A true test of strength - the ERRA National Road Relays 2023

With the summer season just a few weeks away but the winter a still-fresh memory, the national 12-Stage and women’s 6-Stage Road Relays take centre stage for all the right reasons.

The event, always held at Birmingham’s Sutton Park, provides a timely reminder for track runners on how their winter has gone as they prepare for a summer of speed, while for the cross country supremos it’s a fitting finale to a testing season.

“That’s why it’s so good, it really is a true test for any club. I remember we had 800 metre runners as keen to make the team as our international 10,000m men. They were all fighting for a spot in the 12.”

says three-time winner of the event back in the late 1970s, Max Coleby, recalling the glory days of Gateshead Harriers.

It’s those numbers – 12 or 6 for the women – that is so significant. It really does show just how strong your team is, believes Max and just about everybody else in Sutton Park. For that reason, the race always provides drama and excitement.

The first leg is, of course, important and it’s fascinating to listen to team managers chat about their order in the final hour or so leading up to the race.

“We’re top-loading ours,” says Tony Shiret, team manager of Newham and Essex Beagles. “We’ll be up there early on, but won’t be able to hang on,” he laughs, adding that isn’t really a problem. “It’s just so great to be here,” he concludes and with that he’s off to check the team in.

It’s a debate that has gone on for decades now and will never change. As was the case this year as Richmond and Zetland really did top load their squad with 2022 World Indoor 3000m bronze medallist Marc Scott, the 12:57.08 5000m man leading the charge on the opening 5.4 miles. Now, that really is a case of putting your big guns out first!

“The club did a great job at the National (XC) so I wanted to run for them today,” said Marc after his 25:21 leg. “It was a good test for a half marathon I have coming up in Istanbul, so it all went great today.” For the record, his team finished 31st.”

The fact that Marc was in Sutton Park, running for his club says everything.

“The 12-stage is all about following in the footsteps of the greats,” says Cambridge and Coleridge coach Mark Vile. “We all love the fact we’re still running up that final hill that Brendan Foster or Dave Moorcroft did.”

Women's Road Relays winners Leeds City AC

Yes, the course has been tweaked ever so slightly but essentially it has remained the same since 1970 so it’s easy to compare times from the past making it not just a team event but a personal test as well.

“It was great to have a blast out and see where I am at after the cross country season”

says early leader Gemma Steele. She brought her team, Charnwood in in first place but a few dropped out the night before so they wouldn’t finish. Frustrating yes, but that was hard to tell given Gemma’s reaction to her time – 16:39, her first time inside 17 for the testing lap run just over three miles. “I use this event for speed and fitness. I’ve never worked on my 5km speed so it’s almost like a track race for me and I don’t really do track, so this is perfect,” she added.

Another world-class athlete, using the course to test his fitness for another discipline was triathlon Olympic gold medallist (and sub-28-minute 10,000m runner) Alex Yee. The Kent AC athlete tore around his long leg in a stunning 24:58 to haul his team into first place. “It fits into my schedule and,” he added, echoing words you’d hear all afternoon, “I wanted to run for the club.” He ran the seventh leg, moving Kent from 15th on leg one to the lead, proving that tactics really do play a role in this race.

Similarly, the eventual winners – Central AC from Scotland – played their cards late and got into the running after falling back to 14th on the second leg. Andrew Butchart charged around in 24:57 on leg 9 to move them to second and with more big hitters to come, it was a case of stretching away for a big win, stopping the clock in 4:09:54 which, for the slightly different course is the fastest ever.

“You get it right once every 10 years or so,” laughed coach Mike Downes who has been coaching for more than 60 years now so has seen it all. “This is the blue riband event and really difficult to get everybody together in the right shape. Just when you think you have it, so something comes up.”

But that almost doesn’t matter. The relays are all about camaraderie, tradition, and timing. Spend the day with teammates, dream about matching Dave Moorcroft’s stunning 24:27 long leg and check how your fitness is. It’s a must for every distance runner and long may it remain so!

Report by Paul Larkins

Photos by Paul Larkins, Megan Foster and Andrew Parkinson

Supporters at Road Relays