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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before