Joel Hicks is the founder of the ‘Always With A Smile’ foundation and the fire breathing front man for our blazewear heated clothing.
First established in 2006, through the foundation he travels all across the UK and abroad competing in crazy sports, weird championships, adrenaline fueled activities and absurd traditions in order to raise awareness and funds for various charities and good causes, whilst putting a smile on the face of as many people as he possibly can!
World Coal Carrying Championships 2014
In 1963, in a small Lancashire pub in the village of Gawthorpe, two men stood, enjoying a pint, lost in their own thoughts. One of these men was Reggie Sedgwick, whilst the the other was Amos Clapham, a local coal merchant. Suddenly, in burst a third man, Lewis Hartley, in a somewhat exuberant mood.
“Ba gum lad tha’ looks buggered!” he said, slapping Reggie heavily on the back.
Now, whether it was because of the force of the slap or the tone of the language that accompanied it, Reggie was (as legend tells it) a little put out.
“Ah’m as fit as thee” he told Lewis, “an’ if tha’ dun’t believe me gerra bagga coal on tho back an ah’ll race thee to t’ top ‘o ’t’ wood”.
As a taken-a-back Lewis considered the implications of the challenge, a fourth man raised a cautioning hand. Fred Hirst, never a man to let a good idea go to waste, pondered: “Owd on a minute, aven’t we been lookin’ for some’at ta do on Easter Monday? If we’re gonna ‘ave a race, let’s ‘ave it then…”
Thus was born the World Coal Carrying Championships… and 51 years later, the event is still going strong.
Starting at The Royal Oak public house, both men and women race with a sack of coal on their shoulders for just short of a mile (1012 metres to be precise) in the quickest time possible, eventually dropping their sack on the Village Green, where the traditional Maypole is situated in the heart of Gawthorpe.
Sounds easy enough doesn't it?… Well, hold back your judgement until you read the fine print. The women battle against the uphill course with an impressive 20kg of coal, whilst the men carry a staggering 50kg (yes, 50kg) in weight!
Still think you could mix it with the Northern folk?… What if I tell you that the current record time for the women’s race is 4 minutes 25 seconds, and for the mens it is a truly unbelievable 4 minutes and 6 seconds! That’s a speed of over 4 metres per second… or covering 10 metres in 2.4 seconds…
Having been a fixture at the World Coal Carrying Championships for several years, I know that the £750 prize for coming in first is, to say the least, a little beyond me… If I’m honest, I doubt I could run 1012 metres in under 4 minutes 6 seconds without 50kg of coal slowing me down. As such, I take part (like so many) to test myself, to rally on others and to soak in the atmosphere on what is a wonderfully heart-warming event.
To get things up and running, entrants are first ‘loaded’ prior to the official start - this is where the sacks of coal are hoisted on to the shoulders of the runners from a large lorry. Grabbing the sack at it’s corners, the best one’s for running with are those with a bit of slack in them, so that your hands can grip tightly and easily adjust the weight as you mould the coal contents to your shoulders. A slippery or ‘bulging’ bag can ruin a competitors time in the first 100 yards… and so many make a close inspection before selecting their sack.
When in position, it doesn't take long for you to realise how much weight is actually pressing down through your whole body… yet you really don’t have enough time to think about that, for as quickly as you are in position, the race starter gives a countdown and it’s “3, 2, 1… go!”
Is there a particular tactic or strategy you should adopt at the World Coal Carrying Championships? No… My only advice is simply never to drop the bag!
Some runners set off like whippets around a race track, whilst others start slow and make a push during the second half of the race. For non-locals it’s a tricky decision, as knowing exactly how far you are along the course and how hard to push it is always a gamble. Go to soon, and you’ll empty your tank too early and be left almost crawling to the village green… Leave it too late and you’ll kick yourself for not pushing hard enough. Many of the ‘elite’ runners (and it’s probably right to call them that…) have coaches who encourage them around the course - though the committee has tightened up the rules on this in recent years.
For me… running with what felt like only half a lung due to the summer cold that I've managed to pick up, and acute tendonitis in my arms and shoulders… I opted for a steady state run. At the start I could see the heals of many a man shoot off ahead, but within just a few hundred yards I had managed to catch and overtake many of the sprint starters.
At around the half way stage, the pain really begins to take effect. Your legs can start to tremble as you push through the incline, whilst your breath gets heavier and heavier as you gasp for a little more air. In your head, as you constantly shuffle the coal sack across your shoulders for comfort, you question whether you’re actually going to be able to complete the course…
But it’s at this stage that you begin to enter the village, and with that, you hear for the first time the claps and then the roar of encouragement from the hundreds of people who have lined the street to cheer you on. The lift or kick that this gives you is simply incredible… You find energy that you never thought you had, and you find yourself not slowing down but pushing harder, pumping your legs and grinding your teeth. With the odd glimpse up you can see the competition running ahead of you, you know you’re gaining on them, and you set your target on getting past them…
It’s quite amazing watching a group of men and women, who have given it all, dig a little deeper to push themselves beyond their limits… This was optimised by both Brian Gumbley and Gary Mallinson, two members of the Always With A Smile foundation who took part in the event for the first time. Arguably not suited to the rigours of coal carrying, these best friends found themselves bringing in the final coal sacks of the day… and with just yards between them, their faces echoed the feelings of nearly every person that takes on the challenge. Brian, his mouth gaping open, his eyes dropping, and with sweat tumbling from his face, looked like a ruined man who had left every ounce of energy he had on the course. Gary, on the other hand, although moving at the same speed, pounded the road like a Spartan Warrior, his teeth grinding down, his face bright red, with an animalistic roar sounding out from under his heaving gasps of air. It was pure theatre to watch as both men swapped positions several times in the last hundred yards before collapsing on the village green like so many before them!
In the glorious sunshine, I was pleased with a time of under 6 minutes… though this was more than a minute behind the winner of this years men’s race who came home in a time of 4 minutes 46 seconds, whilst the leading lady crossed the finish line in 4 minutes 39 seconds. Now, where’s my Easter Egg?!