Sack race with hundredweight of history

Andy Martin with the runners at the 33rd World Coal Carrying Championships in Yorkshire

The Royal Oak in Gawthorpe, Yorkshire, was the start of the 33rd World Coal Carrying Championships which finished 1,012 metres and one hundredweight later at the freshly painted maypole on the village green.

But the race's origins go back to another pub, The Beehive, one Sunday lunchtime in 1963. "You're looking tired," said one miner, Louis Hartley, to another, Reggie Sedgwick. "I'm fitter than thee" came the riposte. "And I'm fitter than the both of you," chipped in Amos Clapham, a coal merchant. A heated debate ensued. Soon they were betting on who could run furthest and fastest with a sack of coal on his back - and so the World Coal Carrying Championships were born.

None of the three ever actually ran in it. There are two great traditions in Gawthorpe: one is competing in a coal carrying championship, the other is talking about competing in it. "There's a lot of folk round here that say they can do it," pointed out Martin Douglas in his fifth year of running. "But when it comes to the day they're not there anymore. I take my hat off to any man that finishes it. There's a point when it's like running up against that brick wall over there."

Paul Hitch of the Gawthorpe Maypole Committee, which organises the event, sees it as another spring fertility rite "which goes back to the Middle Ages at least". But Roy Sykes, an ex-coal miner from Barnsley, now 49, who has won the Scarborough Coal Carrying Championships four times, traces its genealogy back still further to ancient Greece. "Look at discus, javelin, shot put: they were all originally weapons of war. Now they are accepted sports. This is the same. Greek warriors used to run with heavy weights on their backs. The Vikings trained the same way." He feels that the Baron de Coubertin missed a trick by not recognising Coal Carrying as an Olympic discipline.

Sykes was inspired by a painting in the Barnsley military museum he used to see as a kid. It showed a soldier carrying a wounded comrade over his shoulder back to his own line. Now he sees all the Gawthorpe runners as heroes. "People think because it's coal it's dirty. But the thing is the sack weighs 50 kilos. It's irrelevant what's in it. The coal is only there because this is a mining district. But it could just as well be a bag of flour or sugar."

Sykes wasn't running this year and was concentrating instead on being "motivator" to the favourite, John Hunter, who came in second last year and found inspiration in Kirk Douglas in the film Spartacus. He saw Hunter as a hunter-gatherer type, a naked ape. "It's a spirit that's come down to us through time. We haven't changed essentially for millions of years. This is like carrying home the kill and still being able to run from the sabre-tooth tiger."

A dramatic last minute entrant in the women's race (same distance with a half a hundredweight sack) was a woman with another good mythic martial name, Belinda Archer. She is a nurse who has run the London Marathon. But with a shoulder injury and without training she was out of the race until she realised there were only three women competing. "It's ridiculous there are not more women going in for it. They're indoctrinated into thinking they've no strength. But we're carrying heavy weights all the time - if it's not shopping it's kids. Women are stronger than they think they are." She suspected they had some psychological block about humping coal. "But it's not even dirty." The women's coal is wrapped in a plastic bag before being put in the sack, although the men prefer to arrive trailing clouds of coal dust.

She reckons she was only an average all-rounder rather than a specialist runner and that therefore the race was not beyond the capabilities of any fit woman. "You don't have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger to win. In fact it's a disadvantage to be too muscular. Bodybuilders can pick up a bus - but they can't run to catch it. Too much lactic acid in the muscles."

The secret was "a good knuckle hold - get a solid lump in your hand." Archer came in second to Pauline Oldfield, a fell runner who had cunningly prepared for coal carrying by competing in a straw bale carrying race.

Cheered on by hundreds of locals lining the uphill route, another last minute entrant led nearly all the way. But Lee McAvoy was overtaken on the flat, a hundred yards from the maypole by Mick Scott, aged 36, a builder and ex-rugby player who finished in 4min 36sec. John Hunter came in third. Two men out of the 30 strong field failed to finish, too old or too weak, presumably picked off by a hungry sabre-tooth.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system