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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.