie Dimond finishing 2nd Lady but taking the 1st Ladies Team position. Dragon Contest: Lliswerry 7, Winchester 3 (Lliswerry 98, Winchester 102).
And just like that we were done! After 211 miles of racing our Open Team (#Team 17) finished 19th out of 35 open teams and 22nd Overall. Whilst our Ladies Team (#Team 50) equalled our best position to date finishing 4th Ladies team and 45th Overall, and taking 3rd in the Queens of the Mountains competition.
A huge thankyou to Les Croupiers for organising yet another incredible weekend of racing and to Randal Jones, Chris Matthews, Emma Wookey & Louise Muteham for driving the ‘Fun Buses’. Thanks to John Maloney, Leanne Westacott & Gilly for helping with the transportation and logistics. And finally all our runners for not only some incredible running, but ensuring we finished Castles without a single penalty point!
Last, but not least, the Dragon Trophy! Having arrived early into Builth Wells ahead of Stage 14, I’d already done some calculating, and was aware that Lliswerry were trailing Winchester. I was also aware that whilst we were both fielding Open teams, a Vets team vs a Ladies team, is not quite such a fair comparison. I was assured that by the time we arrived back into Cardiff, Winchester would have fielded as many Ladies as we did. Jokingly Winchester suggested that bonus points for stage wins should be included. Well aware of the fact that we already had a stage win in the bag and Winchester didn’t I was fully in favour of this late rule change. Despite clawing back some points on the final stages, we did finish 4 points behind. Whilst I argued our case for bonus points for stage wins, Winchester in the end (possibly just to shut me up so they could get back on the bus and head home) agreed that each stage win would get 2 bonus points, meaning we had drawn. Fair play to George, he was an incredibly good sport, he basically gifted Lliswerry the trophy, which now has pride of place on my dining table. In reality maybe he was happy to get rid of it, its only been a week and the thing is a magnet for a dust, and I have another year of cleaning it to go!
With Castles done for 2022, we’re now looking forward to our trail relays……………next up Ridgeway Relay.